Written by: Martin Myers-Allen, Expedition Leader
We began the long journey to Vietnam the day after term ended to a destination 8,500miles east of sleepy Suffolk. Vietnam is a proud nation that has had to fight for independence over the years from Chinese and later French invaders. Despite this, and the very recent conflict with the USA, it has emerged as a thriving communist country that now seeks only peace and tourism.
We landed in bustling Hanoi, home to some of the 92 million people; 5 million mopeds and of strong Indo-Chinese influence. The stifling heat, humidity, insect bites and rain showers were to be our constant companion throughout our stay and we had to adjust to that as well as the noise of engines and horns, milling people and street smells. A day later the peace and tranquillity of the Hoah Binh countryside and Thai people proved a welcome respite and we enjoyed five nights in stilted longhouses surrounded by rice paddy fields tended by buffalos. The clamour and chaos of Hanoi was replaced at day by noisy cockerels and cicadas and at night by croaking frogs, fireflies, thunder, lightning and the sound of rain on corrugated tin roofs. We spent four days building a 65m stretch of road, working and sweating side-by-side with the locals. In return they taught is to cook, weave baskets, dance, farm peanuts and plant rice. They never grumbled at our numerous breaks for water and we integrated well. The bonds of friendship we forged were evident on our last night when the community came together and organised a festival for us and where we entertained them with singing, dancing and magic and in return we were entertained by traditional dances.
In many respects we were sorry to go, but we were also keen to start on our three day trek through the upland valleys of Mai Chau, scarred with limestone outcrops in search of the M’Hong people in the remote Xam Khoe village. The trek was a huge challenge in the heat and humidity, but it was exhilarating and educational too. The M’Hong were wary of us and kept their distance – they were nervous of foreigners and we couldn’t change that. Never-the-less the countryside was lush and we saw stick insects, praying mantis and all manner of creepy crawlies in the farmland and small forests of bamboo. Our next phase was to relax in a national park in stilted houses by a lake. It was a little run down, but we managed to trek through steamy, secondary jungle to see a 1000 year old Banyan tree and explore bat infested caves. We also visited endangered monkey and turtle sanctuaries – stark and sad reminders of man’s need for more land and the Chinese appetite for exotic animals to feed their medicinal trade. As the days drifted by we then found ourselves exploring the medieval town of Tam Coc . This ‘mecca’ for tourism is nestled in flat land among gigantic Limestone monoliths that tower into the sky and would dwarf the highest modern skyscrapers. Historically this used to be the capital with it winding rivers, gorges, pagodas and temples. It was a mesmerising place best enjoyed by sampan boats and bicycle, but everywhere we went we saw building works and concrete shells of new hotels and we knew that this enchanting place was to change.
At the end of our adventure we found ourselves back in Hanoi with time to explore the old quarter, shop and visit the famous Hanoi ‘Returned Sword’ Lake where legend has it that national hero General Le Loi, having won independence from the French, was granted a gold sword from the Gods which was later claimed by the Turtle God, Ktm Quy. This story was enacted in full for us at the Thang Long Water Puppet Show on the penultimate evening.
We left for the UK the next day with a huge fondness for Vietnam and we each left with special memories. It was privilege to experience a different culture to our own. The Vietnamese have a strong sense of community and family and a way of life. They are a generous, thoroughly happy people still unperturbed by capitalism and greed – which are perspectives we can all learn from.