A trip to Vietnam should be series of highs and lows, says Jimmy Thomson, but all of them good.
Travelling through Vietnam is a series of ups and downs, and I don’t just mean take-offs and landings on internal flights.
You can travel in time through this amazing country from the prehistoric to the ultra-modern, taking in some of our shared history along the way, as you can go deep underground in caves and tunnels then hit the heights in mountains and the amazing Bitexco tower in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
One of the hidden gems of Vietnam, despite being one of its biggest attractions, is the Paradise Caves system, or Dong Thien Duong, to give them their local name, which run beneath Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
At an incredible 31 Km long, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 400 km south of Hanoi and 750 km north of Saigon, forms the longest cave system in Asia, while the largest chamber reaches up to 100 m high and 150 m wide.
A broad, timber boardwalk that winds for a kilometre through ancient rock formations makes viewing the cave easy – but there is a challenge or 500 of them, to be precise, in the form of a stairway from the cave’s café and meeting point.
But once you have made it, you realise you are inside a hollow mountain, a karst, of the kind that shoot up out of the water so recognisably in Halong Bay. It’s like a cave as designed by Disney. The lighting may be a little overdone for purists, but that 500-step climb means the caves are never crowded and the experience is one what will live with you forever.
Other caves in this system include Mountain River Cave (Hang Son Doong), twice the size of Deer Cave in Malaysia, previously reckoned to be the largest in the world. And for tourists that can’t handle the 500 steps at Paradise Caves a much more leisurely expedition to the Phong Nha Cave will take you 1500m along its underground river on easily accessible boats.
Going underground in a very different way are the famed tunnels of Cu Chi, which were first discovered and investigated by Australian troops, the original Tunnel Rats (not that you will find any mention of that anywhere in Vietnam).
What a lot of tour guides won’t tell you is that there are two tourist areas at Cu Chi, the main difference being that one, Ben Duoc, has tunnels widened to accommodate Westerners’ bulk – but it is only through them that you can get to the underground chambers. Ben Duoc als has a huge temple built to the memory of the Vietcong who died in the tunnels.
The other site, Ben Dinh, by far the most touristy, has a much more realistic tunnel that goes down three levels and gets narrower at the end (be warned!) but claustrophobics can reach the bunkers directly from ground level.
If you are visiting Vietnam because you are interested in war history, you will also want your guide to take you to the Minh Dam caves, in the Long Hai mountains between Saigon and Vung Tau, which were the Vietcong’s headquarters during the Australian army’s occupation of Phuoc Tuy province.
There you can clamber down into kitchens and sleeping chambers that survived a decade of B52 bombs unscathed and undiscovered. You will also find one of only two reminders that Australians were ever in Vietnam – a plaque that marks when this was Vietcong HQ lists dates that exactly match Australian troops’ presence in the area. The other memorial is, of course, the cross at nearby Long Tan.
When you are in Saigon, you should also visit the former Presidential Palace with its underground war rooms and, yes, an escape tunnel should the president have ever needed it. And you can hit the heights at the Bitexco Tower with its 40th floor viewing gallery. Although not huge by Australian high-rise standards, was, until recently, the tallest building in Vietnam and the views from up there are breathtaking.
From there you can see the Mai Chi Tho highway disappear under the Saigon River, just a few hundred metres from where ferries used to run a constant shuttle service from the undeveloped east bank. Three at a time, one on each bank and one in mid crossing, they disgorged motorbikes and scooters by the hundreds, carrying four or even five members of a family, in a never-ending stream of two-wheeled humanity.
For decades they talked about building a bridge here but that would have meant clearing several blocks of the city’s most historic buildings. I often imagine being in the city council chambers when some bright spark said, “Hey, do we do tunnels?”
There’s a very different set of tunnels further north near Hue and the former DMZ (demilitarized zone) that separated North from South Vietnam. Here at Vinh Moc the tunnels were for living in, rather than for military purposes, but the reason for their existence was the same. The Allies suspected, with good reason, that the villages were full of Vietcong and their sympathisers, so they bombed the crap out of the region. The locals responded by going underground, digging tunnels large enough to walk around in, fully upright.
War and peace, tunnels and caves, the Vietnamese are remarkably accommodating of our desires to revisit this unhappy chapter in our shared history. But, to be honest, it’s such a defining part of their story too that it’s little wonder that it’s hard to escape echoes of the war.
Cat Bo island at the southern end of Halong Bay is a case in point. Its spectacular mountains and cliffs have made it a popular spot for climbers and abseilers and there a couple of admittedly strenuous walks, involving rusty ladders and slippery screes that would give your insurance broker heart failure. The little harbour town itself has the feel of an off-season ski resort or backpacker surfing spot.
And then, just when you think you have escaped the war, you come across the Viet Minh hospital built inside a karst, on three levels of concrete slab, complete with treatment rooms, cinema and meeting places with ingenious emergency escape routes, in case of attack.
In Halong Bay itself, there are more caves and the kind of spectacular scenery that takes your breath away. On the road back to Hanoi, the war subtly intrudes again. There’s a craft workshop for kids born with disabilities from Agent Orange. And there are the tell-tale gaps in the cantilever bridge built by M. Eiffel (of the tower fame) and ‘reconfigured’ by American bombers.
You can get away from the war, if you want to (and you eventually will), not least by heading up to the hills around Sapa. This area is very popular with trekkers and mountain bikers and there’s even a cave or two there including the Ta Phin which isn’t as touristy as the Phong Na caves … but then it isn’t so spectacular.
Between Halong Bay, Sapa and the Phong Na caves, Vietnam has more than its fair share of stunning scenic beauty, and a populations of smart, industrious people happy to make your stay as pleasant as possible.
Maybe it’s time to forget the war and enjoy the peace.