BOATING THROUGH DRAGON DEBRIS – Had Homer Simpson dropped some radioactive material into the water at the harbour, it wouldn’t have been much murkier. We puttered off anxiously in a small wooden boat. The Cocktail Sippers looked unimpressed in their orange life jackets. Dave suffered so badly in the heat that he had taken to soaking a facecloth in water and draping it over his head. The water got clearer further out in the bay and we soon arrived at a lovely air-conditioned ship. Stretched out in sun chairs, we watched in awe as 1969 beautiful, uninhabited limestone islands rose majestically out of the quiet bay.
It’s a conveniently significant (suspicious) number because 1969 is also the year of the death of Ho Chi Minh, Communist revolutionary and former president of North Vietnam. Ha Long literally translates to ‘descending dragon’. It is said that an emperor asked a dragon to help defend Vietnam against invasion. A jet of emeralds sprayed from the dragon’s mouth, sinking the enemy ships. Even a pleasure cruise in Vietnam is bruised by a history of quashed invasions. Now the only unwanted intruders are the foolish tourists who jump off cruise ships whilst drunk or leave graffiti in Ha Long’s ancient caves.
OVERNIGHT ON THE RODENT EXPRESS – Just as we got our sea legs it was time to develop some rail legs. In a fluster of heat and bother, we boarded an overnight train. Our guide knew how to manage pampered tourists. His catch phrase, ‘Embrace the bizarre!’ chimed out through the carriage as he poured out cups of cheap vodka. Dave apologised in advance for his snoring. The walk to the bar at the far end of the train put any complaints about our first class cabins in grim perspective. The climax of the journey was the appearance of a mouse amongst the sheets of one of the Cocktail Sippers. Her shrieks almost caused the noodle salesman to overturn his trolley in the corridor. It was pleasant to lie in the little beds in the morning, rocked by the trundling train, and watch the countryside slide by.
HUE ON TWO WHEELS – Next morning we found our drivers waiting outside the hotel. They clipped on our helmets and we charged off in a long line. Our tour took us to French and American bunkers, the Royal Tomb and the Imperial Citadel but the experience of Vietnam’s most popular means of transport outshone them all. We drew stares weaving through back alleys past women hanging washing, disrupted the peace on shaded forest trails and glided along antediluvian rice paddies. Everywhere people dried rice, spreading it like yellow butter on the hot tar, reducing main roads to narrow one-ways. They worked beneath a profusion of red flags displaying the hammer and sickle. Vietnam may still claim to be Communist but rice is no longer centrally purchased by the government.
Farmers here can sell to private companies and overseas buyers. My mother and her French speaking driver got on famously. The sound of their jocular rendition of ‘Frere Jacques’ rang out above the chug of engines. Our final stop in Hue was the Tien Mu Pagoda. This was once the home of the monk Thich Ouang Due. On the 10th of June 1963, Thich Ouang Due drove from this pagoda to Saigon, sat down in the lotus position at a busy intersection and covered himself in petrol. Witnesses say he was silent and stationary as he burnt himself to death. He was protesting the religious oppression of Buddhists by Catholic, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Photographs of the incident had an international impact. There at Tien Mu stands the car he drove that day.
TAILOR TOWN TRAVELS – The journey from Hue to Hoi An takes you over the Hai Van Pass. The view from the mountainside down across the jungle to the ocean is so beautiful that even Jeremy Clarkson managed to stop complaining long enough to proclaim its magnificence. In the distance a tower of smoke rose from behind a hill, filling my head with images from war films. Inspired by the view, our guide filled the remainder of the journey with excited descriptions of the Top Gear Vietnam special.