In those glorious days before the world was shut down by Covid-19, veteran journalist, TV presenter and scriptwriter Kieran Prendiville visited Vietnam for the first time. This is what he discovered as he channelled his “inner Graham Greene”.
There’s an old Vietnamese joke about a guy on a bicycle who transports two large sacks of rice across the border to China, every day for five years. And every day for five years the border guards refuse to believe he’s only carrying rice. So they cut the bags open, tip out the contents and it’s always just rice. Still suspicious, the guards send the rice off for analysis, replace it with sand, load new identical bags onto Than’s bike and off he pedals, apparently none the wiser.
Analysis shows it really is rice and it’s driving the guards crazy. Never mind that Vietnam really does export rice to China but come on – two bags at a time?
And then one day, Than doesn’t show up. Until, by the logic of stories like this, the guard meets him by accident in a bar in Ho Chi Minh City. “I know in my bones you were at it” says the guard “and I can’t sleep at night trying to figure out what it was. So I’m begging you: what were you smuggling?”
Than takes a chug of his beer: “Bicycles.”
This story makes sense for two reasons. The first is that Saigon is the scooter capital of the world and they had to find somewhere to offload all the bicycles they no longer needed.
The second reason is it encapsulates beautifully the Vietnamese qualities of stoicism, daring and ingenuity. These qualities are illustrated to sobering effect in the Cu Chi area northwest of Saigon. Here the wartime tunnel network offers eye- watering testimony of what the Vietcong were prepared to endure – and dish out – in the war against the US, and the French before that.
We’ll come back to Cu Chi but first…those bloody scooters.
Very brief digression: when I was a young teenager, my best friend (a would-be rocker) contemptuously asserted that his older brother’s dodgy-exhaust- Lambretta made a noise, as he put it, like a fart in a milk bottle.
Run with that simile and imagine the effect multiplied by two million – the estimated number of scooters in Saigon. Many of them of course have very fine exhausts but I’ve been home a week now and the inside of my head still rasps like a factory that makes whoopee cushions with inferior rubber.
Watching hundreds of scooters lining up at the lights is a truly authentic Saigon experience. You might see a car or two as well but as the number of scooters builds and swells, the cars seem to lose their definition and then disappear altogether as though succumbing to a swarm of bees. But here’s the extraordinary thing: instead of a full throttled mad dash away from the lights, Vietnamese scooters move at a stately, almost courteous pace. It’s as though all of them are part of a single organism that knows the only way to get somewhere fast is to go somewhere slow. Well okay, maybe not slow but slow enough to stop on a sixpence when some idiot steps out in front of one.
Reader, I am that idiot. Not for walking out in front of a scooter – everyone does that, you have to, you’d never cross the road otherwise and they make allowances – but for not remembering which side of the road they drive. But instead of a volley of abuse, the driver and his passenger give a brief backward glance before moving on. Otherwise the scooter behind him, already halfway up his exhaust, would have to stop too. Single organism has to keep moving.
There’s another reason these scooters move so sedately. A Vietnamese sees his scooter – I’m using the word generically, could be a motorbike – the way a Texan sees his pick-up truck: a way to move big items or large quantities of stuff.
We saw whole families and boxes of live animals on a single scooter. One guide showed us a photograph he had taken of a man riding his Honda 90 with a live cow on the pillion. You’d go slowly if you had a live cow on your bike.
I say those bloody scooters like it’s a bad thing. It isn’t, it’s a marvelous thing and what I really regret not doing in Saigon is the city tour from a pillion seat.
What I also regret is not buying a mask. Anyone with half a brain wears one. I’m still not sure why I didn’t. Probably because I thought I’d look silly, like a tourist who wears a conical hat.
Well a tourist does look ludicrous in a conical hat but you can chew the traffic pollution in Saigon and it doesn’t taste good.
I went to Vietnam with the author and journalist Jimmy Thomson, one of my oldest friends, an Australian cricket nut who’d been many times before. Happily for me, he knows the country well, having written two books about Aussie “tunnel rat” troops in the Vietnam war.
He has also organised several tours of battlegrounds and bases for Aussie veterans wishing at last to go back and pay respect to fallen comrades. But really, this was just a pair of old hacks on an adventure without their partners, fired up by a rereading of The Quiet American – seeking their inner Grahame Greene but after much beer-fuelled analysis of England v Australia, finding only their inner Graham Gooch.
This was not a backpacker tour. Men of a certain age for whom the word arthritic is not a metaphor, need their creature comforts. So we stayed in decent hotels and took premium economy flights to get there.
None of which meant we weren’t adventurous. Why, the first expedition we took was the guided food tour of Hanoi. Do not let the word “guided” put you off. Embrace it, because you might get lucky like we did.
We hired a guide just for the pair of us; it’s common in Vietnam, less expensive than you might think and allows for a much more fruitful interaction with local people. Our guide was called Su-Su A student of Tourism – a degree in tourism is highly prized in Vietnam – she arrived with a smile as wide as the Mekong Delta and a ukulele. And then we hit the road to the Old Quarter of Hanoi for some street food.
We ate at the pavement, we ate down side streets, we ate in what looked like a motorcycle repair shop – six stops in all, not one of which we would have stumbled across if we tried.
Rarely did we share our space with other tourists. We ate all manner of spring rolls, rice noodles, sweet sticky rice, salty sticky rice, all kinds of Pho – the ubiquitous meat or vegetable broth – we drank sugar cane juice, coconut milk, coffee with raw egg…okay, enough. But it wasn’t enough, it was never enough.
And then there’s the fish sauce. Fish sauce comes with everything, like soy sauce with Chinese food. Made from rotting, fermenting fish and sea salt, there are as many grades of fish sauce as there are olive oils in southern Europe. I can’t think of a meal we had in Vietnam that wasn’t accompanied by a small saucer of sometimes very tangy fish sauce.
Chicken, pork, beef – you want fish sauce with that sir? And as it happens, you really do.
Jimmy told me the Americans bombed the fish sauce factory near Saigon during the war. Their intelligence was convinced it was making chemical weapons. “Our readings are off the scale, sir.” Boom, tish.
And to round off the evening, guide Su-Su takes out her ukulele and sings to us, there by the lake in the middle of the city. Me and Jimmy squirmed slightly, as we supposed that she supposed two men together on holiday could only be gay.
But really, I think she was just like so many other Vietnamese we met: endlessly curious, kind and generous and in Su-Su’s case, utterly enchanting. You’ve never heard that tune from Frozen until you’ve heard it outdoors at 27C in a Vietnamese accent with a ukulele backing. I can hear it still: “Let it go, let it go…”
Ha Long Bay
Like a lot of people, I had mixed feelings about our visit to Ha Long Bay. The number one tourist destination in North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh called it “The wonder that one cannot impart to others.” Well let’s try.
Halong Bay is the kind of place you come up with when someone asks you to imagine paradise: nearly two thousand uninhabited limestone islets, rising high and jagged from the emerald quiet water of the Gulf of Tonkin, silent protectors of the nation of Vietnam, coughed up as jewels by a dragon when time came as mists. Sorry, bit carried away there.
But you want to laugh out loud when you see it properly the first time – a bit like the punch in the eyes you get from your first view of Sydney Harbour or San Francisco Bay, if you’ve ever been lucky enough.
Best place to see the whole fabulous panorama is from the top of Ti Top Island, a stiff climb but worth every creak of your correspondent’s old bones to get there. And this before I get started on the visual feast which is the vast interconnecting stalactite cave system of Surprise Island.
So what’s the problem? The problem is me or people like me. Thousands of us, an implacable shuffling horde all wanting to see the same thing at the same time. As it happens, the authorities do a pretty good job of keeping us all moving but there was a moment climbing up the steep stone steps of Ti Top Island when it all felt a bit like trudging up a broken escalator in the London underground at rush hour.
But that feeling didn’t persist and it would be churlish to leave you with a negative impression. We took an overnight cruise because you need at least one night on the water to cram it all in – and to make the four hour road trip from Hanoi worthwhile. There are plenty of cruises to choose from but we booked ours through our hotel. A mid range trip but it felt fancier. The cabins were comfortable, the food was fabulous and the hard working crew couldn’t do enough for us. There was even a cookery demonstration – spring rolls as you ask.
From Hanoi we headed south. A short flight to Da Nang and a half hour taxi to Hoi An. Once a flourishing riverside trading port, Hoi An has earned itself Unesco World Heritage status for its beautifully preserved Chinese and Japanese-influenced old town temples and merchant houses. And I really, truly believe that’s what they are. It’s just I can’t quite shake the impression that Walt Disney is behind it all.
The ornately designed buildings where once you might have traded chests of tea for a sack of spice, now urge you relentlessly to buy tee shirts, leather goods, suits and dresses. Wedged in beside them are coffee shops, sports bars, restaurants and boutique hotels. What Hoi An has managed brilliantly to do is lure you in on the back of its colourful trading past, whilst turning itself into a 21st century trading port even more profitable than its 15th century heyday.
No complaints here. I had carried a beautiful dress all the way from London with instructions to get it copied in Hoi An. For Hoi An is Tailor Central in all Vietnam. But which tailor? Our hotel receptionist gave us the skinny: “There are many tailors in Hoi An. You must be careful. They will stop you in street, tell you they have best price. Do not go with them. They lie.” She handed us a business card. “Go here. Best price. Hotel discount.”
We did and there was. And the tailor did a brilliant job. But three days in Hoi An was enough. The endless, relentless haranguing to buy, buy, buy just wears you down – and makes you ask, not for the first time: is this really a communist country? Mind you, you have to admire their dedication.
We got caught in a downpour without an umbrella. This wasn’t like a heavy shower. This was like an upside down bath. In T shirts and shorts, it didn’t matter much – chalk up another authentic south east asian experience. But it mattered to them. Out of the swollen clouds, the brolly salesmen came like fighter planes. We must have looked ridiculous, trying hard to look nonchalant as we waved them away – an umbrella, old chap? Whatever for? And they laughed in disbelief that we wouldn’t pay 50 pence to keep the rain off.
That’s what comes of lugging wet weather gear all the way to Vietnam and leaving it in your hotel room.
Cu Chi and Mekong Delta
And so, on to Saigon and the Cu Chi tunnels. From the city, take the boat if you can – it’s an absolute blast powering down the Saigon river at James Bond speed in the morning sunshine. It’s quicker and way more exhilarating than the coach which most people are persuaded to take.
Its safe to assume that the Vietcong soldiers who built this underground network never travelled like this. Their existence was utterly wretched, living underground during the day, scavenging, fighting and marauding by night. When you visit now, the tunnels seem part of a jungle forest. Back in the day, this whole area looked like a post-apocalyptic moonscape, pulverised by the vilest and most terrifying weaponry then yet devised.
The guides showed us how they lived and died. They showed us how US soldiers might have died too if they were unfortunate to fall into booby-trapped pits of sharpened bamboo sticks. Gruesomely, the needle sharp points may have protruded through the rotting carcass of a dead animal, in order to infect the wounds of the hapless soldier.
We saw how the VC scavenged for shrapnel and fashioned it in factories underground into weapons to turn against the Americans. We were shown undergound hospitals where surgery was carried out without anaesthetic.
Pleading an arthritic back, I wuzzed out on the invitation to wriggle through one of the tunnels where terrifying battles were fought underground between the VC and the Australians – the first soldiers to go in after them. Often the tunnels were booby trapped; “tunnel rat” soldiers had no idea what they might find or meet below. The experience is unimaginable.
I’m afraid I did take the opportunity to fire ten rounds of an M16 rifle without hitting the target. Makes a change from the gift shop I suppose. Feeling a bit useless, a former Aussie sapper cheered me up when he examined one of my spent rounds: mate, you could be the best shot in the world but the firing pin is way off centre.” This is how real men console each other.
If you think the War Remnants Museum is a snappy title, consider what it used to be called: Exhibition House for US and Puppet Regime Crime. Still not quite hitting the sweet spot, it became Exhibition House for Crime of War of Aggression. But War Remnants it is and war remnants you certainly get.
Incongruously parked outside the front door is the most extraordinary collection of captured American tanks and planes – before the more museum-like displays of war photographs and artefacts inside. Perhaps not quite so visceral as the Hoa La prison museum in Hanoi, but we took two visits to take it all in. As a pair of old hacks, we spent a lot of time in the press photos gallery, marvelling at the bravery of the photographers who took them. Many I had never seen before and their quality and power was like a punch in the stomach.
Incidentally, if you’ll forgive a flit back to Hanoi, Hoa La became better known as the Hanoi Hilton where they still have US senator John McCain’s flying suit in a glass case. McCain was a former bomber pilot, shot down and held here for more than five years where he was also tortured. The current US President- elect Donald Trump said of him: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Nice.
On a more prosaic note, they like a long lunch break in Vietnam so plan your visit. At 12.30 in the War Remnants Museum, the bell goes and everyone has to leave before the museum opens again 90 minutes later.
We took two further privately guided tours from Saigon: one, to the Meking Delta where we hired bicycles to get some exercise in and take in the countryside. We visited a local market where we declined to gaze at captured live frogs, skinned and ready for the pot.
Speaking of markets, our guide lamented how he had to pay fifty pounds at the local dog market to get his stolen pooch back. We visited a local farmer who split us a coconut – and crossed the wide Mekong River where, on the other side, we took a glug of snake wine. We knew it was snake wine because there was a real cobra, hood flared, sticking up out of the jar. (Yes of course it was dead.)
Long Tand and Minh Dam
We visited a rubber plantation near Long Tan, where a small, heavily outnumbered group of Australian soldiers successfully held off a regimental strength enemy attack, before being relieved in the nick of time. This was Australia’s finest hour in the Vietnam War where they lost 18 men to the VC’s 245. Beautiful countryside now, only the odd shell-blasted crater gives you the hint of the horror this place must have been.
There is a simple memorial to these fallen men and we felt privileged to witness a pair of old soldiers from Down Under who had come to pay their respects.
For me, the best came last when our guide took us to the Chan Nguyen Pagoda. In the heart of a mountain forest, the pagoda is a fabulously ornate memorial to those who died in the American War (true?).
Incredibly, on the morning we visited, there was no one there at all to disturb the peace. Not quite true. Monkeys were there. Monkeys were everywhere, climbing trees, running around the car park and – memorably – fornicating for fun because they were monkeys and they didn’t give a flying fortress. You could sense their disappointment though, that we hadn’t arrived with sound and lights.
Later, our guide took us up into the Long Hai Hills and the Minh Dam Secret Zone. Here, in the heart of the jungle darkness was a large wartime Viet Cong command base. Without being shown, you could not know it was there. Only accessible by squeezing carefully between boulders and crawling on hands and knees beneath others, the cave network below was worth the effort, even with my dodgy back.
Nothing wrong with my imagination though, and looking up at the thin sliver of light filtering down from a crack in the rocks above, you could almost hear the shuffling feet of jittery, trigger-happy soldiers right above you.
And if they found you, it would not go well.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam snakes along the eastern side of southeast Asia’s Indochinese peninsula. From its furthest point north, the crow flies about 1300 miles south before it reaches the coast.
There are two seasons in Vietnam, wet and dry. Up north, the weather is hot in the summer but cooler and wetter in the winter months. South is hot all year round, dry in the winter months but even the summer rainy season may only mean a heavy shower at the end of the day