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Friday, January 27, 2012

Eastern promise in Vietnam and Cambodia

Hoi An

Lying in the bath on a wooden junk in the South China Sea at dawn, the porthole opens on to an astonishing vista of mini mountains, one of Vietnam's most extraordin-ary surprises. It is pure Doctor Dolittle territory, with thousands of rough-hewn islands of limestone jutting out of the turquoise water. All that is needed is for a giant sea snail to slide gracefully into view among the 1,969 rocky isles, which UNESCO has described as one of the eight natural wonders of the world.

The Bhaya, an elegant junk with 20 cabins, is sailing in Halong Bay, 100 miles east of Hanoi. It begs for Agatha Christie to set Monsieur Poirot a mystery on board. It is light, airy and comfortable but full of potential for a whodunit: a very respectable couple from Shropshire sit next to a young gay couple from Germany, while a boisterous Australian family order drinks. Some try squid-fishing from the lower deck after a fresh crab dinner served on crisp white tablecloths.

Canoes are available in the afternoon for the more adventurous, and a spa is discreetly set up by white-uniformed staff for those who want to do nothing. This is a quirky sea venture: Bing Crosby songs alternate with Russian-Scottish music at the bar; cocktails are only a couple of dollars or so a shot. Vietnam at every stage is delightful and inexpensive.

How wise were the French to choose Indo-China when the world was like a huge Monopoly board being divided by the West's Great Powers. What is not to like about what is now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos: staggeringly beautiful countries with ancient cultures going back more than 1,000 years, and landscapes, people and cuisine that are all beyond seductive.

It is almost 40 years since this region was ravaged by tanks, bombs and civil war. It is
37 years since the Vietnam War ended and Vietnam is now one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Hanoi buzzes with modern expansion yet remains traditional: women in coolie hats carry baskets of jackfruit past hi-tech gadget shops and a shiny Louis Vuitton store; and after just a short drive, you are in paddy fields with farmers trudging beneath palm trees in scenes that have remained unchanged for centuries.

Everything is a mix of ancient and modern. Hoi An, about 500 miles south of Hanoi, is an ancient town declared a World Heritage Site for its extraordinarily well-preserved 17th-century buildings, bridges over the river and old pagodas. Alongside are shops where Indian tourists whisper, 'Even we find it cheap here,' as they snap up silk scarves and have their children's portraits drawn by talented street artists for £4.

This former harbour town at the estuary of the Thu Bon river was an important trading centre in the 16th and 17th centuries, where Chinese from various provinces settled alongside Japanese, Dutch and Indians. During this period, the town was called Hoai Pho (Seaside Town in Vietnamese). Originally, it was a divided town with the Japanese settlement across the 16th-century Japanese Bridge, the only known covered bridge with a pagoda on the side.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the cult of the eponymous former leader is much celebrated with statues and a tomb that receives as much attention as Lenin's in Red Square. For those brought up on Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam films, it is fascinating to see this tranche of modern history - always referred to by locals as the 'American War' - through the eyes of the Vietcong.

The War Remnants Museum shows devastating photographs of the effect of American bombing using the chemical weapon Agent Orange. The message of the museum is a complete condemnation of America for its military intervention. Curiously enough, however, the museum is partly funded by American Democrat donations, and the Vietnamese staff are extraordinarily friendly to every sheep-faced American tourist.

Yet more riveting is a visit to Cu Chi, just an hour by taxi (£40 return), where 75 miles of underground tunnels were bored out during the war. It is where the Vietcong lived amid horrendous conditions. The torturous underground traps, complete with sharp spikes, which they laid to ambush American soldiers send shivers down the spine. But the ingenuity and bravery of the Vietcong as they lived in these subterranean passages, just 18 inches high and accessed by wormhole entrances leading to pitch darkness, only popping up to fight the US troops, is remarkable.

For something less cultural, but no less enjoyable, incorporate into your trip a few days at the Fusion Maia resort in Da Nang, where every spa treatment is free and the beach is sprawling and dramatic.

And anyone going to Vietnam must also hop on a flight to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. It is 1,000 years old, the same age as Westminster Abbey, and the temples are exactly like something from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Vast tree roots drape over ancient stone arches and steps, and the carvings of Buddha have survived ten centuries. This is a place where the number of tourists seems to be easily diluted - there are, after all, more than 5,000 temples in the area.

Stay at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor: simple, traditional, luxurious and detail-oriented. It also smells completely delicious, nothing is too much trouble and the comfort is as extraordinary as the value. Noodles and spring rolls seem to almost pop up in one's dreams, along with locust curry and frog's leg soup. This is a journey for all the senses, and a delight for anyone interested in history, ancient and modern. ES

Geordie Greig travelled courtesy of Vietnam Airlines (020 3263 2062; and leading Indo-China destination management company HG Travel (; Bhaya Cruises (;
the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake (; Fusion Maia (; the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor (; and the Caravelle Hotel ( Vietnam Airlines offers non-stop services four times per week from Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. etours (0844 472 3421; offers a six-night Vietnam package from £1,789 per person, with a three-night extension to Siem Reap from an additional £569 per person


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