Pamela Wade explores all sides of Vietnam, from the traffic-jammed streets to remote hill villages.
ZERO space is wasted, anywhere, from the footpaths of Hanoi to the hillsides of Ha Giang, and everywhere in between. The city seethes with people working hard to make a living, and most of life seems to be lived on the streets. That's certainly where the most of the selling and eating happens. The pavements are reduced to a narrow strip by the neatly-piled goods on display and the clusters of low tables around simple gas burners, where diners squat on child-size plastic stools to enjoy their favourite pho, or noodle broth. In the country any flat area at the side of the road is commandeered for drying grains and hay, while the hills are a marvel of geometric rice paddies and tea plantations from summit to valley-bottom, populated by workers in conical hats busy with sickles.
ONE smiling young man is surrounded by an adoring crowd of middle-aged women in a square beside Hanoi's central Hoan Kiem Lake. Early every morning he's there to conduct an exercise class - in laughing.
The ladies breathe and chant together, "Ho ho ho!" and end up laughing helplessly, patting each other on the back before heading off for a day's work, uplifted. Nearby others dance Gangnam style, or ballroom, while beside the water people walk, jog, do tai chi and make ingenious use of the park benches and signs as gym equipment. In any open area, mixed groups, and children too, play badminton, with a net or without: it's the exercise and the company that count.
TWO curiously well-matched, green conical hills, unsurprisingly called Breast Mountains, are seen to best effect from Heaven's Gate in the Dong Van Karst Geopark. In the north-west of Ha Giang province, it's an area of stunningly spectacular scenery, the soaring limestone peaks like dragon's backs hemming in steep narrow valleys. Here farming requires mountaineering skills, the harvesters clinging to 45-degree slopes as they fill the baskets on their backs. Chatter and laughter rise up to the road as workers below thresh the rice by hand, whacking the bundles on the edge of a wooden cart. In Dong Van town, Hmong women in bright costume sell fruit and vegetables at the market, a man leads a cow along the main street, and a wedding party is delighted to be gate-crashed by Westerners.
THREE resigned-looking fully-grown pigs trussed into baskets and lashed to the back of a motorbike are just one of the astonishing loads that make Vietnam's roads an entertainment in themselves. Two glass doors, a water tank, fridge, television, roof truss, cages of chickens, five family members - physics is irrelevant, it's determination that matters. Crossing the road in Hanoi, taking on a constant swirl of mainly motorbike traffic is a daunting exercise, but tourists must copy the locals and just plunge into the melée: slow and steady makes it to the other side unscathed.
FOUR metre-high walls surround Ha Loa Prison, ironically nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton' by US pilots imprisoned here during what's known in Vietnam as the American War. Inside a sign warns 'no frolicking' - unnecessarily, because this is a grim and horrible place. The emphasis is on the brutality of the French colonisers towards the Vietnamese from the 1890s, and the life-sized displays of shackled men in a dimly-lit stockade, testimony from women prisoners, and the well-used guillotine are chilling. History is written by the victors, and the sanitised American section documents in detail the effects of B-52 bombing raids on the citizens. The display includes a guitar, neatly-pressed going-away suits, photos of John McCain's rescue and glosses over the treatment dealt out to the pilots.
FIVE musicians playing traditional instruments accompany the water-puppet show in a theatre beside Hanoi's lake. They sing and drum and extract wailing music from flutes and the unusual and haunting monochord. Hidden puppeteers manipulate wooden figures with long bamboo rods from behind a curtain so that they seem to dance on the tank of water that takes the place of a stage. The stories are traditional, about legends, harvests and festivals, and there is always a dragon. It's a charming way to spend 45 minutes.
SIX solemn children, neat and clean, pay close attention to what the teacher's writing on the blackboard in their one-room hill-village school. Outside, their less lucky peers come from nowhere to stare at the tourists, so rare in this remote corner of Ha Giang province. They're grubby and raggedly dressed, jostling together shyly; but the offer of lollies and glittery stickers has the children surging forward, hands out, smiling. We get smiles everywhere we go, and don't need the bribes to feel welcome in this friendly country.
SEVEN unhurried hours of trekking through the paddy fields include lunch in a hill villager's house, cooked in its cool, dim interior and shared with the hosts. There are intricate rice paddies, wandering buffalo, duck ponds and glimpses of neighbouring valleys. At the bottom, a communal rice thresher brings everyone together on the village's most important day of the year. We return to our simple but comfortable homestay for foot-baths and beer before another delicious dinner and bed on a mattress on the floor as kittens play outside the mosquito net and Moc the dog keeps watch downstairs.
EIGHT people are in our World Expeditions group, counting the driver and our guide Duke. We have an effortless trip, despite some long days in the van on bumpy roads to reach the places most tourists don't get to. On this Rocky Plateau Exploration, we sleep in pleasant hotels, have two nights in a homestay, and one on a boat in Halong Bay. The driver safely negotiates the challenging route, and Duke, government-sponsored, cheerful, funny and knowledgeable, makes meals hurry up and delays disappear, including even a roadblock.
NINE 2009, that is, is when Halong Bay was nominated as one of the 7 New Wonders of the World - and rightly so. It's a World Heritage site for its 2000 limestone islets in a turquoise sea, its floating village and spectacular caves. Each day flotillas of white-painted boats swarm through the bay, some of them with sails raised for show, like frilled lizards. On board the rooms are elegant and comfortable with dark wood and billowing filmy curtains. There's good dining, swimming, kayaking to the fishermen's village, squid-fishing by night, tai chi on the top deck in the early morning - and one night isn't enough.
TEN shots of apricot-flavoured rice wine, possibly more, make the last meal of the trip something of a blur; but it's certain that the food was good. Each meal, in roadside café or fancy restaurant, is a flavoursome feast of sizzling-hot, varied dishes brought to the table as they're cooked, fresh and tasty. Fish and chicken, beef and pork, the world's best spring rolls, crunchy hot vegetables, sticky rice, delicate noodles... it's all delicious, simple flavours artfully combined. The rice wine is always there, ritually drunk with clinking and careful eye-contact, and a chorus of cheers. Chuc suc khoe!
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily Auckland to Hanoi via Singapore.
Further information: See worldexpeditions.com.
Pamela Wade travelled to Hanoi courtesy of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.