Vietnam: A holiday for the ages

By Jane Jeffries

Jane Jeffries and her elderly parents look to access all areas in Hanoi.

Paul Jeffries revels in the sights of the Old Quarter, Hanoi, in a cyclo. Photo / Jane Jeffries
Paul Jeffries revels in the sights of the Old Quarter, Hanoi, in a cyclo. Photo / Jane Jeffries

"It's never too late, so long as you're breathing," says my father Paul Jeffries, and true to his word he's still giving life a nudge at 85.

We head into the departure area of Auckland International Airport. Paul, in a beige linen jacket, hat and cane, looks pretty good for his age, with his wife of 55 years, my mum Marg, at his side.

We head for the Singapore Airlines counter. The airline knows their requirements and two wheelchairs await us.

"That's better," says Paul, with a smile, as he lowers his weight into the wheelchair.

Marg and Paul have been great travellers, but things have got more difficult recently so I agree to accompany them. Their appetite for learning and adventure has not diminished and their attitude still makes it possible. Defying all odds and medical conditions, we are off to Vietnam for two weeks.

We know the trip will be challenging, so have taken time to consult with the medical fraternity who, thankfully, give us the thumbs-up. With medical insurance (less cover for the list of pre-existing conditions), duplicate sets of medication (in case luggage gets lost) and a letter explaining the cocktail that keeps the cogs working (in case we are mistaken for drug dealers) we are on our way.

Paul is comfortable with the risk. "What's better, another day looking out the window wondering what's going on in the world or take a chance and have a look yourself?" he says.

Our itinerary is full and we have guides and drivers to get us about as there are quite a few "must do's" on Paul and Marg's list. History and war museums are high on the agenda in Hanoi, as is a visit to Ho Chi Min, a man Paul has always respected. And in the ancient town of Hoi An, a world heritage site, we plan to explore the town and spend time in the country and on the river. We have a long list of restaurants to visit and Marg is keen to put on an apron at one of the many cooking schools in Hoi An.

Touching down in Hanoi, after a brief stopover in Singapore, we are again met at the door of the plane with a wheelchair for Paul and Marg. Although Marg is more mobile than Paul, the distances in many of the airports make it a long and tiring trek.

Eight million people live in Hanoi, double the population of Singapore, yet it's devoid of the slick commercial centre we have left behind. On closer inspection commercialism is rampant, but on a different level. Everybody is trading; bananas, water, cardboard, baskets or whatever they can sell. Despite being a communist nation, a capitalist economy is thriving as everyone ekes out a living.

Looking out on to the street from our hotel, I suggest a cyclo ride. I cannot resist a blat around the Old Quarter on our first night to get the vibe of this intriguing city.

Negotiating the price on the side of the road, the cyclo driver is quick to hail two mates.

"Be careful," I joke.

"They are old and fragile, I want no accidents."

With assistance we abandon the wheelchair and hoist Paul into the cyclo, wrapping a jacket around his knees to fend off the evening chill.

We weave through the mayhem and Paul's face lights up. Trucks, cars, scooters and pushbikes, all piled high with goods, weave their way through the narrow street where there is no right or wrong. Wires bundled together loop across buildings that shouldn't be standing and food stalls and merchandise spew on to the decaying footpaths. The chaos is energising.

We arrive at the mausoleum early the next morning and the weather has taken a turn for the worse, with low cloud and a chilling wind - appropriate for this solemn occasion. Built by Russians to house Ho Chi Min, this imposing structure is grey, stark and minimal.

We clear security and bypass the queue as we wait for assistance for Paul in his wheelchair. Four soldiers appear, impeccably dressed in white uniforms with adornments and lift him in unison. Without a word they carry him up two flights of stairs in the concrete monument to the viewing room of Uncle Ho, as he is fondly referred to.

The American war captured the world's attention in the 1970s, but preceding this the Chinese had occupied Vietnam for 1000 years, followed by the French for a shorter period.

The Americans were just the last of a long line of invaders who have come and gone through the centuries. These outsiders left a trail of destruction well documented in the many museums.

We take in the History Museum and learn about early civilisation of the Vietnamese people. The Hoa Lo Prison housed the Vietnamese political prisoners captured and tortured by the French. It later became the holding pen for American pilots (pilots in pyjamas) and was renamed the Hanoi Hilton. The Army Museum is home to a spectacular pyramid put together by an artist out of the wreckage of a B-52, F-111 and a French transport plane - all of which were shot down.

Hoi An, by contrast, is a sleepy little town only an hour's flight from Hanoi. Full of vibrant colour and lanterns it's located on the Thu Bon River. The old town is a myriad of little streets, with narrow buildings, built by the Japanese in the 15th century. It's an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-east Asian trading post. Lucky to escape the war, the historic buildings are intact with tailors, restaurants, art galleries and stores at street level and homes above.

While the town is beautiful by day it comes alive at night with many small, unsophisticated restaurants and bars dotted along the river providing a great vantage point to watch the locals go about their business. We sit with a beer and watch the overflowing barges take the workers up the river to their villages, families of five squeeze on to a scooter. Wagons of merchandise are pulled along the road to the night market and transient restaurateurs set up their food stalls on the footpaths with a burner and a couple of plastic stools.

Like Hanoi, you can buy anything in Hoi An from ducks to gravestones, to hand-made shoes and clothing. The traders we meet are all kind and Paul creates great rapport as he inquires about their lives. With his withered frame he is photographed so the tailor can understand his lack of symmetry for his new jacket and as the shoe lady carefully traces Paul's feet, she laughs and says, "They no longer resemble a pair."

We opt to attend the cooking school at our hotel and are lucky to be the only students.

Our tutor is well prepared with all the ingredients chopped and sliced. We prepare a delicious lunch and as Marg is making the final touches I get Paul from his room and we sit down to a feast.

The sun is low in the sky, a perfect temperature for our visit to the local vegetable growers. The paths between fields are narrow, so transport is an issue, but we find the perfect solution - motorbikes with sidecars. We abandon the wheelchair and with the help of the hotel staff we get Marg and Paul into the sidecars. I jump on to the back of one of the motorbikes, thinking how funny we must look. We enjoy the immaculate market gardens and talk to the growers, as they squat like grasshoppers attending to the finest detail.

Up early for our last day in Hoi An, our bucket list is all but done. Our fishing guide greets us at 4am so we can experience the sunrise on the water as the fishermen return from a long night on the Cua Dai Sea.

We board our ancient vessel and settle in for a serene and peaceful couple of hours. As the sun comes up we are served shrimp porridge and spring rolls.

Homeward bound, with a new wealth of experiences, Paul sums it up, "Bloody marvellous. What's next, China?"

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines has daily flights to Singapore and connecting flights to Vietnam, with Vietnam Airlines.

Where to stay: The Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi and the Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa are fine hotels in great locations.

Further information: See vietnamtourism.com.

- NZ Herald

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