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Lessons in happiness
as big-time tourism courts Vietnam, it’s still an unhurried and untrammelled escape. BEVERLEY HADGRAFT explores. photo essay by JOHN BANAGAN
THERE IS AN exercise in trust that workplace psychologists like to get you to do. You stand with your back to a colleague, close your eyes and allow yourself to fall into their arms. I am reminded of this as I cross the road in Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, because stepping into the onslaught of motor scooters, praying they will swerve around you (they always do), really is an exercise in trust. It’s not the first instinct you expect to find yourself contemplating in Vietnam. For most Australians, especially in Ho Chi Minh, thoughts are still with the war, and there are plenty of reminders of that. At the beautiful Caravelle Hotel we sit at the roof bar and are reminded that 50 years ago, war correspondents sat in our place. In fact, it was so well known as their favourite haunt it was bombed. Just outside Ho Chi Minh are the Cu Chi tunnels, a 250-kilometre-long, human worm farm where the Vietnamese lived and hid from the American invasion.
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One section has been considerably widened for the western frame, and I’m hardly voluptuous, but I feel too claustrophobic to make it to the end. The thought of running hospitals, giving birth and laying traps baited with scorpions and snakes for the enemy down here brings on sensory overload. Then there is the War Remnants Museum, where I find myself considering the issue of trust again. As a journalist, I am both shocked and moved by the photographs taken by war correspondents – disfigured children, soldiers submerged in swamps. Today, photographers would never be trusted to shine a light in dark places like this. Governments put a media spin on their battles just like they do on everything else. Another wall features photos of objectors from all over the world. There are photos from Mali, Germany, Egypt, Hungary, a whole wall for Australia … In our individualistic I-everything culture, I wonder if the world today would protest as one, over a single cause. »
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… here’s another subject for your contemplation: What are the ten senses? Ten? Oh, yes!
» Vietnam is fascinating. It is a country that encourages contemplation and to question what was, what is and what will be. For while I have encountered several Australians still struggling horribly with the trauma of that war, the Vietnamese, whose land and people suffered terribly, appear to hold no grudge against their invaders. This is partly because they’re a youthful culture; 60 per cent of the population is under 40 with little memory of the past and a famous optimism about the future. Add to that a Buddhist faith that encourages forgiveness and a culture that prefers to care for its community rather than its past, and you understand that there is more to this narrow strip of a country than a war, and rice pancakes. Now is a good time to visit Vietnam – before the global brands muscle in to take advantage of a booming economy, more ‘oh no, not Bali again’ tourists
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discover its attractions, and while prices remain so cheap you can stay in luxury for the cost of a seafront apartment at home. And here’s another subject for your contemplation: What are the ten senses? Ten? Oh, yes! At Hoi An’s Life Heritage Resort, they will tell you that on top of the usual smell, sound, sight etcetera, guests should also indulge their sense of local culture, environment, harmony, sixth sense and excitement. The resort offers traditional painting classes, Vietnamese language classes, daily Tai Chi sessions and free bikes to explore the town or visit the local beach. Along with most hotels here, they also have good spas, and I can’t help wondering why so many of my girlfriends prefer to visit Singapore or Hong Kong for their ‘girls’ trips away’; Hoi An is a much better bet. Its French-Chinese-Japanese heritage means it is stunningly beautiful, a charming riverside town all bright ochre pagodas and temples. »
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» However, what visitors, even those who are vaguely allergic to it like me, really like to do in Hoi An, is to shop. The town is bursting with tailors, jewellers, shoemakers and artists who will run up a copy of just about any item you care to show them for as little as $30. A friend even had copies of her son’s very expensive private school uniform run up – although if you’re going to be that specific, it pays to take along your own fabric. She also got them to run up a slightly shorter copy of her favourite designer dress, which bizarrely she now prefers to the original. Some tailors have a better reputation than others. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not the sort to fret about speed, and are prepared to wait two nights rather than one (!) for your garments to be finished, in which case, look out for Yaly Couture in Tran Quy Cap. It’s near the market and every local you speak to recommends it. In fact, get yourself a big cardboard box and plenty of packing and shop for your life. Vietnam is a treasure trove of ceramics, accessories, lamps and bags, and you’ll find yourself stocking up not only here but in Ho Chi Minh and, especially, in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. The only thing I might not advise splashing out on is the marble statues from Marble Village near Hoi An. They may look like a bargain – a cousin chose six massive pieces and paid $2500 including shipping, packing and insurance – but back in Perth, by the time she’d paid for port handling, a quarantine inspection, delivery from the dock to her home, and discovered she needed to hire a crane to hoist them into place, she wished they hadn’t bothered! Apart from shopping, one of the biggest treats in Vietnam is the food. The Vietnamese have a greeting: ‘An com chua?’. Literally translated it means ‘Have you eaten yet?’, but it’s a rhetorical question and in Vietnam you need little persuasion to eat. It is sublime; in fact, it’s hard to think of a national cuisine that betters it. »
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» The French have left their legacy in the form of beautiful breads, bakeries and sharp, creamy yoghurt. The coffee is famously good, especially served iced with a dollop of condensed milk, and there is a rainbow of tropical fruit and vegetables. If you are inspired by dishes such as crispy pancakes, spring rolls, herb-laden salads, clay pot casseroles, noodle soups and sumptuous seafood such as clams and lemongrass or barbecue squid with lime and chilli, cookery schools line up to teach you to make them. Ingredients are easily available and techniques simple. Having tried several, I can tell you the best is the Red Bridge cooking school in Hoi An. They take you round the market, recommend cooking implements and then have you preparing every item from scratch. They will also cater for vegetarians. You even get a boat trip thrown in. And talking of boat trips, there are plenty of those in Vietnam and, while the waterways aren’t exactly pristine, they’re picturesque enough and a good way to escape the bustle. You can rise before the
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sun to visit the floating markets on the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh, go out with the fishermen in Hoi An, or putter down the Perfume River at Hue. It was in Hue that I took an incredibly slow boat – seriously, ducks were overtaking us – from our hotel, La Residence, the beautifully restored former French Governor’s home. There are endless pagodas to visit, but to my eternal sadness we only had time for a visit to Thien Mu, fortunately one of the prettiest religious buildings in the country. I sat in quiet meditation, watching trainee Buddhist monks chant in the temple. The most popular attraction in Hue, however, is the Citadel, former home of the Emperor. It was bombed during the war, but is also being painstakingly restored, and there are brilliant animations which give you a good idea of what it would have been like when the emperor of this old capital walked through the front entrance, flanked by his mandarins, elephants and soldiers. It is still sufficiently intact to be able to see the Forbidden City »
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» where he and his family lived and the park where he played with his princes. Hue is a great stop, a peaceful opportunity to reflect on the country’s Chinese and French history, and – since it’s a university city – it is exceptionally friendly and there are plenty of English speakers. Of course, the most famous boat ride of all is Halong Bay, a three-or four-hour drive from Hanoi. A word of advice here: you get what you pay for. If you are going to be stuck on a junk for a couple of days with an unknown group of fellow travellers, you might not want to go for the budget option. If you weren’t even thinking of going the budget option, book a cabin on The Emeraude, a replica of a paddle steamer that cruised past these limestone formations in the early 20th century. If you want a different perspective from which to view the floating fishing villages and explore the caves, you can request kayaks. My last few days in Vietnam were spent at the Metropole in Hanoi. One of Vietnam’s grandest hotels, it is in the league of Singapore’s Raffles or London’s Ritz, yet still affordable by Australian standards, and was the scene of great excitement when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stayed there. For those of a more serious and literary bent, Graham Greene stayed there also. It is worth staying in a decent hotel in the major cities – an oasis of calm is very welcome after a day of road-crossing, and the Metropole is worth visiting for the lunch alone – as famous as the Ritz’s high tea or Raffles’ cocktail hour. It is also a very convenient ten minutes from the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake and the famous water puppet theatre – a sort of splishy splashy Punch and Judy with live music and fireworks. Vietnam is one of only five communist regimes left in the world.
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Loudspeakers in the streets give out government messages, and at 5 am every morning, the government encourages everyone to get up and exercise. Amazingly, the Vietnamese all rise and obediently do exactly this and, on my final morning, I walked around the lake to find the pavements teeming with Zumba classes, yogis, tai chi fans, runners, walkers and badminton players. One group of men had even erected a temporary gym, performing chin-ups on a piece of scaffolding. Watching all these impromptu sports centres, a complete contrast to the air-conditioned, state-of-the-art (and almost empty) gym back at my hotel, I am reminded of a comment one of the hoteliers made to me about the ‘can-do’ attitude of the Vietnamese. It perhaps explains how their armies of peasants were able to see off their superpower invaders. And, perhaps, it is the reason they are moving forward rather than looking backwards. Either way, as I was invited to join in I remembered a saying: The first to apologise is the bravest, the first to forgive is the strongest, the first to forget is the happiest. Lessons in happiness? You know where to go. You can fly direct to Ho Chi Minh with Vietnam Airlines or Jetstar. Internal flights to all other destinations with Vietnam Airlines are efficient and good value. The Caravelle: Life Resort, Hoi An: La Residence Hotel and Spa: Metropole: The Emeraude:
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