The outstanding memory of Vietnam was how friendly and approachable the people were. We were visiting during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, which meant everyone was in a particularly festive mood.
Memories which will remain include learning how to cross the road in Saigon, weaving in and out of the motorbikes which came at you from all directions and the elated feeling when you realised with surprise that you had actually made it to the far side!
I loved seeing the city for TET, with yellow apricot blossom trees, bright yellow chrysanthemum plants and candied fruit being sold on every corner. We mingled with the locals to have our pictures taken in front of the TET light displays – what an introduction to Vietnam that was!
On the way out of Saigon we stop at a bridge and witness a local couple releasing a fish off the bridge into the water. Locals in the river row their boats with their feet and come across to help release the fish. We learn that the Vietnamese believe that Tao Quan, the kitchen gods, are believed to ascend to heaven on the back of a fish to report on the events of the past year to Ngoc Hoang the jade emperor. It is traditional for local families to release fish into rivers to help him them on their way and get a good report.
Wherever you are in Vietnam you are not far from noting the effects of the war with the Americans. The country is full of young people and each town has its own immaculately maintained war grave cemetery. A visit to the Cu Chi tunnels brought home some of the horrors the Vietnamese had to live through in recent times, and the resilience of these people.
Although sombre in places, the visit included lighter touches such as going through one of the tunnels which had been enlarged for visitors – although we still found it quite a squeeze.
Delat, “the beautiful city around the lake”, Wendy our Ramblers Worldwide Holidays leader had promised… Mike our local guide almost fell off his seat when we rounded the corner to see the lake had gone! The lake had been totally drained for construction work on a bridge – “Well, this is a pioneer grade holiday,” said Wendy “and things can change without notice!” But we didn’t expect a whole lake to have disappeared!
Although this holiday was not really a walking one, we had an excellent walk up a mountain in the Langbian National Park near Delat. The weather was kind to us and the views were magnificent. We spotted a number of different types of woodpecker on the way out, pointed out by our local park guide.
Our time in Delat was topped by a ride on the railway which wound its way through the fields of flowers growing around the town. We learnt Delat was famous for its flowers and wine – the latter of which we became quite partial to by the end of the tour.
Hue was the ancient royal capital and home to emperors before Vietnam adopted Communism, and we spend a fascinating day visiting the buildings of the walled Citadel and Forbidden City.
That evening Wendy and Mike tell us we will be having a meal with a difference; which we find out is an Emperors banquet. An Emperor and queen are chosen from our group and we are all given a part to play –along with costumes to wear. We all agree the Emperor does look good in his new clothes!
The highlight of Na trang was snorkelling in the crystal clear water followed by a walk through a local village and a ride on a traditional row boat. As we walked through, the villagers were so friendly coming out of their homes to say hello to which we replied, “sin chou”; our newly learnt Vietnamese greeting.
Because of Tet we could not get an internal flight to Hoi An which meant we kept our driver and assistant and drove up instead. We weren’t looking forward to the 10 hour drive but the time seemed to fly by looking at the scenery and helped by a quiz on Vietnam and a sweepstake on the arrival time – officially declared at 5:29pm.
Hoi An was a beautiful old town and we wished we could have stayed longer. In the morning we walked around the narrow streets visiting some of the old buildings. In the afternoon we hired bikes and rode through the countryside with a local guide. We rode through a local village famous for its pottery where I tried my hand; through fields growing all types of vegetables and herbs; and ending at the beautiful sandy beaches for a quick paddle.
Cycling the narrow paths through the villages it was quiet and peaceful, so arriving back in the hectic streets with mopeds browsing the flower sellers on either side came as quite a shock.
A highlight of Vietnam which must be mentioned is the food. As a vegetarian I was expecting meagre offerings, but the food was very good and plenty of it. Each meal seemed to consist of six or seven courses of delicious food washed down with Delat wine or Hanoi beer.
On our way out of Hoi An we visit Myson, a ruined city of Champa temples. Much of the site was destroyed during the American War. The buildings remaining were fascinating but it’s sad to see so many bomb craters where such beautiful buildings once stood.
We arrive in Hanoi on New Year’s Eve and go down to the lake to mingle with the locals and watch the festivities including a massive firework display. Everyone is happy and so very friendly, and as we walk back to the hotel we see people burning paper offerings in front of their houses and hear the sound of firecrackers being set off.
The following morning is New Years Day, (Tet Nguyen Dan to give it its Vietnamese name) and we walk through the streets which are really quiet and deserted as everyone is home with the family. Such a change from the streets of Saigon.
We visit “Uncle Ho”, the Ho Chi minh Mausoleum to see the man himself preserved in his coffin followed by a walk through the gardens where he lived and worked.
Hoa Binh is our next stop where we have an excellent walk through local villages of the white Thai people. The houses are built on stilts to avoid flooding. The villagers come out to meet us and wish us a happy New Year with a smile on their face, and we reply with “Chuc Mung Nam Moi”. We were joined on the walk by Cindy from the local travel agents office.
As the Tet festival lasts for 3 days we were still in holiday mood and had now discovered a drink even better than Dalat wine – Rice wine, a potent alcohol which we were offered whenever we visited. That evening in the hotel we learn the correct way to drink this… 1-2-3 Vo and down in one.
Cindy invites us all to visit her village where a festival is due to take place at the weekend and also to visit her house. A generous gesture and one which we all feel is a privilege that we are keen to take up.
Halong bay provided the most memorable natural site of Vietnam. Seeing island after island rising from the sea was really spectacular and difficult to put into words. On the way to Halong we visited the Tay and Thay pagodas and wander around the town, which is setting up for its own festival with stalls of dry fish and those cooking Pho.
Once again the Vietnamese people are extraordinarily friendly and happy to join in conversations, even inviting us back to their homes. However time does not permit and we have to move on.
Back in Hanoi we have been invited to Cindy’s village where a local festival is taking place followed by a visit to her house. This was definitely a highlight of our visit to Vietnam; we are now off the tourist trail and become the centre of attraction for many of the locals. I am offered an Areca nut wrapped in Betel leaves and garnished with a red flower. The initial taste was bitter flowed by a hot sensation and I end up with my tongue red from the flower. The nut is meant to give a feeling of elation but I was already on a high from the festivities and friendliness of the people so no stimulant was necessary.
Later I’m invited to take part in a game where I’m blindfolded and have to try and break a container hanging from a branch. I don’t fully understand the rules and am surprised when I actually break the container and win some money!
The festival was taking place at Ba Trung Temple in Dong Nhan village and we walk through the fields of roses to Cindy’s house in the neighbouring village of Me Linh, where we are met by her Grandmother who presents us all with “Lucky Money” in red envelopes. We feel very privileged to be invited into her home; even more so when we learn we are the first Westerners to ever visit the house. Even though the language difference makes it difficult to communicate, there are smiles all round, as we sip tea and learn about her life.
Our time in Hanoi is rounded off with a walk, seeing some of the streets which specialise in different produce and a visit to see the Water Puppets which were fascinating. A final meal and we set off for the airport.
Vietnam has been a fascinating country with so much to see and do. The friendly people and relaxed atmosphere made this a really enjoyable holiday and one which we won’t forget. We are sorry to be leaving but have some very happy memories to take with us.