Posts Tagged ‘Hue’

Reinventing the Low Season in Indochina

Friday, May 25th, 2012

The majority of visitors to Indochina prefer to travel during the high season which runs from November through March. Here are some insightful reasons to buck the trend and travel during low season which we prefer to call the ‘green’ season.

Angkor is certainly more crowded than it used to be. That is why Hanuman has carved a niche for itself as the company that approaches the temples differently, striving to avoid the crowds and to make the experience more personal, more intimate, more spiritual. Visitor numbers have risen tenfold in a decade from around 250,000 to around 2.5 million. However, the vast majority of these visitors are travelling during high season and the five months from November to March. Why not consider promoting Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam during green season? Here are a few highlights about the green season that could make the difference.

Rain clouds over Angkor Wat

Rain clouds over Angkor Wat... and not a tourist in sight.

Saving Money

In these difficult economic times, price matters. Until recently, there was little difference between high season and low season prices, so there was no real economic incentive to promote the region during green season. This has all changed with the advent of the global crisis and green season rates are now substantially lower than high season, particularly for some mid-range to high-end hotels and long-haul flights. A number of hotels in places such as Siem Reap, Luang Prabang and Hoi An are offering discounted rates of 30% to 50% off the high season price. This particularly applies to Myanmar, where high season rates at hotels are spiraling out of control, but low season rates remain affordable.

Avoiding crowds
Peak season is a busy time and it means the leading destinations (and by default the leading hotels) are very busy. Travel off-season and the numbers plummet. This means the sights are less crowded and the hotels less busy, adding up to a more relaxed and serene experience. In the past week, our team has been in both Luang Prabang and Siem Reap and it is very tranquil compared to the high season. It almost feels like a flashback to bygone days when Cambodia and Laos were truly off-the-beaten-path and only for the most adventurous travellers. This can be particularly important for the more wealthy and discerning traveller who really wants a different experience. It is that much harder to create with ten times the number of tourists in town. The best rooms are available, the best places calm and peaceful and the best restaurants not overcrowded. Coupled with price, this is quite an incentive.

The Weather
This is the big fear when it comes to green season travel. What will the weather be like? Well the honest answer is that we don’t know anymore. Global warming, El Nino, unexpected typhoons, many elements have combined to ensure the weather is not as predictable as it once was. The monsoon no longer arrives and departs to schedule.  Even when it rains, the showers are usually short and sharp, falling at the end of the day, some time between 5pm and 8pm. Yes, there may be some instant floods here and there, but this can be quite a spectacle in itself. So the weather should no longer be an obstacle for a low season visit, as it is too unpredictable these days. If we are choosing our favourite green season months, then June to August are probably the best. May is very hot in many areas and still arid, while September is traditionally the wettest, although in recent years Siem Reap has experienced major flooding in October. There’s never been a perfect season to travel to Vietnam, as there are microclimates up and down the country, so make that the perfect excuse to travel to Indochina when you want and not when everyone else does.

Spectacular Clouds
Well it’s linked to the weather, but the incredible clouds that appear during the wet season are something to behold. Like post-nuclear mushroom clouds, they tower in the sky and make for some spectacular sunsets. These are clouds the like of which you may never have seen. Similarly the storms are a force of nature and witnessing one roll in across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang to Can Tho is something visitors will never forget.

The Landscape
Travel in many parts of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar from December to April and it will be dry and arid in the countryside as the rice has already been harvested. Travel in the green season and the landscape is a rich tapestry of emerald greens glistening in the sun. Not only are the paddy fields more alive, but the lakes, rivers and streams are flowing with water, making for faster and safer boat trips across the region. The moats and ponds at the temples of Angkor fill up, making for spectacular reflections for photographs. The moss and lichen that clings to many temples comes alive, adding a dramatic carpet of green or orange to many of the ancient stones.

So whether you are looking for better value, a more intimate experience without the crowds or a more spectacular landscape, the low season can deliver. Add these together and it might just be a better time to travel to the countries of the Mekong region.

HanumanAlaya is playing its part in promoting the green season with an incredible 50% all rooms from now through until 30 September 2012. For more details, visit http://www.hanumanalaya.com/.

Remembering ‘Nam

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Vietnam was the story for a generation. Follow in the footsteps of soldiers, journalists and politicians on the trail of the war.

Vietnam may be fast reinventing itself as the new Thailand, offering an enticing blend of adrenaline activities and blissful beaches, cultured cities and remote forests, but it is also a fascinating destination for those with a passion for modern history. ‘Nam to a generation, one of the most dramatic conflicts of the Cold War was played out here and the legacy lives on in poignant sites across the country.

Renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the victorious North Vietnamese, it remains Saigon to all but the most committed communist. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was the turning point in the Vietnam War, when the conflict exploded on to television screens across America, shattering the myth of an imminent US victory. Coordinated uprisings were launched across the south, but it was the symbol of the communist flag being raised above the US embassy that pierced the armour of invulnerability. Today the complex is once again open for business as the US consulate.

Nearby is Reunification Hall, the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace, left as it was on 30 April 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates, one of the most iconic images of the war. A visit to the nearby War Remnants Museum is essential to put these places and events in some perspective. Originally the rather propagandist ‘Museum of American War Crimes’, it now includes the excellent Requiem photographic exhibition featuring the most powerful images of the war.

Communist success was founded on guerrilla warfare. The Vietnamese realised they would stand little chance against American weaponry in open warfare, so opted for attrition. Nowhere is the tenacity and dedication of their approach better illustrated than underground at the incredible Cu Chi Tunnels. This subterranean labyrinth originally stretched for more than 200km, from the Cambodian border to the suburbs of Saigon.

Part of the tunnel network was located directly beneath a US military base and included field hospitals, meeting rooms and living areas. Today it is possible to experience the claustrophobia and clamminess of life underground. Crawling through this underground maze, it is almost impossible to imagine that people endured this hell on earth, this Underworld, for months on end.

US troops on tour of duty needed somewhere for their R & R (rest and recreation) and that place was China Beach, near Danang. An unbroken stretch of white sand cloaks the coast from bustling Danang to the historic trading port of Hoi An, 30km south. Indulge in your own R & R at one of the impressive new resorts before picking up the trail to the north.

The former DMZ (demilitarised zone) divided North and South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. Erroneously named, this soon became one of the most militarised areas on earth. The vestiges of war are everywhere. One of the most sobering is the Truong Son National Cemetery with row upon row of white tombstones stretching across the hillside. Honouring the north Vietnamese dead, many of the graves are empty, bearing the names of some of the 300,000 MIAs (missing in action).

Further east lies Khe Sanh, a former US military base that US commander General William Westmoreland feared could become America’s very own ‘Din Bin Phoo’, as President Johnson referred to the French defeat. In fact, it proved an elaborate smokescreen for the Tet Offensive and the US eventually abandoned the base without a fight. Closer to the Lao border lies ‘Hamburger Hill’, site of a fierce battle in May 1969 where 241 US soldiers died.

During the war, the communists used an elaborate network of supply routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ho Chi Minh Highway is a modern successor running along the spine of the Truong Son Mountains and offers the most incredible scenery. Travel through the Ke Bang National Park to discover a Halong Bay on land, where impossible karst formations poking through the dense jungle.

Entering Hanoi, one discovers another side of the wartime story. The ‘Hanoi Hilton’, also known as the Hoa Lo Prison, was where John McCain spent five years as a POW. The original French sign is still visible above the door, ‘Maison Centrale’, and the displays include a guillotine, fortunately no longer in use when McCain checked in. In a sign of the times, there is a Hilton Hotel just down the road, overlooking the lavishly restored Opera House.

The driving force behind Vietnamese independence and the quest for a united Vietnam was Bac Ho (Uncle Ho or Ho Chi Minh). No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a pilgrimage to his mausoleum. Like Lenin and Mao before him, Ho was interred, against his wishes, in a forbidding tomb, which remains a mecca for aspiring Vietnamese communists. See the changing of the guard outside, before entering the austere mausoleum to meet the man himself. If one man can be said to define the history of a nation, for Vietnam it is Ho.

Forget tours of duty, touring the new Vietnam is one of the most enriching, enlivening and educational experiences on earth.

This article, written by Nick Ray, first appeared in the BBC History magazine in 2009. It is reproduced here in memory of Horst Faas, one of the great Vietnam War-era combat photographers who died on 10 May 2012.