The Silver Backpacker – Chapter 4: My Lai, Hue and Saigon

I departed Hanoi, having said a fond farewell to my two friends, on an overnight coach heading south for Da Nang.  This was the first occasion I had used this predominately backpackers method of transport. Coaches are, by their very nature popular, with backpackers throughout Asia. I would guess the prime popularity derives from the cheap cost and the massive number of travel shops that can find a coach going almost anywhere.

Da Nang had always fascinated me and on a previous visit to Vietnam when I concentrated on the battlefields, I found Da Nang had a certain magnetism. It did of course feature very prominently in the Vietnam War and was the home of the largest United States military base.  It also lies almost halfway along the length of  Vietnam.

The journey took some 15 hours and apart from passing through the city of Hue rather early in the morning, not a great deal of interest was seen. I had pre-booked my first few nights accommodation in Da Nang though it was comforting to be greeted by a multitude of Reps and Agents at the coach stop, all keen to recommend and negotiate accommodation.  I recall I did chat to one agent prior to taking a taxi to my hotel and arranging to meet later that day to discuss my immediate requirements.

The prime purpose of my stay in Da Nang was to visit three places. Firstly the sight of the My Lai massacre, secondly to spend a few days in Hoi An and finally to tour the ancient city of Hue.

The My Lai massacre took place in march 1968. My Lai was a village some 100 miles south east of Da Nang which was, during the war, suspected of harbouring Viet Cong fighters. The massacre of innocent villagers, women and children was a defining event during the war and I had heard of a museum and memorial that had been established at the site.

The next day,  after an early breakfast, my pre arranged taxi collected me from my hotel and we were on our way. We arrived at My Lai just before mid morning and I was surprised to be the only visitor at that time. Probably good news really because I had the full attention of a most attractive Vietnamese guide who it turned out was a relative of one of the victims. Actually it turned out that most staff had some connection to those murdered. She as a particularly good guide who spoke excellent English and who subsequently made my visit most worthwhile through both the manner of her tour, the  information given and the passion with which it was delivered.

This was a very poignant visit and I have included some of the photographs I took while at My Lai. My taxi driver was most grateful for the late lunch I treated him too and indeed, so was I,  as the restaurant he found was absolutely superb. Being well away from the general tourist routes it gave a further opportunity to sample the divine and fragrant cuisine of the Vietnamese people.

That evening I set about discovering Da Nang's nightlife. I was staying at The Royal Danang Hotel in the heart of the city so most entertainment venues were on hand so to speak. Bars were very friendly and it was quite amazing that the majority of customers were Australians – no problem with the language there then. The Hotel had a Disco/Night Club on the premises and I decided to sample a nightcap and see what happened 'on the doorstep'. It was an interesting experience. The club was pretty full and I was the only westerner. Apart from the most attractive Vietnamese hostesses the customers were nearly all South Korean businessmen and relatively young ones at that. Once it was discovered I spoke English – why shouldn't I – I was befriended and feted with drinks as my new found friends appeared desperate to practice their English and also discuss a bit of football. What a good night I had.

The following day I used the same taxi to head for the Imperial City of Hue. Hue is famous in many ways. Initially because it was a citadel  which occupied a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfumed River. Inside the citadel was the forbidden city, home of the emperors and their concubines. Palaces, temples and emperor's tombs abound everywhere and in reality it has as much, if not more, to offer as Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Hu? is well known for its historic monuments, which have earned it the nomination of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  During the Vietnam war  Hue’s central position placed it very near the border between the north and south where some terrible fighting took place and during one particular campaign, the Tet offensive,   the city suffered considerable damage. In 2004  little of the Forbidden City remained, though reconstruction efforts were in progress to maintain it as a historic tourist attraction.

The usual war relic museums abound but once over the bridge and into the Citadel you enter the world of ancient Vietnam.  Hue is a city that should be on everyone's itinerary if travelling in Vietnam.
Next stop was Hoi An, some 20 miles south of Da Nang and under an hour on an easily recognised local bus.  which is a most attractive seacoast village whose industry is spread between tourism and fishing. Hoi An actually lies along the banks of the Thu Bon River and estuary. There is a wide variety of accommodation to meet all budgets and many of the streets in the ancient part of the town are now pedestrianised.  Its reputation was originally built on trading spices and, like Hue, is a Unesco World heritage Site. The most famous monument in Hoi An is the 'Japanese Bridge (pictured) and is testament to the town’s past trading heritage.

I stayed three nights in Hoi An. The nightlife was very lively with numerous bars and restaurants as well as those hotels that provided entertainment. Hoi An attracts a good variety of tourists and not just the back-packing fraternity and the better quality hotels offered good facilities including swimming pools. One afternoon I took the opportunity to hire charter a small motor boat and journeyed some 10 miles up the Thu Bon river. A fascinating experience. Yet another place that should be added to everyone's Vietnam itinerary.

Day four and I returned to Da Nang to catch a flight along the coast to Nah Trang.  The purpose of this visit was to both reacquaint myself with some scuba diving and get a Vietnamese diving stamp in my diving logbook. Vietnam has only  two reasonably good diving sites and Nah Trang is one of them.I stayed for four nights in Nah Trang., the middle two being diving days. Apart from its dive sites Nah Trang has a very good sandy beach and is very much a holiday town where Vietnamese can enjoy a good beach. There is also a vibrant nightlife and good variety of hotels. All in all a very good visit.

The flight from Nah Trang  to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly, and my preference, Saigon) took around an hour.  I had visited Saigon previously but this time I was hoping my visit would be as cultural as my previous one had been militarily biased. I was not disappointed though so much of Saigon leans towards military history.

What is good about Saigon is the fact that it had a good grounding in modern western culture, is more open and buzzy than any other Vietnamese city, and the visitor feels a greater sense of freedom: almost as if the shackles of the old communist north have been released.  Of my three days in Saigon I dedicated one to taking the journey to the old  French colonial resort style town of  Vung Tau. Situated right on the coast and some two hours drive from Saigon it is well worth a visit. On the journey there we made a small diversion to visit the small Australian military cemetery: another legacy of the Vietnamese war (I said it was difficult to avoid). The old colonial architecture, beaches and near 200 meter limestone outcrop known as Nho Mount, with its 32 metre statue of Jesus and ancient defensive cannon, make good visitor sites.

Vung Tau did receive a degree of notoriety after my visit when it was discovered that none other than Gary Glitter had been hanging out in the town.

Saigon, fortunately for me,  maintained  that aura of Indo Chinese culture with the added influence of French cuisine. The great French baguette is still a visible legacy at road side stalls from early in the morning and the great food markets are a pleasure to visit: even if some of the produce on display may not appeal to western eyes, let alone stomachs.

And so I bid farewell to Vietnam, at least for a few years. A fascinating country that missed the opportunity to become an  Asian leader due to  it's sad history and prolonged shackling to communism. It is colourful, vibrant and a gastronomic delight and will always be worth another visit

The images of the old  hardened aircraft bomb shelters on the periphery of the airfield that I looked down on,  as my Thai Airways flight took off from Than Son Nhat Airport, remain with me today.

But there was business awaiting in Bangkok, but that is for another part of the Silver Backpacker story…have you ever played the blind person's dog?

Read Chapter 1 – Taking off for Asia
Read Chapter 2 – Koh Tao to Kanchanaburi
Read Chapter 3 – Thailand and Vietnam

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia for holidays to Vietnam.

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Richard Okill

Retired naval officer & businessman

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