The Resurrection of Dong Hoi

Never heard of Dong Hoi? Neither had we – it was our pitstop to move on to bigger things –  some of the world’s largest caves, to be exact.   We chose to stay in Dong Hoi, which is 40 km. away from the park, for a few more amenities and access to our 5:00 am train to Hanoi.

We were very pleasantly surprised to arrive to this:

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March 31, 2017. Dong Hoi is a charming little city set on a river that spills out to the ocean, intersected by canals and lined with impeccably manicured parks and delightful French colonial homes. A broad promenade follows the curve of the river and it is actually possible to walk or ride a bicycle without fearing for our lives. Just to the north of the city are sand dunes and a 12-km. white sand beach.

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February 11, 1965. Due to its strategic location just north of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), Americans launched an intensive B-52 bombing attack that razed the city to the ground. Everything you see in these photos has been built since then – the only thing left standing after the bombing was a water tower, a citadel gate, a single palm tree, and this – the Catholic Tam Toa church, built in 1886.

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It is fenced off and stands as a reminder of the American War of Aggressors and the war crimes committed here. Signs were in Vietnamese, but for one small plaque in English and I was unable to find out numbers of casualties or many other facts about this event.  We haven’t been able to speak to many older Vietnamese because of the language barrier, but they are extremely friendly and welcoming. Evidence of the war is still everywhere in Vietnam and museums and memorials are important and eloquent reminders, but people want to look to the future. Outwardly, it seems, the war is over.

Dong Hoi was one of the poorest cities in Vietnam after the attack and the slow rebuild. Finally in 2000, the government recognized that the city needed significant financial aid and it shows in a civic pride that is not evident everywhere in SE Asia. Garbage on the street is at a minimum and tidy residents are out sweeping in front of their homes.

Boulevard plantings are inventive and precision-clipped. The boulevard leading along the riverfront is lined with shrubbery “boats.”

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The streets are cozy and filled with really pretty homes and hotels. The French colonial style found everywhere in Vietnam was not lost with the war – it has become the Vietnam style now.

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Just around the corner from our hotel:

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To appreciate the colour and life of Dong Hoi, we walked and biked in both directions along the waterfront and through the neighbourhoods. We wondered about the canals – how much they had to be rebuilt after the bombing.

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We found ourselves at the fish market, where the women were lined up to meet the boats coming in with their catches.

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We strolled unaccosted through the market until we hit a rowdy bunch of women selling produce. They called out to us and made rather cheeky suggestions about our love life;  that was the ice-breaker we needed to start kidding around with them. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Vietnamese women. They are so hardworking and many of them have a tough life, but they’re resilient and funny and I believe their sisterhood keeps them going.

This woman was calling out to Stephen, demanding he take her photo.  (He gets the ladies wherever he goes.)

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Not to be outdone, this lady called out to me with her own duck lip pose.

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As we were walking home, Stephen noticed a photo place and we popped in to have a copy made of the photo of his new friend. We stopped by the market this morning to give it to her and the reaction was unbelievable. The women were shrieking and laughing and teasing her and she looked quite overwhelmed. For all her bravado, I’m quite sure this is the first time a foreign man has paid this much attention to her.

So…on to the caves. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site of 400-million-year-old karst topography  that contains the first and third largest caves in the world.There are not enough adjectives to adequately describe the many caves – we only saw two. They are all different, all spectacular in their own right and all worth visiting. Our next time in Vietnam, we would come back, stay for a number of days and take a more adventurous approach. Kayaking for 7 km. inside one of the caves is possible – so is zip lining and being buried up to your neck in mud in another.

For the well-heeled bucket-listers,  a 5-day trip through the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong, is yours for $3000 US. They only accept 500 people a year and there is a one-year waiting list. For that price, you and 9 other trekkers are accompanied by a 25-person team, including guides, a medic and 20 porters and you have the distinction of belonging to an elite group of adventurers.

The caves we saw, on our one-day outing in a minivan with 12 tourists, were quite beyond my expectations. Our guide Huong did a great job of explaining everything and also left us plenty of time to explore comfortably.

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First stop – the dock at Lipstick River to pick up our boat to Phong Nha Cave.

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We clambered into these skinny boats and settled down for a leisurely 30-minute ride down the river.  As soon as we entered the cave, the boat team removed the tarp roof, cut the engine and silently paddled into a jaw-dropping otherworld.

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Phong Nha Cave runs for 44.5 km. (but we only travel 1.5 km.), and it is 100 m. high and 150 m. wide at is largest point.  There are certain places in the world that defy description and challenge the average photographer. We all kept saying things like, “Oh my God”, “Wow”,”Surreal”, “Unbelievable”, and other pointless inanities.

The “wet” cave can only be visited in dry season and as it was, our boat barely fit under the first overhang; the water is higher than normal this year. We travelled through for about 45 minutes, trying to take it all in. Being in a massive cave can feel slightly claustrophobic, but in a strangely out-of-body way. I never felt the need to bolt to daylight, but it did alter my senses.

After we finished our ghostly boat tour, we disembarked to walk the part of the cave where supplies were hidden during the war, and where a small hospital was installed. No evidence of either these days, but here is a sample of what we saw.

After lunch, we hopped back in the van and headed to our next destination – Paradise Cave, which was only discovered in 2005. Like Phong Nha Cave, we were only able to explore a fraction of its 31 km. length – just over 1 km. and this time all on foot.

We began with a long sweaty climb up a mountainside – with some great views as an incentive to keep going.

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Once at the top, we entered the cave through this tiny entrance, and began a long climb down  and straight into very welcome natural air con.

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There is a lighted walkway through the cave, and the most notable features are backlit, but it quickly swallows you up into its own cave spell. Even with dozens of people walking through, it was silent and powerful. Although Paradise Cave is a dry cave, there are tiny fissures and water drops constantly – sometimes that drip-drip-drip is the only sound.

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and another shot…

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We came for the caves and they more than met our expectations, but our stay in Dong Hoi was a delightful bonus.

Chasing Graham Greene: Finding history on every corner

Number 214. The Continental Hotel, Saigon. This is the room Graham Greene stayed in while he wrote his epic novel, The Quiet American, about American involvement during the demise of French colonialism in Vietnam in the 1950s.

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And this is the Continental Hotel – I can imagine Greene parked at a corner table, drinking and writing. The hotel’s history is brought to life through photos and datelines, in an exhibit down one hallway off the lobby. The Continental does not appear to have been updated much. It is Saigon’s first hotel, and the luxury hotels since then are far grander and more well-appointed. But this hotel has such interesting ghosts!

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From The Quiet American to The American War of Aggression, Vietnam’s history of oppressors has left an indelible mark in Saigon.  You can’t visit here (or you shouldn’t) without seeing the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace.

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We began with the Reunification Palace. The Vietnam War was such a strong marker of our youth; imprinted even more throughly by the books and movies that followed. A stroll through the Palace was deja vu all over again. The tanks crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon surrendered, and everything in the Palace looks exactly as it did on that date. We strolled through two floors of rooms, frozen in 60s limbo – drawing rooms, the President’s office, dining rooms.  I recognized the teak furniture and the scratchy yellow and brown upholstery from my childhood.

Then we went to the bunker, where the President and his family lived towards the end, and where the command post was secreted away, complete with maps and phones.

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That visit was a trip down memory lane, but it was a whole other story with the War Remnants Museum (once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes).

It is no secret that the American War was a disaster that cost billions of dollars, millions of lives and millions more ruined, but the most gruesome part of this museum was the section devoted to Agent Orange and its ongoing effects. Originally used by the Americans as a defoliating agent to make detection of the enemy easier, the secondary effects were devastating beyond anyone’s imaginings.

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We walked through one exhibit hall of hundreds of photos of malformed fetuses, conjoined twins, children born without limbs, horribly disfiguring facial features, mental retardation, blindness and skin diseases. We could not bear to walk through the whole thing, but the most horrifying aspect of Agent Orange is that it did not disappear with the first generation. The chemicals appear to have become part of each victim’s DNA, so that children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still being born with significant deformities. Forty + years later and the effects of Agent Orange aren’t over yet.

Another hall showcased the great photojournalists of the day – Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, etc. – who died while documenting the war. Many of the photos are iconic; all of them are extremely poignant.

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These great photojournalists captured such emotion -the viewer feels the fear of those children.
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The section  of war crimes on unarmed women, children and the elderly  was stomach-turning. The My Lai Massacre is well-known and so is the attack led by Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, who confessed to those crimes decades later (as a U.S. Senator).

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The Fine Arts Museum is a refreshing antidote to the heaviness of the War Remnants Museum. It is a stunning colonial building, whose architectural details alone are worth checking out ( old wooden lift, wrought iron everywhere, stained glass, soaring ceilings), but much of the art is contemporary and has war influences.

Young soldier home on leave.

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Son and wounded father

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And now for some random Saigon moments. I will begin with some Stephen silliness to change the mood. Lisa took us to the Russian Market and if you are a fan of Nike, Adidas, North Face or Under Armour, this place would put you in a cold sweat.  Under Armour T-shirt = $8 CAD, three-season North Face down jacket = $35 CAD. These are not knockoffs – they are made in Vietnam, and that is the “firm price.” Lisa and I made Stephen buy a shirt, and with his requisite purchase in hand, it was time to entertain the ladies.

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After our shopping excursion, we walked through the neighbourhood of modest apartments, alleys and pho stands. We were reminded of how sometimes we only see the outer layer of life as we walk by. Stephen spied a picturesque clothesline and backdrop outside a window,  and as he was aiming his camera to take a second shot, a woman’s face appeared and she threw a glass of water down on him. It was only when he looked at the photos later that he saw why she might have felt invaded.

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Alleys add to the mystery of Saigon – so little revealed from the street, but they are the arterial flow of the city. People live there, work there, have businesses – you just have to walk down one to discover a whole other side of the city.

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Stephen photobombing the selfie girls.

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On our last day in Saigon, we visited the Botanical Garden. The garden is a lush hideaway from the city, with a butterfly garden, orchid garden and many bonsai. The downside to the garden is it is ringed with a sad zoo – giant squirrels imprisoned in giant birdcages, demented gibbons hopping about in domed cages the size of an average suburban bedroom and a couple of hyenas sleeping on concrete  – I couldn’t look any further.   We did see lovely birds though – we think this is a giant ibis. Whatever it is, it is the size of a nine-year-old kid – this is a very big bird.

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And this bonsai – dozens of them on display – beautiful.

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There is so much more to tell you about Saigon – not nearly enough time or space. I’ll sneak in this one photo of the subway they are working on – hoping to relieve current traffic congestion and anticipating future growth.

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But will a new subway or monorail lure the Saigon residents away from their motorbikes? As long as one is able to cut through traffic by hopping up on the sidewalk (warning pedestrians with a gentle beep) it may be a tough sell.

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Good-bye Saigon – over all too soon.  Next stop – the mountain town of Dalat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Before I talk about Saigon I want to share a cautionary tale about the importance of checking your visa dates before you attempt to cross into Vietnam. I’m about to make a long story short (first time for everything).

We went to the Vietnam embassy in Vancouver in November to arrange for our 3-month visas. They arrived in the mail, we tucked them in with our passports and never gave them another thought.  Four days ago, we discovered our visas had been incorrectly dated – to end May 2018 (not 2017). This did not sit well with the border guards, who took over  an hour and a half to determine what to do with us. In that time, we a) held up our bus and our fellow travellers while they waited for us, b) entered a Kafkaesque state of despair and fear as the guard holding our passports and visas had disappeared and no-one knew where he was, and c) discovered what breaking the rules in a socialist republic country feels like (hint: no need to try this yourselves). Finally, an English-speaking official was called in on her day off, it was determined we posed no threat, a work-around was figured out and we were on our way.

This inauspicious start to our six weeks in Vietnam was soon forgotten as we neared Saigon’s downtown. Among the mad swarm of motorcycles that buzzed around our bus was this rider and his eager little passenger.

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You know how you visit a new place and complete strangers offer you a place to stay for a week? No? Well, this happened to us – and while the Chute family are not complete strangers – they are friends of friends – we had never met each other.  I have a deep-seated worry about putting anyone out, so the idea of doing anything more than meeting them for dinner made me uncomfortable.

Lisa, Tim and their son Simon moved to Saigon seven months ago to begin their new life there with an international school. They live in a beautiful, leafy area of the city with a park across the street and a landscaped canal running beside a main shopping street.

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Before we knew it, we were ensconced in their home (on our very own floor) and I was having my hair cut at Lisa’s hairdresser.  Tim took my misbehaving computer to his workplace (it is now fixed), and Lisa took us out on an insider tour of Saigon.

Their incredible hospitality has been a highlight of the trip for us, and best part – they are now our new friends.

The Chute family and friend Sierra about to enjoy fabulous pho at one of their favourite restaurants.

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We’ve told you about the legendary traffic in SEAsia, but Vietnam probably earns top spot for sheer volume. We’ve navigated the roads all the way along, but I was having difficulty understanding why I wouldn’t be  run over. Surely there would be at least one biker with a grudge against Westerners? Someone texting or eating or carrying parcels and children while driving with their knees?  But no, as with the other countries, there is a flow and Lisa explained it perfectly.”Think of it as the river and the rocks. The motorcycles are the river – you move through slowly and they flow around you like water. Anything bigger is a rock – they are immovable – you wait and walk around them.”  For all of you who have been here already – you know this. For anyone else contemplating a visit here – pay heed. This tip is the exact image you need to be safe and confident on the roads.

In this clip below, our strategy would be to wait until the crush of bikes went by, look for a break in the traffic, and wade through.

So…on to Saigon and our impressions. I’m calling it Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City because that is what most Vietnamese call it.  Also, I like the name Saigon – it conjures up romance and history and danger.

Our immediate impressions of Saigon have  been overwhelmingly positive. Of course – it is a massive city – I’ve heard anywhere from ten to fourteen million people, but the areas most tourists want to visit cover a small, almost entirely walkable part of the city called District 1. The impressive skyline is dominated by the distinctive lotus-shaped Bitexco Financial Tower with a skydeck jammed into one side.

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This is the view from 68 floors up; a city with moderate high-rises, bisected by the Mekong, and intersected with numerous canals.

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The joy of Saigon is how they have combined their modern growth with respect for heritage architecture, which leads to some intriguing sightlines of old and new. Every street brings another perspective and strolling down the alleyways could keep a visitor occupied for days.

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Lisa took us past the big French influences – the Notre Dame Basilica…

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…around the corner to the Central Post Office.

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The interior of the grand concourse have painted maps of South Vietnam and Saigon, as well as a prominent portrait of “Uncle Ho.”

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Ho Chi Minh is a revered figure among the Vietnamese people – his vision of a united Vietnam was shared by all and his portraits and statues are everywhere. Here, he stands guard in front of the City Hall.  Between the City Hall and the Mekong River is a magnificent pedestrian-only promenade.

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This area is fronted by elegant shops and old hotels, such as the Rex Hotel, which had a cherry red Maserati in front of it the day we walked by.

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Most of our friends would love this next stop. There is a delightful small street that is dedicated to bookstores. Just bookstores and coffeeshops – all set on a quiet, shady street – can you imagine anything nicer in the middle of a busy city?

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Saigon is full of trees and parks and places to find a bit of solitude.

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There is so much to take in here – I think Saigon is a city that needs a fair bit of time to begin to understand and discover. We can hit the main tourist spots, but without our insider knowledge, would we have discovered the bookshop street? We are only here for another day and there is so much more to talk about, but I wanted our first blog posting to be about the city and the people.

Some fellow travellers have told us they found Vietnamese to be rude and not that friendly. We have encountered exactly the opposite, and I’ll give you a few examples.

A couple of days ago as we were waiting for our bus to take us downtown, I struck up a conversation with an elegant Vietnamese woman who spoke English and French and who had an interesting story to tell. She lived in New Caledonia, a French Island in the South Pacific, until 1964, at the age of six, she moved back to Vietnam with her parents. That simple fact hung there in the air, as it carried so much potential information about her life. It isn’t appropriate to start grilling people about their experiences during the “American War of Aggression, but like Cambodia, you can’t help but look at anyone of a certain age and wonder what burden they carry.

This lady, Huan, carries her life with grace. She invited us to have coffee at her son’s restaurant, and we were honoured to be asked. We were joined by her friend, who is a Saigon native and retired architect, but for all her urban polish has retained the charming habit of cooking up food (in this case, a sweet potato) and bringing it in a little baggie to share.

Huan (by the wall) with her friend.

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Huan’s son owns three restaurants called Modern Meets Culture – http://m2ccafe.com
They are very modern indeed – he is also an architect and designer. Lisa told us about the phenomenon of the Việt Kiều – the “overseas Vietnamese” who left the country after 1975 for Los Angeles, and whose U.S.-educated children are now returning back to their country as adults. They are bringing new life, entrepreneurial ideas and cash infusions into Saigon – many of them are barely in their 30’s. That, combined with the fact that foreign investment is strictly curtailed, is helping Vietnam prosper and grow independently.

Many of the Vietnamese are quite curious about us and are quite funny. We were at the Museum of Fine Art yesterday when we came upon this scene:

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We stopped to take photos as well, thinking this might be a Vietnamese celebrity, but it was just a fashion shoot. We were turning away when the photographer in the white shirt caught sight of Stephen. He could not believe his eyes, “What a beard you have – can I take a photo to show my brother?” He explained that Asian men can’t grow beards and they are fascinated by them. He took a few shots from different angles – how I wish I had my wits about me to take a photo of Stephen’s expression!

While we were in the museum (more about that in the next posting), we met one of the artists whose works were on display as part of the “Hanoi artists” exhibition. We were especially drawn to his work as it was contemporary and strongly influenced by water. His name is Nguyen Van Trung and our conversation with him was though his interpreter. I told him I was interested in seeing art created after the war, and what those influences would look like. He talked about the “aloneness” of humanity and how that can be both painful and peaceful. It was such a pleasure to be able to converse a bit, since language is obviously a complete obstacle to getting to know anyone here, unless they speak English.
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And the food! Our first dinner out was with Lisa at The Secret Garden – discovered by walking down an alley, up five grotty flights of stairs to a garden-like setting, with simply delicious food. We would never have found it on our own. That is our goal – spend the next five weeks searching out the local gems.

Lisa snapped this shot of us at the Secret Garden on our way out.

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I have so much more to share about this beautiful city – the War Remnants Museum and  Reunification Palace deal with the American War, and that is an inevitable part of travel through Vietnam. But there is a whole lot more – Saigon looks to the future, not to the past.