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“It’s never too late so long as you’re breathing”, says Paul and true to his word he’s still giving life a nudge at 85 years.
We head into the departure area of Auckland International Airport. Paul, in a beige linen jacket, hat and cane looks pretty good for someone his age, with his wife Marg of 55 years at his side. Walking slowly with precision we head for the Singapore Airlines counter. The airline knows their requirements and two wheelchairs await us. “That’s better”, says Paul with a smile, as he lowers his weight into the wheelchair.
Marg and Paul have been great travellers, but things have got more difficult recently so I agree to accompany them. Their appetite for learning and adventure has not diminished and their attitude still makes it possible. Defining all odds and medical conditions, which there are many now, we are off to Vietnam for two weeks.
We know the trip will be challenging so we have taken time to consult with the medical fraternity who thankfully give us the thumbs up. With medical insurance (less cover for the list of pre- existing conditions), duplicate sets of medication (in case luggage gets lost) and a letter explaining the cocktail that keeps the cogs working (in case we are mistaken for drug dealers) we are on our way. Paul is very comfortable with the risk. Laughing he says, “ What’s better, another day looking out the window wondering what’s going on in the world or take a chance and have a look yourself?”
Our itinerary is full and we have guides and drivers to get us about as there are quite a few “must do’s” on Paul and Marg’s list. History and war museums are high on the agenda in Hanoi, as is a visit to Ho Chi Min, a man Paul has always respected. And in the ancient town of Hoi An, a world heritage site, we plan to explore the town and spend time in the country and on the river. We have a long list of restaurants we plan to visit and Marg is keen to put on an apron at one of the many cooking schools in Hoi An and come home with a few new recipes.
Touching down in Hanoi, after a brief stopover in Singapore, we are again met at the door of the plane with a wheelchair for Paul and Marg. Although Marg is more mobile than Paul, the distances in many of the airports make it a long and tiring trek.
Eight million people live in Hanoi, double the population of Singapore, yet it’s devoid of the slick commercial centre we have left behind. On closer inspection commercialism is rampant, but on a different level. Everybody is trading; bananas, water, cardboard, baskets or whatever they can sell. Despite being a communist nation, a capitalist economy is thriving as everyone ekes out a living.
Looking out onto the street, from our hotel, I suggest a cyclo ride. I cannot resist a blatt around the Old Quarter on our first night to get the vibe of this intriguing city. Negotiating the price on the side of the road, the cyclo driver is quick to hail two mates. “Be careful,” I joke. “ They are old and fragile, I want no accidents”. With assistance we abandon the wheelchair and hoist Paul into the cyclo wrapping a jacket around his knees to fend off the evening chill. We weave through the mayhem and Paul’s face lights up. Trucks, cars, scooter and pushbikes, all piled high with goods, weave their way through the narrow street where there is no right or wrong. Wires bundled together loop across buildings that shouldn’t be standing and food stalls and merchandise spew onto the decaying footpaths. It’s invigorating and the chaos is energising.
We arrive at the mausoleum early the next morning and the weather has taken a turn for the worse, with low cloud and a chilling wind -appropriate for this solemn occasion. Built by Russians to house Ho Chi Min this imposing structure is grey, stark and minimal. We clear security and by -pass the queue as we wait for assistance for Paul in his wheelchair. Four soldiers appear, impeccably dressed in white uniforms with adornments and lift Paul in unison. Without a word they carry him up two flights of stairs in the concrete monument to the viewing room of Uncle Ho, as he is fondly referred too. With arms by our sides and heads bowed, we follow in procession. Uncle Ho lies peacefully in his casket and we pay our respects.
The American War captured the world’s attention in the 1970’s, but preceding this the Chinese had occupied Vietnam for 1000 years, followed by the French for a shorter period. The Americans were just the last of a long line of invaders who have come and gone through the centuries. These outsiders left a trail of destruction well documented in the many museums. We take in the History Museum and learn about early civilization of the Vietnamese people. The Hoa Lo Prison housed the Vietnamese political prisoners captured and tortured by the French. It later became the holding pen for American pilots (pilots in pyjamas) and was renamed the Hanoi Hilton. The Army Museum is home to a spectacular pyramid put together by an artist out of the wreckage of a B-52, F-111 and a French transport plane – all of which were shot down.
Hoi An by contrast is a sleepy little town only an hours flight from Hanoi. Full of vibrant colour and lanterns it’s located on the Thu Bồn River. The old town is a myriad of little streets, with narrow buildings, built by the Japanese in the 15th century. It’s an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading post. Lucky to escape the war the historic buildings are intact with tailors, restaurants, art galleries and stores at street level and homes above. While the town is beautiful by day it comes alive at night with many small, unsophisticated restaurants and bars dotted along the river providing a great vantage point to watch the locals go about their business. We sit with a beer and watch the overflowing barges take the workers up the river to their villages, families of five squeeze onto a scooter- we wonder where they are going. Wagons of merchandise are pulled along the road to the night market and transient restaurateurs set up their food stalls on the footpaths with a burner and a couple of plastic stools.
Like Hanoi you can buy anything in Hoi An from ducks to grave stones, to hand made shoes and clothing .The traders we meet are all kind and Paul creates great rapport as he inquires about their lives. With his withered frame he is photographed so the tailor can understand his lack of symmetry for his new jacket and as the shoe lady carefully traces Paul’s feet, she laughs and says, “They no longer resemble a pair”.
We opt to attend the cooking school at our hotel and are lucky to be the only students. Our tutor is well prepared with all the ingredients chopped and sliced. We prepare a delicious lunch and as Marg is making the final touches I get Paul form his room and we sit down to a feast.
The sun is low in the sky, a perfect temperature for our visit to the local vegetable growers. The paths between fields are narrow so transport is an issue, but we find the perfect solution -motorbikes with sidecars. We abandon the wheelchair and with the help of the hotel staff we get Marg and Paul into the sidecars. They bend their inflexible legs to fit into the capsule. I jump onto the back of one of the motorbikes, with the warm wind blowing through my hair thinking how funny we must look. We enjoy the immaculate market gardens and talk with the growers, as they squat like grasshoppers attending to the finest detail.
Up early for our last day in Hoi An, our bucket list is all but done. Our fishing guide greets us at 4 am so we can experience the sunrise on the water as the fishermen return from a long night on the Cua Dai Sea. Arriving at the fishing village the local radio station blasts through crackling speakers as the day breaks. We board our ancient vessel and are quick to put on life jackets. We settle in for a serene and peaceful couple of hours watching the frenzied activities as the wives meet their husbands on the docks to get the catch to the market. As the sun comes up we are served shrimp porridge and spring rolls.
Homeward bound, with new wealth of insights and experiences, Paul sums it up, “Bloody marvellous, what’s next, China?”
Getting there: Singapore Airlines has daily flights to Singapore and connecting flights to Vietnam, with Vietnam Airlines.
Where to stay: Sofitel Metropole, Hanoi and The Victorian, Hoi An, are both fine hotels in great locations.
Further information: www.vietnamtourism.com