Descending Dragon Bay

It’s a different planet. Before us around two thousand rocks, peaks, stacks emerge from the eastern sea in strange, ethereal  shapes.Some look like primeval monsters, others resemble the wild imaginings of mad sculptors. The colours are amazing, the setting beyond description. It’s as if the sea has risen over limestone ranges or as if the rocks themselves have pushed themselves up from the abysses of the deep.

Every turn of the boat we sailed in showed ever more  extraterrestrial visions and I truly felt it was an alien planet we were wandering in.

We landed on one island and entered the vastest caves we’d seen for a long time. We stopped at another islet to climb to a pagoda at its summit.

Ha Long bay is truly one of the greatest natural wonders in this earth to be easily compared with the grand canyon or the dolomites. It should be on everyone’s must see list before they die and we were so glad it was on ours..and that we lived to see the day, the last day this time in indo China.

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The Other Side of the Coin

There is no doubt that each of the countries we have visited that make up the area once known as Indo-China has had a gruesome recent past.

Those of us old enough to remember participating in student anti-Vietnam war demonstrations will need no reminder.

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But some of the worst atrocities happened after the Americans left. Cambodia entered into year zero from 1976 to 1979 under Pol Pot and the Khmer rouge. The most extreme form of social engineering of modern times, to be compared only with the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, led to the death of over two million people.

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Despite the fact that the majority of the population of these countries is too young to remember these facts young people will be reminded of what happened from their surviving parents and grandparents. As visitors to these countries we have to constantly remember that these areas were more intensively  planted with land mines that even Angola, that three times as many bombs were dropped on them than in the whole of WWII in Europe and one’s got to be aware that when trekking in the idyllic Indo-chinese hill country, with some peaks reaching in excess of 10,000 feet, there is constant danger, despite large-scale schemes to rid the area of these insane abominations, of returning home with, at the best one leg missing (as not a few of the inhabitants we met were witness to.)

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Deforestation is a real problem in Laos with loss of natural habitat for such animals as tigers and rhinos. Child exploitation and prostitution is an ever present disgrace and we all know about the golden triangle which covers the area where these countries meet.

Perhaps the worst hazard is the over-exploitation of the tourist industry – not a bad idea if equably managed but clearly prone to uneven wealth distribution and even more environmental degradation if left to itself.

Eco-tourist projects are increasing and poverty is decreasing. Certainly, Laos doesn’t feel like it was the poorest Asian country just twenty years ago and Vietnam shows no economic slow-down like China has recently displayed.

The big problem is that super powers like nearby China (who wants to built a high speed rail link to the area) and even Russia (who was holding a trade fair in the same hotel we stayed at in  Hanoi) have got their sights set on vast investments in the last areas of Asia to retain something of the charming seduction of the east.

We’ve visited craft centres for young people disabled by preventable diseases or the aftermath of wars. We’ve seen a prosperity in some areas which is astounding but we’ve also read in today’s Hanoi times that urban pollution is at its highest and we’ve  invested in mouth masks.

So what else can I add? Enjoy this magical part of the world while you can and while it can too!

Uncle Ho

Hanoi wasn’t always the imperial capital of Vietnam. That title went to Hue which I visited in February last year. Today Hanoi (or Ha Noi as it is more correctly written) is the socialist republic’s capital and the one city which more than any other place symbolises the determination of Vietnam to reassert itself as a unified country.

The central figure in the struggle for unification is that remarkable person, Ho Chi Minh, or uncle Ho as he is affectionately known. Born in 1890 in a strictly confucian family HCM travelled the world even landing up as cook and dishwasher at a hotel in Ealing, London. If you pass New Zealand House in London, you’ll also find a blue plaque confirming that HCM worked there too in a building which previously stood on its site. Sadly he died in 1969 just six years before he saw his dream of a liberated Vietnam realised.

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Theoretician, fighter and poet, Ho is truly the father of the nation and the first site we visited in Hanoi was the mausoleum where his mortal remains are embalmed (contrary to his wishes to be cremated). We were lined up in double file by the watchful eyes of guards uniformed in immaculate white and with the background of patriotic songs. Short of visiting North Korea I felt this would be a very similar experience.

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Fortunately, the queue of acolytes was not too long and we soon gazed on the luminous effigy of the great leader complete with his trademark goatee beard.

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Our visit did not end there, however, since we were also able to visit the working quarters where Ho efficiently and simply worked to realise the nation we experience today. His house on stilts was particularly charming and the whole area was beautifully landscaped in a park graced with a little lake.

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Hanoi is a city of lakes each surrounded by joyfully lit promenades and is full of glories from past eras of its complicated history. After our homage to Ho we visited the confucian temple of literature with the memorial steles to its brightest students placed on the backs of stone turtles which, presumably, symbolise, that learning is something that has no get-quick way of achieving it.

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The French colonial era has left an imposing opera house and a neo-gothic cathedral besides a large area of graceful villas and some very parisian boulevards.

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We also enjoyed the gallic orientalist architecture of the history museum which has excellent displays of artefacts from past ages including a a very nice exhibition of the significance of mythological animals in Vietnamese culture.

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If HCM city has more zest then Hanoi has more grace and, certainly, a more equable climate. It actually has four seasons while HCM city only fluctuates around three degrees throughout the year.

After watching a delightful water puppet performance, for which the country is famous and which derives from the red river valley on which the town is sited, we wandered around the old quarter which is surely the most fascinating part of this most fascinating city, now rated as one of Asia’s top five destinations.

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Certainly a radical change from our previous stay at Luang Prabang, Hanoi completely charmed us with its frenetic, but never impersonal, energy and its several quiet parklands and lovely city lakes.

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Gliding Down the Mekong

The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers. Beginning in the Himalayas it crosses through most of South East Asia’s countries and by the time it reaches south Vietnam it has become a majestically wide expanse before diving into its various branches in the  delta region.

On our second day we took a trip down the Mekong and its tributaries. The first part was taken on a boat formerly used for transporting coconuts but now converted for passenger use. It was one of the most relaxing river journeys I’ve ever taken. Each side of the waterway was framed by giant coconut fronds. Occasionally a  set of poles marked a fish trap and there was a discrete traffic of small, narrow boats laden with coconuts and their products.

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We stopped at a small family run restaurant to have a very fishy lunch including Elephant’s ear fish which was not to everyone’s liking. However, the environment certainly was idyllic and provided a welcome change from the hectic activity of the large city we’d left.

Our journey ended when we rejoined the mighty Mekong and tied up at one of its wharves.

I wonder if there’s a Vietnamese Kenneth Graham. Certainly, the scenery wed passed through evoked everything that’s peaceful about messing about in boats.

 

 

 

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Revisit to HCMC

I’m back to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City, this time with Sandra and it’s great to be back! Anyone who followed my blog at longoio.wordpress.com for january last year will realise how much this area of the world has fascinated me.

This time we’ve joined up with a small group to make five. Yesterday we did a city tour around the vibrant city. This clearly included the ex presidential palace where a unified Vietnam was declared in 1975, the cathedral, the iconic post office and the difficult to experience war remnants museum.

In the evening we joined old friends for a drink and a meal in a popular quarter. How happy we were to meet up again!

After, we wandered down the lively Nguyen Hue boulevard, now pedestrianised at weekends and enjoying street entertainment including local style break dancing amid the bright lights.

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HCMC is changing fast. By the opera house a project with Japan is building a  new urban railway, for example. It’s truly a great pre-christmas present to be here with both of us this time.