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Exploring Vietnam in Luxury: Part 2

by Walter Glaser

The importance of Nha Trang's fishing fleet becomes obvious the night before our landfall. We go for an after-dinner stroll on the deck, and as we look around we see a huge, almost unending line of lights in the distance. Is this the shore? Then we look at the other side of the Sea Goddess, and see a similar line of lights. Can we be going up a channel between two stretches of inhabited land? At this point we are passing the Bridge and, being curious, I pose that question to the officer on duty.

It turns out that neither row of lights is land-based. It is the fishing fleet of Nha Trang, and it would be impossible to get a clearer picture of the threat from which the oceans of the world will find it difficult to recover -- overfishing!

This relatively small fishing port is home to over five thousand fishing vessels of one kind or another. So the fish do not stand a chance. In Thailand the situation is even worse as the Thais not only use the same sort of fierce floodlights to lure the fish into the nets, but use nets colloquially known as "Wall of Death" which kill everything and let nothing through, not even fingerlings escape to breed another day. Add pollution to the problem and the future is indeed grim for any sort of catches to be maintained years down the line.

Next morning, we take the shuttle bus to the beach hotel the ship's Entertainment Director had recommended for a lazy, relaxing morning ashore. As we alight, a gaggle of clamoring "trishaw" ( pedal-powered tricycle "taxis" used in this part of the world) drivers surround us, offering their services. I want to explore a bit further afield and pick one driver who seems to speak better English than the others. It turns out to be a lucky choice. As he pedals down the street I can see that he is bursting to practice his English. Without too much encouragement from me, he tells me his story.

During the Vietnam War he had been an Officer in the South Vietnamese Army. When Australia sent troops to Vietnam to augment the U.S. Forces, my driver, who had studied English at University, was assigned to liaise with the Australian Military Command stationed in this area. He had become quite fond of the Australians and enjoyed their company, and when they left and he was eventually taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, hard times followed, starting with two years in a Viet Cong "Re-education" Camp where life was no picnic.

Subsequently released, he became a trishaw driver, but the pickings were lean from the predominantly Russian clientele who were now the main visitors to Nha Trang. Then the Russians went home too, and now he is waiting in the hope that well-paying Asians and Westerners will come to this town to supplement his income beyond subsistence level.

We arrive at the town bridge and stop to take some photographs. The Vietnamese have an amazing rowboat that is literally shaped like a round half-barrel and immediately makes me think of the rub-a-dub-dub nursery rhyme. A group of young men are maneuvering one of these contraptions from a fishing boat to the base of the bridge, and I expect them to capsize any moment. To my surprise they make it to the embankment, scrambling up the forty-five degree slope with peals of laughter. Photos taken, we continue to the Fish Market.

Here, the result of the overfishing is grimly obvious. Catches are down to such an extent, our Trishaw driver explains, that many fishermen face ruin because they can not afford to pay for the fuel from the little money they get from their now-tiny catches. And baskets of sardine-sized fishes attest to the truth of the information. I recognize varieties that I know from snorkeling on Australia’s Barrier Reef. But while the fish there had been between eighteen and twenty-five inches in length, here they are only five and six inches long.

Women sitting on their heels in true Asian fashion, were sorting, cleaning, scaling to prepare fish and prawns for the market. In a corner are two or three piles of two and three feet long sharks. Really big fish are notable by their absence in any large numbers.

"Let me take you to the Tiger Hole Monastery," says our Trishaw driver. "What do you mean, Tiger Hole?" I ask, but he grins and says to wait till we get there.

Cycling through the suburbs we can't help noticing that people in this part of rural Vietnam appear to enjoy a relatively high standard of living. Houses are well kept and neat, people seem well-clothed, and one gets the impression that, as long as the people "keep their noses clean" politically, the government leaves them well alone.

As we trundle through the streets he explains the current set-up in Vietnam. All land is owned by the State, but housing lots are leased to the individuals on renewable ninety-nine-year leases. People can then build their houses on these, and in return, pay a tax on their house instead of rent. This tax is based on the frontage width of the house -- depth or height are not taken into account.

Consequently, a very large number of houses, especially those on the main roads where the value per foot is high, are up to three floors tall with relatively narrow frontages of between twenty and twenty-five feet. Some of these houses are quite lavish and can even contain elevators. We see one that is particularly smart and modern. "That house is owned by a local guy whose brother emigrated to U.S.A. and has sent back the money for it," explains our Trishaw driver.

The Monastery, it turns out is entirely staffed by female monks and has been, our driver-now-turned-guide tells us, ever since it was built well over a century ago. It is called the Tiger Hole Monastery because it adjoins a cave which, for many decades prior to the building of the Monastery, was the den of generations of Asian tigers that inhabited this area until the early 1900s.

As a token of their faith, we are told, novice Buddhist nuns had to sleep in the cave with the tigers, and it is claimed that none were ever harmed by these animals, which did not die out until the area was more densely settled at the beginning of this century.

Climbing up to the first floor temple area, we meet the elderly Monk (I suppose you would call a female Monk a Monkess), a wizened but happy-looking old lady with shaven head, attended by a young, equally bald-shaven novice, who leads us to the large, serene-looking Buddha image, in front of which several people stand in prayer or lighting incense-sticks.

On the way out we notice a mother with three smiling teenage daughters. One is just bringing a tray of tasty-looking soups from the kitchen at the back of the ground floor, and they take this to one of the several tables and benches nearby.

Our guide had told us that many people who came here to pray stayed to eat and that the nuns were helping to finance their monastery by operating a food service from their kitchen. When, with our guide acting as interpreter, I compliment the mother on her charming daughters, she invites us to join them all for early lunch. We compromise by having tea with them, and are glad that we to do so.

I had sometimes harbored doubts about the authenticity of Vietnam's boat people, wondering if they were simply individuals "on the run" from the authorities. I'll never have these doubts again. Over our tea, the mother explains that seven years ago her husband decided to make a better life for his family by joining a group fleeing the country on one of the many fishing boats from this port, hoping to make a new life for himself in Malaysia, the Philippines or Australia, and having his family follow once he was established in his new country. Some days out at sea a violent storm overtook them, the boat sank and all on board were drowned. Now relatives are pitching in to keep the family together and every year since then, the mother has brought her children to the Tiger Hole Monastery on the anniversary of her late husband's death.

At this point, another group comes into the garden. One woman in particular stands out as being very elegantly dressed in Western style. When she sees us in the garden she comes over to say hello, and in excellent English asks where we are from. It turns out that she is from a family of Vietnamese boat people who have successfully made the journey to freedom and are now living in Florida. Each year she comes to Vietnam to visit her family -- the considerably less-well-dressed group that are with her here today, and they all come to pray at the Tiger Hole Monastery before she returns to America.

We pedal back to the beachside rendezvous with the mini-bus, thinking about all the sights we have seen, and say farewell to our trishaw friend who appears to have thoroughly enjoyed the morning also.

After lunch on board the Sea Goddess, we again head out, this time on an organized tour into the countryside. On this occasion we are with a professional tour guide who, as is only to be expected, closely toes the Party line. He explains that farmland is wholly-owned by the government, and is on long-term lease to the farmers, who the government supplies with seed for their crops as well. In return, the farmer is taxed a percentage of his crop in a "payment in kind" scenario.

We are taken to an idyllic farm situated along the local river. The family who live here are led by a wrinkled-looking lady in her eighties, yet one senses, from her commands to her family as well as her gestures, that she is sharp as a tack and very much in control, not only of all her senses but of her family as well. The property holding is quite substantial and appears to be superbly maintained.

I notice that there is a crucifix on the wall. There is a very large number of Christians in Vietnam and the religion does not seem to be discriminated against, though one can never really tell. We look at the tropical-fruit trees, admire the way the rice fields are built up, and look at the other experimental plantings that have been made here.

Then it's time to visit a local village, and to my surprise, this is again entirely Christian rather than Buddhist. Reading between the lines, I get the feeling that we have been taken here because this village is somehow subsidized more heavily by a combination of church and relatives overseas. Be that as it may, the village community is particularly well run and everyone seems very happy. We call on a kindergarten where the children, ranging from four to eight, are clearly dressed in their Sunday best in expectation of our visit. Too young to be too shy or self-conscious, these kids are charming, friendly and proud to perform little songs and dances for us.

Then we go to the village baker to watch dough being mixed in what looks like a huge wash-trough and then baked into mouth-watering French bread sticks in a classic wood-fired bread oven. We visit homes and mat-making workshops and then call at the local open market, where farmers display freshly harvested produce. Meat, fish and other items are being keenly shopped for by the housewives of the village. Our guide explains that refrigerators are not yet in common use and that the daily shopping routine for fresh produce is therefore an extremely important part of every Vietnamese family's life.

Then it's back to the ship for a 6pm departure.

For the whole voyage the China Sea which has a reputation for being dread-worthy has been amazingly docile, and as we now travel further north the temperature is dropping but the sea is still wonderfully calm. Mid-morning we pass a gaggle of Russian oil rigs that are pumping away at the ocean bed, producing Vietnam's number one export. Immediately the country's relationships with the West improved, American and Australian companies purchased leases on either side of the Russian oilfields in the hope of further major oil strikes. All they found was major frustrations. Having run up huge expenses without any sign of oil, or even gas, they decided to close up shop, leaving the Russians to smile a quiet smile -- and keep pumping.

By 11am we are steaming up the river that is the main artery to Hai Phong, the port city of Hanoi. We have a very early lunch on board. An overnight shore excursion and stopover in Hanoi itself had been one of the Hai Phong options we had chosen.

Talking to one of the ship's officers who made this journey the same time last year, I'm told that this is the first year that all the wrecked shipping that literally lined both sides of the river has been removed. I also notice that all the trees on either side of river leading to Hanoi seem very new growth. An English colleague who has also noticed this muses that all the old, taller trees were probably destroyed by napalm, a suggestion that does not sound at all implausible.

I see something white glinting in the sunlight on the river ahead of us. First it's a dot, then a white blob, and very soon it takes the shape of one of the Russian hydrofoils I have seen so often, from the Danube to the ports of Yalta and Odessa, as well as the run from Venice up the coast of Yugoslavia. This one looks very white and pristine. Much better, in fact, than the often run-down counterparts in Russia and the former satellites. It passes in a flurry of spray and peace returns to the river for a short time. Then settlements appear and we are coming into Hai Phong's main harbor.

Here we see shipping that, in many cases, looks totally unseaworthy. Old rust buckets line the wharves and I almost have to stop myself looking for an unshaven Humphrey Bogart to appear on the deck. But, now we come to a more modern section. Here a long line of beautiful young Vietnamese girls in the traditional ao dai, the country's national dress for females, stretches along the wharf, each holding a bunch of long stemmed roses. The ship's agents have thought of everything.

We disembark just as it starts to drizzle, and the smiling girls have now come to the gangway and are handing each of us a rose. No wonder so many French soldiers left their hearts behind in Hanoi!

Each of the several mini-buses have a guide and one of the ship’s staff on board. We are fortunate enough to be with singer Stuart Gillies and his charming wife Rachel, and his anecdotes about the various trips he had taken keep us enthralled for most of the long, bumpy, pothole-pitted, three-hour ride into Hanoi itself.

Already we see that there is a great difference between this and the Saigon area. We are further north, the climate is much cooler, and the American and Japanese influence is very much reduced by comparison, replaced by a notable presence of things Russian and Chinese. Here the trucks are predominantly from these two countries, cars are very often Russian Ladas or their Chinese equivalents, and everybody is a lot more serious-faced.

The traffic thickens and now the road is alive with bicycles, mopeds, motorbikes, and Chinese tractors pretending to be people-movers by towing trailers full of workers. Along the roadside vast skeletons of factories, as yet unfinished, loom up among the landscape. We pass whole villages that appear to be making the same product. One is producing honey, the next soy sauce. Much of the road is lined with multi-story shop-houses, the ground floor being the store or workshop, and up to three upper floors of residences. In between, there are miles of ricefields and other farm-plots with workers in conical hats bent over tending to the various crops.

Arriving in Hanoi, we are taken straight to the Temple of Literature where we see ancient statues of Confucius, and century-old stone turtles carrying stone slabs that bear the names of graduates from ancient schools. Then we are taken to shopping streets, where the merchandise is very classically Vietnamese, with little that caters to the tastes of tourists. But we are enthralled with a few of the items -- lacquer-ware, silver boxes, bangles, handmade porcelain and silks. At close range the people seem very friendly. Everyone smiles, except for one old man who glowers at us with a look of unmistakable hate. Who knows what tragedy his family may have suffered during the Vietnam War. This is not an easy place to make snap judgments.

Street cafes abound. One can be excused for coming to the conclusion that eating is Vietnam's number one preoccupation. People sit on curbside stools around makeshift tables, while food is being prepared on portable, cycle-mounted street-cookers. What you see is what you get! The food looks fresh enough and everyone is clearly enjoying their meal.

Ads are not nearly as commonplace as in Saigon, but we notice ones for Tiger Beer and Coca-Cola. Bicycles and motorbikes are parked everywhere and, at peak hour, choke the road. It's not unusual to see a motorcycle built for one carry four -- father, mother and two children. Wherever we look we cannot help noticing that, children here are spotlessly clean by comparison to those in many other parts of Asia. Many of the women have strikingly good looks, are taller than many of their Asian counterparts and with beautiful, long, straight black hair. Being with my wife that's as far as I can investigate!

The day ends at the Hotel Metropole, the pre-war No-1 French hotel in this city, now magnificently restored and superbly operated by Sofitel, the premier French hotel group. We stay here for the night and have a memorably good dinner at the dining room of this hotel.

The meal over, Stuart Gillies, has arranged for a treat. Having been here last year, he knows where to go and what to see. He and Rachel have rounded-up nine Trishaws for an hour's tour of the old district, which will allow us to catch a glimpse of the real way that people live here. It has started to drizzle but that does not deter our Trishaw drivers. They drop the awnings that have been folded back on the Trishaws so that they protect us from overhead rain, then wrap large sheets of transparent polythene around what are now the Trishaw's "cabins." This not only makes us feel as if we are traveling under huge condoms, but has the added advantage of protecting the driver who is pedaling from behind and using us as a rain-shield.

You haven't lived until you have had a night-time ride in a Hanoi Trishaw! In spite of the drizzle, the traffic is formidable, and one cannot help thinking that the driver is far from stupid in letting the passenger be his bumper-bar and staying in what is a relatively safe position at the back.

Trishaws have a habit of weaving drunkenly along the road and the feeling of vulnerability is heightened by the fact that, from time to time, they cross over into the on-coming traffic lane for no apparent reason other than cutting a corner. Add the myriads of bicycles, motorbikes and the occasional car or Russian jeep being driven with the same reckless abandon, and what should be a very sedate ride makes a roller coaster tame by comparison.

As we go along, our Trishaw driver points to a bar that has a neon sign announcing that it offers Karaoke music. "Girlie bar," he says. "Many foreigners come Hanoi now, and go to Karaoke bar to pick up Hanoi girls. Very new. Not happen before." As I'm traveling with my wife, this information is about as useful as offering a pork chop to a Rabbi.

Next morning we are taken to the Hanoi War Museum. This one is not only about the Vietnam War with the predominantly American forces, but concentrates mainly on the earlier war against the French, finishing with the Battle of Dien Ben Phu. As I look at the displays and see the struggles and battles that the French fought here, my mind goes back to a tiny country town I had visited in Normandy. In the gardens of this, there had been a statue to the men of this village-sized town that had fallen in battle. There was a panel for those who had died in the Franco-Prussian War, another for those who gave their lives for France in World War I, then another for World War II and two more for the wars in Algeria and Vietnam. I had been staggered by the way the men or whole families had been wiped out, and when it came to the last panel, this is where it all happened.

In the courtyard of the War Museum I have to take a second look at a conical, heaped-up pile of debris to see that it is the remnants of a huge U.S. bomber shot down over Vietnam. Once again, I'm overwhelmed by the sad futility of the many lives that were lost here by both sides.

Our last stop in Hanoi itself is the impressive Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. As we approach this vast complex and the spacious square which also used for this country's military parades, we see Vietnamese soldiers in dress uniform arrange the constant flow of busloads of nationals into tidy lines. We too are put into a similar line, but are fast-tracked into the Mausoleum without the very considerable waiting time the patient Vietnamese groups seem happy to endure.

We file into the massive building where more white-gloved soldiers are making sure that no-one uses a camera, or shows any sign of disrespect. Voices have to be hushed to soft whispers, and as we file through corridors and stairways, we finally come to the room that contains the embalmed body of the "Father of Vietnam." He lies in a glass casket, pinkly lit to give him an appearance of just being asleep. Guards ensure that there is total quiet and respect. I notice one elderly Vietnamese in the line with a silent tear rolling down his cheek.

Then back into the daylight, and to the gardens that house the former French Governor's mansion and administrative buildings. When Ho Chi Minh had the opportunity to preside from these, he chose to have a comparatively simple structure built in the garden nearby, and this is now the de rigeur place to visit. As my wife photographs some of the smiling guards we have asked to pose, one of the officers comes over, giving us sign language that unmistakably translates into "get thee hence." He looks very official and determined so, not wanting to create an international incident, we comply.

On the way back to the ship, we make our last visit in Vietnam -- to a village that produces nothing but pottery. On the way our minibus driver gets lost, but this gives us an opportunity to see more of the countryside. Eventually we reach the village which has some 3000 inhabitants, everyone of them -- man, woman and child -- engaged in some aspect of pottery-making. Those that are not producing the pottery itself are involved in the resources for this industry. A couple of family houses have courtyards stacked high with round disks of charcoal for firing the pottery ovens.

I've never seen so much pottery in my life. Mountains of it. A very large proportion of the production here looks like colored pottery bar-bells. I ask our guide what these are, and once he answers I can, in hindsight, immediately recognize their use. They are the supports for the concrete and pottery balustrades that every Vietnamese houses features on their upper floors.

Other factories are turning out plates, yet others bowls and teapots. We are taken to the studios of the village's leading artists where we buy some beautiful handmade and hand-painted rice bowls with lids for around US$2 each. Just as dusk is falling we board our bus, and head for the ship. The next day will be spent sailing the glass-flat sea to Hong Kong. We certainly appreciated the luxury of being able to enjoy what we saw from the opulent comfort of the Sea Goddess. It would be hard to imagine a finer ship, and though traveling this way is far from cheap, it is perfection. The Sea Goddess cruises are on two identical vessels, Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II, and because of their small size and shallow draught, they can visit ports that other ships cannot enter. And as for the cost, I couldn't help agree with a remark I overheard on board. One American tycoon summed it up when he commented, "To hell with the cost. If we don't travel first class now, our heirs sure will, later."

We have seen Vietnam in style. If we come back in three or four years, I'm sure everything will have changed considerably and the country will no longer be as freshly tourist-innocent as it is today. But that's one of the great joys of traveling. There is always something new out there, always something interesting to see. And when that stops, it will be time to stay home and put our feet up. Till then, we'll keep on moving, and hopefully you will keep reading about it.

Back to Part One


Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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