Thursday, December 10, 2015

We Visited Ha Long Bay 23 - 24 Oct 2015, Vietnam

Being in the navy I was able to see many facets of the magnificent sea. Through passage of time I was able to observe and be a part of the nature’s creations- mesmerizing beaches, sea fronts, harbours, islands, lagoons and never ending stretches of different and varying coastline. But, nothing had prepared me to absorb one of nature’s wonders – breathtaking ‘Ha Long Bay’ located in the Gulf of Tonkin which is 165 km from the capital Ha Noi.
Halong Bay features hundreds of limestone karsts and islands. Karsts are gigantic lime stone formations jutting out from the sea in various sizes and shapes. The bay has a 120 km long coastline and is approximately 1,553 square km in size with 1969 islets. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves, while others support floating villages of fishermen.

In 1994, the core zone of Hạ Long Bay was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

No amount of writing can bring out the beauty of these formations, majestically jutting out from the blue sea into the open sky. The bay along with Sung Sot cave is a rare visual experience one should plan to see in their life time. A long and steep climb takes you into the hallow of the Karsts. The narrow and winding path suddenly breaks into a cave of unimaginable proportions. Call it what you may – nature’s grand theater, art house or museum, it holds one and all in instant captivity. 

From Ha Noi it’s a four hour drive to the bay. En route the tapestry gradually changes from low lying paddy fields to hilly green. On reaching the bay you embark one the many boats for an extremely eventful day and night cruise along the coast. The boats are very well appointed with good cabins and private sit outs to enjoy the view. Variety of Vietnamese cuisine enthralls the guests along with an amazing cooking demonstration. 

The only downside to this tour was paucity of time. This being a package, I found too many activities were rolled together. I would have preferred a slow and evenly spaced unfolding of events giving us more time to sit in the open deck, sip beer and enjoy the nature’s bounties. 
If I were to go again I would try to get a customized two nights cruise.
Until then ‘Chill Madi”

Our abode for one night
View of the harbour
A boat cruising along
A lonely island
A group of islands
The extent of the lime formation
Odd shapes and size
Entrance into the cave
Sushuma and Jai after a steep climb
View from the top
A group of boats tied together
A local trader
Opening to the cave
Simply enormous
It takes different shapes
Yet another view
See the size of the cave in comparison to the visitor at the rear
The gang
The depth is mind blogging
The idol like formation in the centre attributed to image of 'Lord Ganapati"
Fish cutlets with carrot decoration
With a Norwegian tourist
With her boy friend
Sushama and Jai Kayaking
Early morning view
Remarkable food decoration demonstration
Anoushka and Sushama enjoying the moment
Private yacht may be next time

Sunday, November 29, 2015

We Visited Vietnam 19 to 25 Oct

Vietnam conjures up a number of thoughts and images in one’s mind, foremost being ‘WAR’. No other country on this planet has suffered war longer than Vietnam. 

Before World War II, Vietnam had been part of the French Empire. During the war, the country had been overrun by the Japanese. When the Japanese retreated, the people of Vietnam took the opportunity to establish their own government led by Ho Chi Minh. However, after the end of the war, the Allies gave back South Vietnam to the French while the North was left in the hands of Viet Minh. In October 1946, the French announced their intention of reclaiming the north. The war started in November 1946 and continued till the French pulled out in Nov 1953.

The Vietnam War started as a result of U.S strategy of containment during the Cold War, which aimed at preventing the spread of communism throughout the world. It revolved around the simple belief held by America that communism was threatening to expand all over South-East Asia. The American war against Vietnam started on 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975.
In comparison, World War II was fought for a duration of 5 years.

All in all, Vietnam was at war for a mind boggling period of 10 years with France and 20 years with Americans. Some estimates place the number of people killed during this period between 2 to 3 million. 

The intense suffering undergone by the people of Vietnam due to war and Cambodia due to war and genocide has no parallel. I believe the loss, grief and suffering cannot be quantified in any fashion.

In comparison, India has been a very safe and secure nation, post independence. Each one of us should be proud of this achievement. We should not only cherish this outcome, but should strive hard to preserve and protect it.   

Ho Chi Minh City 19 Oct

After the war ended in 1976, the city of Saigon and a few other nearby provinces and districts were combined to create Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the late Communist leader. District 1 is the financial and commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City. Most travellers spend a majority of their time here. District 1 was designed by French architects during the colonial era, which explains the wide, tree-lined boulevards and number of parks. District 1 under the American influence became the most important place in Vietnam. Today it looks and feels like any other modern city – sky scrapers, bustling traffic, chic commercial establishments, malls et al. 

The frontage occupied by any building determines the amount of property tax to be paid. Consequently most of the buildings in Vietnam have a very narrow frontage and grow vertically. Housing is prohibitively costly especially in District 1. 

Our guide told us that at one point of time Saigon was the envy of Bangkok and Singapore. Now, under the communist rule things are different – unemployment is rampant – 90% of the population is involved in petty jobs - selling tea, coffee, lottery tickets and such other things. Having come out of a long war, they say it’s difficult to become rich but it’s easy to live here. They feel even Cambodia has caught up with them and the day is not far when Laos will also catch up. Corruption is believed to be rampant – the method adopted is bottom to top. 

Earlier, the Vietnamese used to marry very young and it was common for couples to have more than ten children. They preferred a son to a daughter. Even in government schools one has to pay for education. Children study up to 14 subjects at school! As a result, the Vietnamese are good at writing but not used to speaking. The capitalist Saigon feels life was better before the communists took over in 1976. 

We were told that one has to be pure Buddhist for three generations to get a government job – an extremely odd requirement in this day and age.
VND or the Vietnamese Dong is their official currency. 1 USD fetches 22,470 VND. By the time we were able convert USD to VND and finally into Indian Rupees the holiday was over. It is better to device your own simple thumb rule to manage currency on a daily basis.

HCMC airport is modern and well maintained. Airport taxis are reasonable and easy to hire. We found our way quite easily to Hotel Anpha Boutique in District 1. The hotel is located right opposite the famous Ben Thanh market.

Figure 1 – Anpha Boutique hotel. Clean, tidy and very functional with an excellent roof top restaurant.

Figure 2- Ben Thanh market is huge, hot and humid. Crowded with people shopping everything from clothing to food, drinks, souvenirs, coffee, tea, handicrafts, bags, snacks, daily necessities etc. It reminded me of Palika Bazaar in New Delhi minus the air conditioned atmosphere. Sushama and Jai shopping.

Figure 3Waiting for lunch to arrive – Anpha Boutique Hotel

Củ Chi Tunnels

After a quick lunch we headed out to see the famous Củ Chi tunnels – pronounced ‘Ku chi’.

In order to combat the better-equipped American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, Communist guerrilla troops known as Viet Cong dug scores of tunnels, including an extensive network running underneath the Củ Chi district, Northwest of Saigon. Soldiers used these underground routes to house troops, transport, communications and supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks, after which they could disappear underground to safety.

As the United States relied heavily on aerial bombing, North Vietnamese and VC troops went underground in order to survive and continue their guerrilla tactics against the much better-equipped enemy. In heavily bombed areas, people spent much of their life underground, and the Củ Chi tunnels grew to house entire underground villages, in effect, with living quarters, kitchens, ordnance factories, hospitals and bomb shelters. The Củ Chi tunnels are 121 Kms long and are now maintained by the government as a War Memorial complex.

The tunnels are a standing testimony to the unmatched resilience, ingenuity and determination of the Vietnamese people.

The guide told us, whereas an undernourished Vietnamese soldier could easily squeeze through the narrow opening of the tunnel, Macdonald fed US soldiers found it impossible to enter these tunnels.

Figure 4 – Tunnel entrance. These 30 by 50 cm holes in the ground led into pitch-black tunnels that were only 0.8 m wide and 1 m tall.

Figure 5 – A Vietnamese guard entering the tunnel

Figure 6 – Another type of entrance – slightly bigger

Figure 7 – Only the fittest could enter. Sushama attempting to enter the tunnel. Brave girl indeed!

Figure 8 – Jai and Anoushka behind clay model Vietnamese sentry

Figure 9 – They built a very elaborate ventilation system underground. These ant hill like structures were man made to hide kitchen exhaust and other outlets.

Figure 10 – Jai besides a captured Sherman tank

Figure 11 – Models of various types of deadly booby traps awaited the American GI

Figure 12 - With armed guerrilla fighters and explosive booby traps and pits filled with sharpened stakes, claustrophobia was not the tunnels’ only defense. Recognizing the strategic importance of these tunnels, squads of G.I.s began sending their smallest members down into these dark and exceedingly dangerous underground complexes. Unsurprisingly, these unlucky soldiers, known as “tunnel rats,” suffered exceptionally high casualty rates.

Figure 13 – Kitchen and mess hall

Figure 14 – An underground factory, dismantling captured American ammunition.

Figure 15 – Sushama wearing a Vietnamese straw Hat known as Non La – a very famous visible symbol of Vietnam. The hat is popular throughout Vietnam as a form of protection against a sharp sun or a light drizzle. It is very comfortable and light.

After a long drive back, we decided to spend the night at the hotel itself. The terrace garden restaurant provided an excellent ambiance - just the four of us to enjoy it all. The Saigon sky line, excellent company, good wine and exotic local cuisine added to the overall atmosphere.

Figure 16  – At night- the Bitexco Financial Tower is seen in the background. Built in 2010 with 68 floors above ground and three basements, the building has a height of 861 ft, making it the tallest building in the city.

Figure 17 – An excellent photo taken by Anoushka

A trip to Mekong Delta – 20 Oct

After a good breakfast we departed for a day long trip to the Mekong Delta. The trip involves lot of boat travel, visiting few villages and a traditional Vietnamese lunch.
The Mekong Delta covers an area of approximately 15,000 square miles to the west of Ho Chi Minh City. The Mekong Delta is where the mighty Mekong River completes its 2,700 mile journey from the Tibetan plateau and empties its riches into the South China Sea.
This is an area of lush, tropical and fertile lands. It is often referred to as the 'rice bowl' of Vietnam due its huge production of rice. Vegetables, exotic fruits (coconuts, mangoes, rambutan) and fishing also feature prominently here. Life in the delta revolves around the river and as such, this is the only real way to view and understand it and see its many waterways, communities and cottage industries that are so vital to the way of living here including the thriving local floating markets.
In Vietnamese, it is called “The Nine River Dragon Delta’ as the river splits into nine tributaries before entering the sea. The river weaves through the land giving rise to many pockets of land covered by the river on all sides. These island villages support a population of 100 to 1000 people. 

Figure 18 – A 15 feet Python – Snakes are a favorite with Sushama. Inmate of the Mekong Island

Figure 19 – Not to be left behind

Figure 20 – Anoushka is also familiar with snakes

Figure 21 – Jai looks comfy too 

Figure 22 – A beehive

Figure 23 – Down by the river

Figure 24 - Water coconuts, a close relative producing smaller nuts but with the same flavor. Very common sight along the river banks.

Figure 25 – Another view of the river

Figure 26 – A power ZZzzzzz

Figure 27 – Mekong with the suspension bridge in the background

Figure 28 - One of the contributions of Vietnam to the world has been the religion Caodaista, a religion that takes concepts from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, etc.

Figure 29 – Jai standing outside Phu Chau ancient pagoda 

Figure 30 – It’s Anoushka turn to pose

When we enquired about the Bitexco Financial Tower we were told by the hotel staff that there was a disco – ‘Eon Elli Bar’ on the 53rd floor. So in the evening we decided to visit the bar to unwind. The loud music, psychedelic lighting, chilled beer, nonstop dancing and the breathtaking view of the city below all combined to make the evening truly wild and entertaining. 

Figure 31- The dance floor

Figure 32 – In a very contemplative mood

Figure 33 - Sushama and Anoushka enjoying the atmosphere

Figure 34 – View from the 53rd floor

Figure 35 – Jai and Sushama all immersed in psychedelic laser light

Figure 36 – Finally dinner

Ho Chi Minh City – 21 Oct

The last day in this historic city was spent sightseeing at a very leisurely pace with a bit of shopping thrown in.

Figure 37 - Reunification Palace - formerly known as Independence Palace. The palace has been witness to two fierce wars against France and America.The palace was built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, a landmark in Ho Chi Minh City and designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu. As Vietnam was split into North Vietnam and South Vietnam, the building served as both a presidential home and workplace. Today the palace is symbolically connected with the end of war - At 10:45 on 30 April 1975, a tank of the North Vietnamese Army bulldozed through the palace main gate, ending the Vietnam War.

Figure 38 – Representatives of North and South Vietnam National reunification – 21 
Nov 1975 – Historic photograph

Figure 39 – Photo op

Figure 40 - On 8 April 1975, Nguyễn Thanh Trung, a pilot of the Vietnam Air Force and an undetected communist spy, flew an F - 5E  helicopter from Bien Hoa Air Base to bomb the palace, but caused no significant damage.

Figure 41 – A view of the city centre

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

The museum attempts to portray the Vietnamese view of the war through photographs. The horrors of war have been captured vividly in the photographs. The famous photo of a naked young girl running on the street after being hit by a Napham bomb is also showcased in the museum. That image jolted people around the world. Some say it hastened the end of the Vietnam War.

Figure 42 - On June 8, 1972, AP Photographer Nick Ut captured what would become a Pulitzer Prize winning photo depicting children fleeing from Napalm bombing during the Vietnam War. In the center of the frame running towards the camera was a naked 9-year-old girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as 'Napalm Girl.

Many of the photographs displayed in the museum are extremely shocking as they truly reflect the atrocities that have been heaped on Vietnamese.

The museum also houses ‘India Centre’ which displays a number of photographs highlighting the cooperation between the two countries.

Figure 43 – India Gallery. Photo of Mr Ho Chi Minh flanked by President Shri Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru – 02 Feb 1958 New Delhi

Figure 44 – India Gallery. Photo of Ho Chi Minh’s visit to Namma Bengaluru on 11 Feb 1958 - with the Governor, His Excellency Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar and artists.

Figure 45 - Notre Dame Cathedral - Saigon

Figure 46 – A local vendor selling sweet savories.

Figure 47 – Saigon Central Post office