31 May 2003: Hanoi, Vietnam

Greetings from Hanoi, capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I've been here for nearly a week and I've been discovering what things are like in one of the world's few supposedly-communist countries, seeing some of their spectacular limestone scenery, and shopping!


Vietnam is now one of only about four countries that call themselves communist - the others are China, Cuba and North Korea. I've not been to China but the impression I have is that Vietnam falls into the same category. It certainly isn't communist in the literal sense of having communes; even the rice fields are (now) cultivated by the families that own them and increasingly odd-shaped patches of land are passed down through the generations. I don't think you can even call it socialist: it's not as socialist as many countries of the European Union, in the sense that it doesn't have free health care, for example. It's a capitalist country with lots of private businesses and privately-rich and privately-poor people, like most of the world. It is in a minority of having an unelected government. It's also definitely not a police state - you see very few uniforms around, far fewer than places like Mexico, for example. And I don't think the people have any fear of the consequences of mixing with westerners (though I don't think they have the right to leave the country (not that the rest of the world would want to let them in they could leave, I suspect)). But they do apparently censor their internet connections - I've just typed "Amnesty International Vietnam" into Google and I'll let you know what it finds. Basically it is absolutely not a Marxist workers' paradise, but it's not the worst place in the world either. (And yes I can read what Amnesty International thinks of the state of human rights in Vietnam!)


Just coming into the city from the airport you get a taste of the essence of the country. The bus passes through the rice fields and looking out of the window you can see the farmers, women in their distinctive conical hats, harvesting the rice by hand. The smooth new road passes above them on an embankment and the bushells of cut rice-grass are hung over the roadside crash barrier to dry. Then every few kilometres you see a threshing machine (perhaps communally owned?) and the discarded stalks are spread right over the road.

Then, after crossing the enormous Red River on a big new bridge, you suddenly cross from rural to urban. The roads are full of motorbikes and you rapidly arrive in the Old City with its narrow streets and low-rise buildings set around a lake. The guidebooks try to prepare you for continuous loud noise, but it's not as bad as they make out. Certainly it's not as unpleasant as San Jose, Costa Rica. True the Vietnamese do like to use their horns a bit more than most nationalities, but it's bareable.

Ha Long Bay

So after a couple of days looking around the city (museums, Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, temples etc) I signed up for a three-day trip to Ha Long Bay. Very much of S.E. Asia is limestone with impressive geological features like tower karst. In Ha Long bay an area of tower karst has been inundated by the sea and thousands of steep-sided islands, big and small, stick up out of the water. It's a spectacular sight:

The trip was spent mostly on a boat and it was quite luxurious with only six to eight of us. We had plenty of oportunities for swimming and we also had some inflatable boats to play about with. (They describe them as "kayaks", but they're not; they're a bit better than seaside rubber dingies, but nothing like as stable as the proper sea kayaks that I paddled in New Zealand. They were fine for messing about for an hour or so but you wouldn't enjoy spending a whole day trying to make them go in the right direction.) Probably the best bit was paddling through a low arch cave into a big "hidden" lagoon - it felt like a secret world worthy of Jules Verne (or Enid Blyton or Alex Garland). Another highlight was a night-time swim when we saw the bioluminescense where we disturbed the water with our limbs. On the other hand we saw some big show caves that were undoubtedly the most hideous I have ever visited - the formations were illuminted in neon colours and at one point they even had a garden fountain spray arranged to "add" to the natual beauty!

The weather was a bit misty for much of the time but we did have enough blue sky on the second day for me to get a bit sunburnt :-(

Lots of people live in the bay, many of them in floating homes with a fish farm as a garden. The sight of all of these shacks - all with T.V. arials - bobbing about surrounded by fish enclosured with a backdrop of undercut limestone cliffs was incredible. Others live on land and either service the tourist trade or fish for the small fry that are fed to the farmed fish. (Fish and prawn farming are emphatically not the answer to over-fishing in the oceans for this reason.)

Ha Long bay is a UNESCO world heritage area. Despite and/or because of this they are building a huge new tourist complex on what was previously an island but is now joined by a kilometre-long causeway. From the boat we could see the recently-completed dolphin aquarium and casino, and the hillside cleared of all trees ready for the hotels. It's a complete isore, but it's designed to attract Vietnamese and Chinese tourists who have different tastes from we Westerners (and, I guess, UNESCO). There's also a serious rubbish problem in the bay with lots of floating plastic water bottles and the like. Perhaps it's a place to see before it's too late.

Well that's all for now. I've no idea what I'm doing next, so watch this space (or send your suggestions!)