A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

Saigon museums

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One of the most famous sites in Saigon is the Reunification Palace. An older palace stood here, but in February 1962, when even Diem’s own troops got fed up with him a couple of them bombed it, and it had to be demolished. The Independence Palace, as it was then called, was then built on the site.

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As the presidential palace, it was the place to which the North Vietnamese army rushed when it entered Saigon on 30 April 1975. Senior government officials, including Big Ming, were waiting for them, and the soldiers took them straight off to the radio station. One of the most famous photographs of 1975 captured two NVA tanks crashing through the front gates of the palace. I remember it. Except it’s a fake memory: I saw the pictures and footage often enough in my childhood for it to feel like a real memory.

The building itself looks like a cross between a 1960s university library and the Council of Europe Building in Strasbourg. It’s also definitely a palace: there is a presidential receiving room, a VP receiving room; an ambassadors’ hall; a cabinet room; a 42-seat cinema; a helipad; a gaming room that looks like a Bond villain’s lair or the Moloko bar from A Clockwork Orange.

This is the President's receiving room:

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And there are living quarters: a concrete cloister with a fountain in the middle and elephants’ feet and model boats by the walls.

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Renamed the Reunification Palace, it is still used for official functions but is also a museum, preserving the building as it was in April 1975. There are old-fashioned telephones in pastel colours and formica tables.

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Aside from the president’s office, which is rather dingy, it is a very successful example of architecture from a decade in which there were plenty of failures. Much more open to the tropical elements than your average faculty building in the Midlands, it’s airy in most areas, and beautifully decorated in a modern style. The ambassadors’ hall has an interesting lacquer painting covering one wall, depicting the great Vietnamese king-hero Lê Lợi.

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There are three levels of balconies at the front. They form a Chinese character; added to the central pillar, they form another one. The plan of the building makes another.

The president’s library has the eclectic contents of a Hay-on-Wye bookshop: aside from a lot of Vietnamese books, Arthur Hailey; Henry James; CS Forester; Grahame Greene; Turkish Ceramics; Tennis World; Monuments de France.

Not wanting to be rebombed, Diem built a bunker under the palace. (It didn’t do him any good. In 1963 there was a coup. Diem retreated to the bunker and then ventured out to hide in Chơlơn, where he was found and murdered.) This was used as a war room, and there are fascinating maps of the war situation from 1975. There is also a radio station, telex office, switchboard, a spare bedroom, and a bombproof lower level. It looks like something from the Second World War.

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At this stage I was following a small tour group. An American family, the father excepted, were remarkably ignorant. After being told several times, they could not grasp who was fighting whom, or who was communist (answer: no-one; ‘we’ are socialist).

Then we watched a video about how ‘we’ won – a logical impossibility after a civil war. Apparently the entire Vietnamese people were deeply saddened after the passing of Uncle Ho in 1969. Since half the country was fighting the other half at the time, I doubt it. Fortunately the video broke half way through.

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The War Remnants Museum mostly offers the usual shrilly mendacious exhibits, such as the hall of historical truth. I’ve gone about this before, but what particularly offends is the hypocrisy. For example, the exhibition cries that the South Vietnam regime breached the Geneva accords by singling out former Viet Minh fighters for reprisals. It doesn’t mention that under the same accords the Viet Minh were supposed to withdraw from South Vietnam, and didn’t. They also breached their undertaking to withdraw from Laos.

There is a further exhibit on the prisons of South Vietnam, and especially on the ‘tiger cages’ of Con Ðao, previously known as Poulo Condore. The French built the prison and kept political prisoners there. In the American War VC prisoners were kept in appalling conditions, were subjected to torture, given inadequate food and some were summarily executed. By all accounts Diem made Pinochet look like Mandela. This is worth recording, and the exhibit lists the forms of torture in some detail. But equally worthy of note is the fact that after unification, the Hanoi regime continued to use the same prisons in precisely the same way. (Equally important in modern Vietnamese history are the three hundred thousand or so évolués carted off to concentration camps for “re-education”; and the more than a million people who were so desperate to flee the Socialist Republic that they risked drowning and piracy to sail away.) The rope suspension torture that I mentioned in a previous post is described graphically; it takes gall to condemn this in public while inflicting it in private. Yet again, any sympathy is wiped out by the tendentious presentation.

However, a couple of the exhibits are worth seeing. One exhibit focuses on the ‘war crimes’ of the Americans, in particular the use of napalm and agent orange. It is an interesting question whether the wholesale deployment of these agents was a war crime, as the exhibit implies. I can’t remember any international criminal law, but just applying general principles of proportionality (the essence of ius in bello) gives three candidate reasons:

• That the aim was itself objectionable. The exhibit says that the aim was to return North Vietnam to the stone age. Although General Curtis LeMay famously used that exact phrase, I don’t believe that it was in any way an objective of the US forces.

• That the means were not sufficiently related to the goal. The real objective was to block the Ho Chi Minh Trails and starve the VC of supplies. This is an ancient and generally legitimate tactic. But did the chemicals help? Yes: they deprived the VC of the cover they needed to operate without being discovered. It was strategically rational.

• That the means used went beyond the minimum necessary to achieve the objective. The US military sprayed 77 million tons of defoliants on south Vietnam, including about 20 million tons of Agent Orange. A vast proportion of land under cultivation was sprayed or napalmed. A fifth of forest land was sprayed. Sixty per cent of mangrove forests disappeared; most of the area between Saigon and Cambodia was sprayed; and most of the DMZ too. Not to mention Laos, which suffered even more. I am not in a position to judge, but this must be an arguable case. The manufacturers knew about the dioxins when they sold it to the US government. If the presence and horrendous effect of the dioxins was known to the US government at the time then the case would be reasonably easy to make out.

There were, of course, other specific war crimes, notably the well-documented massacre of 504 villagers at Mỹ Lai, burning of villages, free-fire zones, throwing prisoners out of helicopters, cutting off ears for the body count (which the British also did in the Falklands), and so on. But the question here is whether the use of the chemicals was per se criminal. A similar question must arise as to whether the indiscriminate Nixonian bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong was disproportionate. Neither question will ever be answered in court, any more than the similar questions over the carpet-bombing of Hamburg and Dresden.

No doubt this has been investigated further. I know that there were Congressional hearings into specific allegations of war crimes at the time, but I don’t know the outcome. That would require research, and I haven’t got time.

Agent Orange is a roughly equal mixture of two phenoxyls: 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), chemical formula C8H5Cl3O3. They work by inducing growth so rapid that it kills the plant. The manufacturing process for 2,4,5-T releases dioxins such as n, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin. (2, 4-D does not release dioxins and is still used as a herbicide.) The dioxins are associated with genetic defects and numerous cancers. In 1984 nearly 20,000 US veterans exposed to Agent Orange received a settlement of $180m from the manufacturers, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto. Australian, Canadian and New Zealand veterans also reached a settlement in 1984. A quarter of the children of Australian vets were found to be born with deformations. Korean veterans received $62m in compensation in 2006; this was a court award. Per capita, these are tiny numbers in relation to the damage caused. Vietnamese victims sued the manufacturers as well, in New York but the case was dismissed in 2006.

The US government has offered almost no assistance to veterans or their children in relation to Agent Orange syndrome, let alone to Vietnamese victims. Others cannot sue because the government enjoys sovereign immunity.

The Vietnamese government claims that 5 million people have been affected, but it is not clear how they arrived at this figure. In Cam Lo district, Quang Tri province (the DMZ), 4% of the population is said to be affected. The museum attributes every case of congenital blindness, peripheral neuropathy, spina bifida, birth malformations, cleft palates and even possibly Down’s syndrome to dioxins. But some children with such characteristics are born in any population, and you have to subtract that base rate from the rates observed in order to estimate the additional effect of dioxins. And you cannot say that any particular case is caused by dioxins. The museum doesn’t do any of that, so the numbers are overestimates, perhaps large ones.

Of the two million hectares of forest land sprayed, half are “yet to be rehabilitated”.

Much the best thing at the War Remnants Museum is an exhibition called Requiem. Organised by the Association of Photographic Artists of Saigon, a steering committee in Kentucky, Tim Page, Horst Faas, the Vietnamese Association of Photographic Artists and the Vietnam News Agency, it displays the work of the many insanely courageous photographers on both sides who died or disappeared during the conflict. They include such famous names as Robert Capa, Sean Flynn, Dana Stone and Larry Burrows. On the northern side, 76 photographers died. The exhibition includes several photos from Robert Capa’s last rolls of film, taken before he stepped on a mine, and good ones they are too, juxtaposing martial activities with agricultural.

The display was even-handed and all the more moving for it. Some of the pictures were magnificent. They included Larry Burrows’ extraordinary Time spread of a bombing mission in which the pilot died: “One ride with Yankee Papa 13”. Other highlights: Henri Huet’s superb photos of medics in the field; Robert Ellison’s photo of an exploding ammunition dump at Khe Sanh (published in Newsweek the week after he was killed); and Gilles Carron’s pictures of Hill 875 at Ðak To.

One thing I didn’t know is that the OSS – the forerunner of the CIA – helped to train the Viet Minh. Indeed the first American soldier to be killed was an OSS officer, killed by the Viet Minh by mistake. It makes sense: both were fighting the Japanese at the time (1945). It would not be the last time such a policy rebounded on the US.

Posted by Wardsan 10:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Pictures of Hội An

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Hội An was the first foreign settlement in Vietnam. It was then known as Faifo to Europeans. Four hundred years ago it was an important trading centre, with trade routes heading from Faifo all over the world – particularly to China, Japan and India. The Dutch were there in large numbers at the time too. The Japanese and Chinese quarters still exist, and the Japanese covered bridge links the Japanese quarter to the Old Town.

A couple of hundred years ago the town’s trade began to dwindle as the river silted up and Danang (known to the French as Tourane) took over as the major port.

The money dried up, so a lot of the buildings are about 200 years old. The traditional merchants’ houses are wooden, with sloping roofs. The planks are orientated down the roof. The house is in several sections: a front section open to the public, a courtyard and then the private quarters, and then a kitchen area. The courtyard is a design classic, since it ventilates the building. Modern buildings, laid out on the same narrow plots, lack this feature and its benefits. Apparently the old buildings of Kyoto are very similar, and this may be no coincidence, since pottery from each municipality has been found in the other.

The local government – prompted by its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – has slapped severe planning restrictions on the buildings in the Old Town. It attracts a lot of western tourists – few Vietnamese – and the town protects its collective commercial interest by restraining individually rational development.

As I mentioned before, the town is blue and yellow. The boats are blue and yellow, the river is blue on a sunny day, and the houses are ochre. What with the water and the bright colours, it’s a rewarding place to take pictures. Here is the first batch; another batch will follow.

On the bus to Hội An we were honoured by the company of Elvis.

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Lamp shop.

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Illuminations.

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Vendors chatting.

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A view from the bridge.

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Lantern shop again.

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What's this? I asked a photographer with a a paparazzo lens. 'Vlha' he said. It means bee-eater in Czech.

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Wading bird

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A Chinese temple at Hội An. There are quite a few of them.

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Waterflower at a Chinese temple.

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A remora at the hotel.

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On the waterfront.

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Ancient ferryman. Part of the town lies across the river, and another part on an island. You can walk there, but it’s very hot, so it’s easier to take a ferry. Vietnamese pay 1,000 dong; most tourists probably pay at least ten times that.

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Posted by Wardsan 12:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Great expectorations

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I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this before; I've written quite a lot, very quickly. When the Vietnamese sniff, they do not merely sniff: they attempt to move all fluid from the nose, ears and sinuses into the throat, with perhaps a touch of cerebrospinal fluid if they try violently enough.

And when they spit, as they do frequently, they do not merely hawk, they try to slough the lining of their throats, and maybe even cough up an organ or two with it.

It’s perfectly normal. You often pass a young couple sitting on a bench, looking good, but both parties snorting and gobbing as if they’ve just been waterboarded and then tear-gassed.

They eat with their mouths open and smack their lips when they eat, in a way that I have previously seen only on The Life of Mammals. I find it deeply offputting.

On the other hand, we lick our fingers and we lick stamps. Southeast Asians find that disgusting. Minh Mang, emperor in the first half of the nineteenth century, used to call westerners “barbarians”, and given the state of the average backpacker in Saigon you can see why.

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I mentioned that the Rue Catinat had been renamed. It turns out that the street was named after the ship that was named after the admiral. The ship destroyed the Vietnamese forts in Tourane in 1856, a few years before France established its Cochinchina colony. So it’s understandable that they renamed the street.

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I spent a couple of days recently on an absurdly cheap tour of the Mekong delta. The Mekong splits into two in Cambodia and subdivides further in Vietnam, where the Mekong serpent has nine heads. At Mỹ Tho, on the Lower Mekong, the river is a mile wide. It does not look like a lake or a sea, but it differs so far from the mental model of a river that the brain does not register it as such; simply as something else.

The turbid river carries immense quantities of silt; you can see it flowing miles out to sea on satellite maps. The silt markedly increases the fertility of the land in the delta, as it does in Egypt. I don’t know how this effect works since it’s just quartz and feldspar dust. A lot of barges carry sand up a canal to Saigon, perhaps to feed the infinite appetite for cement. I don’t know where it comes from; could it be reclaimed silt?

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The delta is a waterworld, with 3,000 km of rivers and canals. They are building bridges in some numbers – all to an identical template, it appears – but you still need to get in a boat to get to most places conveniently.

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Seventeen million people live here, slightly more than live in Holland. It is one of the most fertile regions on the planet, so it has always been densely populated. (They were smelting metal here centuries before metallurgy reached Europe.) The region produces 14 million tonnes of rice – in three crops a year - out of the national total of 36 million. That is about half of what Vietnam eats, I think, so in principle the region could support a much larger population. If that were the case, the entire region would be under concrete and there would be no rice. You can see that effect on the outskirts of Saigon. The population of Saigon is currently said to be around 8 million people and 5 million motorbikes. Both numbers are growing. Every peripheral plot is a building site. The city is spreading at what would appear to be hundreds of yards a year – and the land being built on is some of the best arable land on earth.

In fact it will be interesting to see whether the increased rate of return on agricultural land will reduce the rate of substitution into other activities. I suspect it won’t slow it at all. The value added for each square metre of urban land in Saigon is probably many times that added by a square metre of rice, even at today’s high prices. If so, concreting the paddies around Saigon is economically efficient.

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Some of us stayed in a stilted bamboo bungalow a half-hour boat ride from Cần Thơ.

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By this time we were running over two hours late. We had had to change bus twice and were delayed by the rush hour on the ferry over the Bassac. Beer-deprived, I was cross.

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The proprietor introduced himself when we arrived: “Hello, I’m Hung.” “Lucky you.” Well, someone had to say it.

I went to sleep under a pink mosquito net to the sawing of cicadas and the occasional tut-tutting of geckos.

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A few of us went for a walk at 6 am. The motorbikes were passing on their way to town so there was no way to sleep.

Things are changing fast in the delta. Until two years ago the track was just a path that could not take motorbikes. All the residents worked locally as farmers. At the same time as the path was upgraded to a track, a new concrete bridge was built over the canal. Suddenly the residents had fast access to the nearest town, Cần Thơ, and now all but the very young and the old commute to jobs in Cần Thơ by motorbike. They earn a lot more there, and the buildings are being upgraded from bamboo to brick.

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On our early morning walk we stopped at a small local market. It operates from four until eight in the morning. On sale, as well as the usual fruit and veg: live fish, eels, frogs and ducks; marigolds for praying to Buddha (giving long life); banana flowers, pumpkin flowers.

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I picked a clump of kapok overhanging a shack. They used to stuff pillows with it. It feels like cotton wool.

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Later in the morning we visited a floating market. Bigger boats come from elsewhere to sell their goods. Buyers and tourists float between them in smaller boats.

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In a tour group you see the world through a bubble. I have less curiosity about what I am seeing than when I am on my own, and the impact of the surroundings is attenuated. In a large tour group – 32 of us - the notional object of interest barely registers, and most of the fun comes from talking to the other tourists. To be honest many of the sites are not much in themselves: a family making coconut candy; a rice husking factory (closed); a family making rice noodles.

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To make the coconut candy they leave the flesh to dry; slice it finely in a machine; squeeze the milk out; add sugar and milk and leave for 45 minutes; heat until it turns into caramel; pour into metal moulds; chop and package on site. No part of the coconut is wasted: the wood make the pillars of the house; the leaf provides the thatch; the hairy nut makes matting and soil for bonsai trees.

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More interesting is the landscape itself. Water coconuts overhang the creeks, and coconut palms grow behind them.

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This is a mudskipper, a living record of how animals conquered the land. At least, according to the Guinness adverts.

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Everywhere you go in the countryside, and in many places in the cities, you see loudspeakers atop telegraph poles. Every morning and evening the loudspeakers amplify the Voice of Vietnam - a news station.

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Electronic amplification over public loudspeakers, carrying a hectoring voice that you can’t switch off or turn down. An Englishman is legally obliged to use the word Orwellian here – and indeed I have done so in a previous post.

I asked Hung about it in the Mekong delta: why? He seemed slightly offended that I asked: it’s very useful, he said. People like to listen to it. No-one minds that it starts at five because everyone is already awake.

Posted by Wardsan 19:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Zoopark

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Yesterday I visited Saigon Zoo. I didn't mean to: I thought I was buying a ticket to the History Museum, but ended up in the zoo and stayed. My inner culture vulture is disappointed with myself, but at heart I'm more interested in animals than in Cham sculpture.

The Lonely Planet guide says "We strongly recommend against visiting the poorly kept zoo animals". This is the same Lonely Planet that publishes a guidebook to Burma. The Vietnam guidebook is not shy of issuing ethical instruction and I for one do not appreciate it.

The animals were indeed kept in poor but not absolutely barbaric conditions. The zoo is probably like London Zoo was about thirty-five years ago; our expectations and sensibilities have changed rapidly. Nevertheless, the large mammals in particular were kept in enclosures that were far too small for them. The worst examples: a gibbon kept in a tiny cage; a hippo sat motionless in a small, vile pool.

In both cases, it is a relevant question whether you are doing more harm than good by visiting and paying the dollars. In the case of Burma, I prefer to follow the advice of Aung Sang Suu Kyi; this avoids what would otherwise be an agonising decision. In the case of the zoo, there is at least some chance that the money will contribute to improving the facilities. I do not hold out much hope, though: although the people who run the zoo will be aware that conditions fall short of those expected in the west, the majority of visitors are Vietnamese, and they could not care less as far as I can see. So there may be little commercial incentive to improve. Many of the visitors delighted in harassing the animals. Some also fed them anything that came to hand. Another reminder that attitudes to animals here differ sharply from those in northern Europe; even from mine, and I'm no animal rights activist. I came close to hitting one fat moron, teaching his stupid fat son how not to behave by harassing and feeding sweets to the bears.

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But I stayed anyway, of course, because I love watching animals. The one species that you are supposed to feed at the zoo is the goats:

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This is a white rhinoceros:

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Leopard, lioness, lion:

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Asiatic black bears:

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An ostrich:

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Siamese crocodiles:

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Estuarine crocodile:

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A green iguana:

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Smooth otters:

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A unicorn gemsbok:

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A blesbok, perhaps:

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And an orang utan:

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Posted by Wardsan 14:13 Archived in Vietnam Tagged animal Comments (0)

Rain stopped play

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It is pouring in Saigon and I have repaired to a wifi cafe in the Pham Ngu Lao area. There is a building on fire just across the street and there is a fair bit of smoke in the cafe. It is yellowish and a little acrid but it smells better than cigarettes. Excited people are thronging the street. Two fire engines have just turned up but I expect the rain will put it out anyway.

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I may have given the impression in the previous couple of posts that I don't like Saigon. On the contrary. Neither the French nor the Americans bombed the city and there are quite a lot of ochre colonial buildings.

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Most of them make use of a motif that I call the false arcade. There's probably a real name for it - blind arcade perhaps. You would walk past them in Europe without troubling to swivel your eyeballs, but here they are worth looking at. They are hotels, restaurants and company headquarters. Verandahs are common. The municipal buildings such as the old Hôtel de Ville and the Post Office are classical in design. Here is the complacent facade of the Hôtel de Ville.

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And here are some shots of the Post Office, which retains its old telephone booths and even the old maps on the walls. One is a map of Saigon dating from 1892.

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In between the large old buildings are streets full of the usual Vietnamese city buildings: narrow but deep plots, each building touching but built without reference to its neighbour, all built at different heights. On a bus I saw some old trading houses, like those in Hoi An: narrow, wooden, with the pitched roof that is never now constructed. And sprouting fast are the glass and curtain wall towers of the oilman and the insurer. This juxtaposition of old and new is arguably a precondition for architectural greatness. It's certainly what makes London - that and the 300 languages.

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Of the little that I have explored so far, my favourite part is the Dong Khơi area near the river Saigon. Dong Khơi means 'uprising'; it is also the name of a street in the area, previously and much more romantically known as the Rue Catinat, after some old admiral. In this district it is not unusual to be able to walk an entire block without having to step into the road – a unique experience in Vietnam.

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And the traffic is no worse than Hanoi’s; I had been expecting worse. Admittedly I have been hit by a motorcycle here. I was crossing at traffic lights, the green man illuminated, when cold cocked by a motorbike turning left and cutting every inch of the corner. But I probably weighed as much as rider, passenger and bike put together, and no party suffered damage.

In fact, after becoming very fed up with Vietnam recently, I’m delaying heading to Bangkok. Not because there are things here that I really want to see, but because there are things here that I really want to eat. I could easily get into a way of life here that would involve a sunset drink on the 23rd floor of the Sheraton followed by a good meal. Surprising that I should delay going to Thailand, one of the gastro glories of the globe, but there we are. One of the more interesting dishes of the last two days was snails in coconut milk and coriander. These were not French garden snails, but more conical. No extraction equipment was provided; you just had to suck violently and that was part of the fun.

Another dish was a green papaya salad with sliced pig's ear. The pig’s ear looked like raw streaky bacon, crunched cartilaginously and tasted of little. Not a success. Another example of the importance of texture in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine: the more slithery or crunchy, the better.

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Would performance suffer if Alastair Darling and Raymond Domenech, separated at birth, exchanged jobs?

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It two months since I left Hanoi and I can’t remember now why I disliked it so much. I think it was, first, because I was forced to be there waiting for a visa, and second, the hassle. Well, the hassle continues throughout Vietnam. And Hanoi does have a range of restaurants only matched by Saigon. So I have to reconsider. It’s not so bad in hindsight - just difficult to get around on foot.

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The problem with the Lonely Planet guide is that nearly everyone uses it. Once a hotel or restaurant appears in the LP it no longer has to make any effort to attract custom. Some piously maintain high standards; most profiteer. I mentioned to Michel, my diving buddy in Nha Trang, that I was thinking of buying a Guide du Routard instead. He was dismissive: “Guide du Connard, we call it”.

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Lest anyone think that the single party state in Vietnam is in any way liberal just because it now lets people get on with making money, this is what happens to journalists in Vietnam who do their jobs.

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Of the places I've visited since arriving in Saigon, the following are worth describing further: Reunification Palace; War Remnants Museum; Mekong Delta; Saigon Zoo. The problem is that I want to attach pictures of these places. Editing and uploading the pictures is extremely time-consuming and I don't usually have time both to write and upload pictures. This is why there are long and variable lags between experience and description; there are things in Ninh Binh, Hue and Hoi An that I still want to write about, for example. I suspect most people would rather see the pictures and cut the crap. So now for some uploading.

Posted by Wardsan 12:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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