Scents of adventure
Gemma Tipton gets to grips with wonderful Vietnam
Stepping out into the hot Hanoi night, I feel a wave of excitement. It could be a combination of things: the exotic mingling smells of jasmine and fish, the unfamiliar sights of French colonial and Chinese- inflected buildings cuddling together, the simple act of actually achieving crossing the road . . . Whatever it is, the tiredness of long flights is shaken off, and I’m ready for an adventure.
Home to more than 7 million people, Hanoi was established more than 1,000 years ago on the banks of the Red River, and is dotted with lakes. Scooters hurl themselves in swarms along the roads, and crossing involves gamely claiming your territory on the tarmac with a purposeful walk. Later, a rickshaw ride will reveal how businesses cluster together, as we pass along the street of bamboo ladders, the lane of flower sellers, the road of cuddly bear shops.
Street food stalls are everywhere, as cone- hatted sellers squat, adding sauces to freshly chopped vegetables, sizzling fish over small charcoal stoves. It’s exciting but unthreatening, and while street sellers may want to entice you, they don’t hassle. We’ve headed to a restaurant, where a tasting menu introduces us to amazing Vietnamese food, with its winning combination of French, Chinese and Thai influences. It’s all washed down with a lovely light, pale lager. I could have tracked my progress through Vietnam by means of the local brews. From Hanoi Beer in the north, to Saigon Special, 1,760km south, I steadily fell in love with this wonderful country.
I’m on a two- week trip with TDactive, a branch of Travel Department that sends small- ish groups ( there are 19 of us) on itineraries that, in Vietnam, include cycling to mountain temples, swimming at Ha Long Bay, climbing ancient stone steps to discover Indiana Jones- type temples deep in the Marble Mountains, river trips, and fascinating insights into the country’s rich and troubled history.
Vietnam should have been heaven on earth. Just 40km wide at its narrowest point, but with miles and miles of coastline ( both beautiful and strategic), mineral resources, and a fertile tropical landscape and climate, it has been under attack for much of its history. China had it for over 1,000 years. The French colonised it, Japan occupied it, and most recently the American War saw the dropping of millions of tonnes of bombs, and the spreading of Agent Orange and Napalm across the land.
That war ended with the fall of Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in 1975; and a visit to the War Remnants Museum in that city at first leaves us profoundly sad through its collection of contemporaneous newspaper headlines, photographs and artefacts. Then, little by little, I become furiously angry, both at what people seem capable of doing to one another, and the horrible rhetoric that surrounds their ventures. Yet the Vietnamese themselves seem to be forgiving and pragmatic. “It’s in the past,” they say. “The American soldiers were only children. They didn’t want to be here either,” I’m told. Groups of veterans on both sides now meet, swap stories, organise charitable projects.
In fact, the Vietnamese themselves are part of what makes this beautiful country so brilliant to visit. While it’s misleading to characterise an entire nation, overall they’re gentle, kind and yet have a great sense of humour and entrepreneurial fun. They’re also proud of their country, its history, and all it has achieved since the war. It ’ s of f i c i a l l y a on e - p a r t y socialist/ communist state, but things are opening up, and while you might not see the presence of a Starbuck’s as a sign of joyous progress, it’s a signal of a general deregulation which has seen the country lately achieve one of the highest growth rates in the world.
Like the Starbuck’s springing up, this is a mixed blessing. The coastline of Da Nang could be nice in a few years – but only if thick strips of resort hotels are your thing. Head further south to lovely Hoi An for what must be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, where little restaurants have tanks of fish swimming in cool water, ready to become lunch. We have three days to explore the area, so I try my hand at paragliding, and bring a couple of dresses to the local tailor’s to be copied. Tailoring and silk are big in Vietnam, and they’ll rustle you up anything you like overnight. A silk dress costs me about € 20.
In the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall in Hoi