It’s the bloody apocalypse!” yelped a British accent through the sound of engines and whipping wind. We were whizzing across a bridge, clinging to our drivers tighter than their ‘Professional Motorbike Tours’ pinafores. Below us ran the Perfume River which cuts through the city of Hue in central Vietnam. The view to the right was just an emotive slogan away from a Communist propaganda poster. Small wooden boats carried women in conical hats on waters reflecting a vibrant sky. But to the Left, ominous storm clouds brewed like dark Vietnamese coffee. Cool plops of drizzle cooled my sweaty arms and face. Thunder roared. I felt my driver’s slender frame grow tense and his laconic driving style took a frantic turn.
We raced into the hurricane that passes as a traffic circle in Vietnam. “I hope it doesn’t rain,” ye lied my driver, texting with one hand. I had to agree, thinking vaguely of times that were truly ‘bloody’ and ‘apocalyptic’ and shelter was sought from worse than rain. Since its birth, Vietnam has thrown off China, France and Japan before a Cold War-era proxy war brought the fresh horrors of chemical warfare and chilling guerrilla tactics. The Vietnam War, known in Vietnam as the American War, is only a small part of the character of this ‘Communist’ nation but is of interest to the latest invaders: tourists.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS – My mother and I arrived in humid August for a ten day tour from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south. Our route would be different but our start and end points matched those of the North Vietnamese Army in their travels across the 17th parallel along the secret Ho Chi Minh trail. This was mom’s fourth trip with G-Adventures, a tour company she favours for seeing a lot in a short time’.
We met the group in a hotel in frenetic, sweaty Hanoi, amidst mad two-wheeled traffic, karaoke bars and low hanging knots of electrical wires. The dairy farming couple from Ireland greeted us cheerfully from behind beers. A bald, tattooed pot-bellied man and a petite woman with large glasses introduced themselves as Dave and Susan from England. Four twenty-something girls from London and Sydney had already gathered in a giggly clique and were trying one another’s cocktails. We were headed next morning to Ha Long Bay. It was a four hour bus drive east to the Gulf of Tonkin.