Rough Guide: Ho Chi Minh, Vinh Long and La Vache Qui Rit
Mark Lewis, author of `The Rough Guide to Vietnam', looks beyond the sadness of wartime
Sunday 13 September 1998
As is the way in south-east Asia, there are some truly bizarre foodstuffs on offer within the stained pages of Vietnamese menus. Should skinned snake, bat, turtle or porcupine tickle your taste buds, you'll find plenty of restaurants happy to cater for you. Other foodstuffs are rather more familiar to Western eyes. Baguettes were introduced by the French in colonial times. The French may have long since gone, but the baguette - heated over coals at street-side stalls, and spread with either pate, pickled vegetables or La Vache Qui Rit cheese - remains perhaps the most curious staple of the Vietnamese diet.
I have in my hand a piece of paper, a one dong note, devalued by inflation to a current worth of less than one ten-thousandth of a pound. It is crumpled and dirtied from years of handling in the shops and markets of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), and there is a rip right through Ho Chi Minh's beard, but I love it for its silly name, for its sense of place, and for the memories it brings flooding back.
Oddest night out
In Vinh Long, in the Mekong Delta, I contrived to get myself invited along to the local tourist company's New Year's Eve bash. The beer and whisky was soon flowing freely, along with a selection of the most brutal Chinese liqueurs I have ever sampled. We waltzed and tangoed the night away - the Vietnamese have an enduring love of old-time dancing - and I looked forward to a truly memorable countdown to midnight. Then, at precisely 11.50pm, the lights came on, the DJ packed up, and the hall emptied. I saw in the New Year, silent and alone, sitting on the south bank of the Mekong River.
The My Lai Massacre - the murder of 500 civilians in the hamlet of Son My on 16 March 1968 - was the most shameful chapter of America's involvement in Vietnam. Not a single shot was fired at a GI in defence, and the only US casualty was thought to have deliberately shot himself in the foot to avoid the carnage. Some 12km east of Quang Ngai, the Son My Memorial Garden marks the site of the atrocity. Wandering the garden, visitors effect a ghoulish dot-to-dot of the visible scars - bullet-holes in trees, foundations of homes set alight using army-issue Zippo lighters, blown- out bomb shelters - left by the massacre. Even more moving, though, are the simple household relics on display in the adjacent museum. The teapot of Mr Nguyen Gap, and the plate broken by a bullet as Mrs Nguyen Thi Doc and her family was taking breakfast, lend a human face to the appalling suffering that took place here.
The Vietnamese nation harbours a disarming weakness for schmaltz and tackiness, and nowhere is this better expressed than in the central highland city of Da Lat. A few kilometres north of the city lies the Lake of Sighs, named, so the story goes, after the sighs of Mai Nuong, a local tragic heroine who cast herself into the lake when she believed her sweetheart had been killed in battle. Since then, the pines around it are said to have sighed in vicarious grief. But these days, more and more pines are being felled to make way for agriculture. Soon, all that will be left will be the tourist tack - the souvenir shops, merry-go-rounds, paddle boats and horse rides led by Da Lat "cowboys" sporting hats and fake guns - that has developed here. It is a similar story at the nearby Valley of Love. The local tourist board claims that this God-forsaken place "makes sense for you, poetically and romantically". Don't believe a word of it.
Most awesome sight
Some places are so over-hyped, that one's first sighting of them proves a real let-down. With others, reality trumps expectation. The fantasy world of Halong Bay falls into the latter category. Often described as the eighth wonder of the world, the bay is peppered with some 1,600 limestone outcrops whose sometimes fluid, sometimes tortured shapes invite comparison to Tuscan cathedrals, dragons, champagne corks - even to General de Gaulle's nose. Ever wise to new ways of making a profit, locals have taken to laying on boat trips out into the bay. What you will have to pray for is a really misty, mystical day, when the looming islands take on an other-worldly beauty.
Most important word
Chan, or blanket: this may be southeast Asia, but temperatures in the southern and central highlands, and in the north, can plunge to teeth- chattering lows. If you are arriving fresh from a beach in Thailand, in singlet and Bermuda shorts, you could be in for a shock.
Flights to Vietnam are available from Air France for pounds 586 return through STA (tel: 0171-361 6262).
Vinh Long, in the centre of the Mekong Delta, is a four-hour bus journey from Ho Chi Minh's Mien Tay terminal. There is nowhere to stay at the Son My Memorial Park, so base yourself at nearby Quang Ngai, about halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
To get around Da Lat, hire a bicycle from your hotel or hop on the back of a Honda om (literally "Honda embrace"), or motorbike taxi.
Ha Long Bay is 80km east of Hanoi. Take one of the private mini-buses ($3) that congregate south of the Opera House, in downtown Hanoi.
Visas are required and an application should be made through the Vietnam embassy (see below). It takes a week to process. A tourist visa is valid for one month from the date of entry into Vietnam. Since 1993 a travel permit is no longer required.
Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 12-14 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD (tel: 0171-937 1912). Open 9am-noon and 2pm-6pm Mon-Fri.
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