Tony Lee & Renna Benson – members of the Harrogate Medical Wine Society are on a tour of Indochina. This is their guest post from Vietnam
A forest of arms shot up into the air holding glasses from which liquid exploded upwards to the accompanying screams of the holders. Across from us a lady was quietly sick into a bag. But this was not a party of rugby players, or even a stag group, this was the flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi. We had encountered severe turbulence and had instantaneously dropped several hundred feet. Some people found God!
The landing was uneventful but the sky on our drive into Hanoi was lit by lightning challenging the sky scraper blocks of offices covered in lights which flashed and displayed moving images. We had seen similar in Hong Kong, we did not expect this in Hanoi.
A nights sleep and then off to Halong Bay. Famed in Bond and other movies would it live up to its reputation? Suffice to say it did. Tall Pillars of Limestone climbing vertically out of the water covered in trees and bushes that cling to the vertical slopes. It looked for all the world like the imagined world of a rebel base in a Star Wars movie.
I’d checked weather reports before we left the UK to help with packing. I couldn’t find one for Sapa (our next stop) so had to make do with Lao Cai (the nearest destination to Sapa of our sleeper train from Hanoi). That was a mistake! Sapa is less then 20miles from Lao Cai but is 1500m (5,000ft) higher and over 5c (10 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler. Instead of a day temperature of 16 it failed to reach 10 with night time temperatures only just above freezing. This led to a dash to buy gloves and to put on another layer of our warmest clothing. proving that no matter how much planning you do something always comes as a surprise.
The night train was fun. Our cabin was for 4 people but we had it just for the 2 of us. On the table lay a little pile of snacks, a can of Coke and a beer, and 2 face masks – the Corona Virus had just become world news. The train crawled slowly out of town down the famous “train street” where the houses on both sides come within touching distance of the train. A fleeting glimpse into the private lives of dozens of local families as we passed them by, eating & drinking, talking or watching TV. Then over the mile long bridges over the Red River designed by Eiffel (the French engineer of the tower fame) through the suburbs where we stopped to pick up more passengers, and off into the darkness.
We were staying in hills south of Sapa in the mountains on the border with China. The bungalows, pool, spa and other buildings lay spread out along a ridge. But there was no view when we arrived. We were in the clouds and enveloped in a blanket, we could only just make out the bungalow nearest to us. Dawn the following day gave us hints as to the view and slowly it was revealed. Below the ridge the slope fell precipitously down into the valleys and to staircases of terraced paddy fields. Above us peaks showed themselves above a collar of cloud. We walked through old villages and field side huts, along mud paths through the paddy fields and across bamboo bridges, watching people working in the fields, or searching for eels or snails in the floods. Birds also flew passed, sang, or hunted in the waters. A welcome change from Laos. Whilst waiting in the lounge for our bus back to Hanoi I sneezed twice, a couple of Chinese gentlemen got up and left the room. Fear of the Coronavirus is growing.
The slogan on the T-shirt read “I survived Hanoi traffic”. I nearly bought it. This place makes Rome look really safe! Red here is a lucky colour. Perhaps that is why they treat traffic lights as guidance at best. The red “No Entry” signs on streets or dual carriageways are often ignored. Lane markings and Zebra Crossings are considered street art. To make things even more interesting they still follow the old French way of “priorite a droit”. With an estimated 40million motorbikes/mopeds/scooters on the roads the pavements are used for parking so you have to walk in the road. It certainly makes for an “interesting” walk!
The cold unmoving features lay in silence as we slowly precessed around Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body. Whilst we were not that interested in the body what was interesting was the degree of respect, love and devotion still shown to him and his memory by the Vietnamese themselves.
Vietnam’s history is long and complex and often brutal. Memories fade slowly. Europeans are thought of as Americans. Chinese are viewed with suspicion, their guides referring to Vietnam as part of China, it is less than 40 years since their invading army was driven back, but they are Vietnam’s biggest trading partner and biggest source of tourist income. Ethnic minorities (there are 52 main ethnic groups with separate languages and customs) are sometimes viewed with suspicion especially as some were active supporters of the US during the “American War” as it is referred to here.
In the last 30 years Vietnam’s economy has exploded with a growth of over 20 fold in per capita income. Admittedly growing from a base of only $99 per person per year it still means a lot of poverty but it also means a lot of development and change. The sense of “can do” fills the air. Vietnam, like its traffic, is moving fast forward with little respect for rules and the old order.