I haven’t written much about Vietnam. I was a bit of a zombie for a while, just going through the motions and following a very well trodden path down the coast. I’ll give some reasons for my apathy in the next post.
In the meantime, here are some of my favourite things about Vietnam. Actually, I’ve already written about my very favourite Vietnam experiences: the Cao Dai temples, Phat Diem Cathedral and the propaganda posters. But these are some other highlights:
As in every Asian country I’ve been to (including North Korea) there were plenty of soon-to-be-married couples throughout Vietnam having their wedding photos taken in front of attractive landmarks. And Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) has plenty of attractive landmarks to choose from. Notre-Dame cathedral, in the picture above, is one of the most popular.
Whereas Hanoi’s colonial architecture is largely intact, Saigon has seen a lot of its past bulldozered. Yet, the city has a better atmosphere than the capital. As a tourist, you don’t feel quite as ghettoized as in Hanoi – you can just be a person in a city rather than a tourist on a sightseeing conveyor belt.
The Reunification Palace (formerly the South Vietnam Presidential Palace) was one of my favourite places.
Apparently, it’s been left more-or-less untouched since the South Vietnamese government vacated the premises. In the palace library, you can see an unusual mix of books on the shelves including ‘Planning and Operating Motels and Motor Hotels’, a book by Prince Charles’ friend Laurens van der Post and, most inexplicably of all, a Christian comic book called ‘Hansi: the Girl who Loved the Swastika’ by Maria Anne Hirschmann, which is included in this list of ‘The 10 Most Bizarre Comic Books’ after ‘Amputee Love’ but before ‘Tales of The Leather Nun’. The whole book is online here.
When South Vietnam’s leaders weren’t reading comics about Nazi schoolgirls finding Jesus, they went to the private cinema or had a cocktail in this very 60s lounge:
Saigon’s other big attraction is the War Remnants Museum. It houses a photo collection illustrating war atrocities committed by the Americans. It was interesting but there are only so many pictures of babies with deformed heads, babies with deformed genitals and babies with deformed limbs that I need to see before I concede that dropping tons of Agent Orange across the country was a terrible thing to do. Obviously, the museum had nothing to say about war crimes committed by the North Vietnamese.
Saigon was scorching hot for the first couple of days I was there but, despite the heat, the city was probably my favourite in Vietnam.
I arrived in Danang just as rain started pouring down. I was tired and had a splitting headache after a noisy bus journey. So, instead of shopping around for a cheap hotel, I just stayed in the first place I saw.
OK, it’s pretty tacky – but there can’t be many places in the world where you can stay in a room like that – with cable TV, wifi, power shower and aircon – for $18 a night.
I’ve stayed in double or twin rooms, always en suite, never too shabby, and, apart from that one night, paid between $7 and $12. Food is cheap, draft beer is as low as 5 pence a glass, transport – even by taxi – is reasonable. I guess I’m spending half as much each day as I did in China.
One thing I’d do differently if I were rich is hire a car and driver, as it’s quite difficult to get to the countryside without your own transportation (actually, you wouldn’t need to be rich to that – it would be possible even on a modest budget).
Art Deco-ish Buildings
I’m not sure that they’re truly Art Deco – they certainly aren’t opulent or ornate – but these buildings have curves, colours and corners that are at least reminiscent of Deco. The train station in Thanh Hoa reminds me of a Bakelite radio:
This building (a cinema?) in Quy Nhon needs a lick of paint, but I love the globe on the roof and the elongated semi-circle design under the balcony:
Even in the most deprived areas, there is always some unusual architecture to be found in Vietnam.
I wasn’t excited about going to Hue – it had ‘tourist nightmare’ written all over it – but I was very pleasantly surprised. The main attraction is the Imperial Citadel (above) which was built in the early 19th century by emperor Gia Long.
Many buildings within the citadel were destroyed by bombs and massive rebuilding work and renovation is currently underway. The rebuilt parts look very unattractive – too new and too perfect. I’m glad I saw it while it’s partially in ruins, as I don’t hold out much hope for the ‘new and improved’ version.
The decoration on the buildings is made from a mosaic of smashed ceramic.
I stayed in the copyright-infringing ‘Google Hotel’ and, when not visiting the ancient citadel, spent my time in Hue eating fake meat from the supermarket and dodging the ‘motorbike men’ who prey on you every time you leave the hotel. I’ll write some more about them in my next post.