So in September 2010 I went back to Australia for a while after spending months travelling in the US, Europe and Asia. My return was to catch up with family and friends, do some travel there and a few months of contract work to boost the coffers, then I had planned to move to the US. But with the economy still in the gutter I thought, what the hell, I am going to Vietnam and Laos for 2 months (via Singapore)! So I put the relocation off for a while and headed to S.E. Asia. I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 1 of that journey (Singapore and North Vietnam).
October 28th, 2010
Well I am back on the road again and in S.E. Asia!
I have just spent a couple of days in Singapore. There was quite misty haze each day/night there, which didn’t make for great viewing from the “Singapore Flyer” the worlds largest observation wheel (ferris wheel), but it was interesting looking at how this thing was built etc during the 30 minute ride – not unlike a giant bicycle wheel. It has 28 capsules that each hold almost 30 people and it is apparently 42 stories high! On a clear day you are meant to be able to see as far as Indonesia, but there was no chance of that for me – could barely see beyond the city!
My arrival at Ho Chi Minh City in Southern Vietnam was rather uneventful. The only recognition that you are in a Communist country were the Soviet era helicopters and transport planes by the airport and a couple of billboards with the hammer and sickle and a picture of Ho Chi Minh himself (1890 – 1969 the former North Vietnam Communist leader). I had to spend 4 hours in the HCMC domestic airport as my connecting flight to Hanoi in the North was rescheduled to a later time.
Hanoi is celebrating 1000 years in 2010 and its a crazy busy city (lots of Communist symbology around too). I am staying in the Old Quarter – just walking across the street can be quite a challenge and is an art form in itself – much like the old video game “Frogger” – take it slow and easy and you will be ok! There are thousands of motorised scooters, plus cars and buses to deal with on very small streets. At first the sheer weight off traffic, sound and fumes can be a bit overwhelming, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. It’s quite interesting just sitting in street side cafe’s/bars/restaurants and watching it all go by (you sit in these little plastic kids chairs). Crazy but fun! Somehow it all seems to work!
My first full day in Hanoi was spent looking around the Army Museum. They have a good collection on Vietnam’s military history along with captured American aircraft and weaponry. There is also one of the North Vietnamese Army T-55 tanks that crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in what was then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in South Vietnam in 1975.
In the middle of the Army Museum grounds is a big monument built out of pieces of shot down French and American aircraft! Vietnam was once part of French Indochina along with Cambodia and Laos – France’s colonial empire 1887-1954. The Indochina War 1946-1954 in Vietnam was fought against the Viet Minh the anti-French resistance which eventually lead to the defeat of France (more on that in later posts) and the creation of a DMZ and the Communist North Vietnam and Capitalist South Vietnam.
Following the defeat of France the US stepped in to support South Vietnam against the Communist North, resulting in the fateful, devastating and brutal Vietnam War 1954-1975 (which also involved Cambodia and Laos). The US and her allies (Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand) initially provided military advisors and aid, but by 1962 this also included combat troops and eventually became a full-blown war. In 1973 a ceasefire was signed between all warring parties. Between 1972 and 1973 the US and the other allied nations withdrew from the war.
Despite the ceasefire the war continued, leaving South Vietnam to fight alone and ultimately be completely overrun by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army. The same fate befell the governments of Cambodia and Laos who were taken over by the Khmer Rouge and the communist Pathet Lao respectively. Eventually Communist Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia to overthrow the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge (1979).
Just across the road from the Army Museum is a nice park which has a statue of Lenin. A reminder of the Communist history in North Vietnam.
I also went to the Air Defence Museum in Hanoi which is pretty much dedicated to shooting down US B-52 Stratofortress bombers over Hanoi during the Vietnam War (displaying missiles, anti-aircraft guns and big pieces of shot down B-52’s) there is also a nearby small lake with a shot down B-52 in the middle. They are very proud of shooting down these things! My cyclo driver explained (and showed) to me he was badly burnt in one of these bombing raids – must have been terrifying.
I also went to the Hao Lo Prison (“Hell’s Hole“) which was originally built by the French in the 1800’s. It was also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” in it’s days as a POW prison during the Vietnam War or “American War“ as it is known here. This is where US Senator John McCain was kept prisoner after being shot down in 1967 by a missile when he was flying a combat mission for the US Navy (he broke both arms and a leg in the ejection from the fighter). He was not released until 1973. Conditions in this prison were brutal to say the least and torture was the norm, in French Colonial times it was a prison for political prisoners and they still used a guillotine back then too (one is on display)!
A must do trip in North Vietnam is Halong Bay – it is 170km from Hanoi, but takes over 3 hours to get there due to the traffic, road quality and speed limits (no faster than 80km). The road rules are mostly ignored though, it takes some time to get used to cars, buses and trucks all overtaking into oncoming traffic, horns honking! Halong Bay is magnificent with it’s limestone Karst mountain islands jutting out of the sea (apparently there are 3000 of them). The boat I stayed on for a couple of days was styled on an old junk boat, well-appointed and comfortable with great food (heaps of it) all for $90 USD. My fellow travellers were really nice and we had a lot of fun (especially when learning how to make and cook Spring Rolls). The trip also included a visit to “Surprising Cave” a huge 3 chamber cavern up in a cliff and kayaking amongst the islands, floating villages and fishing boats. A great trip.
Upon my return to Hanoi, I visited the Temple of Literature which is one of the oldest and probably largest temples in Hanoi. Dedicated to Confucian teachings, set in nice walled gardens it is a welcome respite from all the traffic and noise outside. I lucked out as there were a number of ceremonies and a wedding going on inside, so quite interesting to watch all the goings on. I also got to see the beautiful ladies of Hanoi all dressed up for the wedding in traditional dress too – I took some photos of them, then suddenly I was in a number of their photos posing with them at their request. Quite funny!
Then I headed 15km out of town to the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum which is dedicated to the building and use of the trail in the Vietnam war. The trail eventually ran from Northern Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam over thousands of kilometres, this was the supply and transport lifeline that won North Vietnam the war. The US bombed the hell out of it, but the North Vietnamese simply built bridges that could be hidden and used when required and had scores of people maintaining it at all times. The trail was built in extremely rugged terrain and was an incredible feat of logistics!
The funny thing was when I arrived at the museum it was locked, eventually my taxi driver woke up a guy who unlocked a door, I was the only person there, wandering around mostly in the darkened halls, then I could hear high-heeled footsteps on the floor below and “hello, hello” – the lady running the show found me, she apologised and turned on some lights, then ran a great movie of the history of the trail (very anti-imperialist!) which was shown over a huge relief model of the trail that lit up to demonstrate where they were talking about etc.
I have seen a lot of interesting things being transported on bicycles and motorbikes (pigs, clothes, home wares, baskets, whole families), but the highlight so far has been bags of live goldfish! Travelling on the back of these bikes through the traffic is great fun too!