Scents of ad­ven­ture

Gemma Tip­ton gets to grips with won­der­ful Viet­nam

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

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

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