Sun Jul 7th
Breakfast is suitably western. We have yet to develop a taste for noodles and spicy chicken instead of Weetabix. We are abroad by 0800 and by heck it is hot. The temperature barely drops below 40C and it is so humid. It is what David calls a “three shirts per day” environment.
Out tour guide and her minibus carry us to Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum – a hideous Soviet Union inspired granite block outside of which queues of hundreds of folk stand for the dubious privilege of a brief glimpse of Uncle Ho’s corpse. Like Mao Tse Tung in China, Ho is venerated in modern Vietnamese folklore. His abode is also open for inspection. He is renowned as a scholarly, Ghandi-like ascetic, unmarried and childless. (Our guide hints in an unguarded moment that his grandchildren agree!). Ho’s face, like Mao’s in China, adorns all bank notes and many streets, highways and other grand projects are named for him. Indeed Saigon in the south (of which more later) is now called Ho Chi Min City – or HCM city to the cognoscenti. The one redeeming feature of this otherwise hideous area of town is the presidential palace and adjacent ministerial buildings which are charming French Palladian Chateaux painted in a garish bright yellow (Dulux yellow peril?).
Hanoi, though the political capital of Vietnam, is a small-ish and rather impoverished looking place. The dominant mode of transport is the motor scooter – of which there are thousands, the municipal wiring is strung along the streets at first floor level, as in India, giving it a jerry-built appearance. There are road works a-plenty but it is in serious need of a brush up to look half respectable.
We leave for Ha Long bay, 100 miles east of Hanoi, facing into the South China Sea. It is a 4 hour drive along the most pot hole ridden road I can recall riding along. The journey is worth it. Ha Long means falling dragon. Legend has it that a celestial dragon who plunged into the sea here creating thousands of limestone outcrops in the bay by lashing its tail. Well it would, wouldn’t it? In fact there are about 3,000 limestone stacks in the bay formed as a result of tectonic activity, sea level change and marine and rain erosion. The effect is stunning. (A similar set of outcrops is to be found in southern Thailand, but these are better.) Being limestone, they are riddled with caves.
We take a junk boat and for 4 hours we potter around these wonders, land on a couple and explore the stalactites and stalagmites. It is quite amazing!
Our tour guide is a charming Vietnamese lass whose English needs a polish up. We realise that there is no freedom to travel out of Vietnam. She has studied English only from tapes and lacks pronunciation skills. She typifies Vietnamese spoken English by failing to pronounce the ends of words. I guess their language is a bit short of digraphs and trigraphs. It comes out, most entertainingly as:
e-fri-rie meaning egg fried rice
i-p-t meaning iced peach tea
my how meaning my house
Fre people meaning French people
And so on. David, who is in a waspish mood, asks her about Dragons, their eggs, habitats etc. and amid much mirth teaches her to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” which she does in halting Vietnamese English. He has adapted the style to describe his telephoto lens as a ”qui-chay-len” or quick change lens.
We are knackered after today and after a “sumptuous sea food dinner” (for that is what the tour itinerary said) we retire to our hotel and sleep well.