Wonders of Vietnam stretch from north to south
STANDING in a queue for three humid hours alongside hundreds of Vietnamese families was an unexpected but ideal way to "meet the locals".
Vietnam, including its crowded capital Hanoi, was celebrating its national day and we were caught up in the excitement of the city on the second day of our visit.
Families had surged into Hanoi to pay homage at Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum which shelters his embalmed body. Their reverence for this former leader was obvious.
Despite the long wait in hot, steamy conditions, the Vietnamese people we encountered were polite, cheerful and friendly. Children impressed us with their good behaviour.
Youngsters learning English took the opportunity to converse with us - Aussies who looked somewhat out of place in a sea of Vietnamese faces.
This heartwarming introduction to Vietnam was the beginning of a 17-day "eco" tour extending from north to south.
From the mountainous region of Sapa, to the central districts around Hue and Hoi An and the Mekong Delta down south below Saigon, this trip covered a kaleidoscope of rare and wonderful experiences.
An overnight train ride north from Hanoi took us to the beautiful Sapa Valley.
Like a Garden of Eden, green hills are topped by mist, while roaring rivers and waterfalls tumble downwards. We drank in the clean air and quietness after the traffic madness of Hanoi.
We passed villagers working in the rice and corn fields, aided by water buffalo.
We were welcomed into a primary school and invited to take photos of giggling children.
After hours of walking in the mud and rain, we hesitantly accepted a lift from motorbike taxi riders to avoid a further two-hour trek to our homestay. Fully aware of the warnings put out by travel experts about the risks of riding motorbikes in Asia, we climbed aboard, and, after a fast, bumpy journey, were thankful to get to our destination in one piece.
The main town, Sapa, is obviously much-loved by tourists, with its swanky restaurants and numerous souvenir shops.
Cat Cat village, within walking distance from Sapa, is home to the hospitable Hmong tribe. The ladies weave hemp from the marijuana plant, and dye it with henna.
Traditional Hmong houses are very basic, made from blackened timber planks. Corn hangs from the roof inside. There's an open fire with no chimney, and the top floor is used for storing food.
From primitive living we progressed to high-tech exhilaration with a thrilling ride on the cable car to Fansipan peak, Vietnam's highest mountain. We soared into the clouds and a rainbow appeared over the valley. At the top is an ultra-modern complex with gardens, shops, restaurants and temples.
In central Vietnam, we were overawed by the magnificent Paradise Cave, a true natural wonder.
The 570-metre steep climb to a small entrance in the mountain tested the body. Inside for a kilometre, cathedral-sized spaces hung with vibrantly coloured stalactites and stalagmites sculpted over millions of years.
This wondrous cave was discovered in 2005 by a hunter in the national park.
Manmade rather than natural wonders were on display at the tombs of two kings in Hue.
Minh Mang tomb was quite a large complex with a man-made lake and tomb on a hill.
Khai Dinh, Vietnam's gay king, had an exquisitely beautiful mausoleum with a statue of himself amid fabulous mosaics. He'd been to the palace of Versailles in France and wanted a similar standard in his burial chamber.
Enchanting pagodas, 1000-year-old temples, harrowing wartime tales, myriad bonsai trees, orange-robed monks, diminutive dancers, hardworking people, delicious food, a singing boatman, net-making lessons from a fifth-generation fisherman ... the variety of life and depth of experiences in Vietnam is amazing.
As for politics in the country, Communism and capitalism seem to exist comfortably together, although a statue of working-class Uncle Ho seemed strangely out of place alongside the Cartier diamonds showroom.
Children enjoy national day celebrations in Hanoi.
A natural wonder, the Paradise Cave in central Vietnam.
The Imperial City in Hue.
Vietnamese fisherman shows off his skills.
A flower farm in the mountainous region of Sapa, northern Vietnam.
Photos: Yvonne Gardiner