Rural Vietnam

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Rural Vietnam offers stark contrasts to the energy, vigour excitement and craziness of Saigon or Hanoi. These communities bring you tradition, contrasts, and even a sense of isolation from the outside world.

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I was invited to spend the Vietnamese New Year with a family who lived in a very small town some 3 hours south east of Hanoi in Ninh Binh province on the main road south. The town’s small size is easy enough to digest, until you realise that people are following you as you walk down the street, because they have rarely if ever seen anyone like you in real life. That is a surprise. Coming across a small village one day I found a locked church, which interested me. Someone was able let me in. I wandered around the church and after a few minutes I realised I was not alone in the supposedly empty church; about 20 people had gathered by the door of the church and were simply staring at me, albeit in a very friendly way.

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That part of Vietnam is littered with relics of French colonial influence none more obvious that the strong presence of Catholicism. What was really interesting to me was seeing churches constructed in Neo Gothic style, which have been constructed within the last 10 years by the congregation. Catholicism is as influential here as Buddhism.

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The contradictions and conflicts between agriculture and industry are seen in peaceful rural scenes set against a backdrop of mountains which have had their whole sides simply ripped out by barely regulated mining.

 

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A new year family gathering involved sitting for a long time on the floor eating good food and consuming large amounts of local rice wine that progressively numbs you in an atmosphere of great harmony as we all struggle to be understood with a mixture of Vietnamese, French English and sign language. People are welcoming friendly and inquisitive. Whilst Vietnamese are proud of their history as victors against foreign influence, resentment and recrimination are very rare. And yes men in one place women in another.

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Communism, Buddhism and Catholicism sit side by side in apparent harmony ,the focus of modern life being material wellbeing, which is the common aim, and they work hard, although millions are still dependent on agriculture.. The families are large and and the bonds tight and are the root from which rural life grows. In amongst rice paddies are the graves of family members giving insight into the long connections of families and towns. The young head for the cities to earn a living if they can but always come back on the frequent busses that thunder down the road as the new world passes by the old.

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Bohol Island, Philippines

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Bohol is justifiably famous for beaches and resorts and boats, but if you suffer from beach ennui, or like to take a more quizzical and enquiring approach to discovering places, there are lots of goodies on Bohol.

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It’s fun to cruise down the Loboc river very slowly, have some lunch relax from the slow lazy movement of the water and absorb river life. For me one of the joys of rivers is when they are firmly bounded by nature, the jungle the vegetation so you are se firmly in the middle of nature with only the odd incursion of the world. There is a satisfying relationship between river and vegetation, they know each other and they enclose you. Occasionally humans insert themselves into this timeless relationship and swim or fish or even live on the banks but you are always conscious that humans are welcomes visitors

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The Philippine Tarsier is the smallest primate on earth, they fit into the palm of your hand and the species can be traced back 45 million years. Visit the sanctuary where they are protected and encouraged to thrive and view them with great gentleness and respect. They are beautiful creatures with enormous eyes, which are the size of their brain, and those eyes are fixed and never move such that they rotate their heads to view laterally. They are a fascinating discovery

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There are some interesting churches on Bohol many of which are now being renovated, which reflect the sometimes-turbulent course of Philippine history and reflect the early Spanish Catholic tradition. The Church of St Nino De Anda is one such containing as it does a great museum tracing its history.

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The Chocolate Hills, so named because in summer the grass the covers them turns a chocolate brown, are a particular feature of the island. They are formed of coral that lifted out of the ocean millions of years ago and the erosion of rain and wind has created their conical shape. There are more than 1200 hills. Apart from the geological explanation for their existence, there are local legends: Two just had a fight that went on for days as they hurled rocks boulders and sand at each other. In the end, exhausted, they left the fight became friends and left the area but forgot to clean up and left behind the mess they had made. Or if you prefer a powerful giant Arogo fell in love with a human called Aloya. Aloya died causing Arogo so much grief that he could not stop crying and when his tears dried the chocolate hills were formed. Take your pick

 

 

Davao City and Samal Island, Philippines

 

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Davao City, the main city on the Philippines island of Mindanao is the largest city in the Philippines by land area and the most populous city after Metro Manila. It’s not the most visited by any means which is partly due to its distance from Manila and because it is on the island of Mindanao, which has suffered from Islamic terrorist uprisings in recent years. But it is well worth a visit.

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For me it is undoubtedly the safest of all the cities that I have visited in the Philippines. Talking to Filipinos the law is respected there and undoubtedly enforced. An army presence securing the city against terrorism is part of that but there is an inherent respect for the law that is striking. Anti-smoking laws are strictly enforced as I experienced having sopped for a quick cigarette in the street before entering a restaurant only to be accosted by two serious looking cops who told me that no smoking is really no smoking and you can be arrested for even smoking in the street! Look at Mount Apo, and if you are lucky to see the Philippines Eagle the largest I the world and now protected.

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Off the coast is the intriguing island of Samal. The easiest way to get there is to go to the ferry port and simply jump on the ferry that runs across from Davao to Samal all the time. It costs just a few pesos and the other end do a deal with a tuk tuk driver to take you round the good places on the island. Not only is it a fun way to travel but the drivers are great travel guides.

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Samal has lots of great beaches and resorts to go with them but there are some gems on the island itself. The Hagimat Falls cost is a series of small waterfalls and pools where you can swim. The water is extraordinarily clean and it is set in the jungle, a small hike from the road. Very beautiful particularly given its quite remote setting.

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The Montfort Bat Sanctuary contains 2.4 million Philippine fruit bats that live in caves set into the hill, a series of holes that you can peer into and see the massed ranks of bats hanging together on the walls. The story of the bats are fascinating, their lives and the order of their lives ending in a cave reserved for “retired “ bats to end their days.

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A great way to complete the trip to Samal is to experience the Giant Clam Sanctuary. Take a boat out to a floating platform and then snorkel a view these extraordinary protected features of nature, which grow up to 1.5 meters in diameter. The pure clear water makes it an extraordinary experience that you can simply view or get very close to.

Independence Palace Saigon – The Prism of History

 

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What is commonly called The Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace was built in the centre of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1962. This followed an air raid by two renegade pilots of the then Vietnam Air Force on behalf of the Viet Cong, seeking to assassinate the then President Diem, which destroyed a wing of the then Norodam Palace. The President, who escaped the air raid, instructed that a new Palace to be built on the site, to the design of a Vietnamese architect who won one of the world’s foremost architectural prizes for his design.

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President Diem never saw the finished work since he and his family were assassinated, but it became the seat of power of the subsequent Presidents of South Vietnam, or the Republic of Vietnam as it was known. That era ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces took the Palace, a scene reflected in a famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the Palace gates.

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For me this is not an inspiring building despite its Architectural awards, but looking at it, and inside it, lets us look at history through a prism and reflect on some of what it means historically. The Palace has subsequently been used for State occasions but it is essentially a destination for tourists exploring Vietnam. The balcony from which Presidents looked down on crowds, is not a convenient vantage point for people to take photos down a wide boulevard lined by a park, the play ground of the French Colonials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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What strikes you first and foremost about the interior is how grandiose an pompous it is. Throne rooms, extravagant 800 seater meetings rooms ,where the great and the good of that tiny, no longer existing Republic and their visitors assembled to chart the course of the country and to play its important part in the Geopoliticis of the era of the “domino effect”. Today it all seems pointless and irrelevant, with the then famous people who occupied those rooms gone and largely forgotten. But then how many countries do we see in the world with poor people who have been ruled by people where display has far outweighed substance in importance.

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In the basement is a bunker to be used by the President in time of war or emergency. It has offices bedrooms and the then latest communication technology still in place. Despite the fact that it is only 41 years since that country’s demise, the equipment looks stone age. You realise that in the era in which we exist, history is defined not just by time, but also by technological progress, things and people become objects of history much earlier than they used to. History is foreshortened.

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And individuals see this building according to their lives at the time. A woman I met in Saigon who had been in her 30s when the tank crashed through the gates, told me that I should not take too much notice of the incident with the tank, “to be honest” she said, “don’t take too much notice of this drama about tanks smashing gates. In fact we just opened the gates and let them in”. Such is the joy of the prism effect on history.

 

Ha Long Bay – Vietnam

 

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Ha Long Bay is situated on the north east coast of Vietnam, a ride of about 160 kms from Hanoi. It is an area of about 1500 square kilometres comprising some 2000 islets and Karsts, which has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site. Ha Long Bay means the bay of descending dragons. It has its own micro ecology and bio diversity and a huge variety of islets.

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You can access the bay from a number of places but the most obvious are Halong town and Bai Chai a small town about 15 minutes away. Travel around the islands is by boat, either old junks which cruise slowly around and on which you can stay overnight or by smaller boats on day trips. One of the delights of this trip is the Vietnamese food that is made locally especially the sea food. On the boats you can order food and have a great meal as you cruise around. The nice thing is that you can order so you get something special.

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There are lots of people selling tours to Ha Long in Hanoi and the local area, many acting only as agents and selling tickets and those tickets can have various prices for the same tour or trip, so it is important to look around. The price differences can be big. For myself I negotiated the various elements of the visit independently so got amazing deals on transport boats and food, but tat is easier if you are a solo traveller than if in a group. Also I stayed in the town of Bai Chai rather than Halong itself , although very close by and that town is very good value. It is being developed for the mass market, so as with many places in Vietnam it is going to change quickly.

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The islets Karsts and the seas around them are a visual delight, something quite unique, but 2000 islets is a lot so its good to be selective and visit the ones you want. Each has a name, the elephant, chicken, he and she, etc so you can be specific. There are many caves and grottos on the islets, some can only be visited at low tide and others any time so find out about those. Some, unfortunately in my view, have lighting that can give them a slightly Disneyworld feel, but they are amazing for all that.

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Halong is a joy, and an indispensible part of any tour of the variety and wonders of North East Vietnam.

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Hue and The Perfume River – Vietnam

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The ancient city of Hue was the capital city if Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 when Vietnam was divided and acquired 2 Capital Saigon in the South and Hanoi in the North. The city’s biggest feature is the enormous 19th century Citadel that also houses what was the Imperial City the home of the then Emperors.

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The City is crossed by the Perfume River. Upstream of the city were many orchards and flowers that fell from those orchards used to fill the river and float through it giving off a scent hence the name. Many of those orchards are gone but annual flowers still float down.img_0345

img_3348The river is very much alive, Transport, fishing and now tourism fill it. One of the most common sights on the river is boats carrying the rich sediment from the river bottom back to the city. The boats are rudimentary and the operators get paid per loan for the sediment which is used in building. To see those boats filled with the water line so close to the level of the river you wonder why they don’t sink but somehow from generations of experience they thrive.

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Along the river are pagodas and also the tombs of former emperors. These burial sites and tombs were identified and designed in the lifetime of an emperor and they are more like small palaces than a burial site, set in carefully selected beautiful sites out of the city along the river. Although there are temples and memorials in these sites, actually the emperors are buried somewhere in the large enclosure but with no one knowing exactly where. Fear of exhumation was such that the Emperor himself was buried secretly in an unmarked grave somewhere on the sit, which was usually tended by former wives of which they could have hundreds.

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The City itself is dominated by the Citadel an enormous construction surrounded by some 10kms of walls. The Citadel suffered huge damage in the Vietnam War in the Tet offensive such that many of the buildings have been destroyed. Some have been restored and it is a wonderful place to visit, although you need time to do that. Many people bypass Hue and their way North and South but for me it was one of my favourite cities in Vietnam and a must visit.

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The Marble Mountains – Vietnam

 

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The Marble Mountains are 5 marble and limestone hills that are just south of Da Nang on the east coast of Vietnam. The area is famous for marble creations although the marble no longer comes from these hills but is brought from other parts of Vietnam. Each of the hills has a name relating to an element, metal, water, wood, fire and earth. The hills are on an essentially flat coastal plain and rise out of the plain in an almost random way. img_0159

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These marble factories produce amazing carvings, all entirely carved and polished by hand. You can buy designs there or they make designs to order. The craftsmanship is amazing although there is a major discrepancy between what a carving costs and what someone gets paid to make one. You can wander round the marble factories and watch the carvings being made all the way from a block of marvel to a beautiful modern or traditional carving.

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Buddhist sanctuaries and grottos are inside the mountains, having been constructed to fit the contours, and these themselves have some extraordinary and intricate work. There is a lift up part of the mountain that is accessible to visitors, followed by some 150 steps up to the summit. The amazing views from the mountains look out over the beautiful beaches of this part of the country and west across the plain to the mountains in the distance. These hills have been a look out point for centuries.

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It is said that in the Vietnam war the Vietcong had a hospital in these hills close to an air force base hiding its existence effectively in plain sight. There are tickets to buy but reasonable priced. The local currency, the Dong, has a lot of zeros in it which is quite hard to get used to, so you have to remember that when you are told that something costs say 250, you need to add three zeros to that figure!

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This area of coast is now subject to huge development for the tourist industry with big and numerous resorts being built down the coast from Da Nang to cater for the tourist trade predominantly from China, Korea and Japan. In a way it is a sad sight because the natural beauty of the coast here is stunning. But ask a Vietnamese person about it and they are happy that it will bring income and prosperity to the area, the classic conundrum of development.

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