Good morn­ing and evening in Viet­nam

Nel Staveley vis­its Viet­nam for its beau­ti­ful land­scapes, friendly peo­ple and to ex­pe­ri­ence a re­minder of the hor­rors of wartime

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HON­ESTLY,” beams my guide from a sus­pi­ciously bad-look­ing tun­nel. “It’s not that bad down here.” I’m not con­vinced. So he tries an­other tack. “They’ve made th­ese tun­nels twice as big as they were back in the war. They’re tourist-sized.”

While un­sure whether I’m of­fended or en­cour­aged, I do at least know that I now have no choice but to edge my tourist-sized hulk down into the dark, cramped, muddy hole – and not com­plain about how dark, cramped and muddy it is.

Be­cause the guide’s right, this maze of Cu Chi Tun­nels, 70km north­west of Ho Chi Minh City, might be un­bear­ably hu­mid, feel haunt­ingly claus­tro­pho­bic, and smell like damp mould, but this is the sani­tised ver­sion; the Dis­ney-es­que take on what, more than forty years ago, in the midst of the bit­ter Viet­nam War (or the Amer­i­can War, as the Viet­namese rightly call it) can only have been unimag­in­able hell.

Even those not par­tic­u­larly well­versed in Viet­namese his­tory will have heard about the in­fa­mous Cu Chi Tun­nels, a 200km un­der­ground maze of deep, air­less, wa­ter pipe-sized holes, some­times three ‘storeys’ and 15ft deep, where Viet Cong sol­diers lived, fought and hid from Amer­i­can and South Viet­namese troops.

It’s not the worst thing here ei­ther; there’s an ex­hi­bi­tion of the in­fa­mous tor­ture traps the Viet Cong used: leaves cov­er­ing a bed of foot-long bamboo spikes and a rolling set of spiked poles ready to snare a sol­dier up to his waist.

Even to­day, sur­rounded by chat­ter­ing tourists and be­hind the safety of a wooden fence, they make your blood run cold.

A few hours later, back in Ho Chi Minh City, comes the War Rem­nants ex­hi­bi­tion, where I find my­self in front of the orig­i­nal ver­sion of ‘that’ photo – Nick Ut ‘s Na­palm Girl. Need­less to say, it’s just as poignant in real life as all the times you’ve seen it in news­pa­pers and books.

This year marks the 40th an­niver­sary of when the 20-year battle ended, and the Cu Chi Tun­nels and War Rem­nants Mu­seum are re­minders of the pain and suf­fer­ing en­dured.

But a big­ger part of this warm, en­er­getic, swarm­ing coun­try is also here to tell you a very dif­fer­ent story. Be­cause four decades on from that civil war that threat­ened to bring the na­tion to its knees, Viet­nam has never stood taller.

Last year the coun­try re­ceived a record num­ber of vis­i­tors and it still rates highly on ev­ery ‘des­ti­na­tion hotlist’ for 2015. A num­ber of fash­ion­able new ho­tels, such as the A La Carte Ho­tel in Da Nang, about half­way up the coun­try’s coast­line and an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City, are also an in­di­ca­tion of ex­cit­ing growth.

As I sit on a ter­race, look­ing out to the beach-lined bay and the puls­ing city with clank­ing cranes build­ing sleek new places to stay, it’s hard to imag­ine that Da Nang is where the Amer­i­can troops had one of their big­gest air bases dur­ing the war.

“It’s changed quite a lot,” my guide shrugs.

A lot, but, thank­fully, not com­pletely. For all its post-war re­con­struc­tion and surg­ing tourism, Viet­nam is in no hurry to sur­ren­der ev­ery­thing to progress.

Hoi An, half an hour’s drive from the bustling Da Nang, was once a ma­jor 16th cen­tury trad­ing cen­tre and is now a UNESCO World Cul­tural Her­itage site. With its low, tiled houses, an­cient mar­kets and can­dle-lit night lanterns, it’s a very pretty tourist mecca. Yet an ar­ray of back­packer bars and trin­ket-sell­ing street stalls re­veal it’s em­braced the 21st cen­tury.

But hop on a small, old fish­ing boat, and half an hour later, via a few ex­cited, po­ten­tially boat-top­pling chil­dren and a sweep­ing river view, and you’re in a tiny vil­lage, seem­ingly un­touched by mod­ern times, with smil­ing peo­ple gen­tly pulling in fish­ing nets and crafts­men mak­ing clay pots with noth­ing but a foot-press and the heat of the sun. Sim­i­larly, not far away, there’s Tra Que Veg­etable Vil­lage, where you can try some cen­tury-old farm­ing tech­niques for your­self.

To be hon­est, at first it looks easy – just don a Non La con­i­cal hat, watch the ex­perts rake fur­rows in the ground and fol­low suit. Farm­ers ex­plain how to sow seeds, cover them up, and wa­ter them. But it’s a care­ful, gen­tle, an­cient craft that I quickly re­alise I have no hope of em­u­lat­ing. My ef­fort is a to­tal fail­ure – one ex­tremely well-soaked pea shoot and four lines of ex­tremely thirsty ones – but as with ev­ery­thing in this coun­try, it’s greeted with a hearty smile.

In fact, through­out Viet­nam, hos­pi­tal­ity is leg­endary. It’s some­thing I no­tice on a fam­ily-run river cruise in the prov­ince of Ben Tre. We’re kept re­freshed with a con­stant sup­ply of fresh fruit and cold flan­nels, and when­ever we stop off at an ar­ray of brick and rice-noo­dle mak­ing vil­lages, we’re for­ever met with herbal tea and of­fers of keo dua (lo­cal co­conut sweets).

In ad­di­tion to the unswerv­ingly friendly peo­ple, Viet­nam is blessed with achingly beau­ti­ful land­scapes, cen­turies of his­tor­i­cal build­ings and madly vi­brant cities. There are long, tree-lined rivers and spawn­ing rice fields, lov­ingly tended tem­ples, pago­das and royal palaces, and the loud, moped-fren­zied, bril­liant cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hue.

Equally re­mark­able are the coun­try’s of­ten-over­looked beaches. Neigh­bour­ing Thai­land has some­what stolen any chance of Viet­nam win­ning the South-East Asia beach man­tle, but it shouldn’t be the case.

A fine ex­am­ple of the beach prop­er­ties found here is Fu­sion Maia Re­sort in Hoi An. It’s the epit­ome of luxury, with pri­vate pool vil­las, two free spa treat­ments a day, and morn­ing yoga by the beach­side in­fin­ity pool.

Down on the beach, where you can take break­fast or a lan­tern-lit bar­be­cue din­ner, it’s even more per­fect.

I en­joy sit­ting qui­etly on the sand and watch­ing the bustling fish­ing boats, while a group of lo­cal chil­dren play foot­ball a few hun­dred yards away.

It’s a scene of­fer­ing a vi­brant still­ness; a feel­ing of gen­tle, am­bling calm along­side a joy­ous en­ergy. And for me, that’s what Viet­nam is all about.

Fish­ing boats bob about around one of Viet­nam’s many coastal vil­lages

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