The journey from Kunming to Hanoi was a gruelling 26 hours by bus and train, with a break of a few hours at Lao Cai waiting for banks to open and the train to arrive. Walking across the bridge that serves as the border crossing at seven in the morning, I muttered, “Good morning, Vietnam” to myself, as countless backpackers before me must also have done. Hanoi just crossed the line between pleasantly warm and uncomfortably hot, and so once again the winter wear has been packed away and I have to wash the sweat out of my t-shirts every day.
I bustled round Hanoi’s main sights, and missed out on seeing Uncle Ho due to the mausoleum being closed in the afternoon (I’m not entirely sure I would have gone anyway). As an academic, I felt that I should visit the Temple of Literature – a temple dedicated to Confucius and the first university in Vietnam. This turned out to be a large site, full of tourists but having a very learned air – statues of various founders, many stelae commemorating people who passed their exams hundreds of years ago and all the usual temple paraphernalia. On my way back, I passed through Bach Thao Park and spotted a cage full of crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis). Locals come by and feed them popcorn (or, presumably, whatever other food they happen to be carrying), and I saw one small child attempt to touch one by sticking his finger through the mesh. He was instantly bitten for his trouble, but luckily the macaques were most likely rabies-free, having been almost certainly raised in captivity.
Finally, I swung by Hoa Loa (fiery furnace) Prison, called Maison Centrale by the French and dubbed the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs (ironically, most of the former site is now an upmarket hotel). There are exhibitions on both Vietnamese and American occupancy, understandably with a bias towards the Vietnamese. The tiny sewer sections used by escapees have been preserved, and stand near the almond tree under which prisoners talked politics. Though the main detention blocks are now home to models and information displays, the section used to hold prisoners awaiting execution is virtually unchanged and pretty depressing.
One thing that I’d read about Vietnam but hadn’t really believed until I arrived was the amount of traffic and lack of pedestrian facilities. It’s not just that the traffic is heavy – there’s worse in India – it’s that it never stops. There are few traffic lights, fewer pedestrian crossings and no road rules (that anyone pays attention to, at any rate). This means that crossing the road requires a completely different mindset to that in, say, Europe. You can’t wait for a break in the traffic and walk (or run) across, as there won’t be one. Rather than try to avoid all the vehicles, you have to let them avoid you. This means you just walk out into the road, very slowly and deliberately, and let the traffic flow around you. It’s quite hair-raising until you get used to it.
My first non-city destination in Vietnam was Ha Long Bay – site of more karst limestone formations (like those around Guilin) and a very popular tourist destination. Too popular, in fact. Huge convoys of motorised junks leave the port every few minutes, legions of locals are on hand to sell fruit, fish and water (apparently some are not averse to snatching valuables and zooming away) and the water is slowly turning a murky shade of brown. That aside, the area is still beautiful and the tree-covered islets evoke a King Kong kind of remote eeriness.
Many islands contain caves, eroded by both sea and rain and thus containing large caverns and interesting rock formations. Tourism has taken over here too, and the Thien Cung (Heavenly) cave sports multi-coloured lighting and two artificial fountains. I refrained from commenting to our guide that World Natural Heritage sites are supposed to be kept as pristine as possible.
Fleeing the north, I took the overnight train to Hoi An and quickly realised that there’s just no getting away from the tourist trail here. There seem to be more Westerners than locals, every business in the town centre only services tourists and it’s nearly impossible to go or stay anywhere without paying ridiculously inflated prices. I had little choice but to embrace it, and began to weight the merits of having the tourist infrastructure but also all the tourists versus no infrastructure but the place to yourself. The jury is still out.
Not too far away from Hoi An are the ruins at My Son, an ancient temple site built by the Champa kingdom. As expected, the site is in the middle of a jungle and very overgrown – but this means that there are thousands of butterflies flitting about and spiders have taken up residence in all the crumbling brickwork. Only about a quarter of the site is decently-preserved, the rest having been flattened by American bombing during the Vietnam War (the Viet Cong used the site as a base). There look to be some excellent photo opportunities from nearby hills and trees, but it’s not entirely safe to leave the paths as there are rumoured to be unexploded mines around.
Today I’m in Vietnam’s premier seaside resort of Nha Trang, after an uncomfortable overnight bus journey (as usual, the seats are too close together and nobody can fit their legs in) but, happily, no souvenir shop stops. There’s a pleasant beach here, but that in itself doesn’t seem to justify the huge numbers of tourists (unless they’re all divers or snorkellers). I will investigate tomorrow before heading on to Da Lat.