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Phespirit goes to Vietnam
tour     March/April 2007

The wars are over; international relations are normalised; communism has become socialism in all but name; the population has soared to over eighty-five million, making it the thirteenth largest in the world, and it continues to increase by nearly a million a year. Vietnam is changing; opening; welcoming. Time, therefore, for Phespirit to pay it a visit and, while in the region, to see some sights in neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. His complete round trip required a total of thirteen flights.

Flight 1: London Heathrow, U.K., to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Phespirit has long regarded Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) as the finest airport in the world. It is compact and well organised, with only the shortest of distances between its international departure gates and an excellent selection of shops. Seating is abundant, restaurants are plentiful, facilities are convenient and the whole place is immaculately clean. Phespirit had about an hour to wander around.

Flight 2: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Arrival at Ho Chi Minh City airport marked the beginning of a Vietnam tour in three parts: south, middle and north. In the south, Phespirit visited the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta, but formed his first impressions in Ho Chi Minh City. The city that was once Saigon is now a large, prospering metropolis. Vietnam may not be a country where everybody enjoys the highest standards of twenty-first century living, but neither is it an old communist state with no food on its shelves or in its people's bellies. The crowds here are energising rather than soul-sapping. And there is a different quality of light in Ho Chi Minh City. Like historic Central European towns, its streets are lined with multi-coloured, pastel-hued buildings in all shapes and sizes, but in Ho Chi Minh City they seem lighter, brighter, almost luminous. This was an invigorating place to start.

Flight 3: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Da Nang, Vietnam

The Cham Museum enjoys an enviable location opposite a broad promenade that runs alongside the Han River in Da Nang. It houses a collection of sculptural art depicting Hindu gods and symbolism from the Cham civilisation that achieved its cultural peak in Vietnam's middle lands over a thousand years ago. Many exhibits originated in My Son, whose war-ravaged, weather-ravaged red-brick temples Phespirit would visit later; they remain a magnificent spectacle. In this region, however, the two most important cultural centres are Hoi An and Hué. Hoi An for its historic heart of houses and halls, the legacy of a diverse people; Hué for its sprawling imperial palaces and tombs, the legacy of a single royal line. Phespirit eventually moved on from the middle lands via tiny Hué airport. Whilst waiting for his flight he treated himself a box of 'Choco-Pies' - "Enjoy the finest taste of original chocolate pie."

Flight 4: Hué, Vietnam, to Hanoi, Vietnam

In the north of Vietnam, Phespirit arrived in Hanoi, spent a night in Hai Phong, then a day at Ha Long, and lastly returned for a couple of days back in the capital. Whilst modern Hanoi is smaller than mighty Ho Chi Minh City, it offers a greater diversity of sights spread over a larger area. There is the colossal mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself, with a couple of his old houses round the back. There is the Old Quarter with its market streets, the French Quarter with its department stores, and throughout the city there are the lakes. These lakes punctuate the busy fever of Hanoi with open space and refreshing tranquillity. West Lake and Hoan Kiem Lake attract tourists with their pretty temples, but Phespirit particularly enjoyed an evening stroll around Ban Mau Lake and through Lenin Park, comfortingly fenced in from the roaring roads that frame it.

Overall, Phespirit found Vietnam interesting and engaging, but came away feeling he could have done with more time to slow down and properly absorb the many wonders he was seeing. He'd scratched a lot of surfaces without ever delving beneath them in any meaningful way. The sad reality, however, was that he only had a finite number of days available in Southeast Asia, so if he had spent more time in Vietnam it would have been at the expense of visits to Cambodia and his next destination: Laos.

Flight 5: Hanoi, Vietnam, to Vientiane, Laos

At Hanoi airport, Phespirit boarded a twin-turboprop ATR-72, French-made, flying in the colours of Lao Airlines. He had been one of 168 passengers on the Boeing 737-400 from Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City. Now he was venturing along the path less travelled, one of just seventy-two flying to Vientiane.

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