In February 2000 we spent 10 days in Vietnam, visiting Hanoi in the north as well as Danang (Da Nang) and Hoi An in central Vietnam. We had a great time - it was probably our best trip ever in S.E. Asia, better even than Cambodia.

I was expecting Vietnam to be a very poor country, like Cambodia. Vietnam IS poor, but the economy has picked up so much over the last few years that it doesn't feel anything like as desperate as Cambodia. Vietnam's role model is China - economic liberalization coupled with harsh political controls.

Also, Vietnamese take great care of their appearance, spending a significant fraction of their income on clothes - they generally look quite smart - much more so than the mainland Chinese in their shabby suits!

I never saw a Vietnamese in a T shirt, but I saw many women and girls wearing the beautiful silk 'ao dai' costume, a long tunic worn over loose pyjama-like pants. White ao dais are the school uniform for girls in many schools - it's a miracle that they are able to keep them clean in Hanoi's traffic-choked streets.

Traffic is indeed the worst aspect of modern-day Vietnam - a few years ago few people could afford anything more than a bicycle but now motorbikes are everywhere, often (illegally) carrying a whole family of four. Here (above right) is a typical Hanoi street scene. Note the Vietnamese flags on display for the Tet (lunar new year).

The terrible traffic is the reason we did not visit Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) in this trip, though we'll try to go there soon.

The Vietnamese are a forward-looking people and, amazingly, seem less obsessed with the Vietnam war than the Americans are (in Vietnam, the Vietnam war is called the American War, of course). Perhaps the American obsession with the war is because it is the only war the U.S. ever failed to win, or perhaps it is because they were forced to withdraw from Vietnam not by the communists but by the American public.

Vietnamese are proud that they have always managed to repel invaders, whether they be Chinese, Japanese or French - here's a brief chronology:

  • 2000 BC founding of Au Lac, the Vietnam of legend.
  • 208 BC a renegade Chinese general conquers Au Lac and renames it Nam Viet. Over the next 2000 years China invades Vietnam several times but the invaders are always driven out.
  • 1789 First French mercenaries arrive, in a fleet chartered by a French bishop. They develop a transcription into Roman characters of the Vietnamese language which ultimately will become the national standard. Since Vietnam is the only country in S.E. Asia apart from the Philippines to use the Roman alphabet, it is an interesting characteristic of the country and one that make its easier for foreign visitors to find their way around. For the full story, click HERE.
  • 1802 Nguyen Anh founds the Ngyuyen dynasty, Vietnam's last, and gives himself the title of Emperor Gia Long. He establishes the capital in Hue.
  • 1847 First official French military intervention, at Da Nang
  • 1862-83 All Vietnam submits to France.
  • 1930 Ho Chi Minh founds Indochinese party.
  • 1940 Japan occupies Vietnam.
  • 1941 Japan declares Vietnam independent from France. Minh starts general uprising. The last emperor, Bao Dai, abdicates. Ho declares independence. France begins reconquest. Last colonial war breaks out.
  • 1954 France, defeated at Dien Bien Phu, surrenders. Geneva accords divide Vietnam at 17th parallel and gives 300 days' free passage over border, allowing population to polarize. US replaces France as main support of anti-communist South Vietnam, ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem.
  • 1962 US 'advisors' begin active role in war.
  • 1963 Diem is overthrown and murdered.
  • 1964 US begins war against the north. Tonkin Gulf resolution gives President Johnson effective war-making powers.
  • 1965 First American combat units arrive. Methodical bombing of the north begins, America takes over conduct of war.
  • 1968 Communist Tet offensive is defeated but intensifies American desire to withdraw 'with honor'. Paris peace conference opens.
  • 1969 US begins secretly bombing Vietnamese communist bases in Cambodia.
  • 1970 All of Cambodia is engulfed in the war.
  • 1973 Peace agreement signed, American troops withdraw.
  • 1975-76 North Vietnam conquers Saigon, war ends, Vietnam reunified.
  • 1978-79 Vietnam invades and conquers Cambodia following Cambodian border raids. Pol Pot regime overthrown.
  • 1979 China mounts brief invasion of northern Vietnam to punish it for attacking its ally, Cambodia.
  • 1991 Disintegration of Soviet Union leads to intensified economic liberalization.
  • 1995 US normalizes diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
  • 2000 Nigel and Catherine visit Vietnam.

A chronology of our stay:

On Friday 4 February, the eve of the lunar new year or 'Tet' we arrived in Vietnam and were met at the airport (it's illegal for foreign tourists to rent cars in Vietnam, and it's certainly something you wouldn't want to do anyway.) The drive to Hanoi took us along a depressing motorway under the lead-gray skies that are so typical of this area in winter. Approaching the city we crossed the Red River on a long bridge built as a gift by the Chinese - it seems to be traditional for communist countries to offer 'solidarity gifts' like this to one another.

We stayed at the Sofitel Hotel - it's expensive but still a great choice as it has lots of charm and is located close to Hanoi's old quarter. It also has a great restaurant called Spices - we didn't feel the need to risk dining anywhere else during our 5 nights in Hanoi. The Sofitel is located just a block away from Hoam Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword).

We walked around around the lake and saw that many stands like this had been set up for the Tet. Few Vietnamese can afford a camera of their own but here you can get your photo taken.

Asians almost always have their photo taken just as a record or proof that they were in a certain place at a certain time - they find it incomprehensible that westerners sometimes take pictures with no people in them!

At midnight we saw the firework display over the lake celebrating the lunar new year, the Tet.

On Saturday we bravely boarded a cyclo (bicycle taxi) and were pedaled to the Literature Museum - it was Vietnam's first university (opened in the 11th century).

Then we crossed the Long Bien bridge, now a pedestrian and railway bridge - this was interesting to us as it was built a century ago by the French. It's very corroded in places and we didn't feel safe when a heavy train trundled slowly by, driver hooting and waving for the benefit of my video camera.

Next we walked around the old quarter, north of the Lake of the Restored Sword. The old quarter consists of 36 streets named after the various 'hangs' (guilds) that used to dominate each street. In the evening we saw a 'water puppet' show. This is an authentic and ancient Vietnamese tradition dating back to the tenth century - puppet masters stand waist-deep in cloudy water and use underwater mechanisms to control painted wooden puppets. Each scene tells a traditional story. In one story, a 15th century war hero, Le Loi, uses a magic golden sword from heaven to drive invaders from the land - a giant tortoise then steals the sword as he boats across a lake and restores it to its heavenly owner. The story is somewhat analogous to the story of Excalibur. A pagoda in middle of the Restored Sword Lake also commemorates this story.

On Sunday we visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Ho is a hugely important national hero in Vietnam, for he led the armies that drove out not only the French but also the Americans (though he died before the end of the American War).

The mausoleum is a heavy, Stalin-style structure - fortunately there are not too many buildings like this is Hanoi which is better known for its many French-style buildings.

There was almost no queue to see Ho's embalmed body and most people visiting were foreigners. Humorless guards surrounded the tomb, ready to enforce rules such as 'no hats, no photos, no noise, no loitering'. The Australian tourist in front of us was puzzled by the guards gesturing towards his pockets - he kept pulling out his pockets to prove that they were empty. Moments later he would put his hands back in his pockets - exactly what the guards were trying to tell him was forbidden! Ho's face was illuminated by a dim orange light so as not to cause degradation - every few months his body is send to Moscow so that the embalming can be maintained.

Leaving the mausoleum, we visited the nearby One Pillar Pagoda (below left). This has always been an important national symbol - no surprise, then, that the French destroyed it when they pulled out of Vietnam in 1954.

Hanoi is well known for the French-style architecture of some of its buildings (above right). Another characteristic is the very narrow facade of many houses, dating from a time when house owners were taxed according the width of the facade.

Next we headed by car to the Perfume Pagoda, 68km outside Hanoi. Even outside the city, the roads were full of motorbikes but our driver drove very fast and it was a very stressful journey. Dangerously fast driving is a well known problem in Vietnam - is it a macho thing or related to Buddhism or what? Not only do people drive fast but almost none of the motorcyclists wear helmets and car drivers don't wear seat belts (they often remove them from the cars, considering them to be annoyances!). At night, many Vietnamese drive without lights, thinking that this will save petrol! After our stressful drive, we arrived at a photogenic fishing village where we stepped aboard an uninspiring metal boat and were rowed for a hour along a shallow river through attractive karst scenery (like Guilin, China, but not so dramatic) to the Perfume Pagoda. While we were on the boat our guide, Yen, gave us some background info on Vietnam and especially on Vietnamese women...

Women certainly seem to most of the work in Vietnam - even on the boats we noticed that women would row while men chatted and enjoyed the view. Perhaps women have a little less work at home now than previously since Vietnam now has a 2 child policy (comparable to China's one child policy). Vietnamese now use the same birth control method that is so popular in the west: television. Hopefully the population will stabilize at about its present level of 76 million.

Yen used to work as a reporter and told us that she had interviewed some Vietnamese women who were returning to Vietnam from China. A decade ago many Vietnamese women were lured to China, where men outnumber women. They had been promised good jobs in China but the reality is that many were mistreated - one was sold for her weight in rice (50kg), and another was taken to a hospital by her Chinese husband every two weeks so that he could sell her blood. 3 million such women returned to Vietnam.

Finally the boat ride ended and we arrived at the Perfume Pagoda. This is a famous pilgrimage site during the Vietnamese new year (the 'Tet') and we had arrived just in time to avoid the rush. Everywhere, carpenters were busy setting up shelters as pilgrims traditionally spend the night here. Indeed, visiting the Perfume Pagoda involves not only a boat trip but also a long steep climb for the Pagoda is in two parts - one near the river and one high in the mountains. We found the lower pagoda to be interesting but not so different from Buddhist temples in Hong Kong, so we didn't climb all the way to the upper pagoda, a cave filled with Buddha statues. Maybe this was a mistake, for the Perfume Pagoda is certainly very famous.

We asked our driver to drive more slowly for the return to Ha Noi, and perhaps he did, but not slowly enough to avoid hitting a motorbike on the outskirts of Hanoi... We were on a 6 lane duel carriageway at the time and were in the fast lane, klaxon blaring as usual. This motorcyclist didn't get out of the way as quickly as others, but then we saw that he was actually slowing down to turn left. As our car passed him our driver drove too close and there was a loud bang that sent the motorbike crashing onto the central reservation. Catherine even suspects that our driver hit the motorbike deliberately as he had been slow to get out of our way. In any case, our driver didn't stop! The guide said nothing and we were too stunned initially to react but then we demanded that the driver go back to help the victim or call the police - he would not do this until he had dropped us at the hotel. We were very angry with him and complained to the tour operator - they said he would not work for them again. The tour operator sent our guide back to the scene of the accident and reported back to us that they had tracked down the motorcyclist and that he had not been badly hurt. They said they had paid him compensation but of course we have no way of verifying any of this. Our anger against our driver lessened a little as a number of facts became clear to us:

  • if a car driver stops at the scene of an accident there is a fair chance that bystanders will beat him up, or worse.
  • if foreigners are present in the car then they will AUTOMATICALLY be held responsible for the accident, even if they were not driving!
  • it is strongly recommended, even by the embassies, that drivers do NOT stop at the scene of an accident, but that they call the police once they have left the area
  • the ambulance service in Vietnam is almost non-existent
  • our Fodor guide gives this advice: "Vietnam's traffic fatalities are among the highest in the world. In case of an accident, remember that the foreigner is always at fault. So, in minor accidents, even if you are not at fault it's a good idea to stay in the car and let the driver do the talking or to try to get out of the situation as quickly as possible without involving the police."

We were very upset by our experience on Sunday and decided to cancel the long drive to Halong Bay that we had scheduled for Monday. Halong Bay is a karst area - steep limestone peaks jutting out of the ocean and a major tourist attraction but for us it will have to wait for a later visit. Instead we just walked some more around old Hanoi, visiting the ugly but busy catholic cathedral and shopping for puppets, silk and linen. Most Vietnamese are very honest but on this day a waiter in the Moca cafe tried to charge us double the correct price of our lunch, hoping that we would not know the exchange rates so that he could pocket the difference.

Is there a prize for the ugliest cathedral in the world? If so, then I nominate St. John's Cathedral in Hanoi, even though it is supposedly modeled on Notre Dame in Paris. In an effort to restrict Catholicism in Vietnam, catholic churches are few in number and must stay closed except for mass. The percentage of Catholics (9%) is higher in Vietnam than any other country in Asia except the Philippines. Most Vietnamese claim to be Buddhist but follow Confucianism for civic and family duties and Taoism for their conception of the universe. These 3 religions or philosophies have fused with popular Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism to form what is known as the Triple Religion, Tam Giao.

On Tuesday we visited the Hanoi Museum of Ethnology. This new museum, built with French sponsorship, is designed to showcase the arts, crafts and lifestyles of Vietnam's 54 minority groups (the 'Viet' or 'kinh' group makes up 87% of the population). As in China, the minority groups seem to be characterized by spectacular, colorful costumes - we may head to the China-Vietnam border (around Sapa) on a future trip to visit the minority groups. We bought more silk at the Khaisilk store (well known to foreigners) and then flew to Danang, halfway down the Vietnamese coast.

Because we had canceled our trip to Halong Bay, where we were supposed to spend the night, we had another day with nothing planned, so we spent all of Wednesday at our hotel, the Furama, the only fairly luxurious hotel in central Vietnam. This hotel (not bad, but nothing like as luxurious as the Furama Hong Kong) is located right on China Beach, where the Americans disembarked during the war. We could see traces of barbed wire and concrete structures on the beach - we wondered whether they were remnants of the war. Danang is just south of a range of mountains (the 'Cloud Mountains') that separate cloudy winter weather in the north from sunnier weather in the south so, in hazy sunshine, we were able to enjoy the hotel pool.

On Thursday we drove to My Son, Vietnam's most important Cham site. The Cham used to occupy all of what is now central Vietnam, while Vietnamese occupied the north. The Vietnamese advanced south and now there are only 60000 Cham left. My Son is the Cham counterpart to the grand cities of other Indian-influenced civilizations: Angkor (Cambodia), Bagan (Myanmar), Ayuthaya (Thailand) and Borobudur (Indonesia). An intellectual and religious center, it may also have been the burial place of Cham monarchs. It was a religious center from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries - a much longer period than at any other site in SE Asia including Angkor (3 centuries). Cham civilization was contemporary with Khmer. Cham contact with Java was extensive - Cham scholars went to Java to study, there was much commercial contact and in the12th century the Cham king wed a Javanese woman.

All structures at My Son were made of brick - recent research suggests that the bricks were held together by a paste derived from botanical oils. Traces of 68 structures have been found but most were destroyed by pillaging Chinese, Khmer and Vietnamese or by American bombing (Vietcong guerrillas were using My Son as a base). The site has been divided into 10 groups, each identified with a letter.

We first explored group B, the most interesting and best-preserved group. Like the other groups, it consists of a central sanctuary surrounded by a meditation/relaxation room, a library and a room used to store sacred water. The windowless central sanctuary houses a 'linga' (phallus) representing the god Shiva. The base of the linga represents Brahma, the Hindu god of creativity, the center section represents Vishnu, god of conservation and the top represents Shiva, god of destruction, The linga sits on top of a 'yoni' representing feminity. Worshippers would enter the sanctuary, pour water on the head of the linga and then collect and drink the water as it ran off the yoni. In this way they hoped to win good fortune or fertility. Also present in every group is a stele telling the story of the monarch to whom the group is devoted. Since the Chams had no written language of their own, the steles are inscribed in Javanese.

The drive to My Son took us past endless rice paddies but My Son itself is surrounded by mountains. Note the curved roof of the shrine at the left of this photo (group B), a typically Javanese characteristic.

The other groups are similar to group B but in less good condition. In some groups Shiva is represented as a human-like form rather than as a linga.

Left: Catherine sitting on a linga (and enjoying it)

Group A used to contain the tallest and most impressive tower but it was completely destroyed by American bombing. Following this tragedy, a French museum curator wrote to President Nixon and persuaded him to order a halt to the bombing of My Son.

On Friday we visited the Cham museum in Danang and were impressed to find many sculptures in very good condition - much better condition than at Angkor, for example.

Here's Catherine with our guide, Mr. Sinh. He was quite a character - crowds would gather to hear him loudly lecture the 'two Americans', causing him to strut and shout even more.

This catholic church in Danang is much more attractive than St. John's cathedral in Hanoi but, as in Hanoi, it must remain closed except during mass. Nevertheless, Catholicism has been gaining popularity since 1990, when the government became more liberal.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped to look at marble sculptures near the Marble Mountains, 5 marble hills near Danang that are conspicuous in an otherwise flat landscape of endless rice paddies (Vietnam is proud to have become the number two rice exporter in the world, second only to Thailand). There are 5 Marble Mountains each with a different color of marble, but our guide told us it is now illegal to take marble from them so marble is brought here from the Vietnam-China border region to be worked here. We bought a nice sculpture of a seated elephant - it was destined to be damaged when it fell out of an airport X-ray machine a few days later.

Then we drove on to Hoi An, a picturesque riverside town 30 km south of Danang. A major international port in the 17th to 19th centuries, it was visited by ships from Holland, Portugal, China and Japan. Hoi An is relaxing compared to Hanoi but unfortunately the guide books are wrong to refer to 'pedestrian streets' - there are still many motorbikes everywhere.

We took many photos of the buildings in Hoi An, often painted in pastel colors like this. Catherine is proud of this photo - what do you think?

We bought several silk lampshades from this shop - about US$1 per shade!

We did the usual tourist tour of Hoi An, visiting:

  • the Hoi An Museum of History and Culture
  • a Chinese assembly hall (Phuc Kien, 1757)
  • the interior of an ancient house
  • a silk shop with working looms and a living display of silk work cultivation and exploitation
  • a temple called Chua Ong-Quan Cong's temple (1653)
  • a Chinese temple honoring Tin Hau, god of the sea
  • the market

A fish seller at the market.

We saw this for sale at the market but we're not sure what it is - fish in the stomach of a bigger fish? We didn't buy.

These are 'Vietnamese vacuum cleaners' according to our guide...

Hanoi is known for good-value silk products. We visited a shop where silk warms are cultivated. Once they have spun a silk cocoon around themselves they are plunged into boiling water and about 500m of silk is unwound from each cocoon.

We also visited the Japanese Bridge - this little covered wooden bridge was built in 1593 to link the Japanese quarter to the Chinese quarter. Construction of the bridge is said to have killed the huge monster which had been blamed for earthquakes and floods. However, the people of Hoi An took pity on the slain monster and built a temple on the north side of the bridge to pray for its soul. A pair of dogs guard one end of the bridge and monkeys guard the other - perhaps because bridge construction started in the year of the monkey and ended in the year of the dog or perhaps because several of Japan's emperors were born in the years of the dog and monkey.

On Saturday, our last full day in Vietnam, we flew back to Hanoi and visited the Museum of Fine Art and some commercial art galleries. This Shiva is one of the exhibits at the Museum of Fine Art.

This photo on the right shows a 'dan bau', one of only two purely Vietnamese musical instruments (the other is a 4 string square guitar). The dan bau is a single-stringed instrument with a 'whammy bar' used to change the tension and thus the note. According to Vietnamese tradition, the haunting sound of the dan bau is not meant to be heard by women since it is so romantic it could cause them to lose touch with reality!

Quoc ngu

If you visit Vietnam you will be intrigued by its written language for, unlike all its neighboring countries, it uses the Roman alphabet! This makes it easier for westerners to come to grips with the Vietnamese language and vice versa, but this is not the reason that it was developed or adopted. For the real story, read on...

Prior to 111 CE, a complicated language with elements of Chinese, Mon-Khmer and Thai was spoken in Vietnam. Chinese annexed the Tonkin Delta (north Vietnam) in 111 AD and introduced Chinese-style administration and schools to teach Chinese characters. For the next 1000 years classical (Han) Chinese was the official written language but the spoken language continued to develop.

Vietnam regained its independence in the tenth century but the Vietnamese imperial court and the ruling classes continued to emulate Chinese practices and to write with Chinese characters. The spoken language was still Vietnamese but it was never transcribed into Chinese characters - instead a half-phonetic, half ideographic writing system called chu nom was developed. The mandarin class held popular culture in such contempt that chu nom was banned for a while and the lack of official support for it led to different authors developing different rules for it.

In the 17th century French, Portuguese and Spanish Catholic missionaries developed a new writing system called quoc ngu so that they could spread the gospel to a wider audience. The new system was based on the Roman alphabet with many diacritical marks added to reflect the six tones of spoken Vietnamese. A French Jesuit missionary called Alexandre de Rhodes takes much of the credit for the development of the new language.

At first, Confucian scholars rejected quoc ngu as it undermined the power they maintained through scholarship based on Han characters. Nationalists also rejected the new language, calling it a "worm- or cricket-like script created by imperialists". But the masses readily adopted easy-to-learn quoc ngu and even the intellectuals who had initially denounced it came to see it as a convenient propaganda weapon against colonialism. Quoc ngu became the nation's official writing system after Vietnam's independence from the French.

'Chuc Mung Nam Moi' (in the photo) means 'Happy Lunar New Year'.