Vietnam – Land of the Dragon

“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam… (and Cambodia) … that everything is so intense… The colours, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the…rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat.…You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war.” These were the words of Thomas Fowler from the film, “The Quiet American,” which so accurately sums up Vietnam. It is a land that captures the very essence of your soul and takes you on an unforgettable journey through the land of the dragon.

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.

As horrific as life in the tunnels must have been, it is the images of the war weapons and traps set by the Viet Cong for the Americans that will remain in my memory for a life time, but as one local guide said, when your way of life is under attack, you will do all in your power to protect it.
South of Saigon lies the feet and arms of the dragon, whose claws spread out to form the massive expanse of the Mekong Delta. The area, also known as Nine River Dragon Delta, drains an area of over 790 000 km2. The Mekong is the 12th-longest river in the world, and runs all the way from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, into Vietnam and finally into the south china sea.
With such an expanse of water it is not surprising to find that the residents of the Mekong area are river people. Where Hanoi’s streets come alive with early morning markets, the tributaries of the Mekong erupt into a chattering wash tub as hundreds of boats navigate the narrow channels laden with hands of bananas, grapefruit, jackfruit, spinach, fish and every kind of vegetable imaginable. Trade takes place under the shade of Vietnamese hats while hotel and restaurant owners on the shore line yell instructions across the water of their daily needs. About 20 minutes up the Mekong we headed along a narrow tributary to encounter life up river. Locals wade about in the waters catching fish. Children cycle and play along narrow sidewalks dodging chickens and dogs. Mothers sit at the waters edge washing clothes while the men potter about fixing their boats. Farmers live on combination fish and rice farms, generating an average of $35 a month, while small family businesses survive making rice cakes, rice paper and potent rice wine.

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.

Today, the complex of temples is a World Heritage site. Many of the Hindu statues have been removed and replaced with sculptures of Buddha and numerous renovations are underway. Time seems to have stood leaving an imprint of mystique. I lost my heart to the temples of Cambodia.

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.

by Debra Bouwer

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