Getting to grips with Vietnam

John Harvey

THEY say that when you come to Vietnam, you understand a lot in five minutes. The rest you have to live … “

How true these words – uttered by Michael Caine in the film The Quiet American – seemed as we took our first tentative steps through customs at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport.

Under the steely gazes of khaki-clad officers of the socialist republic, we quietly marched until all the necessary documentation had been processed and given a very official stamp of approval.

Then suddenly, breathing in the wet, warm air of the arrivals hall, we were greeted by an altogether different proposition: a hundred high-pitched voices and grabbing hands imploring us to buy cigarettes or get into a particular taxi.

From cold bureaucracy to organised chaos with dollar signs around its neck. Vietnam in the first five minutes. The rest we would have to live for ourselves.

Our 10-day trip to the south-east Asian nation included the country’s two main cities – beginning in Hanoi in the north and ending in Ho Chi Minh City in the south – linked by a 36-hour train journey through the countryside and its countless rice paddies.

Given the late hour of our arrival in the Vietnamese capital we had not expected to get much sightseeing done until the following morning, but how wrong that presumption proved to be.

During a two-hour search for our hotel, no thanks to a taxi operator who clearly felt tourists were there to be fleeced of several hundred dong as he drove around aimlessly (be warned), we witnessed the tail-end of the annual Mid-Autumn Festival, taking place in the French Quarter.

Lustful teenagers of both genders used their scooters to form small laagers on the pavements, devouring street food and laughing at each other’s jokes late into the night.

On the streets themselves scores of foreigners walked without a care in the world as they openly quaffed cans of 333 or Tiger Beer.

The next morning, Hanoi’s surreal and vibrant atmosphere still prevailed, as though time played no part in the functioning of the city.

While Hanoi is the capital of the country, in many respects it is less developed than Ho Chi Minh City.

The streets teem with little old ladies hocking fresh fruit and vegetables from their yokes or carrying poles, while shirtless elderly men sit in cafes sucking on cigarettes.

Being situated in the French Quarter proved to be a blessing in disguise as within petty-cab distance we were able to access the city’s proudest attractions, including the National Museum of Vietnamese History and Vietnam Fine Arts Museum.

For us, however, our lasting memory will be of Hanoi’s food and the delightful establishments that serve it.

The Real Kangaroo Cafe, owned by Australian Max Hart, will always hold a special place in our hearts as the proprietor provides entertaining yarns about the “real Vietnam”.

Having eaten, drank and been merry for two days – and managed to cross several streets without being struck by one of the thousands of scooters – it was time to undertake the monumental journey south by train.

Making the booking through our hotel, we had expected plush sleepers and round-the-clock service.

The reality was hard wooden seats, a small table and smoking travelling companions who were not particularly concerned about lying on top of you for the sake of their own comfort.

For one man at least, the prospect of enduring a day and a half of these basic amenities was too much. Five hours into the trip, I was awoken by an earth-shattering howl as the desperate figure opened the window and leapt from the moving train, performing an expert camo-roll in the grass alongside the tracks.

“Bags, bags!” he yelled when it dawned on him that he had forgotten his luggage on the train. Someone duly obliged, believing that bowing to his wishes was the path of least resistance.

After several hours of broken sleep we awoke to a blood-red sunrise over rice paddies stretching as far as the eye could see. This was central Vietnam, the area which bore the brunt of the war between the northern communist forces and the US and its Army of the Republic of Vietnam allies.

Herds of water buffalo and gaggles of ducks frolicked peacefully alongside traditional homesteads, where farmers went about their daily lives just as their forebears had done centuries before. Friendly eyes peered out from under the wide-brimmed nón lá (leaf hat) as we sped past.

It was almost unimaginable to think that only 40 years ago these areas had been completely decimated by B52 bombs and US “grunts” raping and pillaging their way through villages with the supposed intent of rooting out the Vietcong.

While rice and boiled chicken can be purchased from the train stewards, we found it advisable to visit the small stores located at each station to stock up on brand items like Pringles chips.

Escaping the sweaty confines of the train – which I had christened “Apocalypse Now” – in Ho Chi Minh City reinvigorated the senses, despite it being 4am on a balmy Thursday morning.

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as southerners still prefer to call it, is much like Bangkok in that it is a city that never sleeps. That is not to say that it is awash with seedy nightclubs and other dens of iniquity; rather it is a bustling metropolis that is geared towards the upwardly mobile urbanite.

From dawn the beautiful central parks are filled with fitness fanatics of all ages engaged in yoga or playing badminton.

No trip to the country’s economic hub is complete without a visit to the famous Ben Thanh Market, a bustling cauldron in which you can buy everything from jewellery and artwork to buckets of live crab.

While working out the dong to rand exchange rate does take some time, you can rest assured that you will come away with a bargain provided you show enough patience for the traders and their incessant clamouring.

Nights, however, are when the city truly comes alive. Once more Lady Luck had smiled upon us in that our hotel was very centrally placed.

While I admit there was no “do”, seeing was believing in terms of Vietnam’s infamous ladies of the night who indeed do proposition passersby with a flirtatious, “Hey bi boy, lu you long time” (though interest rates have meant that “fi dollar” is no longer an option).

The end to our Vietnam adventure was as event-filled as its beginning, although admittedly there were some heart-stopping moments.

Five minutes before departure from Saigon’s impressive Tan Son Nhat International Airport we were hailed over the loudspeaker before being bundled off to security to “explain” ourselves.

We were certain our luggage had been secured properly, that there was no way we could be classified as other South Africans and forever be saddled with the moniker “mule”.

Fortunately, our “contraband” was no more than a bullet casing ornament we had bought at the War Remnants Museum, and while we were forced to return the contentious item, the relief was worth the sacrifice. Vietnam. Never a dull moment.

NEED TO KNOW

Airfare: Port Elizabeth-Johannesburg-Doha-Hanoi/ Saigon-Doha-Johannesburg-Port Elizabeth: We paid R8903 per person (Qatar Airlines)

Accommodation: Hanoi: Allura Hotel Hanoi – $24 (R192 a night for two people). Saigon: Dai Huy Hoang – $17 (R136 a night for two people).

Both hotels included air-conditioning, satellite television including HBO, and a bar fridge

Visa requirements: South African passport holders must apply for a visa to visit Vietnam. It costs R500 per person and can be arranged by your travel agent.

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