Noodle in ‘Nam: fun times in a former war zone

5 Apr

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War is brutal and dehumanising. It destroys lives, tears families apart and obliterates places of beauty and wonderment. Amazing, then, that in just 30-odd years Vietnam has largely bounced back psychologically and physically from one of the 20th century’s most brutal conflicts and in one swoop become my new favourite country to visit in Asia. I’m sure the locals are all thrilled by the latter.

reunification palace saigon

Saigon’s Reunification Palace: scene of last chopper fame

Being a newcomer to ‘Nam, the Easter plan was to hit Ho Chi Minh up first and then fly up to the capital Hanoi in the north. Everyone has their favourite. Some had warned Hanoi can be a little intimidating for tourists – less friendly and certainly more hectic than Saigon – while others enthused that its colonial charm and tree-lined old quarter more than make up for any deficiencies.

Bui Vien Street

Backpacker street: Ho wd be proud

To be honest they’re both bloody brilliant and the perfect location to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. You’re not going to find the same level of English fluency among the locals, and nor should you, but a few words of the local lingo and a lot of patience will go a long way. For me, Saigon is in danger of being a bit bland – a SE Asian-city-by-numbers, albeit one studded with some fine old colonial architecture and a heaving backpacker district that’s great for party people and singlet wearers.

halong bay

Halong Bay: worth a detour from Hanoi

I think Hanoi definitely has more character: more alleyways crammed with roadside food hawkers dishing out everything from national dish pho to warm baguettes slathered in pate and chilli sauce. It also struck me that the locals there are not unfriendly or lock in hanoiintimidating, as long as you try at least to say your Ps and Qs in their mother tongue. Sadly, because of an unfathomable curfew at midnight, it’s not really a place for largeing it till the wee small hours. Lock-ins can be found though. Or just sit tight as we did and watch as the owner pulls the metal shutters closed and you are literally locked in while the Party police pump propaganda messages from their trucks outside.

hanoi street

Never far from the 30 pence beers, the bubbling cauldrons of street-side noodle soup and endless stream of scooters, however, is the past. Taking a last day tour around the fabled Metropole hotel in Hanoi’s French Quarter our irrepressible local guide related his own personal memories of nightly B52 raids on the city and the brutal war with the French that preceded the notorious US conflict. Of climbing up into a tree one morning and seeing the total destruction of entire neighbourhoods. An elderly Aussie on the tour was there because his mate had been conscripted in the 60s, went off to Vietnam and never came back.

beer and scooters

Beer and scooters: Hanoi

Yup, Vietnam has a lot of balls. It’s noisy, dirt cheap, crammed with delicious street food, eye-opening sights and heart-rending tales … and full of friggin’ scooters. It’ll probably give you the shits for a couple of days, it’ll probably be damp and suffocatingly hot and you WILL have a near death experience with a motorbike but on balance these are all part of the charm. (Actually, maybe not the unusual pooing). What else could you possibly wish for in a holiday?

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