Some 25 years ago, when my younger daughter was just a little girl, I remember having a “What did you do in the War, Daddy?” conversation with her. She clearly had started to hear about the Vietnam war – probably from some of the many Hollywood films then appearing on television – and I remember her asking why I had not been sent to Vietnam. I was able to say to her that that was the Americans. But this November I was able to rectify my omission, and Catherine and I took a holiday there.
Before going, I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of the place – long thin country on the eastern edge of Indo-China. And if someone had said to me that Vietnam now had a population of 9 to 10 million people, I would have thought that sounded about right – in fact, that would be out by a factor of ten. The population is about 96 million. (The UK has “only” some 66 million)
I thought I knew something of Vietnam’s history – a former French colony, overrun by the Japanese in WWII, Communist revolutionaries ousting the returned French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (where, according to the French song, they “piled the bodies six-deep”), divided then into a Communist North and a corrupt South, which convinced the USA to support them, leading to a disastrous war. But the size and variety of the place overwhelmed me.
Mainly I think I knew of Vietnam from news reports during the war there and from the films of the Graham Greene novel “The Quiet American”, in particular the remake with Michael Caine in the central role. This starts with the comment “Nothing prepares you for Vietnam” and so it seemed. Firstly, all the place names which I thought were single words – Saigon, Hanoi, etc – are really Sai Gon, Ha Noi and, indeed, Viet Nam, itself meaning the southern (“Nam” – “south of China”), home of the Viet people. Sai Gon, the former French capital and still the biggest city is now – officially – called Ho Chi Minh City, after the revolutionary leader who died in 1969, but everyone still seems to call it Sai Gon – even the beer is still called “Saigon Special”.
We flew in to Sai Gon (“HCM City”) from Singapore and met up with our party – 7 others on a “Holiday Fellowship” (HF) tour. We had three nights there with daily trips out, led by a local tour guide in a 20-seat tour bus. The first trip was to the Mekong Delta, which was much further than I had expected – several hours on the tour bus and clearly covering a vast area. The scenery was staggering, but as our small boat chugged along I was constantly reminded of scenes from the film “Apocalypse Now”.
The next day we were shown sights on the “Ho Chi Minh” trail which celebrate the victory in the “American” war. These trips seem to be obligatory for Western visitors and our young local guide was well-versed in the Party line: the war was with the USA, no mention of the government of South Vietnam inviting American help (in fact no mention of the South at all); all Vietnamese were against the Americans, etc. (I was reminded how British soldiers based in W Germany in the 1950’s never met a German veteran who had fought on the Western Front in WWII – they had all served in the East…). The guide was good, but seemed unable (unwilling?) to go beyond her brief: nearly all Vietnamese are atheists, with a few Buddhists and very few Christians, mainly rural dwellers whose main religious belief concerns reverence for their ancestors.
Sai Gon was amazing. I have never seen so many small motorcycles all together, vying with each other as on a race track. We were told that some 60 million are registered in the country, and I reckon we saw most of them. They might have flat tyres and broken suspensions, but all their horns seem to work (though their riders seem to need to test them every few metres).
After Sia Gon we flew to Da Nang – a name I remember from the War – where we spent two nights in picturesque Hoi An, before a bus drive to the ancient capital, Hue, where we stayed another two nights. Our local guide there was an older man (born 1954) who had clearly lived through many different times and had survived by accommodating himself to the changing regimes. He showed us the beautiful “China Beach” – where the US Marines came ashore in force in 1965 and where a line of skyscraper hotels are now being built, apparently for the Korean tourist trade – but what climate change might do with even a small sea-level rise seems to have been ignored.
We were taken to the former royal palace in Hue, scene of much fighting in 1968, after the “Tet Offensive” when North Vietnamese forces overran the place and there was fierce fighting as the South Vietnamese and the Americans sought to recapture it. We then flew to Han Oi for one night, before a long bus drive to the far North and Sa Pa, in the hills near the border with China. The united Viet Nam had fought a war with China over this disputed area in 1979, but like much of the time when the French ruled Viet Nam, this was mostly ignored by our various local guides. But I did notice that all of the cities had a “Dien Bien Phu” street – reminding me that most British towns have a “Waterloo Road” and, indeed most French towns a “Rue D’Austerlitz”.
Temperatures in Sai Gon had been in the 30’s, in Da Nang and Hue in the mid to high 20’s, but in the hills they were in single figures. Sa Pa felt like the Wild West – largely unmade mud roads and many beggars on the streets, clearly from tribal ethnic minorities. This seemed to most of us to have been much effort – in travel terms – for little gain, for after two nights in Sa Pa we were driven back to Han OI for a second overnight stop before a drive to the famed Ha Long Bay where we would spend two nights on a small cruise ship – a twenty-room luxury floating hotel. After this we would have a bus ride back to Han Oi, a last overnight stop and then the long flights back to the UK.
Overall this had been an experience of a lifetime for me, nothing like anything I had seen before. The cost was enormous, but given the number of excursions and the luxury of the accommodation, I don’t know how HF did it. But as with many holidays, the best part was the people we were with and the people we met. I must start saving up for my next trip…