Vi­brant mem­o­ries of Viet­nam

An or­gan­ised tour can open doors and de­liver fresh per­spec­tives

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - CA­ROLE LAN­DER

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.

viet­nam­tourism.com

AP TRAVEL IN­DOCHINA

top A woman paints a drum in the Old Quar­ter of Hanoi bot­tom A girl sits by one of the many lakes in Hanoi

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