On Tuesday, October 29 I was picked up by Airways Transit at
6 p.m. and transferred to Toronto's Pearson International Airport
by 6:50 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Check-in and all the other formalities (security, passport control, etc.) were completed expeditiously; so that by 7:15 p.m. I already was settling down to
read in the waiting lounge. Cathay Pacific 829 departed promptly
at 10:20 p.m.; and the attentive staff at once began to do everything possible to make our twenty-hour marathon flight to Hong Kong endurable.
On Wednesday, October 30 at 12:40 a.m. we set down in Anchorage,
Alaska for an hour-and-a-half stop, in order to bring on a new crew
--since air crew are not allowed to work more than 18 hours at a
stretch--and also to top up the fuel. The stop helped the passengers
by giving us all an opportunity to walk about in the terminal. Then
we were up and away again at 2:15 a.m. (6:15 a.m. Eastern Standard Time), ready to undertake the long haul across the Pacific Ocean to
As usual with Cathay Pacific, the service supplied by the new crew
was impeccable, and the multi-meals and drinks with which we were
constantly plied proved to be excellent. Also, the individual screens
at each seat and the associated opportunity to choose from a wide
and varied selection of T.V. programmes and movies helped those
of us who are unable to sleep sitting up to pass the time reasonably enjoyably. I watched two of the movies on offer (The Windtalkers
with Nicholas Cage and About A Boy with Hugh Grant) as well as
reading a couple of paperbacks. Also, from time to time, I chatted
with my seat-mate, a Toronto-based specialist in traditional Chinese medicine, one of whose degrees is from McMaster. En route we
crossed the International Date Line, losing a day in the process.
On Thursday, October 31 we landed at Hong Kong's impressive new
airport at 6:15 a.m. (October 30, 5:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time);
and I took the train shuttle to the gate for the connecting flight to
Hanoi, where I met four of my five fellow tour members: a couple
from Cambridge, Ontario and a couple from P.E.I. Cathay Pacific
793 (actually operated by Vietnam Airlines) departed at 9:05 a.m.,
crossed one more time zone, and landed at Hanoi an hour and forty-
five minutes later at 9:50 a.m. Indochinese Time (October 30,
9:50 p.m. Eastern Standard Time...or 23 hours and 30 minutes since
our leaving Toronto).
The Vietnamese boy-soldiers handling passport control proved
snail-slow, despite the horrendously long queues; so I whiled away
the hour-long wait talking to a business professor from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Astonishingly, my suitcase was not
yet on the carousel, when I arrived there. Eventually, however, both
I and my luggage made it out to where all five of us newly-arrived
members of Tour East's "Images of Indochina" tour were picked up
by our local guide, Dong from Vido Tours, and the driver, Ngoc, for transfer to the Galaxy Hotel at 12:30 (noon) in order to freshen up in preparation for a four-and-a half-hour city tour. Then, at 2.p.m. we
met the sixth and final member of our tour: a retired woman teacher
from Hamilton, who had arrived the previous day; and from 2 to 6:30 p.m., though jet-lagged out of our skulls, we all diligently toured Hanoi.
It is not my purpose here to go into detail regarding Vietnam's
tribulations over the past two millennia; but many of them certainly
have left their mark, both on the people and on the landscape, and
therefore inevitably will be alluded to from time to time in the course
of the following account of my trip. Most notable among these
influential events are:
- the systematic Sinicizing of Vietnamese culture during the many
centuries of Chinese occupation (111 B.C. to 939 A.D.);
- the concentration of land in the hands of a tiny percentage of
the population during the period of French colonization
(1859-1954), thereby creating an enormous new class of
disaffected landless peasants;
- the famine during the Vichy-approved Japanese occupation
(1942-45), which occupation was opposed only by the
Communist-dominated Viet Minh;
- Ho Chi Minh's premature declaration of Vietnam's independence
in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square on September 2, 1945;
- the First Indochina War and its aftermath (1945-1965), including:
the devastating Franco-Viet Minh War (1946-54),
the supposedly-temporary division of the country at the
17th parallel into North and South Vietnam by the 1954
Geneva Accords subsequent to the defeat of the French troops
at Dien Bien Phu,
the escalating activity to reunify the country after the fiercely
anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955 declared himself
President of the Republic of Vietnam with his capital in the
southern city of Saigon (refusing to hold nationwide elections
on July 20, 1956 as specified by the Geneva Accords),
and Hanoi's change in 1959 to a policy of armed struggle, which
ultimately resulted in massive desertions from the armies of
the South as the National Liberation Front or Viet Cong
(increasingly assisted by regular North Vietnamese Army units)
succeeded in putting the corrupt and incompetent Saigon
government's back to the wall;
- the Second Indochina War (1965-1975), involving the deployment
of 3,140,000 U.S. military personnel, saturation bombing, and the
use of napalm on suspected Viet Cong villages--all this devastation
ending only after the signing of the 1973 Paris Agreements, the
withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces, and the final reunification of
the country on April 30, 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks
rolled into Saigon;
- and finally, as if the preceding tribulations had not been sufficient
for a nation diplomatically isolated and scarred by massive war
damage--from physical damage, through economic and social,
to psychological damage--a protracted war with the Khmer Rouge
in Cambodia (1976-1990) plus in 1979 a brief but destructive
border war with China.
To our surprise, despite this sad history of incessant warfare
(symbolized for us most painfully by the limbless beggars seen
everywhere in the streets), the Vietnam we encountered during
our nine-day visit seemed to have bounced back, repairing
whatever past damage was susceptible of repair and eagerly
facing the future.
Appropriately enough, we began our tour in Hanoi by paying our
respects at the mausoleum of the nation's liberator, Nguyen Tat
Thanh, better known as Ho Chi Minh or "Bringer of Light"
(1890-1969), as well as at nearby Nha San Bac Ho (the minority-style
stilt house, set in a well-tended garden next to a carp-filled pond,
where "Uncle Ho" lived in Spartan simplicity from 1958 to 1969).
We also viewed the nearby Presidential Palace, a beautifully restored colonial building constructed in 1906 as the Palace of the Governor General of Indochina--and one of the many architectural reminders throughoutVietnam that this country was a official French possession from 1882 until its liberation in 1954.
Yet another highlight in the same area was Hanoi's famous One Pillar Pagoda, constructed by the Emperor Ly Thai Tong (1028-1054) in gratitude to the Goddess of Mercy, reportedly seen by him in a
prophetic dream seated on a lotus, handing the heirless emperor a
male child. Built of wood on a single stone pillar in the midst of an artificial pool, the pagoda is designed to resemble a lotus blossom,
the symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow. Incidentally,
one of the last acts of the French before quitting Hanoi in 1954 was
to destroy the One Pillar Pagoda, which subsequently was rebuilt by
the new government.
From this area we were taken to the Temple of Literature, founded
in 1070 by Emperor Thanh Tong, who dedicated it to Confucius in
order to honour scholars and men of literary accomplishment. It was
here that Vietnam's first university was established in 1076 to educate
the sons of mandarins; and in 1484 Emperor Le Thanh Tong ordered
that stelae be erected in the temple premises recording the names, places of birth and achievements of men who received doctorates in
each of the triennial examinations commencing in 1442 (82 of which
stelae are still extant, the latest dating from 1778, when the practice
The temple's walkways proved to be a refreshing relief from the
hurly-burly of Vietnamese city traffic, whose terrifying onslaught
was first encountered outside the protecting walls of our minibus,
when we were let off on the opposite side of the road to the Temple
of Literature and expected to thread our way across. Everyone in
Vietnam seems to drive at top speed and with fearless panache;
but what strikes terror into the Western pedestrian is not so much
the four-wheeled vehicles as the countless motorcycles and bicycles,
grossly overladen with passengers, animals and goods and steered
in, around and through unending streams of traffic by upright-sitting,
imperturbable-faced young people of both sexes. I, for one, was glad
to make it through that melee alive and still more glad to be picked
up later without having to recross the street.
While browsing in the Temple Shop I was lucky to find the sketch
below of a minority woman from the mountains (a so-called
Montagnard) wearing her tribe's traditional dress.
From the Temple of Literature we proceeded to the nearby Fine
Arts Museum, housed in the former French Ministry of Information,
where I found of particular interest the twentieth-century laquer
paintings of rural scenes, done in the old Chinese landscape style,
but featuring themes of modern warfare and revolutionary activity.
Next we travelled across town to the Water Puppet Theatre,
passing en route Ho Hoan Kiem, the Lake of the Restored Sword,
where legend has it that the magical sword given by heaven to the mid-fifteenth-century Emperor Ly Thai To (Le Loi) to assist him in
driving out the Chinese was seized by a giant tortoise for restoration
to its divine owners.
The various Vietnamese fairytales depicted by the water puppeteers
proved colourful and thoroughly delightful; but, unfortunately, by
this time (after 48 hours without sleep) I kept finding myself jerking
awake with a sudden start in an effort to concentrate on the
programme in progress.
Returning to the Galaxy Hotel by 7 p.m., I dispensed with dinner altogether, in favour of packing for our overnight stay the next day
at Ha Long Bay and getting to bed early.
On Friday, November 1, still twelve time zones out of synchronization with Indochinese time, I awoke at 4 a.m., breakfasted at 6 a.m., and,
leaving my main luggage in care of the Galaxy Hotel, prepared for
our departure at 9 a.m. for Ha Long Bay. Travelling east through
rice paddies, we stopped to photograph a village cemetery and again later at a craft centre (whose main attraction, aside from jade
jewellery and gorgeous silk fabrics, probably was the clean Western- style washrooms).
To our surprise, instead of following the published itinerary (which involved visiting the Du Hang Pagoda and Hang Kenh Temple in
Hai Phong and then being delivered to the Ha Long 1 Hotel in Ha Long City) we were driven directly to the dock at 12:30 p.m. and
then taken for the five-hour boat cruise, scheduled to take place the following morning, round some of the 3,000 islands of Ha Long Bay
in the Gulf of Tonkin--the whole of which bay is now designated as
a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On board our personal cruise boat, the six of us were treated to a substantial lunch and enticed to purchase goods made of silk--myself being persuaded to buy a reversible silk kimono plus an embroidered
picture of the heroic Trung sisters, who led a rebellion against the
Chinese governor in A.D. 40, forcing him to flee and declaring themselves joint queens, then later committed suicide after the
successful Chinese re-invasion of A.D. 43.
Following lunch, we were taken on a tour of the newest illuminated
limestone grotto complex, the Thien Cung Caves, opened in 1998.
Upon emerging from the caves, we returned to the Ha Long City
dock for transfer about 6 p.m. to our hotel for the night.
The Ha Long 1 Hotel proved to be a delightfully airy building with
high ceilings, great louvred doors and a splendid marble balcony
running right round outside the rooms--its only drawback being the
lack of elevators. Once a hospital under the French, this elegant
colonial structure is set healthfully high up overlooking the bay in
Ha Long City, which seemed to us to be quite an interesting town --though the inexplicable change in our itinerary unfortunately had prevented us from spending the afternoon exploring it.
On Saturday, November 2, I awoke at 5:30, breakfasted at 7, and prepared for departure at 9 a.m. We were hustled back to Hanoi
that morning, without any effort being made to visit the pagoda and temple in Hai Phong missed the previous day, stopping again at the
same craft centre en route. When we complained about this short
shrift, we were taken on a hasty visit to the (unidentified) temple in
Hanoi pictured below. As far as we could tell, the only possible
motive behind these major adjustments must have been our guide's
desire to take an afternoon off; and we were not at all pleased with
such substantial divergence from our published itinerary.
After lunch in the Galaxy Hotel cafe, I concentrated on sorting out
a problem with the tickets supplied to me for the ensuing internal
flights withinVietnam, which had been issued in someone else's name. This meant wasting a large part of the afternoon phoning Vido Tours
and then waiting for the correct tickets to arrive; so I was unable to explore the nearby Old Quarter, as I should otherwise have chosen
to do. After the tickets finally arrived, however, I did pop out to
stroll about the neighbouring streets and photograph the water tower
and a slice of street life. Then I was off to bed by 8 p.m. in
anticipation of the next day's 4 a.m. wake-up call.
On Sunday, November 3, I awoke at 3:30 a.m., breakfasted at 5:30,
and was ready for departure for the airport at 6 a.m. Vietnam Airlines flight 311 took off at 7:50, arriving in Danang in Central Vietnam at
9 a.m. There we were met by Vido guide Nghi and our driver, who
took us first to visit the Cham Museum, which houses artefacts of the powerful Champa Kingdom of Central Vietnam dating from the 7th
to the 15th century, many of them found at the major site of My Son
(which unfortunately I was unable to visit, being obliged to represent
its fabulous brick and sandstone towers by means of the postcard
photo immediately following). Unlike the true Vietnamese, the Cham people, probably of Indonesian origin, worshipped and lived according
to Hindu rites, including cremation burial and even the practice of sati. Note the 8th-century altar and the Shiva image below.
From Danang we proceeded to the Marble Mountains, where we
watched carvers working with the variously-coloured local marbles.
Continuing on our way, we reached Hoi An in time for lunch at a
local restaurant, outside which I bought from a young boy a set of hastynotes, including the Hoi An streetscene shown below.
Next, after checking into the Hoi An Hotel, we spent the three hours
from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. walking about this picturesque riverside town, many of whose streets are pedestrianized.
After a brief pause at the entrance to the Museum of History and Culture (currently closed for renovation), we proceeded to one of
the most prominent of the assembly halls constructed by Chinese
traders. Along with Japanese traders, the Chinese began by sailing south on the spring north-easterlies, spending four months using this important port for the exchange of goods with other merchants,
including Indian, Persian and Arabic traders, and then relying on the southerly winds of summer to blow them back to their homes. Soon, however, these northern foreigners found it more convenient to set
up permanent colonies.
The Fukien Chinese Congregation Assembly Hall was founded as a
place for community meetings. Later, it was transformed into a
temple for the worship of the sea goddess Thien Hau. A mural near
the entrance to the main hall on the left-hand wall depicts the six
heads of the families who fled from Fukien (a.k.a. Fujian) to Hoi An
in the 17th century following the overthrow of the Ming dynasty.
Next, we visited the House of Traditional Handicraft, which basically
is a shop but also offers demonstrations of silkworm culture and weaving. While others were busy buying fabric and garments, from
the balcony of an upper room I amused myself observing the life of
the adjacent street.
From there we walked to the Japanese Covered Bridge, built by the
Japanese community in 1593 to link them with the Chinese community
across the stream. It was used for this purpose only up to 1637, when
the Japanese government forbade all contact with the outside world.
Restoration of the bridge, with Japanese financial aid, was undertaken
Nearby on the river I was able to get an especially good view of Vietnamese-style fishing nets.
Next we visited the traditional house of Phung Hung, where we were
received by a member of the family and offered tea. Afterwards,
being free to walk about on our own, we made our way severally and
at different times back to the hotel, where I, for one, went early to bed.
On Monday, November 4, knowing that we were scheduled to depart
for Hue at 11 a.m. and eager to see more of Hoi An, I arose at 4:30, breakfasted at 5:45 and was at the door of the Heritage Site ticket
stall when it opened at 7:30 a.m. Between then and 10 a.m., I visited
the Cantonese Assembly Hall (photographing its colorful modern
dragon fountain as well as a model of the type of junk in which the
Chinese traders once visited Hoi An); the fascinating Museum of
Trade Ceramics (set up in a very elegant traditional merchant's
house, where unfortunately only the ceramic fountain in the courtyard could be photographed); Quan Cong's Temple across from the
bustling Central Market; and the Tran Family Chapel, where a girl
cousin took me back into the living quarters to meet the Tran family
and later went off with me to photocopy my guidebook's pages on
Hoi An for her use.
At 11 a.m. we set off in our minibus over the Truong Son Mountains
via the Deo Hai Van (Pass of the Ocean Clouds) to Hue, stopping for
lunch en route at the fishing village of Lang Co, whose excellent
beach we first viewed from Laughing Elephant Pass just as it was beginning to rain.
Arriving at Hue, we checked into the Century Riverside Hotel (not
the Huong Giang Hotel listed in our itinerary, but just as grand and
boasting an equally good view of the Perfume River). After my long
and strenuous day, I chose to have another early night.
Rising at 4:30 a.m., I breakfasted at 6:30; and by 8:30 a.m. we were
on our way by dragonboat through the morning river traffic up the
Perfume River to Thien Mu Pagoda (the Elderly Goddess Pagoda)
the oldest monastery in Hue, built in 1601 by the then governor.
The striking 21-metre-high, seven-storey, octagonal tower was
constructed later (in 1844, under the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri) and
has become the unofficial symbol of Hue, a city which traditionally
was one of Vietnam's main, cultural, religious and educational
centres. The six-sided pavilion to the left of the tower houses an enormous bell cast in 1710 said to be audible 10 km away. In the
main sanctuary, in a case behind the bronze Laughing Buddha, are
three statues representing the Buddhas of the Past, the Present
(the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni) and the Future. Of rather
macabre historical interest, in the orchid garden behind the sanctuary
is the Austin motorcar which transported the monk Thich Quang Duc
to Siagon for his 1963 self-immolation, an act that electrified the
whole world--especially when President Diem's infamous sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, reacted by publicly comparing the event to an
agreeable barbecue and uttered those memorable words,
"Let them burn and we shall clap our hands."
Upon leaving the pagoda, we were picked up by our minibus and
taken to what remains of the Imperial City. Built on the model of
Beijing's Forbidden City by Emperor Gia Long beginning in 1804,
it was designed for the exclusive use of the imperial household.
The city encompasses three walled enclosures: the Exterior Citadel,
(a square 2-km. wall with 10 gates, at whose southwest main entrance
is the Belvedere of the Five Phoenixes from which proclamations
were made, including the abdication of the last emperor Bao Dai
on August 13, 1945 to Ho Chi Minh); the Yellow Enclosure or
official Imperial City (where the first building you encounter is the
Palace of Supreme Harmony, used as the throne room--note below
the tourist who has donned imperial gear to be photographed sitting
enthroned); and, at the very centre, the Forbidden Purple City where
the emperor actually lived, which was almost completely razed by a
fire in 1947 (see below the partially restored Thai Binh Reading
Pavilion, notable for the flamboyant ceramic and glass detailing on
its pillars and roof).
After returning to a city restaurant for lunch, we set out over very
bumpy roads for the Tomb of Tu Duc, who ruled the longest of any
of the 13 Nguyen emperors, from 1848 to 1883, but (despite having
104 wives) left no heir. The tomb, which includes 50 buildings and
a delightful lotus-filled lake, also served as a recreation grounds for
the emperor, being completed 16 years before his death. Among the various pavilions and other structures are: the Harmony and Modesty
Pavilion. where the king worked (and which still contains some articles
of furniture), an impressive stela house--being without an heir, Tu Duc actually engraved his own stela--as well as the walled enclosure containing the relatively simple tomb itself.
Returning to the Century Riverside Hotel shortly after 4 p.m.,
following dinner I repacked in preparation for the next day's early departure and was in bed by 9 p.m.
On Wednesday, November 6, I was up at 4:30 a.m., breakfasted at 6,
and was ready for transport to the airport at 7:15. Vietnam Airlines flight 251 departed at 8:40, arriving at Ho Chi Minh City (still often called Saigon) at 9:40 a.m. There we were met by our Vido Tours
guide, Hwon ,and transported by minibus to the Grand Hotel.
After lunch, we were picked up at 2 p.m. and taken for a tour of
the Reunification Palace. The French governor general of
Cochinchina used to live on the same site in an 1868 building called
the Norodom Palace, which was bombed in 1962 in an assassination attempt on South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem by his own air
force. The current building (very much an unchanged 1960's period piece) was designed to be President Diem's home and was completed
in 1966, after Diem's death. It is most notable for its symbolic role
in the fall of Saigon in April, 1975, when its gates were breached by North Vietnamese tanks and the victor's flag occupied the balcony.
We toured the private quarters, dining rooms, entertainment lounges and the president's office, as well as descending to the bomb-proof
war command room with its huge maps and old communications equipment. The only photograph I bothered to take was of one of
the two escape helicopters always kept ready on the roof.
As we emerged from the palace, the first drops of rain began to fall;
and by the time we had reached our next scheduled stop in Cholon,
it was pelting down; so, deciding that I preferred not to risk catching
a cold, I stayed in the minibus, while my more hardy fellow travellers
got thoroughly drenched venturing into Chinatown to visit Quan Am Temple and the Binh Tay Market. Subsequently, the guide decided
to postpone our visit to Notre Dame Cathedral and the Main Post
Office; so, after stopping at a laquer factory, we returned to the
Grand Hotel. There, following dinner, I decided to spend the evening writing up my postcards--in the hope that perhaps Saigon's postal
service would prove efficient enough to ensure that they reached the intended recipients.
On Thursday, November 7, I arose at 4:30 a.m. and breakfasted at
6:15. By 8 o'clock we were on our way south to the Mekong Delta.
En route, we passed under the watchful eye of the garish Caodai
temple at Cai Lay. This modern religion, an odd fusion of the secular and religious philosophies of the East and West founded in 1926 by
Ngo Van Chieu, has an estimated 3 million followers.
This account will be continued at the following address: