Highlights of Indochina…

13 05 2012

‘Care for Culture: Travel with respect to locally practised customs and beliefs. Accept alternative ways of thinking and of doing things; embrace and find intrigue in the differences that define a culture. After all, the world would be a boring place if we all did the same things and thought the same way.’

Travel Indochina: ‘Tread Lightly – A Guide to Responsible Travel’  (extract)

Our 13 day tour was officially called ‘Highlights of Indochina’. Fracnk, our tour leader, referred to it as, ‘the rock star tour, 3 countries in 12 days,’ – Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

The itinerary was pretty much full on, but there were a couple of down-time sessions in laid back Laos, and an afternoon by the pool in Siem Reap – after a 04.45 start to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Oh and the cruise around Halong Bay was fairly leisurely too.

There are so many memories, but I guess my overall top 5 highlights would be:

Luang Prabang: in its entirety, an absolute architectural gem, surrounded by mountainous forests and situated at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers, and in the words of the Lonely Planet guide (Vietnam, Cambodia Laos & the Greater Mekong), ‘a tonic for the soul’. Of all the places, we visited, the one to which I would return.

The Temples of Angkor: representing six hundred years (802-1432) of Khmer civilisation – one of Asia’s greatest kingdoms.

Halong Bay: mysterious and majestic, 1600 limestone islands and karsts, shrouded in mist, rising from the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

The Mekong Delta: taking a boat along the southern reaches of the mighty Mekong River, exploring its narrow canals and marvelling at the lives of the local people.

Hanoi: the vibrant and historical capital city of Vietnam with its French Colonial architecture and broad tree-lined boulevards, cheek by jowl with the pulsating Old Quarter, a warren of narrow streets, bubbling with commerce and teeming with life.    

Highlights of Vietnam     

Ho Chi Minh City (still ‘Saigon’ to the locals):

Crossing the road: If Saigon had a symbol it would be the motorbike. There are 6 million swarming along the broad boulevards and buzzing around the narrow back streets. Crossing the road is an art form. Stride out confidently, walk slowly but purposefully, and the traffic will just flow around you. It actually happens – but it takes a leap of faith the first time you try it.

Dong Khoi (formerly Rue Catinat): Our first port of call, after checking in, was the Caravelle Hotel, home to the renowned rooftop ‘Saigon Saigon’ bar, which affords a wonderful view along Dong Khoi. We sipped on our first, ice-cold, Saigon Special beer, gazing down on the  beautifully baroque municipal theatre, past the historic Continental Hotel (setting for much of the action in Graham Greene’s, 1950s novel, ‘The Quiet American’ & a film location for the movie, starring Michael Caine) and on up to the red brick, neo-Romanesque, Notre Dame Cathedral.

‘Pho 2000’: Slurping through, our first, pho (pronounced ‘fur’). Noodle soup, fit for a former US President -Bill Clinton, once stopped by for a steaming bowl, and this humble establishment has been dining out on that ever since.   

War Remnants Museum: A disturbing account of the atrocities committed by US Forces during the Vietnam War. Graphic photographs of the horrors of war, as seen through the lenses of the world’s photo-press, and a reminder of the ongoing suffering for those born with defects caused by US use of the ‘Agent Orange’ defoliant.   

The Majestic Hotel: Marvelling at the marbled lobby, with chandeliers and stained glass skylight of this 1925 landmark, one of SE Asia’s classic colonial hotels, and sharing a pizza on the balcony, overlooking the Mekong River.

Out & about around Ho Chi Minh City:

Cu Chi: This district northwest of HCMC, strategically important to the communists, being located at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply route, played a key role in the winning of the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong created a spider’s web of secret, interconnecting tunnels, (extending to three levels underground and stretching over 250km) linking Cu Chi to the outskirts of Saigon.    

The Cao Dai pagoda: Gaudily  decorated home to a bizarrely unique sect, founded in Tay Ninh Province in 1926. It is the ultimate compromise in religion, fusing together, elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Cao Dai philosophy allows humans with particular talents or achievements to be accorded ‘deity’ status. These include multi-talented French writer, artist, and political activist, Victor Hugo, – author of ‘Les Misérables’, and ‘Hanoi Jane’, Hollywood Actress and anti – Vietnam War campaigner Jane Fonda. Forever ‘Barbarella’ to me!      

Elephant Ear Fish: A local speciality, freshly caught, and served for lunch on the palm shaded banks of a Mekong Delta waterway.    


Temple of Literature: A historical seat of learning, Hanoi’s first university – dating back to 1070 – now dedicated to Confucian worship.

‘Uncle Ho’:  The man in khaki, father of modern Vietnam, remains an inspirational figure for many.

He eschewed the grand colonial style Presidential Palace for a humble house on stilts, now part of the Ho Chi Minh complex, which also includes an informative museum dedicated to his life, and the giant marble mausoleum where his body resides in death. Overseen by white uniformed guards, located on Ba Dinh Square, it was built on the site from which he read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, on 2nd September 1945.

The One Pillar Pagoda:  A picturesque iconic national symbol, designed to represent a lotus blossom, perched, above a small pond, on a single concrete pillar. It was originally built, in 1049, by King Ly Thai Thong to thank Buddha for gifting him a son.

Hoa Lo Prison: Known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, to US POWs, its name means ‘fiery furnace’. On display is the flying suit of US POW, former presidential candidate, John McCain, who later served as US ambassador to Vietnam! Our tour of the grim cells and museum, featuring a French guillotine (frequently use in the early 1900s) was enlightened by a delightful party of curious, chatty school children – same the world over!  

Temple of the Jade Mound: Situated on a tiny islet at the north end of the tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake, it is reached by crossing a bright red bridge. Just a couple of hundred yards away from the gateway is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which showcases the age-old art of water puppetry. Some of our group were less than impressed by the 40 minute show, with traditional music and choral accompaniment, but I enjoyed it!                   

Out and about around Hanoi:

Patient, persistent, enterprising and industrious people: Chris was politely approached by an observant young man brandishing a small tube of super glue. The sole on one of her comfortable old sandals was, ever so slightly, beginning to come away. Chris declined his offer of running repairs for, ‘Just one dollar’. Sometime later, after trudging around the old quarter we pulled into a bar for liquid refreshment. Chris looked up from her beer to see a familiar, imploring face waving his tube of ‘UHU’. He had trailed us, at a distance, for about 40 minutes, to make another sales pitch. She couldn’t resist a second time.    

Fields full of conical hats: Busy workers bent double, farming rice and market garden produce, using traditional labour intensive methods of cultivation – assisted by the occasional water buffalo.

Coracle taxis: Being rowed around a, Halong Bay, floating village, in a Vietnamese coracle, fashioned with interwoven bamboo. We stopped off at a floating school, equipped by an Australian charity – oh yes, and a floating gift shop!  

Highlights of Laos

Luang Prabang

The Alms ceremony: Rising at 5.30 am to watch saffron robed Buddhist monks file through the streets, following this, centuries old ritual, collecting alms from the local people.

Phu Si: Climbing the steps to the golden stupa on the 100m high summit, for a stunning 360˚panorama.  

Wat Xieng Thong: Luang Pabang’s most magnificent temple, with its tiered roofs sweeping low to the ground, and glittering ‘Tree of Life’ mosaic.        

Petanque:  Watching the locals for a few pointers, before taking part in a game ourselves, beside the Wat Pha Bat Tai riverside temple. And then gazing across the mighty Mekong, as the sun faded away. 

Exploring Lao Cuisine: An interactive class at the Tamarind Restaurant Cooking School, preparing our evening meal, using traditional Lao techniques, such as steaming fish in banana leaves and stuffing lemongrass with minced chicken, spring onions, garlic and coriander.

Lao Beer: Large, chilled bottles of refreshing lager beer – probably the best in Indochina!

Out and about around Luang Prabang:

Pak Ou Caves: A leisurely Mekong boat trip, up river, to the mysterious ‘cave of a thousand Buddhas’, where in accordance with  ancient tradition, locals still continue to add, annually, to a huge repository of statues, of all sizes – many are centuries old.   

Kuang Si Falls: A many tiered waterfall, in a beautiful setting, surrounded by thick jungle vegetation, around 32km from LP. Chris found time to cool off by taking a dip in the turquoise waters of one of a series of natural pools.  

Highlights of Cambodia

Sunrise at Angkor Wat:  Rising at 4.30 am for a pre-dawn tuk-tuk to the eastern entrance, silently creeping through the temple, by torch-light, before watching the sunrise, gradually illuminating its fabled towers, mirrored in the waters of an ancient reflective pool – truly spellbinding.    

Bayon Temple: A cluster of conical towers, 54 in total, with a staggering 216 gigantic stone faces of Avolokiteshvara (the Buddha of Compassion), purportedly bearing an uncanny likeness to King Jayavarman VII, in a state of peaceful meditation.  

Tah Prohm: An atmospheric jungle enveloped temple, its crumbling galleries and pillars entwined by gigantic roots, still looking much as it did in the 1850s when it was ‘rediscovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhot. It is now familiar to cinema goers, the world over, through the adventures of the seductive ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’.      

Banteay Srei: A less visited, outlying temple, known as the ‘Citadel of Women’, small in scale but with wonderfully ornate sandstone carvings – an absolute jewel in the Angkor crown.  

Akira’s story: A quite remarkable tale, told through the informative landmine museum, close by to Banteay Srei temple. As a child, the orphaned Akira was forced to fight for the Khmer Rouge, before switching sides to the Vietnamese army. After laying land-mines, throughout the war, when peace finally came to Cambodia, he set out to ‘right his wrongs’ by working as a de-miner for the UN.    

Les Artisans d’Angkor silk farm: An informative visit, explaining the entire silk making process, from the life cycle of the silkworm right through to the gift-shop – stocked with expensive high quality products.   

Sundown in Siem Reap: Escaping the heat, relaxing in a big cane chair, sipping Angelina Jolie’s favourite ‘Tomb Raider’ cocktail (Cointreau, lime & soda) on the pavement terrace of the old colonial ‘Red Piano’, or enjoying an Angkor Beer on the balcony of the ‘Foreign Correspondents’ Club’, before tucking into curried fish, ‘amok’, at the ‘Amok Restaurant’, in the passage to the old market.   

Wonderful memories, of our Highlights of Indochina experience, that already seem a lifetime away!







2 responses

14 05 2012

A fascinatng account, I shall read it a few times.

14 05 2012

Well it looks like you had a good old root around! It sounds wonderful, thanks for sharing. A friend of mine has recently returned from a two month jaunt around the same part of the the world. She absolutely loved it and is already talking about returning.

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