|"The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions" - Thich Nhat Hanh , Vietnamese Buddhist monk and noble peace prize nominee .
Last night we had a champagne party with two new Australian friends who told us they had adopted a little orphaned Vietnamese boy who had been traumatised by watching his mother gang raped and murdered by American GI soldiers. The boy is now dying due to the effects of 'Agent Orange'. How prophetic the monks words were to be'.
We arrived at the Port of Chan May at about 6am. The port portrays its military genesis and poor organisation on shore caused an hour's delay in our departure to the city of Hue and the Perfume River which was about one hours drive away.
Our guide was a young Vietnamese girl called Binh [Peace]. Our journey to Hue took us past rice paddies worked by Water Buffaloes and hundreds of small fresh water lagoons, where local people were catching fish.
Our first [and lasting] impressions of Vietnam were of beauty, chaos, charm and poverty. In my opinion the Vietnamese women are among the most beautiful in the world.
We travelled north along the infamous Highway One which used to be filled with American tanks and ammunition during the civil war.
To the east were the mountains through which the Ho Chi Min trails used to run. Between the mountains and the road runs a single track railway line which takes huge diesel trains pulling up to 40 box cars north and south.
On route we passed through numerous villages where small ramshackle single storey houses were interspersed with small workshops repairing scooters and bicycles. The roads in Hue city are extremely wide, having very few cars or indeed Lorries or coaches. There are thousands of small scooters, bicycles and rickshaws and every few hundred yards a small guy will be sat at the roadside fully equipped to repair bicycle tyre punctures for a small fee.
We boarded our Dragon boat in the grounds of the famous Century Riverside hotel which is an art deco structure funded by the Singapore government.
The Perfume River, [historically flavoured with attars and essences] was wide and slow flowing. We were passed frequently by small family owned boats carrying sand from the river banks to the city and surrounding villages, where it was used to make hand made breeze blocks for building. The boats were dangerously overloaded with freeboards of only 2 - 3" above the water.
We disembarked close by the Thien Mu Pagoda which was founded in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang. The "Heavenly Lady" pagoda is Vietnams most revered and visited Buddhist shrine. During the 1960's the pagoda was a hot bed of anti-government protest. Today it is a serene sanctuary where monks recite sutras in the main temple.
We returned to the Century Riverside hotel for a classical Vietnamese lunch comprising skewered beef and pork, squid, various fried fish, noodles and rice. Desert was unusual fruit the likes of which we haven't seen before. This was washed down with locally brewed "Huda beer".
After lunch we visited Emperor Minh Mang's tomb. Minh is considered the most brilliant of the Nguyen dynasty rulers. He reigned for twenty years. His father had 20 wives, whereas he had 500 and 120 children. His tomb is located at Cam Ke on the west bank of the river. Unique funeral architecture is highlighted by green and yellow tiles and is guarded by an array of stone elephants, horses and war- like mandarin soldiers.
Our final visit was to the Imperial Citadel which was built in 1804 - 1835 by Gia Long, the first Nguyen emperor. The Citadel is modelled on Beijing's Forbidden City and is entered by the magnificent Noon Gate. Once inside we were surrounded by serene lotus ponds, the royal library and the complex's central pavilion with its dynastic urns and memorial thrones dedicated to various Nguyen Emperors.
On the way back to the ship we crossed the French built Truang Tien Bridge which was a gift to Emperor Dang Khanh.
As we travelled south on Highway One through a small village the bus almost collided with a truck travelling in the opposite direction. The bus skidded for perhaps ten yards and nearly left the road. All of the passengers were extremely frightened and several ladies started screaming. Thereafter the tension in the bus was palpable and in her wisdom little Binh sang us a local Vietnamese folk song. I swear to God her voice was that on an angel and we just wanted to bring her home with us. We continue to learn so much about the world and about ourselves.
Lesley and I had been walking for about ten hours and therefore decided to take supper in our cabin before falling to sleep and dreaming of one of the most enchanting countries in the world.