Ten Days in Indo-China
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Spectator, Tuesday 18th March 2008
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Stanley Johnson packs in the sites on a whirlwind tour of south-east Asia
Ten days were all we had if we were to meet up with our son, Max, currently studying in Beijing, and enjoy his company in the Far East over the Chinese New Year holiday break. Would ten days be enough? We weren’t sure. But they would definitely be better than nothing.
Jenny (my wife) and I flew overnight from Heathrow on Thai Airways. In theory, Max had flown down from China while we were in the air. He planned to spend the night in Bangkok and join us in the departure lounge for the flight to Luang Prabang.
As we waited, bleary-eyed, at Bangkok airport about an hour before take-off, I received a text message on my mobile telephone. ‘Am having Thai omelette in town. See you soon.’ Jenny and I breathed a sigh of relief. On these kinds of journeys, so much can go wrong before you even start.
If you look at it on the map, we made a clockwise journey, flying north-east to Luang Prabang, then on to Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, before making the long journey south to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, then cutting across to Cambodia’s Siem Reap, with the final short hop back to Bangkok.
Indo-China may no longer exist as a formal entity — the French finally pulled out after their crushing defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in March 1954 — but there is still, to my mind at least, a sense in which the three countries of former French Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), having shared a common past, share also a common future. To talk as our competent travel agent did of an ‘Indo-China tour’ is certainly much more than a marketing gimmick.
We began with two nights in Luang Prabang, until 1975 the royal capital and seat of government of the former Kingdom of Laos. I am sure that those who know Luang Prabang well would notice recent changes as the city responds to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre with an expansion of tourist facilities, but from my point of view Luang Prabang still manages to retain an extraordinary charm. The town’s many temples are not cordoned off museum-pieces; they are part of daily life. The saffron-robed monks add far more than colour. They are an essential element of the whole structure of society. Many Laotian men will aim to become monks at some point in their life, if only for a short period. Being plunged into the heart of a genuinely Buddhist society within hours of leaving Heathrow was the best possible start to our Indo-China trip.
Scenically, too, Luang Prabang had so much to offer. We visited the temples and markets; we climbed up Mount Phousi at sunset, with its amazing views of the town below and the surrounding hills. We took a boat on the Mekong to visit the ‘Buddha Caves’, a series of hollowed-out rocks where generations of travellers have left their offerings in the form of statues of Buddha. We would have gone on, if we had had time, all the way downriver to Vientiane, the capital.
Hanoi, former capital of French Indo-China, was a surprising contrast. Sixteen years ago, when I was last here, this was a sleepy town where the bicycle was the main form of transport and the only ‘Hilton’ was the dark and ugly building in the middle of town where American POWs such as John McCain (now the Republican candidate for US president) had been imprisoned. If you wanted a meal, you either had to go to the Metropole Hotel, which still survived with some semblance of its former glory, or buy a meal off a street vendor for as little as 20 US cents.
Today, all that has changed. Motorcycles are ubiquitous and five-star hotels, like the Hanoi Sheraton, are springing up all over the place. Yes, this is still a communist regime and the party is still in power. You can visit the house where Ho Chi Minh lived and the mausoleum where his remains are now interred. Jenny, Max and I shuffled forward with our heads bowed to pay our own modest tribute to the man who saw off all comers — the Japanese, the French and the Americans. But in the end, in spite of the communist paraphernalia which is still evident, you can’t help feeling as you battle through the traffic that good old-fashioned capitalism won through.
This feeling is even stronger in Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon may have been renamed as a tribute to the great man (and who is to dispute that?) but when you discover that there are 200 KFC establishments in town already and more on the way, you find yourself looking at the outcome of the Vietnam war in a wholly new light.
The high point of our necessarily brief trip was undoubtedly Angkor Wat and the neighbouring temples. I had visited Angkor ten years earlier, but the second time was every bit as moving and awe-inspiring as the first. Nowadays health and safety considerations prevent the visitor climbing up to the very top of Mount Meru, Angkor Wat’s central tower, representing in Hindu mythology the home of the gods, but there are several other vantage points from which you can gain a view of the gigantic complex of temples which together make up one of the world’s most extraordinary cultural and architectural sights.
Every traveller to Siem Reap, Angkor’s nearby jumping-off town, will have a favourite temple: the majestic Angkor Wat itself, the magical Bayon, the tree-covered ruins of Ta Prohm. If you have time, go further afield to see — 15 miles north-east — the exquisite sandstone carvings at Banteay Srei, a small rose-pink temple rightly described as the jewel of Khmer art.
We arrived back in Bangkok on the morning of the tenth day, to say goodbye to Max, now heading back to Beijing, and to catch our onward flights. Would we ‘do Indo-China’ again in this fashion? Emphatically yes.
Ideally, of course, we would have spent more time in Vietnam. We would have liked, for example, to have taken a side-trip from Hanoi to Hanong Bay. And instead of flying south from Hanoi, we might have gone overland to HCMC, stopping in the ancient imperial city of Hue on the way. We would also have spent more time in Laos, visiting Vientiane and the countryside, not just Luang Prabang and spent at least a week, not just three days, at Angkor.
But if you’ve only got a week and a half to spare to ‘do Indo-China’, forget about the ‘ideal’ trip and go for what you can get. This is a tour worth every penny.
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