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

Most incongruous food

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.

Favourite souvenir

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.

Saddest sight

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.

Biggest let-down

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.

FACT FILE

vietnam

GETTING THERE

Flights to Vietnam are available from Air France for pounds 586 return through STA (tel: 0171-361 6262).

GETTING AROUND

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

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.

FURTHER INFORMATION

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
    Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

    Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

    The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
    The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

    The US is getting frayed at the edges

    Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
    Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

    New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

    A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
    Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
    Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

    Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

    Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
    Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

    Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

    He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
    How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

    Celebrating 100 years of Leica

    A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world