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2009 Biking Vietnam

We dropped out of the mountains and onto Highway 1 which links Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. From Ninh Binh (pronounced Ning Bing), we took a boat ride to and through the Tam Coc caves, and visited the Phat Diem Cathedral on a hired scooter. The coastal communities of north Vietnam were amongst the first to be targeted by Portuguese missionaries in the 1500s and the population here is 95% Christian. The cathedral, built in 1891, is a mix of Vietnamese and European architecture. In 1951, author Graham Greene watched a battle between the French and Viet Minh from the bell tower and used the scene in his novel, The quiet American.

Vietnam Tam Coc
Vietnam Tam Coc
Vietnam Tam Coc
Vietnam Tam Coc
Vietnam Tam Coc
Vietnam Tam Coc
Vietnam Phat Diem cathedral
Vietnam Phat Diem cathedral
Vietnam leaving Phat Diem - hammer and sickle Xmas lights
Vietnam leaving Phat Diem - hammer and sickle Xmas lights

We took an overnight train south from Ninh Binh, grateful we had opted for a “soft sleeper” compartment (the mattresses were a stingy 5cm thick – a definite misnomer). And from Dong Ha, near the 17th parallel which divided north Vietnam from south, we splurged on a tour to the Truong Son cemetery (where over 10,000 graves are labeled Liet si, meaning martyr); to the Ben Hai river (which formed the border); and to the Vinh Moc tunnels (where 90 families from a seaside village lived on and off for several years during US bombing; the tunnels had 14 entrances, ran for 2km, and varied from 12m to 23m in depth; seventeen babies were born underground here). Our tour guide, conscripted to fight for South Vietnam when just 18, spent two years in a communist re-education camp after the war ended in 1975.

Vietnam Truong Son cemetry
Vietnam Truong Son cemetry
Vietnam Ben Hai river
Vietnam Ben Hai river
Vietnam Vinh Moc tunnels
Vietnam Vinh Moc tunnels

Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty emperors ruled from their citadel in Hue, which is known still for its fine cuisine. During the French colonial era, puppet emperors “reigned” from Hue, but the real power lay in Hanoi. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Minh took Hue from the south / Americans and held it for over three weeks. Over 2,500 “uncooperative elements” were shot, clubbed to death or buried alive by the communists. We visited here the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc (who reigned for 35 years from the mid-1800s; he had 104 wives and countless concubines, but no children; the Mandarin statues in the grounds of his tomb site were built to be shorter than the diminutive emperor; and the 200 servants who buried him were all beheaded to protect the location of his grave and treasures); and the Thien Mu Pagoda (built in 1601 overlooking the Perfume River, the pagoda houses the Austin used to transport monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon for his 1963 self-immolation in protest of President Diem’s policies; Diem’s sister-in-law proclaimed the event a barbecue party saying “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands”; later that year Diem and his brother were assassinated).

Vietnam Hue
Vietnam Hue
Vietnam Hue Tu Duc tomb
Vietnam Hue Tu Duc tomb
Vietnam Hue Thien Mu pagoda
Vietnam Hue Thien Mu pagoda
Vietnam Hue Thien Mu pagoda
Vietnam Hue Thien Mu pagoda
Vietnam Hue Citadel
Vietnam Hue Citadel
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