It has been my pleasure to visit parts of Vietnam and Cambodia travelling with RAC Travel’s package tours.  My wife and I chose the 3 day Hanoi and Halong Bay followed by the 12 day Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap.  The latter was the 2014 RAC President’s Tour.

by Michael Harvey

As a first time visitor to what was once French Indochina the tours offered far more than I expected. There were gigabytes of photo opportunities. As well as the tourist hotspots the river cruise section took us to places less travelled. I learned a lot about the way of life of local peoples and the impact of the West on tradition oriented societies.  Fellow RAC travellers enjoyed the museum, temple and pagoda visits as well as seeing village markets and farming practices along the mighty Mekong River.  Others enthused about the food.  The cuisines of each locality we visited were one of the hidden treasures of the tour.  We saw traditional music and dance.  Some of us renewed our interest in the history and politics of these developing nations. For many the tour group it was a chance for some deep learning about these post-colonial states that are only now getting beyond the Japanese, French and American wars.

Our tour began in Hanoi (9 million) where we were met by a local tour guide and taken to a luxurious lakeside hotel.  As the long travel day came to an end the hotel environs enabled us to observe life on the streets.  Nearby was the local Communist Party Administrative Centre where couples in formal western dress waited their turn in the marriage registry.  Returning workers came to the lake’s edge to catch fish for dinner.  Each had their own set of rock steps from which to fish.  I watched with interest the vigorous jagging technique using a bamboo pole and long line.  Their catches of live carp were stored in underwater cane baskets or tail tethered until it was time to go home.  As the work day came to an end the streets came alive with people buying food from local markets.  Many households prepared food in a small clay outdoor oven on the street. Others took their families to a street side eating house. Throughout the old Indochine people do not have fridges.  Consequently close at hand local markets are a feature of the streetscapes.

I was surprised to learn that Hanoi has been an urban settlement for over 1,000 years.  Old inner city Hanoi is characterized by some picturesque lakes among the winding streets.  I enjoyed the visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex.  Set in an impressive botanic garden this is the Stalinesque part of the city.  Ho’s resting place is modelled on Lenin’s tomb.  We took our place in the long line and saw the changing of the guard in their Soviet era white dress uniforms.  Groups of visitors in traditional dress formed up in separate queues.  Some tour groups were from beyond Hanoi.  They brought large floral wreaths on stands.  The guards received the floral tributes and ensured that the lines of visitors were respectful.  Deviants were ticked off for not moving at the right speed or for not removing their hats.  No cameras were allowed.  Filing past Ho’s eerie pale body I could see his whispy hair. I sensed the deep respect that the Vietnamese people have for this legendary figure.  For many the visit was like a religious pilgrimage.  Emerging from the mausoleum the guide handed back our cameras for some photos in the adjoining a botanic gardens.  We then moved on to see Ho’s old house (1923) and his newer teak house on stilts (1954).  They were basic, reflecting his simple lifestyle.  I peeked down the entrance to his bomb shelter that was conveniently placed at the steps to the stilt house.  Among the gardens and lakes was the exquisite one tree pagoda.  Arising from a square lake the pagoda mimics the image of a lotus blossom.  At another lake there was even a reminder of home.  Bottle brush trees bordered one of the pathways.

The 36 streets of the old French quarter are worth a walk.  It is a shoppers’ paradise with concentrations of specialist shops.  The French street names are long gone but the French electricity transmission poles were still in use.  By now they had been overloaded with a tangle of wires.  Goodness only knows how they correct a power failure.  One element of French soft power remained. It was the honorific of ‘mademoiselle’ that was used in cafes and hotels.

During rush hours the main streets of Hanoi and as I later found out HCMC, are flooded with thousands of people. Swarms of light motorcycles burst forward when the traffic lights change.  It is a daunting prospect learning to cross streets.  I copied the guide and used a ‘feeding the chooks’ hand motion to clear a path.  You learn to walk slowly forward. Do not accelerate or worse, turn back.  Even on the sidewalks you also have to keep your wits about you.  Motorcyclists also use sidewalks to go around traffic logjams.  Also many sidewalk surfaces are uneven with potential for a ‘gutsa’.

On the road out of Hanoi to Halong we crossed a bridge over the Red River.  I thought about how many unexploded American bombs remained in the adjacent fields.  During the four hour drive along the Red River valley I tried to appreciate that this was one of the Asian ‘cradles of civilization’.  The landscape before me was the product of 3,000 years of intensive agricultural practice.  It was the height of activity for planting the winter rice crop.  There was little mechanization.  Fields were still being levelled using wooden planks.  Water was being baled by hand to the newly planted fields.  Some Soviet era hand cultivators were still in use. Water buffaloes and hand tilling were evident and many people toiled in the fields with the repetitive work of transplanting seedlings.  In places I could see the abandoned buildings that were once the hubs of collective farms.

Part 2: Halong Bay

Part 3: Ho Chi Ming City

Part 4: Cruiseco Adventurer

Part 5: Mekong River

The next RAC President’s Cruise is heading to Burma in 2015. For more information visit RAC Cruise Club.