Views of Vietnam 2: Hue to Chau Doc

I have spent a week in self isolation so far only going out for about 30-40 minutes a day to a quiet area near my apt, wearing a mask, just to get some fresh air and exercise. Somehow, the week went by relatively quickly as I was tired from a combination of jet lag and the stress of having to flee from Rome unexpectedly.

So to continue with our trip in Vietnam…after our visit to Hoi An, we went by bus to Hue, the Imperial City which was the seat of the last royal dynasty, the Nguyen kings, founded in 1802. Just outside the city, are the tombs of the kings and we stopped at one of them, Khai Din’s tomb which was finished in 1931 and took 11 years to complete. Outside the mausoleum are stone sculptures of mandarins and soldiers. One of the features of the mausoleum is that the walls are decorated with mosaic motifs made out of ceramic and glass which were ordered from France and broken into pieces to make up the mosaics. It is quite a contrast to the exterior which has become blackened with time.

Since this was an art tour, we had been visiting galleries and that evening, we went to a contemporary gallery New Space Art Foundation owned by the Le brothers who are twins. Among their lacquered pieces, were a couple of Mandarins (carrying guns!) modelled on those at the tomb. The one you see here is supposed to resemble Le Ngoc Thanh who is standing next to it. Hope I got his name right as they are identical twins!

The Imperial City is modelled on the Forbidden City in Beijing which is to say that you go through a series of courtyards and halls before getting to the Palace. It is surrounded by a high wall 4 metres thick. A lot of the interior and the area surrounding the Palace were destroyed during the Tet offensive in 1968 but enough survives to see what a grand Palace it must have been in its time. Hue is on the Perfume River which snakes through the city.

From Hue, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on the Saigon River, the largest port in Vietnam. A city of French colonial architecture which has grown into a modern city of high rises and lots of traffic especially scooters.

A moving experience was a visit to the War Remnants Museum. During the Vietnam war, 7 million tons of bombs were dropped by the US army. Napalm (Agent Orange) was used with horrifying consequences evident to this day in many children born around that time. It was a brutal chemical warfare and a devastating genocide. What horrified me were the reasons for US involvement in the war which you can see in Eisenhower’s statement below in 1953. What’s even more horrifying is that the same scenario is being played out today often for the same reasons.

Unfortunately, we only had a day in Ho Chi Minh City. Early the next day, we went by bus to Chau Doc on the border with Cambodia stopping at Cai Bei on the Mekong River to see the floating market. We had a relaxing trip around Binh Hoa Phuoc island in the middle of the Mekong. We passed sampans with people fishing, stopped at small family run businesses where we could see how paper thin rice pancakes are made as well as various liquors, some made with snakes coiled inside. The snakes are usually venomous but the venom breaks down with the alcohol and is apparently safe to drink. It is supposedly medicinal and reputed to cure many ailments as well as being invigorating and improving virility. I don’t think anyone in our group tried it so its benefits remain as hearsay! We had lunch at a small family run homestay where the food was beautifully presented. The food in the south is slightly different to that in the north with more spices, lemon and coconut milk. This was where I had the pork cooked in coconut milk which I would like to get the recipe for.

That was the end of our trip in Vietnam as the next day we took a boat up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I enjoyed Vietnam and would have gladly spent more time there. Despite their painful history, the Vietnamese are tranquil, friendly and welcoming. It is remarkable to see how the country has rebuilt itself in less than 30 years.

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