Hanoi, Hué, Hoi An & Ho Chi Minh City 11th- 24th February 2012
11.02.2012 - 24.02.2012
We arrived in Hanoi at midday after a long flight via Kuala Lumpur. The next morning we embarked on a tour of the city. We started at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, a grandiose monument that seems strangely at odds with the simple unassuming man himself; his wish to be cremated was ignored. We could not go inside to see the embalmed body, because the mausoleum was closed that day. The next stop was the Presidential Palace grounds - the palace itself is closed to the public and now used to receive visiting heads of state. It was built in 1901 as the residence of the French Governor-General of Indochina and is in the yellow colonial style, which is characteristic of so many buildings in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh chose not to live in the palace, but had a modest wooden house built in the grounds beside a small lake. This house, modelled on a traditional stilt-house with open sides and split-bamboo screens, is where he lived for the last eleven years of his life. We then visited the One Pillar Pagoda, one of several hundred sponsored by the Buddhist Ly Dynasty kings in the 11th century. It is a tiny 3-metre square wooden structure, supported on a single column in a little artificial lake. The whole is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. However the present structure dates from the 1950s, after the departing French blew up the pagoda in 1954; the current column is made of concrete! Beside it is an elaborate shrine and outside that there were people offering up prayers, lighted candles and incense.
We then moved on to the Temple of Literature or Van Mieu, Vietnam’s main Confucian sanctuary and historical centre of learning. It is one of the few remnants of the original Ly Dynasty city and still retains a strong sense of unity, despite nine hundred years of reconstruction and embellishment. Entry is via a two-tiered gate and the ground plan is modelled on the one in Confucius’ birthplace in Qufu, China, consisting of five walled courtyards. A double-roofed gateway leads to the third courtyard, built in 1805 and whose upper storey has four radiating suns. In the middle of this courtyard is a rectangular pond (the Well of Heavenly Clarity). On either side of this are 82 stone stelae mounted on tortoises and each one records the results of state examinations to become a mandarin between 1442 and 1779. They also give brief biographical details of successful candidates. Through the Gate of Great Success are the main temple buildings and the fourth courtyard. At Tet – the Vietnamese New Year – calligraphy competitions and chess games with human pieces take place here. In the temple sanctuary Confucius sits with his four principal disciples, clothed in vivid red and gold. The fifth courtyard once housed the National Academy, which was founded in 1076 and is regarded as Vietnam’s first university. In 1947 the French bombed and destroyed the academy buildings, but they have been fully restored.
The following day we drove to Ha Long Bay, where we took a boat-cruise around the 1553 square metres of the bay, which has thousands of jagged limestone islands and which is designated a Natural Wonder of the World. Ha Long means ‘dragon descending’; according to legend the Jade Emperor sent a celestial dragon and her children to spit out great quantities of pearls to form these jagged island chains and impede an enemy fleet. The scenery is certainly dramatic and there are junks, fishing boats and fishing villages, in addition to all the tourist boats. We also got off the boat to visit the large Hang Sung Sot Cave with its many colours and interesting formations. As you leave the cave, it seems as if a giant (a stone giant) is sitting on the rocks above, dangling his legs. We returned to Hanoi before taking the overnight ‘Reunification Express’ train to Hué.
Hué stands on land that belonged to the Champa Kingdom until 1306, when it was amongst territory exchanged for the hand of a Vietnamese princess. From 1558 the Nguyen Emperors ruled the area for two hundred years. During that time Hué became famous as a centre of arts, scholarship and Buddhist learning. It was made the capital of Vietnam after 1802 by Emperor Gia Long, when he sought to unify the country, although he depended on French military support to retain his throne. Hué ceased to be the capital in 1945 and two years later many wooden temples and palaces were destroyed by fire. The 1968 Viet Cong Tet Offensive saw violence and conflict in the city by both sides. In 1975 Hué was liberated by the North Vietnamese Army and the task of rebuilding and renovating the city has gone on ever since.
In the afternoon we made a boat trip on the Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda. It is also known as Linh Mu or the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady and stands on the site of an ancient Cham temple. According to legend, in 1601 the governor of the southern territories met an elderly woman when he was walking along the river and she told him to walk east with a burning incense stick. When the stick went out he should build a city on that spot. He founded this pagoda in gratitude to her, believing her to be a messenger of the gods. The octagonal, seven-tier brick stupa was built by Emperor Thieu Tri in the 1840s, each tier representing one of the Buddha’s incarnations on earth. Two pavilions, one on each side, contain huge 2000kg bells dating from 1710.
The next day we started with a tour of the huge Citadel. It was built by Emperor Gia Long in the early 19th century and has a massive 10km-long perimeter wall of bricks and earth, which is 7m high, 20m thick and is still intact. The whole is surrounded by a moat and a canal and there are many lakes and gardens. Work began in 1805 and eight villages were relocated from the site. Over the following thirty years thousands of labourers toiled to build 300 palaces, temples, tombs and other imperial buildings. It was constructed in an auspicious location, in order to preserve the harmony between the emperor and his people, between heaven and earth and between man and nature. It therefore faces southeast towards the Nui Ngu Binh or ‘Royal Screen Mountain’, which blocks all harmful influences. During the Tet Offensive the citadel was subject to large-scale American bombing and a lot of it was obliterated. However the remaining features are still very impressive and much is being rebuilt. The main entrance gate has an imposing flag-tower of three squat brick terraces and there are nine other gates. Inside to the east are the nine sacred cannons, which were cast in bronze that was seized from the rebel Tay Son army in the late 18th century. You then come to the Imperial City with a second moat and a defensive wall round it. In its heyday it would have been a stunning spectacle of 148 red- and gold-lacquered pavilions with glazed yellow and red roof-tiles. The Ngo Mon Gate is the dramatic entrance into it and has a central passage for the emperor, whilst two smaller doorways were used by the mandarins and two other large ones in the wings gave the royal elephants access. It is built of stone with a decorated wooden pavilion on top. This is the Five Phoenix Watchtower, so-called because from above its nine roofs resemble birds in flight. There are also a number of magnificent gateways with decorated panels and tiled roofs.
The Imperial City also contains the Forbidden Purple City. This is enclosed by a low wall and was reserved for residential palaces, accommodation for the state physician, the nine ranks of royal concubines, kitchens and pleasure pavilions, although most were destroyed in the 1947 fire. Remaining buildings include the Left House, the Right House (both for mandarins to prepare themselves before an audience with the emperor), the Royal Theatre, the Thai Binh Reading Pavilion and two pavilions where the emperor would come for peace and quiet or listen to music. There is also an area of Ancestral Altars, which includes Hiem Lam Cac (the Pavilion of Everlasting Clarity). This is followed by the Nine Dynastic Urns, which were cast in bronze during the reign of Minh Mang and are decorated with scenes of mountains, rivers, rain clouds and wildlife. Each one is dedicated to a different emperor and the largest weighs 2600kg, honouring Gia Long. The Mieu is the Nguyen dynastic temple with its line of altars, which was erected in 1822 by Minh Mang to worship his father. Since then altars have been added for each successive emperor.
In the afternoon we went out into the countryside and our first stop was the village of Than Thuy, which has precarious monkey-bridges across the canal, i.e. a few thin bamboo poles. It also has the architecturally significant Thanh Toan Bridge on the road out of the village. This tile-roofed, arched wooden bridge was built over 200 years ago. It has been damaged by storms, floods and wars many times, but each time the villagers have repaired and restored it. In 1991 it received a major renovation and was officially recognised by the Ministry of Culture as a monument of national importance.
We then visited the attractive Tu Hieu Pagoda, which was founded in 1843 and still has an active community of Buddhist monks. The royal eunuchs retired to this pagoda and were worried that their souls would not be worshipped, because they had no offspring. They therefore offered money and land to the monks, in return for having their graves tended and their souls honoured after their deaths.
Our next visit was to Tu Duc’s Mausoleum, which was constructed between 1864 and 1867, both as a tomb and a second royal palace, and set in a 12-hectare park with lakes, gardens, pine-trees and pavilions. Tu Duc was emperor when European powers were challenging Vietnam’s independence and was the longest-reigning of the Nguyen emperors. However he was a weak ruler and preferred to avoid realities by retreating to these pleasure gardens. For his last sixteen years he spent the time boating, fishing, meditating, and drinking tea made from dew collected in lotus blossoms. He was a romantic poet and wrote some 4000 poems, 600 essays, as well as several philosophical and historical works. He also found time for 50-course meals, 104 wives and a large number of concubines, who lived within the park. However he was childless, possibly due to a bout of smallpox. But he was also a tyrant, who drove the 6000 workmen building his mausoleum so hard that they rebelled and were put down savagely. On entering the park you pass a lake covered in lotus and water lilies with a small boating pavilion, which looks across to the larger Xung Khiem Pavilion, where Tu Duc wrote poetry. The buildings include the Hoa Khiem Temple, Luong Khiem Temple and the Minh Khiem Royal Theatre. Khiem means ‘modest’ and is part of every building’s name. Minh Khiem is one of the oldest theatres still extant in Vietnam. There is also the Bia Dinh stele-pavilion, which houses the biggest stele in Vietnam. It is inscribed with Tu Duc’s own narrative of his life, including all his difficulties and illnesses.
We then went to the Royal Arena or Ho Quyen, where emperors and their entourage watched fights between elephants and tigers. Elephants symbolised the overwhelming might of the empire, whilst tigers represented rebel forces, and the fights were managed so that the elephant was never allowed to lose. It is likely that the tigers were tied to a stake with their claws removed! The fights had originally been on open ground in front of the citadel, but were moved to the arena in 1830, after a tiger attacked the emperor Minh Mang. The royal pavilion has crumbled, but the arena is otherwise complete. It consists of two brick and mortar circles 4m apart, the space between filled with earth to create a path round the top of the arena. The arena’s diameter is 45m, circumference 140m and height 6m. There are two staircases up to the path, one for the royal family and the other for the populace. The last fight took place in 1904.
The next day we set off for Hoi An. On the way we stopped at Danang, the centre of the Champa Kingdom from the 2nd century AD to 1720. We visited the Cham Museum, which houses a fine collection of sculptures and some ornate palanquins. It opened in 1916 after French archaeologists gathered artefacts from Cham sites nearby and is the most comprehensive public display of Cham art in the world, although many of the best pieces ended up in private collections. Hindu gods appear frequently in Cham art, as well as lions, elephants and apsara dancers. Shiva is the predominant deity, as he founded and defended Champa, but Vishnu and Ganesh are also represented, as well as Nandi (the sacred bull and mount of Shiva), and Garuda, a mythical creature with the body of a man and the head and feet of a bird, which is associated with Vishnu. Statues of Buddha feature, but the most distinctive icon is Uroja (a breast and nipple), which represents the universal mother of Cham kings.
We then went to the Marble Mountains just south of Danang. The mountains are limestone, but they do contain marble, which was quarried for Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. According to legend the Turtle God hatched a divine egg and this cracked into five pieces, which became five small mountains. Cham people came here to worship the Hindu gods and later erected Buddhist altars in the caves, which became places of pilgrimage. The mountains are called Ngu Hanh Son or the five ritual elements. These are Thuy Son (water), Moc Son (wood), Tho Son (earth), Kim Son (gold) and Hoa Son (fire). We climbed the path to the Tam Thai Pagoda nestling in the trees, with its multi-tiered tower and serene Buddha. We then continued up to the grottoes and went into the Tang Chon Cave, to view the altars and statues of Buddha.
We then drove on to Hoi An, which combines Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences, dating back to the 16th century, although its history probably goes back to the 2nd century BC. At that time when the town was called Fai Fo, the Thu Bon River was full of merchant ships representing the great trading nations of the world. Trade reached its peak in the 17th century, when exotic produce from all over the world filled the town. Many foreign merchants married Vietnamese women, who were renowned for their business acumen. In the late 18th century silt started to clog the river and markets opened up in China, thus numbering the days of Fai Fo as a major trading centre. It was renamed Hoi An in 1954 and somehow managed to escape damage during the French and American wars. It is a very attractive town with a picturesque waterfront, a bridge decorated with lanterns, a host of colourful boats on the river and narrow streets still exuding a sense of its history. It is now particularly known for its tailoring facilities with their very fast throughput and reasonable prices. It received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999 and is also noted for its 200-year-old Chinese Assembly Halls, the homes of wealthy Chinese merchants, whose descendants still live in them. Their entrances are very colourful with exuberant decoration, glazed roof tiles and writhing dragons. At night the bridge is lit up, creating an evocative atmosphere and spectacular reflections in the river. The food in Hoi An was also especially good.
The following morning we had our first wander around Hoi An amongst the brightly painted shops, cafés and houses and its small street market. In the afternoon we had a trip to My Son, Vietnam’s most magical Cham site and on the UNESCO World Heritage list. This complex of towers, temples and sanctuaries is set in a valley amidst wooded hills and its isolated location gives it a sense of peace and quiet. The buildings are in a dilapidated state with many still bearing the traces of forest and greenery that covered the site until recently, but this only adds to My Son’s charm. The structures standing today were erected between the 7th and 13th centuries, with more temples added by successive dynasties, until there were some 70 buildings. The ruins were discovered by French archaeologists in the late 19th century. During the American war the Ho Chi Minh trail went through the middle of the site and the Viet Cong were based here. The site was bombed massively by the US Air Force and many unique buildings were completely destroyed. French archaeologists eventually realised what was happening and managed to persuade the Americans to stop. Despite all that My Son is still remarkable and there are enough structures extant to give a strong impression of what it would have been like in its heyday with carvings and statues of Hindu deities, plus a particularly well-preserved Shiva lingam (a phallic statue).
The next day was spent entirely in Hoi An. We first visited one of the original wooden merchant’s houses, a craft centre and then the Japanese Covered Bridge. This bridge is now the emblem of Hoi An, dates back to the mid-16th century and has been reconstructed several times since. The temple inside the bridge was added later and dedicated to the Taoist god Tran Vo Bac De, who could control wind, rain and other evil influences. We then went to a couple of the Chinese Assembly Halls, which are so-called, because historically the ethnic Chinese organised themselves according to their place of origin. Each group had an assembly hall to act as a community centre and place of worship. The largest group came from Phuoc Kien (Fujian) and their hall is suitably imposing with an elaborate triple-arched gateway added in the 1970s.
The following day we flew from Danang Airport down to the Mekong Delta, where we went out on a boat. The Mekong Delta is an enormous and fascinating area, full of various boats and bordered by houses on stilts, which are designed to withstand flooding. Some of the cargo boats had eyes painted on the bow, which made them look rather menacing. A lot of people also live on boats and there are plenty of craft with produce to sell. We also stopped off to visit a snake brandy producer, where we had to try some of course. We finally arrived at our homestay for the night, where we all slept in a row, separated only by mosquito nets ans with somewhat basic toilet and washing facilities. The next morning we continued our cruise round the Delta and visited a brick factory. We then drove to Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City
It is still commonly known as Saigon by the inhabitants is by far the largest city in Vietnam. It is also the country’s commercial and economic centre and is now a thriving metropolis. We had a walking tour of the city, going past the gleaming-white and impressive French-chateau style city hall. We first visited the white concrete Reunification Palace, which was erected in 1966 and first named the Independence Palace. It is on the site of the Norodom Palace, which was built in 1871 to house the Governor-General of French Indochina. The interior still has its unchanged banqueting rooms, conference halls and reception areas, as well as porcelain, lacquer work, rosewood and silk artefacts. The airless and claustrophobic basement was the former command centre during the American War and still retains items such as ancient radio equipment and huge wall maps. We then went on to the War Remnants Museum, which displays a large collection of exhibits detailing the horrors of the American War. The most shocking part is the section which has photos showing the effects on the population, when the Americans sprayed 75 million litres of defoliant across the country. These photos show children born after the conflict (even up to 2005) and foetuses with horrible malformations and defects!
We then walked past the 19th century red-brick Cathedral of Notre Dame, which has a small park in front with a statue of the Virgin Mary. It has been claimed that the statue sheds tears at times. We paid a brief visit to the General Post Office, an enormous colonial construction completed in the 1880s. Inside the building the pastel colours, slender columns and huge semi-circular vault with its glass windows give it an airy and light atmosphere. Overall it is more reminiscent of a railway terminal than a post office. Later in the day we went to a water-puppet performance, where all the puppets appear on the water in a tank. The origins of this art form are obscure, but it developed in the flooded rice-paddies of the Red River Delta and normally took place in spring, when farm work was less pressing. There is a record in 1121 AD, indicating that it was an established feature at the royal court by then. Traditionally it was a secret jealously guarded and handed down from father to son. Women were not allowed to learn the techniques, in case they revealed them to their husband’s family. It was in danger of dying out, but was revived by a French company in 1984 with new puppets, a new programme and more elaborate staging, plus an enlarged music ensemble. It is certainly entertaining and different.
The next day, our last in Vietnam, we drove out to theCu Chi Tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong to avoid the American bombing and provide underground channels of communication. Some of us went down into the tunnels, which are sweaty and claustrophobic, even though sections have been enlarged for the fuller frame of Westerners. Smoke from fires lit in the tunnels was dispersed into vents far from the source and air holes were hidden in bushes and termites’ nests. Pepper was sprinkled around vents to neutralise American sniffer-dogs and the Viet Cong even used the same scented soap that the GIs used. There are also models showing examples of the simple but nasty booby-traps made to catch American soldiers. There is also a chance to try out the (very loud) AK47 automatic rifles on a range. The original tunnels were dug in the 1940s by the Viet Minh primarily to store arms, but they soon became hiding places for the fighters themselves and by 1965 there was 250km of tunnelling. Living conditions underground were appalling and sometimes it was necessary to remain there for weeks at a time with rats, snakes, scorpions and fire ants as companions. Some multi-level tunnel complexes had wells, latrines, meeting rooms, dormitories and even rudimentary hospitals.
This is an attractive and interesting country and the people are very friendly. Also we found the hotels to be good and the food especially so. Vietnam's climate/weather differs quite markedly in the northern part around Hanoi from the southern areas – it is colder and wetter in the north. Hanoi seems more ‘Vietnamese’ than Ho Chi Minh City, which is more like a modern cosmopolitan city such as Singapore. The huge volume of scooter traffic in the large cities is remarkable, as this is the most common form of transport. There seems little French influence left in Vietnam now, despite the long French colonial period. One interesting Vietnamese feature is the ‘thin house’; property tax is levied according to the width of the building, so most are constructed with very narrow frontages and extend a long way back. Rice growing is a major industry and we passed a lot of paddy fields. It was interesting to see tombs in the middle of the fields in some places and we even saw one in the middle of the brick factory we visited - people want to be buried in or near their place of work!