Why don't the Chams rise up against Vietnam
GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM
The expectations were extremely mixed - a lot of customer feedback that was extremely positive, films like Indochine or The Lover, which showed a picture of beautiful colonial Vietnam, but of course the many pictures of the Vietnam War (my youth ...) or Oriana Fallacis We, angels and beasts, who made it difficult to imagine an intact travel destination. But - as is so often the case - you can be positively surprised! So good morning, beautiful Vietnam!
About 4x the size of Austria, the country extends over more than 1650 km along the South China Sea - the comparison of a bamboo stick with 2 rice bowls is often used: extremely narrow in the center (partly only 50 km narrow), huge fertile plains in the North as in the south. The Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south are, in the truest sense of the word, rice bowls - until a few years ago, Vietnam presented itself as a country characterized almost exclusively by agriculture. In addition to rice, it is mainly coffee in the highlands that the French colonial rulers brought into the country. Vietnam is now the second largest coffee producer in the world. There are also countless tropical vegetables and fruits for sale in the lavish markets across the country. Thanks to the conversion to "Doi moi" (economic renewal) in the 1990s, a communist market economy moved into the country that clearly functions better than the planned economy in the early years of unified Vietnam. Dubbed an emerging country by the World Bank, we are experiencing an economically extremely active country.
We reached the Vietnamese capital Hanoi comfortably and pleasantly with Qatar Airways, traversed by the Red River and located in the middle of the fertile alluvial plains of the river delta. Officially 6.5 million inhabitants - probably more than 10 million including the suburbs - cavort in this lively, extremely beautiful city in the old quarters. We are lucky enough to be on the road in preparation for the New Year - called Tet Festival in Vietnam. The preparations can be called excessive - millions of flower sticks in yellow (lucky color) and red adorn the cities and historical sites. Every household in the north wants a kumquat tree as decoration, in the south it is more the bougainvillea that is brought to Saigon by ship. In addition, there is the custom of having the family photographed in a picturesque setting every year - for vacation photographers it is a real highlight to be able to "snack" here.
Hanoi has been the capital of the country since 1010 and has an incredibly beautiful and lively maze of alleys, especially in the old colonial quarter, with countless shops and handicraft shops. Smaller and larger lakes offer promenades for strolling, which are used far more than the huge squares around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. The huge granite monolith attracts numerous visitors - Uncle Ho has lost little of his fascination for the Vietnamese. All around are beautiful old colonial buildings that are used as administrative facilities or embassies. None of the cities of Vietnam has so impressively preserved the architecture of old Indochina - not only hotel jewels like the “Metropol” shine out, but also the foreign ministry, the government guest house, the opera and many other palaces. No less impressive are the pagodas and temples - including the Confucian Temple of Literature. A mighty gate leads through charming gardens with poinsettias, dahlias, roses and pelargoniums to the four ceremonial courtyards, around which the artistically carved buildings are grouped. Before the New Year, various offerings are set up on the altars in front of Confucius and his students, from small cookie jars to oversized gift baskets. Even a few cans of Coke are considered acceptable sacrifices ... Now before the New Year there are plenty of citrus fruits that are also considered good luck charms - fantastic Buddha fingers, huge pomelos, kumquat - there is everything in abundance! Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism shape the religious image of the country. Ho Chi Minh was also brought up in the spirit of Confucius. Two important pagodas can be found very close to his mausoleum - the one-pillar pagoda in the shape of a lotus flower and the temple of the Goddess of Mercy. Here we find another symbol of Tet, the peach blossoms, which give everything that perfect spring touch.
The Tran Quoc Pagoda, the city's oldest Buddhist temple, is located on the south-east bank of the West Lake. The numerous small mausoleums contain the ashes of the monks who have served and taught here since the 6th century and surround a 15 m high brick-red stupa. If you want to do a good deed before the New Year, you can buy small and large turtles from the vendors in front of the temple and give them freedom.
Another photo highlight is the Long Bien railway bridge, which not only attracts numerous "photo models" at the New Year. From here the path leads us through the winding streets of the old town - a beautiful colonial balcony shines out over the shops below. The "belly of Hanoi" can be found here: we pass the fishmongers and butchers, we watch fresh spring rolls being rolled or others being prepared for baking. Pork rinds next to roast ducks, noodle soup next to vegetable shops, bakeries next to coconuts ... Right in the middle of it all, hairdressers and beauty salons and galleries - so interesting and intoxicating that you could buy yourself stupid and stupid!
Hanoi also has the traditional water puppet theater, which should be seen here or in Hoi An. On the weekends, the residents stroll enthusiastically along the Hoan Kiem Lake, from which the turtle tower and the pagoda protrude, to which a fascinating red bridge leads. Alleys full of inviting restaurants lead to the Notre Dame church, which rises west of the lake - the Porte d'Annam and Duong's, each with very innovative kitchens, are particularly recommended. But there are dozens of other nice eateries, coffee houses and street restaurants around.
In any case, time flies too quickly in Hanoi!
Before we go to Halong Bay, we first want to get to know the "dry Halong" near Ninh Binh - similar to the world-famous rocky landscape in the sea, massive karst mountains rise up here in the middle of rice fields and pastures, between which idyllic rivers serve as traffic routes for tourist boats. In some cases, the path not only leads around the outside, but also through grottos up to 500 m long, through which we are rowed. At the beginning of February, preparations are being made for the rice plants to be singled out in the rice fields - under plastic sheeting, the plants thrive close together until they are about 20 cm high and can then be placed on the large, irrigated fields. The work up to the isolation is laborious and often women’s work - with the simplest of equipment, bumps are leveled, almost always working with pure muscle power in the almost knee-deep water. In other places, colorful vegetable fields have emerged to supply the restaurants in the nearby cities. Ninh Binh is a certain experience in itself - there are countless construction sites for private villas in the city. But what villas! Like small churches with huge domes, pseudo-baroque portals and decorations - this new style is particularly popular with the city's political elite. Our curious question as to whether this apparent wealth - however acquired - might not seem strange to the common man on the street is hardly answered. Apparently this hierarchical difference is nothing new ...
Via Thai Binh and Haiphong we reach the coast of the South China Sea in the Bay of Tonkin, from which the entire north once got its name. About 10 km off the coast there are almost 2000 limestone islands, which are covered by rainforest and have numerous impressive stalactite caves. Since 1994, this unique landscape has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which attracts numerous tourists from all over the world - you can either explore the bay with day trips or take the opportunity to spend a night in this dream landscape with simple to very beautiful small cruise ships. We choose Image Cruises to get to know some of the islands, bays and caves better, to enjoy the incomparable sunset and the magnificent views. Most of the cruise ships have around 12-20 cabins, so there are also a manageable number of guests on board who are very well looked after.
The way to the airport leads us past tens of thousands of kumquat trees that are grown in large gardens and then offered for sale at the New Year's markets. It's a shame that a tree 2 m high for € 50 does not fit in your hand luggage ...
After the way on the country roads is quite lengthy, it goes by plane with Vietnam Airlines to Central Vietnam to Hue. The old imperial city (1802-1945) was once the center of historical Annam, as Vietnam was called for a long time. In the middle of the city rises the Forbidden City with its huge citadel, in which the magnificently decorated portals lead to impressive palaces and ancestral temples. On the once huge area, which was badly destroyed during the Tet offensive and later fighting, normal residential areas, markets and much more are now also spreading out. Hue rises at a bend in the Perfume River, which flows from the Annamite highlands to the sea. The most popular means of transport for tourists on the River of Fragrances are the dragon boats, with which we reach the Thien Mu Pagoda, among others. The Buddhist monastery was built around 1600 and still today attracts numerous student monks - its 7-story tower is considered the highest in Vietnam. Close to the walls of the Hue Citadel, on the north bank of the Perfume River, is the lively Dong Ba Market. In order to fulfill the wishes of the deceased for the afterlife, grave goods made of paper are burned at the funeral: a house or a fast car like Audi or Ferrari! Do you need money in the afterlife? - Bundles of play money might help here. But we don't even need to think about the afterlife to find special gifts: artistically wrapped cloves of garlic serve as good luck charms for the New Year. In addition, the large market offers the whole abundance of wonderful fruits and vegetables in addition to stalls with soup or snail sauce or simple tools or gold chains.
Another part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site rises on the outskirts of the city - the imperial tombs of Hue. The emperors of the Nguyen dynasty were buried in the midst of splendid parks - wonderfully decorated pavilions, artistically landscaped gardens, plus the court music from Hue, which is part of the intangible world heritage, create a unique ensemble. The imperial tombs of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang are particularly beautiful - although they were created in less than 100 years, they are very different. As a whole, the grave of Minh Mang certainly has the most intense effect, with Khai Dinh the exuberant mosaics in his grave complex are convincing.
From the imperial Hue it goes south to the climatic divide of the cloud pass - we partly follow the Annamite coastline or smaller and larger mountain ranges. At the Wolkenpass is the borderline between the subtropical north and the tropical south. It is mostly true that a cloudy Hue is followed by a sunlit Da Nang. According to the Vietnamese adage that life is too short to eat bad soup, we come from the North Vietnamese Pho to the Central Vietnamese Mi, which is no less delicious. A variety of soups characterizes part of the unique Vietnamese cuisine. From an art-historical point of view, the newly renovated Cham Museum in Da Nang is particularly outstanding. Parallel to the Khmer culture, the central and southern part of Vietnam developed between the 9th and 13th centuries. The Champa culture developed. Originally shaped by Buddhism, more and more Hindu influences infiltrated the absolutely grandiose formal language of the sculptures and temple decorations - the French founded the museum in colonial times and collected valuable artefacts from the most important archaeological sites. The idea of what the temples of the Cham culture once looked like is absolutely magnificent.
Through the marble mountains we reach the former Chinese trading town Hai Pho (incorrectly named Faifo by the French), which today as Hoi An attracts numerous tourists as an enchanting living museum. Once the largest port in Southeast Asia, it was located on the southern side of the Silk Road. Inside the city center, the old houses and temples and pagodas have been preserved - here we can now find countless boutiques, galleries and restaurants, which are given a very special ambience, especially through the many colorful lanterns that decorate the streets and illuminate the evening. Numerous food stalls attract local and foreign visitors, the colorful, hand-painted lanterns are sold at market stalls; and Central Vietnamese specialties are served in the pubs.
A very special excursion takes us from Hoi An westwards into the hills towards the Laotian border to My Son: Here is one of the largest temple cities of the Cham culture - unfortunately only a handful of the former 70 temples have remained intact. A hiding place of the Viet Cong, a bombing order of the US Army - the temples were made almost equal to the earthquake. Archaeologists - the excavation is under Italian supervision - first had to try for a good 10 years to explore the construction and, above all, the production of the very special bricks from which the temples are largely built. In the meantime, some of the buildings are in the process of being restored to their old beauty. The idea of what it must have looked like with the richly carved sandstone portals from the museum almost takes your breath away. It is one of the few peoples in Southeast Asia that could stand up to the Khmer - had its own high culture - had a country similar in size to the Khmer. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese do not speak of "their" history - the Champa culture is not considered part of Vietnamese identity ...
For the last part of our trip we have to fly a short distance south - from Da Nang we reach the old Saigon, today's Ho Chi Minh City. In contrast to Hanoi, which appears "quieter", at first glance, modernity and pulsating economic life await us in an Asian skyscraper city. More and more skyscrapers are emerging, more and more traces of the not particularly popular French colonial era are disappearing. In addition to the magnificent town hall, the post office, the opera and the Notre Dame church, there are also some beautiful villas that are hidden behind high walls. Saigon's flair is different - tranquility has little space here, other values have priority here! But here, too, there are the particularly nice bizarre places, e.g. in the markets of the old China town of Cholon. In addition to the tailor's market with an unimagined abundance of buttons and braids, ribbons and lace, there is also the market for New Year's items - lucky charms in undreamt-of form and variety! But maybe you have a crush on ornamental fish - a long street in Cholon is reserved for the sale of ornamental fish - and everyone, really everyone, sells fish here. In all colors, sizes, shapes - it is immediately packed in plastic bags with water and loaded onto mopeds to get to the buyer quickly and safely. Now, shortly before the New Year, hundreds of ships are lying at the quays of Saigon, lavishly loaded with flowers for Saigon - whether yellow chrysanthemums or orange marigolds, asters and, above all, bougainvillea - they are waiting in great numbers for the buyer. But we are also amazed at the confectioners who seem to have survived from French times and produce the most fantastic pies and cakes. In its business center, Saigon is more the image of international brands - Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands alongside H&M and Zara. You are international here and not primarily Vietnamese!
To get authentically Vietnamese again at the end of the tour, it goes to the Mekong Delta - one of the two “rice bowls” in the country. The Mekong is here at the end of its 4,300 km long journey from the Tibetan highlands down through all the countries of Southeast Asia - the area of this delta alone is enormous: almost half of Austria needs the Mekong to reach the sea - branching out a thousand times. In some narrow side arms you need a rowing boat to explore the small farms and craftsmen in the middle of the intensely green landscape. You are hardly ever alone here, the Mekong Delta is extremely popular with tourists. Nevertheless, we also experience fascinating moments here - such as the market life of Can Tho or the floating markets of Can Tho as well as the lesser known Cai Be.
In the end, the certainty remains that we want to return safely - so there is no goodbye, but a goodbye Vietnam! ...
Elisabeth Kneissl-Neumayer was in Vietnam in February 2018.
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