Vibrant memories of Vietnam
An organised tour can open doors and deliver fresh perspectives
GUIDE books tend to describe Vietnam as charming and picturesque, but on my journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi I often find myself wanting to substitute the words aspiring and frenetic.
Onmyfirst day in HoChi Minh City, many residents are observing the New Year’s Eve holiday, but others persevere with their daily work. For some, this means building on busy streets where new hotels sit beside ancient shops. I watch a woman mixing cement in a tin bowl while her workmates clamber up rickety ladders to fix the bricks into place.
Below, swarms of motorbikes fill the roads, some carrying a heavy load of building materials and others whole families out for a ride on this special day.
In Hanoi, opposite my hotel, the workers are clearly living on the building site; their washing hangs out to dry on the ground floor as they labour above. And on the drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay, I watch a man leaving a brick factory on his bicycle, with a trailer of new bricks in tow. Straining to pull the heavy load, he manoeuvres into the flow of traffic, trusting that the buses, trucks and cars will respect his efforts and let him through. They do, no doubt remembering that not so long ago everyone was on a pushbike.
Old and new constantly rub against each other here. It’s not uncommon to see an elderly woman in traditional clothes blithely wandering into the stream of motorbikes, a pole across her shoulders, each end laden with trays of food. The young motorcyclists dip and swerve to make way for her. They may have no memory of life before mobile phones and imitation Prada bags, but they respect the elderly and probably live with at least one grandparent who can recall the wars with France, the US and China.
Being older and less adventurous these days, I have opted for an organised tour on my first visit to Vietnam. I am happy to be told when and where to go each day. And there are definitely benefits in travelling with a local guide. Every question is answered with a smile and a stream of information. Clearly proud of his country’s progress since reunification, Tan Vo shows our group of 12 Australians around pagodas, citadels and Viet Cong tunnels. Tan’s mother worked for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War and his father for the Americans. Tan was born while his mother was in prison and on her release his father was assassinated. Furious at the communists for not protecting her husband and for not honouring her war efforts, she turned her back on them and moved to the country to teach. Tan speaks five languages and travels with an iPad, an iPhone and a laptop. He has studied in the US and is writing a master’s thesis on sustainable tourism in Vietnam.
We travel by train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An, bus to Hue, then plane to Hanoi. The weather morphs from hot and humid in the south to cold and wet in the north.
In the north, the winter sun is weak and the drizzle reinforces the smells of street rubbish and precarious plumbing. Many visitors experience this only briefly in their rush from the airport to the flashy resorts springing up along the coastline.
Tourism is one of the country’s biggest industries. I try to picture the other j ob options for the young hotel staff member who hands me a room key — perhaps sloshing around rice paddies.
Rising early one morning, I witness the desk staff packing up their bedrolls in the hotel foyer, putting on their waistcoats and smoothing their hair, ready for the day’s work.
There are times when I look forward to being home — particularly when fighting my way through Hanoi’s Old Quarter, unable to use the footpaths, which are full of parked motorcycles, or the road, because of the number of moving ones. However, I develop a deep respect for the determination of the Vietnamese people, from the tenacious street sellers who hassle me to buy a bizarre range of goods to the optimistic roadside vendors putting out their fruits, vegetables and incense sticks in the hope that passing vehicles will stop and pay a few dong for their wares.
I decide to bring two tapestries home. Both depict idealised views of a former Vietnam. One is of a quiet street, uncluttered by motorbikes; the other a fishing boat on a clean river that bears no resemblance to the murky and crowded waters I’ve actually seen.
The tapestries were done by victims of Agent Orange, some of them third-generation. As I watch these workers and their nimble fingers at the embroidery tables, my heart goes out to them and my hand reaches into my wallet.
One strong image remains from my last day. On the freeway to Hanoi airport, I spot a small group of farmers in conical hats. Miraculously, their plot of land has survived amid the new highrises and they are tending a little vegetable patch with as much care as their ancestors would have done. But for how long, I wonder.
top A woman paints a drum in the Old Quarter of Hanoi bottom A girl sits by one of the many lakes in Hanoi