|August 10 2020||19 nights
|Yes||$6500 pp||add $1600|
During the American war in Vietnam many stories became legends, none more so than the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Named after Vietnam's father of independence, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was not simply one road but many roads that acted as a network for distribution of food, weapons and combat forces.
Our journey begins in the centre of Vietnam in the old town of Hoi An and marches towards the 17th parallel. It was here that Vietnam had been divided into two countries following a decree by the United Nations in 1954. This journey is not about war, but rather about the incredible nationalism that we have uncovered in Vietnam after years of living and working here. It is about the water buffalo ploughing the field, the farmer toiling from dusk till dawn, hill tribe people and the genesis of political ideas. We cross into Laos and travel into the north to the caves of Vang Xai and the birthplace of the Phatet Lao, then back into Vietnam and on to Dien Bien Phu where the French were finally defeated after 100 years.
This journey follows back roads where few foreigners venture. If there is such a thing as the real Vietnam, this is it.
Central Vietnam has a rich history that captures your imagination through its landscape, tradition and culture. In many ways the pace and way of life has changed little over the last 500 years. The ancient town of Hoi An evokes this spirit perfectly. Amongst narrow streets there are hawkers and food sellers mixing with International travellers searching for bargains in tailoring shops or looking for a delicious Vietnamese food experience. Hoi An is an ideal place to start our journey into the heartland of central and northern Vietnam.
Heading north over the Hai Van pass past the picturesque town of Lan Co and the former imperial capital of Hue we arrive at the 17th parallel by Hien Luong River where Vietnam was split temporarily into north and south in 1954. The area gained fame during the America War as the DMZ (demilitarised zone). Ironically it was the most fortified, the most heavily bombed and the most dangerous place in all of Vietnam for 30 years.
We reach Dong Hoi by the sea and begin our exploration heading west into the Truong Song mountain range. Here we find the Phong Nha national park and a spectacular series of caves we can visit by local fishing boat. We return to Dong Hoi via Dong Loc T junction. There are many stories of bravery during the American War by the local people of Quang Binh province and here we will learn of the heroism of ten Vietnamese schoolgirls who paid the ultimate price for their patriotism.
We are on Highway One travelling into the heartland of northern Vietnam and the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh. We will visit Kim Lien village where Ho Chi Minh was born and raised in a simple bamboo house surrounded by rice fields.
During the American war the city of Vinh was a strategic point for arms and equipment destined for the southern battlegrounds. Now you will find a bustling city of nearly one million people. Many Vietnamese from other parts of the country comment on the unique dialect that the local people have saying they speak like birds.
Into the mountains and back roads of northern Vietnam we are now in limestone mountain country. The life is very traditional as the farmers go about their day preparing their fields by water buffalo and hoe. Today we will cross the border into Laos and leave Vietnam for a few days. We will pass local Hmong people with their villages built high on the crests of mountains practising slash and burn agriculture and following animistic beliefs. Later this evening we will arrive in Phonsovan at the Plain of Jars in north east Laos.
The Plain of Jars consists of a number of sites where large stone jars are found scattered amongst the country side. Very little archaeological work has been done on these man-made structures however they are thought to have been quarried and used for burial purposes by a civilisation that existed 2000 years ago. During the undeclared war on Laos this area was almost bombed into oblivion with over 4 million tonnes of ordinance. The legacy remains of unexploded Bombies (as the locals call them) and we will visit the MAG (Mine Advisory Group) a tireless NGO who are helping to clear the carnage.
We are in remote country and the road is winding with little habitation other than a few Khmu or Hmong villages. There is evidence of slash and burn agriculture on the hillsides where people try to eke out an existence by growing corn and mountain rice on impossibly steep slopes. Our destination is the provincial town of Sam Neua a northern outpost remote in the Lao mountains.
Just 45 minutes from Sam Neua is the small town of Vienxay. During the American war this area was the genesis of the Lao communist party destined to become known as the Phatet Lao and to this day the ruling party of Laos. For ten years the founders of the party along with their families, local villages and combatants hid amongst a net work of caves from the bombs and harassment of American air power. Inside the caves we find meeting rooms, kitchens assembly halls even an auditorium to entertain.
We make for the border just a few hours away and soon we are in the delightful town of Mai Chau. In Vietnam there are 54 different ethnic groups and many are hill tribes. Here we encounter the White Thai people and the Red Dzay with visits to villages where handicrafts and weaving are commonplace. Typically ethnic houses are on stilts and the people dress in their costumes of indigo or embroidered cotton.
Our adventure in the far north west of Vietnam continues to visit the remote towns of Son La, Dien Bien Phu and Paso before reaching the former French Hill station at Sapa. The road continues to be winding and there are many rivers and tributaries in our path. We will rest in the provincial town of Son la where the French built a prison to hold Vietnamese dissidents. Now mainly in ruins the prison is a chilling reminder of a harsh colonial past.
As we make our way around the border with Laos there are many memorials to the first Indo China war, the battle between the Viet Minh (the military arm of the Vietnamese communist party) and the French. In a deliberate strategy to draw the French troops into the mountains west of Hanoi the Viet Minh were able to wage a guerrilla war against their better equipped opponents ultimately forcing the French to garrison 15,000 of its very best at a remote out post in Dien Bien Phu.
During the early part of 1954 in a battle that raged for two months the Vietnamese were able to lay siege to the French stronghold. The Vietnamese victory changed the course of history. There are remnants of this battle including the French commander’s bunker and the fortification around a fire base called A1 hill which now finds itself on the main street of the town.
The countryside is remote and undulating and there are many ethnic people going about their daily lives of terrace farming with rice and vegetables or tending their livestock. We approach the former hill station of Sapa via Heaven’s gate the pass between Vietnam’s two highest peaks, the back door to the top of Vietnam.
The French had established themselves as colonial rulers by 1880 and looked for high country to escape the Hanoi summers which can by oppressively hot and humid. In Sapa they found the perfect location and a rail way line was constructed between 1904 and 1910 to the Lao Cai at the base of the mountain range. The town flourished until 1954 when the retreating French destroyed many fine colonial buildings. A few remnants remain including the Catholic Church in the town square.
The surrounding countryside is spectacular with views and vistas. We have a chance to walk down to villages from the valley rim, visit the local market and take in the view from the lookout at Ham Rong Mountain.
The train wobbles and shakes overnight on the old one meter gauge railway line down to Hanoi and finally across the Long Bien bridge on the Red River. This bridge was designed by Eiffel and built by the French in 1901. We are comfortable in our private cabins with air conditioning and fresh linen as we roll into Hanoi early in the early morning.
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and its history dates to the 10th century. Set by the banks of the Red River the old town was protected by a series of dykes that were constructed in the 15th century. The French made Hanoi their colonial capital and was once called the Paris of the east during the 1920s. Hanoi has a sophisticated air about it and really is the epicentre of Vietnamese culture. We will visit the highlights including Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh declared independence for Vietnam in 1945, Vietnam’s first university (Temple of Literature) and wander the 36 streets of the Old Quarter.
Our journey concludes and farewell to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
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'Nobody told me there would be days like these' - John Lennon
Dien Bien Phu is a broad valley surrounded by mountains in the far north west of Vietnam. Just 30 kilometers from the Lao border Dien Bien Phu had become the focus of world attention in 1954 when the French garrisoned a force of 15,000 troops here in an attempt to stop the Viet Minh supply routes from China. By this time the first Indochina war (1946-1954) had raged for 8 years and the Viet Minh had graduated from a rag tag gorilla force to a highly organized army under the guidance of General Vo Nguyen Giap. From March 7 until May 13 the battle raged until the French capitulated and the Geneva peace accords temporarily divided Vietnam into north and south at the 17th parallel. more
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