Ancient mythology tells us that the people of Vietnam are descendants of the Dragon Lord Lạc Long Quân and the Immortal Fairy Âu Cơ. They produced 100 children, 50 of whom lived with their mother in the mountains and the other 50, with their father in the sea. So steeped in mythology is the land of Vietnam that each area is shrouded in some story of mythological formation.
Landing in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam and home to about 3.7 million people and 1.2 million motor bikes, is like landing in the heart of a giant mosquito that never sleeps. Endless streams of bikes pass you by each day, with many families of 4 heading off on their daily chores. Farmers from surrounding areas meet at the “morning market at 03h00 and by 07h00 have cleared up and gone. At night, entire streets are transformed into night markets which trade until late in the evening. Unlike its sister city, Saigon, Hanoi has narrow streets and still retains some of its old city charm. The old quarter, often known as the “36 streets,” dates back over 2000 years. The area was once home to numerous craft guilds which created work areas. When the streets were eventually named, each street was named after the craft sold along that street and so today, if you need shoes, you head for Hang Guay, and for jewellery, Hang Bac.
Leaving the bustle of the city behind and traveling northwards towards the sea, highway 5 takes you to a world Heritage site, and the tail of the “descending dragon.” Halong Bay is an endless canvas of 1969 limestone islands, 989 of which have been named. Many of these islands are home to numerous caves, some of which can be visited on foot and others in the pleasant tranquility of a kayak.
According to local legend, Halong Bay was created by a family of dragons, sent by the gods to help protect the Vietnamese from Chinese invaders. The dragons spat out pears and jade stones which soon turned to a myriad of islands protecting the people from the invaders. Today, these very same islands provide a safe home to many small floating villages, the inhabitants of whom survive off the 200 species of fish and 450 different species of mollusks that the waters provide.
Far south of Halong Bay is the picturesque small historical town of Hoi An, where the “The Quiet American,” was partially filmed. Between the 15th to 19th centuries the town served as one of South-East Asia’s most important trading ports for spices and silk and today is still a traders paradise. Cars are banned and the narrow cobbled streets are lined with old buildings, temples, pagoda’s and endless shops selling hand made trousers for $15, evening dresses for $25 and three-piece suits for $40. In the heart of the town is the Ving Hung Hotel, which served as the dressing room for Michael Caine during filming. Today, tourists jostle to book into the same room which overlooks the narrow bustling lantern lit streets below, which come alive during the festival of the full moon.
From the quiet tranquility of Hoi An, a short flight takes you in the belly of the dragon, Saigon or the modern day, Hồ Chí Minh City. Inhabited by 8 million people and 4 million motor bikes it pulsates 24 hours a day. Traveling through the vast tarred streets with towering modern hotels and malls, it is hard to believe that the city started out as a small fishing village in an area that was originally swampland, but when heading out into the neighbouring areas the tranquility of forgotten days soon prevails. Endless rice paddies line the myriad of roads that spread out from the city. Framers work the land, harvesting rice in the blazing heat. Old carts are pulled by weary horses. Rubber trees are methodically planted in rows, their sticky sap slowly seeping into wooden bowls for collection.
Driving back in time, one arrives at the area of Cu Chi, whose 121km hand-dug underground tunnels became famous as a battleground of the Vietnam War. The forested area is littered with B52 bomb craters and the endless spattering of gun fire can be heard from the firing range. Some of the tunnels are open to tourists to experience for a brief period, what life in the tunnels must have been like. In the blistering heat of the day, 7 of us descended into the dark abyss below us. The tunnels are narrow, dark, airless and in places slope down and narrow so one has to belly crawl. 40m was all it took for me to realize that as a non-sufferer of claustrophobia, another 20m would surely have converted me. Lack of air. Stifling heat. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing from American troops, the Viet Cong would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Malaria and sickness were rampant and accounted for the second largest cause of death after battle wounds.
Leaving the peace and tranquility of the Mekong, our next stop was neighbouring Cambodia, lying at the back of the dragon. Like Vietnam, the history of Cambodia is marred with foreign invasions, international political intervention and internal conflicts. The pinnacle of Cambodia’s history arose during the rulership of the Khymer Kings between about 800 – 1400AD. It was during this period that Khmer kings built the most extensive concentration of religious temples in the world – the Angkor temple complex – and hundreds of surrounding temples.
Then in 1431 the Thais plundered the area and the complex of Angkor was abandoned. For almost 200 years the forces of nature invaded the temples. Fig trees took up residence on temple walls and slowly engulfed the buildings. Moss adorned the intricate carvings and aerial roots flowed to the floor.
I cannot say what made me fall in love with Vietnam and Cambodia. Perhaps it was the ever smiling faces of the people, the sheer simplicity of life or the vast green rice fields; the smell of the rain or the sounds of children splashing about kicking a home crafted soccer ball. Perhaps it was the excitement with which vendors haggle over prices or the intense respect shown by children to their elders. Whatever the reason, they left an indelible imprint on my heart and a yearning to return, in my soul.