Our group, called ‘Sala Uno’ as our co-ordinator manages a gallery in Rome by that name, consisted of ten people including myself. I didn’t know any of them but got to know them soon enough despite my lack of fluency in Italian. Luckily, the co-ordinator was English speaking and the lady I shared a room with also spoke English so I was able to confirm things with them if I was confused. Our Vietnamese guides also only spoke Italian but I had taken my travel guides in English so I was able to read about the places we were in. We stayed in beautiful hotels and ate well with breakfast, lunch and dinner all provided for us in lovely restaurants.
Just to give you an idea of our journey in Vietnam, I’m attaching a map. We flew to Hanoi in North Vietnam where we stayed for two days after which we went by bus to Ha Long Bay near Ha Phong. From there we flew to Da Nang and went by bus to Hoi An which is just south of Da Nang. Then by bus to Hue, a historic town where the Imperial City built Vietnam’s last dynasty stands. From Hue we flew to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it used to be called. Our final leg was a bus to the border with Cambodia from where we took a boat to Phnom Phen.
Vietnam has a complicated history marked by domination by various nations, China, France, Japan and the US. Prior to the second world war, Vietnam was part of French Indochina. After the second world war, communism flourished in the north under Ho Chi Minh who couldn’t secure the south and the country was divided at the 17th parallel just south of Hue. The south was under a Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem who was strongly allied with the US leading to the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until 1976 that Vietnam was reunified to become the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This was the time when people from south Vietnam fled as refugees, the ‘boat people’. Pol Pot in Cambodia invaded Vietnam in 1976 supported by China and Vietnam retaliated by signing a pact with Russia. All of this resulted in Vietnam in the 1980s becoming impoverished and isolated still suffering from the aftermath of the Vietnam war which in effect was a genocide, and also dealing with mines and the consequences of chemical warfare. It is only in the last 30 years that Vietnam has recovered.
My first visit to Hanoi was in the late 1990s before mass tourism had arrived. It was grey and dull despite the presence of fine French colonial buildings. People were poor and the major form of transport was bicycles and rickshaws. What a transformation has taken place. Apart from the colonial French architecture, the old Vietnamese ‘tube’ houses, so called because they were very narrow at the front but stretched back with a courtyard in the centre, have been restored and renovated, many with added floors above. The streets are filled with cars and motorbikes though bicycles still abound. Although there are lots of upscale shops, restaurants and hotels, people haven’t given up their traditional ways and it’s not uncommon to see families eating together in traditional street restaurants.
Vietnamese food is delicate and delicious, crispy spring rolls filled with minced pork and vegetables, soft rice paper rolls with salad and shrimp, salads of shredded mango and green papaya, pho soup, a broth with noodles, meat, green vegetables and herbs, pork cooked in coconut milk (in the south), steamed banana leaves filled with minced meat and of course, no meal is complete without rice!
The last time I went to Ha Long Bay, the road was poor and it took us half a day to get there. It was just a small fishing village with nobody around and we had to find a boatman to take us around the bay. Now it is a big tourist resort but luckily for us, there weren’t many tourists on account of the Covid-19 scare. Despite that, the bay was filled with boats and I couldn’t stay on deck for too long on account of the fumes. The price of progress!
Hoi An on the bank of the Thu Bon river was also filled with tourists and I can’t even imagine what it must be like in ‘normal’ times. Nevertheless, it is very pretty with beautiful lanterns hanging everywhere and an old quarter which consists of a Japanese part and a Chinese part.
In Hoi An, we saw how silk is made, from the worms feeding on mulberry leaves, to forming cocoons, to the cocoons being spun into silk. A few people in our group rushed off to a tailor and got clothes made leaving the order in the morning and receiving the clothes by the end of day. I wish I had asked them to show me the clothes but I have no doubt that they were beautiful and well made.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was a trip to the countryside outside Hoi An where we saw organic vegetables being cultivated, did a short cooking class to make crispy pancakes which we ate for lunch, and then cycled back to the hotel. Most of the group passed on the cycling except for myself and another lady. It was lovely biking through the countryside past rice fields and little villages. Everywhere was clean and well kept, no garbage lying about and houses well maintained. An interesting aspect of country life is that families who own land, bury their dead on their land in front of the house and next to the vegetable fields. The idea being that the ancestors are still part of the family and can watch over the land.
Another highlight was tasting durian fruit for the first time. We were walking through the market admiring the array of tropical fruits like dragon fruit and lychees when I saw durian. I had read about it and have seen it both in Asia as well as in Toronto many times but had never tasted it, it smells awful. When I came across a stall selling it, I thought ‘It’s now or never’. As luck would have it our guide happened to come by so I got him to buy us a half and get it cut up so we could taste it. It was creamy and delicious though I personally prefer the taste of jackfruit.
Hue was the next stop on our journey but I think I will continue with that adventure in my next post so stay tuned!