Vietnam’s frantic pace an exhausting attraction
Being 70-plus year olds, we believed we were up to it. There would be six flights, nine bus trips, several boat trips, a train journey of 13 hours, eight hotel changes, three treks in the jungle and long walks to pagodas.
Our date of departure was the beginning of summer (May) and temperatures were over 30C with humidity at 90 per cent.
Vietnam has a thin strip of coast over 3260km and mountainous regions that set it apart from neighbours, China, Cambodia and Laos. It has a long history of conflict and foreign invasion.
Vietnam has many facets. There are old trading towns such as Hoi An which had its heyday as a port in the 16th and 17th centuries; and the World Heritage site of the Cham people from the 7th to the 13th century. There are Buddhist monuments and pagodas; and grand buildings from the French occupation.
In a hot and humid climate, tropical orchids and lotus flourish and are on display for sale or filling public parks.
Traditional clothing is still worn by the slim Vietnamese women, the ao dai, a tunic over long pants.
After arriving in Hanoi from Singapore, our tour group took the three-hour bus ride down to Halong Bay. The bus was old and we sat with knees under our chins.
Halong Bay is a World Heritage attraction and provides the picture postcard scene often used to lure visitors to Vietnam. And they come. We counted about 30 boats, each with up to 50 cabins, while on the bay for three days.
Next, we travelled the winding and steep mountain road in another cramped old bus, for five hours to the Sapa Valley on the Chinese border, where we gazed in wonder at terraced rice fields.
Sapa and Halong Bay remain the highlights of the visit.
From Hanoi, we travelled by train overnight to the old city of Hue. For 13 hours the train rocked and rolled in the manner we remembered from the Queensland trains of the 1960s.
The countryside is beautiful; farm workers plough with water buffalo and cut rice with scythes; villages have thatched roofs. At Danang, we were amazed by the spectacular yellow bridge with the fire-breathing-dragon super structure. Then, it was a flight to Nha Trang and a boat trip to the islands before another flight on to Ho Chi Minh City where the guide recounted stories of the Vietnam War. We heard about Ho Chi Minh, the burning Buddhist monk and Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl whose image became famous as she ran from the napalm attacks.
We travelled by boat along the wide, fast-flowing Mekong River and saw large paddy fields in an area known as the great rice bowl of Vietnam. There are rubber plantations and forests and an orchard offered a taste of exotic tropical fruits such as sapodilla, rambutan, jackfruit, mangosteen and durian.
An air-conditioned coach took us 70 km outside the city. How fortunate we were, sitting high above the sprawling poverty and roadside rubbish. Many people live in slum-like conditions.
Land is expensive and if a family manages to purchase a small block, they build a house of three to seven stories to accommodate several generations. At street level, the house is rented as a shop to provide income for the owner.
Last call was to the underground tunnels of Cu-chi used by the Viet Cong forces. The extreme heat and the confrontational nature of the day was exhausting. The sheer size of Saigon is overwhelming, an enormous city of 13 million and 6.5 million motorcycles swarming the streets like angry bees.
The tour was rigorous, the weather uncomfortably hot and the countryside beautiful. And it was a relief to get home and relax.