Hanoi - The maze of limestone peaks sprouting almost ceaselessly out of the crystalline, emerald waters was breathtaking as our Asian junk boat sailed through Halong Bay.
Faded garments fluttered from a flotilla of rickety, wooden craft that dotted the choppy waters around the foot of the enigmatic mountains as we ventured deeper into the sea. Toddlers hung precariously to the edge of the “houses” while their parents unflappably went about their household chores.
The “floating villages” danced rhythmically with the rise and fall of the churning waters.
This was Halong Bay in Vietnam, which I had only known through those horror movies depicting American warplanes spitting lethal bombs and leaving behind a trail of untold destruction.
The nostalgia of my early teens, when my siblings and I huddled before the big screen in our far-flung rural home, hit hard. Flashbacks of gory scenes of innocent civilians being maimed and killed. Torrents of images of women being wantonly raped flooded my mind.
But this was not the time of day-dreaming and seeing phantoms. The real country lay in vast expanse before my naked eyes, in the labyrinth of mystic peaks partly dressed in tufts of shrubs.
I was careful not to be overly hypnotised by Halong Bay’s picturesque beauty, because I also wanted to discover the mystic splendour that lies in the caves below.
Above the roofs of the caves are sand dunes or sea waves. Their walls are like giant curtains ceaselessly flapping in the wind.
And then you have this god-like male figure perched atop the caves’ entrance as if enjoying a panoramic view of the bay with his menacing “Big Brother is watching” pose. The solitary man’s glance seemed fixed at the garbage floating in the water, which blighted the bay’s splendid view.
Like the natives in the floating villages, the man may enjoy permanent residence in one of Unesco’s heritage sites, but we were temporary visitors, staying overnight in a luxury boat. With its en-suite cabins and an upper deck offering an enchanting view, the boat was the perfect way to enjoy the unique spectacle.
Halong Bay was an ideal escape from the frenetic life of Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi. Scarcely had we enjoyed the tranquillity of the city’s surrounding green landscape dotted with a network of dykes and villas – after touching down at the local airport – than we found ourselves enmeshed in its congested centre.
Suddenly, the beauty of the Red River, aptly named because of its reddish-brown, murky waters, had given way to a muddled milieu of derelict, rectangular houses along the winding streets and narrow alleys. A few high-rise, brightly painted buildings were interspersed with the slum buildings, highlighting the co-existence of squalor and wealth.
“Some 20 years ago, there weren’t houses like these. And there were only about 800 000 people, but the population has increased to six million,” said our guide, Cuong, referring to the influx to the city after the war ended.
If township folks back home felt uneasy about those intricate webs of electric power lines hanging precariously in the informal settlements, I thought, Vietnam’s nest-like, jumbled mass of power lines criss-crossing the streets and narrow alleys were a serious blot. But even that was not as astounding as the mass of motorbikes swarming its streets.
Here, turns at busy intersections are taken with scant regard for fellow road users.
“Don’t look! Just go,” said Cuong, trying to assure us about the trick about crossing the road. After a few nervous stutters, I waddled across the street. Chuffed at making it to the other side, I stole a quick glance at my travel mates, wondering if they had taken notice of my achievement.
Aware of our bewilderment with the traffic mayhem, Cuong added: “Hanoi has a population of about six million. There are about four million motorbikes.”
We found some respite deeper in Hanoi’s Old Quarter as we embarked on a voyage on rickshaws, wagon-like bicycles that take you on a sightseeing tour through the streets bustling with markets. Each street has its own speciality, providing a convenient market.
The most peculiar thing about Vietnam was seeing the many women covering their faces and arms with a doek.
“The women here are certainly paranoid about the sun,” I thought to myself, as soon as Cuong explained the mystery.
Hard as they try to stay beautiful, though, Vietnam’s younger generation are not as narcissistic as their elderly counterparts. We saw an elderly woman at the Dong Ba Market in the imperial city of Hue dying her teeth black.
“It was an ancient belief about beauty, just as the current generation spend lot of money on cream and lotion and whitening their teeth,” said Cuong.
For all their obsession with beauty, however, many Vietnamese women – especially those in middle age – seem to struggle to find suitors who may spare them the grim prospect of spinsterhood. Cuong reckons the long, drawn-out war could be a factor.
“After joining the war, many of the girls couldn’t get married. They were too old to marry.”
“So what is the [common] marriage age?” asked one of my travel mates, to which Cuong replied: “It all depends, but in the cities like Hanoi, the average age is 25 years. It’s between 18 and 20 in the countryside.”
The youthful nuptial years have to do with the patriarchy among Vietnam’s minority groups in the countryside, especially along the border with China and Cambodia.
“Today, we have utmost respect for women and they have lot of opportunities. [But] in the minority and countryside, arranged marriages still happen,” said Cuong.
“A man still tries to be important even if he doesn’t have anything.”
If Halong Bay offered an escape from Hanoi, in Central Vietnam lies Hue, which offers an idyllic connection with the country’s archaic culture and sovereign history.
Vietnam’s capital between 1802 and 1945, the town was once the home of the Nguyen emperors. And if Hanoi boasts the Red River, Hue has the Perfume River to brag about – named for the abundance of flowers falling into the waters and imbuing the town with a perfume-like scent.
It’s on the banks of this river that emperors lived their extravagant lives. A cruise on a dragon boat will lead you to the imposing fortress that is the citadel, lined with the lofty, seven-tier pagoda – one of each of the Buddha’s reincarnations – lined with palaces and gigantic royal tombstones.
Our timing was perfect –we arrived just as the monks and the nuns were busy performing their sacred rites.
Weighed down by the omnipresence of the emperors, I found Hoi An – also in central Vietnam – an idyllic escape for its tranquil ambience. Another of Vietnam’s Unesco listed sites, Hoi An has preserved its impressive ancient outlook despite the array of swanky office and residential buildings springing up along the South Asia Sea beach.
Pagodas and museums are interspersed with eye-catching art stalls, tailors, opulent restaurants and markets.
Shopping in Hoi An is laid-back, but the shopkeepers’ determined approach mingled with a touch of aggression can be upsetting to the sensitive tourist.
Once you step inside, however, it’s the meticulous measurement by the tailors and how they knit your garments while you wait that is gratifying.
To reach this town, however, you will have to negotiate the meandering route cutting through the mountain before you reach the Hai Van Pass (Pass of the Clouds), which gives a splendid view of the South Asia Sea and Hoi An’s scenic landscape. A strategic passage linking Hue and Da Nang, the third biggest city in Vietnam, the pass was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the war. An old gun tower atop the pass is among the eerie reminders of the war.
Business was not as frenetic in the Mekong Delta, which is abundant with exotic orchards and rice fields along the rivers, canals and lakes.
For those missing the frenzy of Western boutique shopping, Ho Chi Minh city, otherwise known as Saigon, is the place to be.
“This is the New York of Vietnam,” said Cuong as we approached the city centre. Less than an hour’s drive from the city centre in the countryside lie the Cu Chi tunnels – the most poignant reminder of the Vietnam war. Reluctantly, I crouched and crept into the narrow shaft like a rat into a burrow. Suddenly, I had disappeared into the abyss of a seemingly endless, intricate web of guerrilla fortifications from which the Vietnamese sprang lethal ambushes on the foe.
“We are a country that is still coming from war. We have nothing. I suffered a lot, fighting in the jungle and the tunnels. It was awful,” Cuong said, as our bus headed for Hanoi city centre.
Cuong, as he later explained, is a war veteran who was part of a Vietnamese regiment that fought the Americans using guerrilla tactics in the Cu Chi tunnels.
Loud red flags with a giant yellow star at the centre fluttered from the high-rise buildings – the type of array so reminiscent of South Africa during the 2010 World Cup.
“Politically speaking, we are a communist country, hence the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” said Cuong amid the incongruity of the country being rebuilt the old-fashioned capitalist way.
Imagine visiting a foreign country and having people stop to stare at you.
That was the experience I had to contend with when I recently went on a tour of Vietnam. And being the only “darkie” among my travel mates made it look like I was this effigy fit to be paraded.
“Hi, I really like your skin,” the women would say, waving their hands as I walked by.
But being the pitch-black Afro that I am, it wasn’t as if the sharp glares from the Vietnamese people scrutinising my dark pigmentation weren’t expected. I have been too hard-bitten by the more spiteful prejudices back home to be troubled by the constant stares.
It was the reality of a dream trip to Vietnam coming true that mattered. For while a skinny teenager, my siblings and I huddled before the big screen watching those horror movies of American warplanes scouring Vietnam’s thickly forested landscape and spitting lethal bombs. We’d gasp in unison as the planes left behind a trail of mass destruction and manslaughter.
So when I got an offer to visit Vietnam, I thought I was hallucinating. My excursion began sumptuously when we were upgraded to business class.
Flying business class on Qatar Airways – voted the Skytrax airline of the year for 2011 and 2012 – was the ultimate experience for the “boy from the village” heading to South East Asia.
There was a two-hour stopover in Bangkok, Thailand, to connect with another flight after a transit via Doha in Qatar. But our passage through the airport security checkpoints went smoothly. We were processed quickly, thanks to our hosts, Qatar Airways, Flight Centre and On the Go Tours. They pre-arranged all the details, from visas to accommodation and entrance to the tourist sites, as for any normal tour.
So all we had to do was let ourselves be swallowed up in the wonders of Vietnam.
If You Go...
Lebogang Seale travelled as a guest of Flight Centre and On the Go Tours, on the 10-day Very Vietnam tour which departs year-round and starts at R14 540 excluding flights.
Price includes: airport arrival/departure transfers, seven nights in four-star hotels, one night deluxe junk boat, one overnight sleeper train, breakfast daily, four lunches and one dinner, all transportation and guided sightseeing with local Vietnamese tour guide. Qatar Airways serve Vietnam daily from Joburg with economy flights starting at R7 550 and business flights from R36 250
Special offer for Saturday Star readers:
Flight Centre is offering 10 percent off Very Vietnam for all tours departing before next October, booked by November 30.
Contact 0877 40 50 15 - Saturday Star