Thursday, February 16, 2017

R & R

By the time we reached Dong Hoi I was feeling a bit drained. I thought it was probably that on top of the long drive (which is anything but relaxing when you still can't help thinking everything and everyone on the road will eventually run into you), I would really have liked to have stayed in Hue

Actually, all of the above, plus I was coming down with a cold.

Dong Hoi is another city where the river(s) open and empty into the sea. The whole extended coast of Vietnam is shaping up in my mind like this, with these massive rivers flowing out of Cambodia and Laos. The area reminded me if anything of the central coast of New South Wales - emerging out of slow development because of isolation and a lower capital base, but blessed with wonderful natural resources like lakes, inlets and outlets, and stunning beaches. There's a brightly painted fleet of squid trawler boats which putter out at night and whose bright spot lights dance about in the black sea.

We were meant to be doing the going-up-the-river-thing and into some caves - UNESCO ones I think. But I couldn't muster up the energy.

Some rest and sleep was on the agenda, Hanoi was on the horizon, and this did just fine:

Monday, February 13, 2017


It's a few Kms drive (east nor east toward the coast) from the bridge over the Ban Hai river through lush and beautifully managed farm land to reach the incredible Vinh Moc tunnel complex.

It's gorgeous country - well sealed heavy clay roads criss-crossing their way through fields of corn, pepper trees, rubber tress, grazing stock - roadside houses with open street frontages doubling up for business - food, repairs, mechanics - children on bicycles, scooters loaded up or pulling wooden carts, a pagoda here, incense at a shrine there, yellow stars on red flags against the lush dense green, and very little tourist traffic. And brilliant telecommunications, as usual.



There's our car at the rear, silver, where we shared water and (pho) chicken noodle soup, add you own spices to taste, with a gentle Dutch couple. 

The tunnels are very well organised for visitors - a large visitor centre, a row of street sellers to run the gauntlet though but where buying a bottle of water gets you a loan of a torch, and not far past the ticket box we bump into a small tour group whose guide readily invites us to join.

Her father, she would later tell us, had been born in the tunnels and spent the first six years of his life there - in a tunnel complex dug by hand by a whole community desperate to survive the increasingly heavy American bombing - 9,000 tons of it - from raid after raid of B52s (a word they well know). 

Two kilometres of tunnels - living, sleeping, cooking (smoke was diffused through chimneys to not be a give away), maternity, meeting rooms ~ existence.

Above ground the whole ares is riddled with shallow trenches (are the Vietnamese the shortest people in the world) for moving about unseen, and dotted wth big bomb craters.

And bombs. No shortage of bombs.

                                                          (person for size reference)

And in a jolt back to normality, there's this charming house just a few metres away.

The entrances are well restored, well, over-restored, and there's occasional light globes along the way, but you still need that borrowed torch, or the light from your phone. I could only occasionally stand up, and it was a matter of just following the person in front, crouched, down steps, up steps, around corners, glancing sideways into a narrow room from time to time, the heat building up, and the claustrophobia getting a bit unpleasant. 

At last, eventually, thank god, there is a god, finally we emerged. At the South China Sea!

Relief was short-lived. Back up again, in we all went, sweating and stooped, till eventually, finally, at last, why didn't someone warn me, we climbed out of entrance 5, very near the complex entrance.

There were 140 networks in the region. They lived like this for six years. Six B52 years.


Whatever I expected the Vietnamese Demilitarised Zone to look like, I wasn't what I should have - namely the simplicity of wide flat river banks and two bridges - an old one and a new one - in a completely unremarkable landscape except for a high flying national flag.

There's much to said here and I'm not up for a fraction let alone the half of it. Let's go back to the 17th C and a French Jesuit, one Alexandre de Rhodes, credited with establishing Christianity in Vietnam after the Portuguese did a little prepping. There's a concrete sore thumb cathedral in Hanoi (where I am now, jotting this down), another one in Saigon, but not much else left, as far as I can see, except for a lot dead bodies. Vietnam is today one of the least religious countries in Asia, the majority practice some form of naturalistic religious belief or subscribe to Buddhist ideas. Of Vietnam's (probable) 100 million, perhaps 8% are Christian.

Jump forward a few centuries of Indochinese colonialism to 1954 and partition. The French are gone, and the Americans are around. The Geneva Convention of July 21, 1954 recognised the 17th parallel as a "provisional military demarcation line" temporarily separating the country into the Communist north under Ho Chi Minh, and the pro-Western south under Boa Dai, the tail end of the Vietnamese imperial house.

Here's Boa Dai again from the gallery in the Hue Citadel.

And the signing of the Geneva Agreement:

                                                               (from the dmz museum)

The 17th parallel approximated where the Ben Hai river enters the South China Sea and so a demarcation line became geographically a Demilitarised Zone some 5 Kms either side of the Ben Hai river along its course to the border with Loas.

This whole area has loomed large in my imagination, infamy to which I might well have been exposed in my adult life I suppose. We approached from the south on Highway 1 just a few Kms in from the coast, after a few hours drive from Hue.

There's the high raised flag, the river flats, the river, a new concrete road bridge from where the occasional truck would honk when they saw me taking a photo, and the old bridge. A bizarre looking communist-style (whatever that means) edifice was oddly placed alongside a side canal.

And there was no one there. No one. Our guide (we had a guide and driver) let us out to walk across to the 'North'. Actually you needed tickets which he would buy on the other side, where there was an unmanned small museum, a rough roadside rest stop with a mangy dog and nothing you'd want to buy except water, and a ticket seller. And of course the flag pole reaching high from a massive concrete base next to what I was told was the house where the Americans would hold meetings with the North Vietnamese. It looked like it was built yesterday.

No sooner had I got there than reality set in. It was cold and brutal on a hot sunny day.

(facing north with the new bridge is on the left)

A man in a boat smiles, and waves. (OK, I waved first.)

Turning to look behind, back into the south, the perspective you are meant to see and feel is revealed.

And now you can make out the arch to the glorious north, the museum on the right and the flag pole and adjoining meeting house on the left, across the highway.

We wandered about a little - surely this was safe from the 'don't leave unmarked trails because of unexploded material' warnings. Still standing was a huge band of loud speakers for blasting propaganda south across the river.

And of which they were mighty proud - one stood either side of the museum entrance, lest you forget.

The museum was a museum to war, to victory and reunion, the entrance dominated by another statue of Ho Chi Minh of which there seemed no shortage in the south, but this would be the last one I would see. The north has him.

(the bridge in 1961)

                                                                             (a young guerrilla fighter)

(us troops fleeing)


And of particular significance, an operating table made from pieces of downed American aircraft - a more sobering and shockingly affecting relic I couldn't imagine, its stories of survival or death long washed away.

(as usual, clicking to enlarge gives better detail and the option to scroll through the pics)

Friday, February 10, 2017


We're off again, heading up Highway 1 from Hue toward the Demilitarised Zone. It's not as frantic as down south around Saigon perhaps because it just isn't, or maybe the New Lunar Madness has settled.

I told you there were water buffalo not in the water, and not all of them have keepers with sticks.


(last light)

It's not too difficult to get romantic about an art deco French hotel on the south bank - the French bank - of the Perfume River. Whatever that conjures up, multiply it times over. 

We're in Hue, the once Feudal capital in central Vietnam a few miles inland from the East Sea where it straddles a wide stretch of river - Riviere des Perfums - whose upstream orchard's falling flowers give it its name. 

Romance is one thing; history is another. Strategically close to the 17th parallel and the demilitarised zone, it suffered shockingly from both sides in the American War with the Americans bombing the blazes out of its occupied historic buildings and the appalling Vietcong and North Vietnamese Hue Massacre, the impact of which would be signifiant in the North's ultimate victory. That link comes with a R rating warning.

The more I read the more I felt I was trespassing here. And yet it was the only place, so far, where I'd wanted to stay longer. Or return even.

"You just gotta keep movin' honey" advised the frizzy haired American woman from Washington DC as we simultaneously bent to feel the temperature of the pool. The sky was shading pink. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps that's the only was of dealing with it. 

The next morning's sun was hot early.  Just over and facing the river, facing east not the usual south, stands the seriously imposing Citadel with its mysterious Imperial City, its reconstruction well advanced. It's another one of Vietnam's seven UNESCO sites.

(click to enlarge*)

It is well back and separated from the river by a flag bearing massive fortress watch tower thing - impossible to compose in one shot with any sort of perspective but here I look back at it in the rising sun  ...

... before crossing the first moat, fat carp as usual waiting for crumbs.

Happy New Year greetings are still everywhere - they'll stay for the first 2 weeks of the new lunar year.

Inside is a vast complex of buildings and courtyards and moats, the King's Palace, the secret (concubine's) Purple Palace, administrative buildings and all the rest. The Throne Room, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, is breath catching and "No Picture" notices are prominent.

                                                                      (from wiki)

(western halls of mirrors becomes hall of red doors)

(boat man scooping up leaves)

In the picture gallery you could spend hours ~

~ but there's a car waiting, and as the lady said: "You gotta keep movin' ".

(* as usual, all pics benefit from clicking to enlarge and scrolling through)