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Phespirit goes to Vietnam
tour     March/April 2007

AROUND VIETNAM

Map of Vietnam

1 Ho Chi Minh City

The city once called Saigon accommodates more than six million people, but its centre is compact enough to be explored on foot.

Phespirit started at the City Museum, then spiralled around to the Town Hall, Theatre, Cathedral, War Remnants Museum, Tan Dinh church, Ngoc Hoang pagoda, History Museum and finally down to the Saigon River.

When walking around Ho Chi Minh City, the greatest challenge is to avoid the astonishing number of motorcycles that swarm along every road. Riders are not compelled to wear crash helmets in the city as it is presumed that traffic will be so slow as to render them unnecessary. This seems to be a highly dubious strategy.

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2 Cu Chi

The Cu Chi tunnel network was created as a subterranean military base by anti-colonial forces in the 1940s. Its size and importance increased when it was occupied by the Viet Cong during the wars with America / South Vietnam. Considering that by the mid-1960s the network extended over 250km, the bit that tourists get to see these days is both negligible and unrepresentative.

There are other entertainments on site, however, including a grim exhibition of vicious homemade mantraps, an American M41 tank that was destroyed by a landmine in 1970, and a black-and-white video tribute to local people who were given 'American Killer Hero' medals.

Here, history has most definitely been written by the victors.

And why not?

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3 Mekong Delta

The modern delta is a place of agriculture, fisheries and large ferry boats painted with the flags of Vietnam and Denmark.

Phespirit took boat and sampan cruises, with occasional stops to sample local fruits, sweets, teas and spirits. The 'dragon fruit' was especially tasty.

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4 Da Nang

Rampant tourist development is underway at Da Nang. Compared with Ho Chi Minh City (the largest city in Vietnam), Da Nang (the fourth largest) is practically sleepy, with only a tiny fraction of the motorcycle madness and, in places, almost a French Riviera feel.

The crucial decision for local burghers is this: do they follow good examples of sensitive, sustainable tourist development, or do they chase the money and yield to big investors at the expense of their most precious assets? Phespirit fears the latter is inevitable.

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5 Hoi An

Hoi An reminded Phespirit of Chinatown in Malacca, with its three main streets running parallel and its scattering of historic Chinese houses and assembly halls. Also like Malacca, it is a small town on the coast, once a more noble port, which still bears the stamp of its colonial days.

The added bonus is a fine, sandy beach buffering the comfortable waters of the South China Sea. Phespirit enjoyed a nice swim.

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6 My Son

My Son is an isolated complex of crumbling temples, now overrun with rampant foliage. This makes it the very thing that all Western visitors dream of discovering in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but perhaps without the swarms of noisy camera-clicking tourists.

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7 Hué

The main attractions of Hué are its royal mausoleums and citadel, but Phespirit's enduring memory is the enjoyment of sitting on the bow of a dragon boat, his feet dangling in the Perfume River, while it puttered along for two miles towards the Thien Mu pagoda.

Simple pleasures.

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8 Hai Phong

The outskirts of Hanoi blend seamlessly with developments along the road to Hai Phong, and these then blend seamlessly with the town of Hai Phong itself. Everything on this route is so similar that it's nigh impossible to distinguish the boundaries.

The heart of Hai Phong is pleasant and worth spending a bit time around, though.

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9 Ha Long

Phespirit likes a nice geological wonder. In Ha Long Bay he found a whole seascape of them.

Hundreds of lushly-clad limestone islands create a labyrinth effect over a vast area. Phespirit spent several hours cruising around the waterways on a still day with a very slight mist that added a depth and silent ghost-like quality to the scene.

Magnificent.

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10 Hanoi

Phespirit visited Hanoi on a scorchingly hot, intensely humid day, and duly sweated buckets. How the first Europeans survived here in the days before air conditioning, he cannot begin to imagine.

His longest walk around the city took him from the southernmost end of Hoan Kiem lake, clockwise with a detour off to St Joseph's Cathedral, to the northern tip of the lake and then through the Old Quarter, via the Bach Ma temple and Guiding Light mosque to the Dong Xuan market, across to the Red River and finally all the way back down to the lake.

Still sweltering in the evening, he slumped at a table in Alfresco's restaurant and quickly knocked back a glass of chilled white wine in unrefined gulps. A few more glasses, garlic bread, pizza and an ice cream later, with Beach Boys records to recreate the mood of 60s America, he felt much better.

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  1. Ho Chi Minh City
  2. Cu Chi
  3. Mekong Delta
  4. Da Nang
  5. Hoi An
  6. My Son
  7. Hué
  8. Hai Phong
  9. Ha Long
  10. Hanoi
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Ho Chi Minh City Cu Chi Mekong Delta Da Nang Hoi An My Son Hué Hai Phong Ha Long Hanoi