North Vietnam Propaganda Stamps

Fifty years ago the Vietnam War was intensifying as the United States began a bombing campaign over North Vietnam called Operation Rolling Thunder which was intended to either force the N. Vietnamese to the negotiating table or bomb them ‘back into the Stone Age’.

The N. Vietnamese defended themselves as best they could and managed to shoot down many American fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, mostly by anti-aircraft fire, surface to air missiles and small arms fire.

To shore up morale in the face of devastating US raids, North Vietnam began issuing a series of postage stamps boasting of their successes in shooting down American aircraft.

This first stamp, issued in 1965, claimed 500 US Aircraft Shot Down Over North Vietnam.
This first stamp, issued in 1965, claimed 500 US Aircraft Shot Down Over North Vietnam.

In 1966, another stamp was issued claiming 1000 shot down (I am missing this stamp from my collection).

By October 1966 the total had risen to 1500 according to this stamp.
By 14 October 1966 the total had risen to 1500 according to this stamp.
By June 1967 (just 229 days later) the total had risen to 2000 according to the N. Vietnamese (i.e over two aircraft shot down per day)
By 5 June 1967 (just 229 days later) the total had risen to 2000 according to the N. Vietnamese (i.e over two aircraft shot down per day)

The artwork for this stamp was taken from this famous ‘Guerilla Girl’ photo showing Capt. Bill Robinson being taken into captivity by a diminutive female soldier.

Although it was claimed that the girl captured the US airman single handed, this was a staged photo and she was one of a large party who captured him.
Although it was claimed that the girl captured the US airman single handed, this was a staged photo and she was one of a large party who captured him.

Bill Robinson had the misfortune to become the longest held enlisted prisoner of war in American history from the shooting down of his helicopter on 20 September 1965 until his release on 12 February 1973. He spent his 7 1/2 years captivity in various prisons including the notorious Hanoi Hilton which I visited and blogged about some years ago. He was horribly mistreated – as he says in his biography* “We were all treated equally, we all got the hell beaten out of us”.

Later in 1967, the 2500th US aircraft to be shot down over North Vietnam was commemorated with these stamps.
Later in 1967, the 2500th US aircraft to be shot down over North Vietnam was commemorated with these stamps.
By 1968, the North Vietnamese were claiming 3,000 US Aircraft shot down.
By 1968, the North Vietnamese were claiming 3,000 US Aircraft shot down.
This stamp dated April 1972 brings the total up to 3500 and portrays a US airman in captivity.
This stamp dated April 1972 brings the total up to 3500 and portrays a US airman in captivity.
Later in 1972, North Vietnam releases these stamps, increasing the total of kills to 4,000.
Later in 1972, North Vietnam releases these stamps, increasing the total of kills to 4,000.

The final set of stamps was brought out in 1973, marking the end of US involvement in the Vietnam War.

This 1973 stamp, one of a set of 4 called 'Victory Over US Airforce' claims a grand total of 4181 US Aircraft shot down  over North Vietnam .
This 1973 stamp, one of a set of 4 called ‘Victory Over US Airforce’ claims a grand total of 4181 US Aircraft shot down over North Vietnam .

These were propaganda stamps and you would assume that North Vietnamese claims must have been greatly exaggerated. How many US aircraft were actually lost? Having trawled the internet it is quite difficult to find a definitive number that everyone agrees on. The number 2257 is mentioned often but it depends on whether you include helicopters, losses due to accidents, losses over Cambodia and Laos and other variables. A declassified US Airforce report (should be a reliable source) puts USAF (i.e. not including Navy, Army, Marines) combat losses of fixed wing aircraft at over 1600.  According to the Oxford Companion to American Military History, 8588 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters were lost. Whatever the true figure, it was a lot!

Norman Morrison Stamp

This is another North Vietnam propaganda stamp, portraying Norman Morrison, a 31 year old American Quaker activist who burnt himself to death on 2 November 1965 in front of the Pentagon to protest American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Norman Morrison
Norman Morrison

A sad, but ultimately futile, gesture. Will anyone remember his 50th anniversary? Maybe in Vietnam they will.

*The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A Robinson by Glenn Robins

Beautiful Art for a Beautiful Cause


École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, Hanoi

When France was a colonial power it liked to infuse its overseas territories with a liberal dose of French culture. So in the case of Indochina, that included the French language, the Catholic religion, baguettes, wine, coffee, gendarmes and an appreciation of the arts.

The École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine was established in Hanoi in 1925 and it instilled western art traditions in generations of fine Vietnamese artists while laying the foundation for the development of a distinctively Vietnamese style of modern art.


   Left: Marché de montagne, by Nguyễn Tường Lân (before 1946).                                                 Right: Lê Phô (1907-1947)

The school survived wars and independence and has since evolved into the Vietnam University of Fine Arts. Vietnam today is well known for its artists who can knock up a fine reproduction Monet or Van Gogh as well as produce the Vietnam street scenes that are so popular with foreign tourists.

Of course, most art is produced for profits but while researching Da Nang I came across a gallery with a nobler cause.

The Da Nang Artists Company aims to provide talented, disabled Vietnamese artists with a way to market their artwork to an appreciative international clientele.

This acrylic painting of Hoi An was is the work of disabled artist Nguyen Tan Hien who lost the use of his legs and partial use of his arms following a traffic accident.  He is a self-taught artist and did not have the benefit of University of Fine Arts training but I think his work is rather nice. Here is one of his watercolours:

You can find more paintings and some silk brocade work on Da Nang Artist’s website. They are available for sale at very reasonable prices and can be shipped world wide.

Da Nang Artists is run by a big-hearted American couple called Virginia and David Lockett who also run a small charity called Steady Footsteps providing physical rehabilitation for disabled people in Central Vietnam. Virginia is an experienced physical therapist who wanted to help improve the lives of the disabled in Vietnam. In 2005 they gave up their comfortable life in America and moved to Da Nang to begin their good work.

Please take a look at Steady Footsteps’ website and read their inspiring story. You might even want to give a donation. They draw no salary so 100% of all contributions goes directly to the people who need it (unlike organizations such as UNICEF, Save the Children or Oxfam whose senior staff pay themselves six-figure, fat-cat salaries from your donations).

Marble Mountains, Da Nang


The Marble Mountains are a cluster of five limestone and marble outcrops just south of Da Nang. The largest one, from where this photo was taken, is riddled with caves containing Buddhist statues and altars.



Visitors can either climb the stairs or use the lift.


The gardens on the hill are nicely landscaped and there are temples, pagodas and lots of paths to explore. A flight of stairs leads you to the highest point from where you can enjoy a good view of the surrounding area.


During the Vietnam War there was a large American military base near here and off-duty GI’s would take some R&R on the nearby beaches, the most famous of which was called China Beach (now known as My Khe). In fact this stretch of coastline from Da Nang to Hoi An is one continuous 25km long beach, and is rated as one of the world’s best.


A number of smart resort hotels line the beach, including this one, about to be deluged by some heavy rain.

The village at the foot of the hill makes its living from making sculptures, statues and ornaments from marble, onyx and other stones. These stones were originally excavated from the Marble Mountains (hence the many caves) but this practice has now been banned and the raw materials are shipped in from elsewhere.

Your transportation to Marble Mountain will almost certainly park in the forecourt of one of these stone mason shops and you can expect some hard-selling vendors to try and part you from your money once you return to your vehicle.


Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Vietnam

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

Just north of Da Nang, on the Son Tra Peninsula, stands a massive white statue dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion (or Mercy), known as Chùa Linh Ứng in Vietnamese, as Guan Yin in Chinese and as Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit.

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

Completed in 2010 after six years of construction, the statue is 69.7m high (229ft) with 17 storeys inside. This makes it the 4th tallest Guan Yin statue in the world, the taller ones being:

  1. Guan Yin Statue of the South Seas, Sanya, China, 108m
  2. Guan Yin of Weishan, China, 99m
  3. Chi Shan Temple, Hong Kong, 76m

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

According to Buddhist belief, Guan Yin vowed never to rest in heavenly Buddhahood until every human and creature on this earth is free from suffering (I fear she is in for a long wait). She is often depicted with 1000 arms – a thousand helping hands of compassion. For her compassion towards animals she is associated with vegetarianism and her likeness is commonly displayed in Chinese vegetarian restaurants.

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

The grounds surrounding the statue also contain a temple, a monastery and other facilities. Gardens are decorated with bonsai trees, fountains and statues of arhats (enlightened persons).

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

The hills backing onto the complex are known as Monkey Mountain, a name given by American troops during the Vietnam War, or American War as the Vietnamese know it.

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

The statue looks out over the South China Sea and Da Nang, the fifth largest city in Vietnam with a population approaching 1 million.

Son Tra Guan Yin statue is well worth a visit if you are in the area. Entrance is free.

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

Hội An, Vietnam

Hoi An’s old buildings are well preserved despite being subject to annual flooding.

Air Asia recently resumed direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Da Nang, Vietnam. Since they were offering cheap discounted fares and I had never been to this part of Vietnam before I decided to take my sons for a short trip.

There are a number of temples, clan houses and museums which are open to the public.

We based ourselves in Hoi An, a small historic town around 30km south of Da Nang. Hoi An is every tourist’s idea of what Vietnam should look like with rice paddy fields, colourful markets, temples, locals in conical straw hats and so on. Of course reality is somewhat different but Hoi An old town is remarkably well preserved, in recognition of which it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Once a trading port, the town is now given over entirely to tourism.

Japanese Covered Bridge, originally 17th century but repaired several times since.

Tourists mill around the quaint, traffic-free streets (cars are banned from the old town centre), looking for souvenirs or somewhere to eat. Shopkeepers try to lure you into their tailor shops or sell you a pair of custom-made shoes. My son ordered a pair of Toms style slip-ons. They only took 6 hours to make and were not bad.

There are dozens of good restaurants and cafes to choose from in Hoi An. In this internet age where everyone gets their travel tips from Trip Advisor, there is a tendency for tourists to flock to the same few restaurants but we preferred to spread our custom to some of the less frequented ones and all the meals were excellent (and, importantly, no tummy problems!). The Hoa Vang Yellow River Riverside Restaurant tempted us in with its sign saying G’Day Mate, Tassie Australia, Coldest Beer in Town.

At night the silk and paper lantern stalls add to the atmosphere and old women try to sell candles in paper boats for floating down the river, which are later fished out by kids with nets and re-sold. There is a night market but by 9pm most of the shops have closed their shutters and the streets start to empty. Hoi An old town is not the place for a boisterous night life.

Many of the hotels, including the Ha An hotel where we stayed, provide free bikes for getting around. There are quiet rural lanes to explore close to town.

If you don’t want to pedal yourself you can always hire a cyclo.

Another popular activity is to take a river cruise.

Hoi An has the added advantage of being close to some very fine beaches. The best one we went to was called Hidden Beach, about a 6km bicycle ride (each way) from Hoi An.

Rattan coracles used by fishermen at Hidden Beach, Hoi An

Sunbeds and umbrellas are provided free of charge by the restaurant owners though of course you are expected to buy drinks or food from them.

Spot the rainbow?

We enjoyed our stay in Hoi An and would be happy to go again.

Relaxing Hoi An – It’s that kind of place!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

On my last trip to Vietnam I signed up for a 2 day/1 night junk tour of Halong Bay.

Halong Bay is probably Vietnam’s most famous natural attraction due to its outstanding beauty and status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Halong Bay

Its popularity and relative proximity to Hanoi (three and a half hours drive away) means that it is heaving with tourists. Every travel agent in Hanoi offers packages which vary considerably in price depending on the standard of the vessel and the quality of accommodation and food on board. Being a thrifty traveller I opted for a reasonably priced package on a junk which was hopefully sea-worthy (they have been known to sink!).

Typical tourist junk.

Halong Bay is massive with an area of about 1500 sq. km. and thousands of spectacularly shaped limestone karst hills jutting abruptly out of the sea.  Despite the size of the bay all the tourist boats seem to visit the same destinations and anchor near each other.

Hey that's my parking space!

Sometimes the competition for a parking space can get intense!

A typical tour would visit some caves, an island with a beach, fish farms, floating fishing communities and allow tourists the chance to do kayaking and swimming.

A beach and a quick hike.

They say it is so beautiful it’s impossible to take a bad photograph – but I managed it, every time.

My cabin was comfortable enough. The lounge/dining/bar on board.

I was impressed with the enterprise and energy of the vending ladies who rowed their floating convenience stores long distances from junk to junk selling items like beer, wine, water and snacks.

Floating mini-bar.

Yes, Halong Bay is a bit touristy but definitely a must-see for anyone visiting the northern end of Vietnam.

A home, a living and a mode of transport,all in one.

Cie. Des Messageries Maritimes, Saigon

Rummaging through some old albums yesterday, I came across a series of vintage picture postcards which I purchased in an auction nearly 20 years ago. These postcards (see examples below) were made available to passengers on board vessels belonging to an illustrious old French shipping line called Compagnie Des Messageries Maritimes (MM for short). Each postcard sketches a scene of the various ports of call on the ships’ itineraries between France and the Far East. My collection includes cards depicting Port Said, Djibouti, Colombo, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki and Yokohama. Other cards exist and the work of the artist, Henry Gervese,  pseudonym for Charles Marie-Joseph Millot, is sought after by collectors.


My postcards were all mailed in 1921 which would have been when MM was in its heyday. The ship seen steaming away from us in the postcard could perhaps have been the Angkor which was added to MM’s fleet in that year and which was newly fitted out with oil fired boilers replacing the old coal burning ones.


MM was set up by the French state in 1835 to provide a steamship service between Marseille and the Levant but it expanded over the decades to cover the Far East as France’s colonial ambitions grew. Saigon became one of the company’s main hubs and they built a prominent office premises on the waterfront as seen in this old postcard:


This building still exists (it is now a museum honouring Ho Chi Minh) and I snapped this photo during a visit in 1993:


The roof has lost some of its embellishments but otherwise it looks in better condition than in the old black and white postcard. The same building also featured on the 1994 edition of the 50,000 Dong banknote:

50,000 dong

During the golden age of sea travel MM, like many other of the world’s famous shipping lines, produced beautiful classic advertising posters which have become valuable collectables. Following the independence of French colonies and the advent of air travel, the company fell into decline and MM’s remaining passenger vessels were all sold off by the early 1970s.


Images in this post are copyrighted material.

Bear Bile Harvesting in Dien Bien

While looking around the Muong Thanh Hotel in Dien Bien, in northwest Vietnam, we came across the cruel practice of bear bile farming.

The bear cages were located behind the blue wall.

Behind a wall next to the swimming pool were half a dozen cramped cages, each containing a sad looking black bear. The bears had catheters sticking out from their stomachs so presumably they were being kept for the purpose of extracting bear bile which is supposed to be beneficial in treating various ailments including impotence. Why, in this age of Viagra, it is still necessary to torture poor bears in this way, I’ll never understand. Piles of foul smelling kitchen slops had been poured onto the floors of the cages. The more disgusting the food, the better the bile production perhaps?

My friend reported this matter to the Hanoi office of the World Wildlife Fund. Perhaps the operation has since been closed down but I am not optimistic the bears would ever be released. Vietnam has few places where bears could be allowed to roam free without endangering the public. They would either be killed by frightened villagers or slaughtered for their skins and body parts or recaptured by greedy bile merchants. All very sad.



Red River, Black River – Travels in Northern Vietnam PART 3. Dien Bien Phu

PART 3.  Dien Bien Phu

When we were planning our trip to Sapa and Mt. Fanxipan we hit upon the idea of extending our tour by taking in Dien Bien, scene of the decisive defeat of French forces by the Vietnamese in 1954. This epic battle brought about the end of France’s colonization of Vietnam and triggered America’s involvement in the region, which culminated in the Vietnam War.

Dien Bien is located very close to the border with Laos and although it looked close to Sapa on the map, the journey by car took 11 hours through stunningly beautiful rural landscapes.

On the road from Sapa to Lai Chau.
The Black River en route to Dien Bien Phu.

 Dien Bien seemed a quiet town. Dogs lay scratching themselves in the middle of the road, untroubled by the occasional motorbike or commercial vehicle.

Dien Bien seemed a bit of a sleepy place.

The architecture was rather odd. Narrow three or four storey houses with lots of fancy embellishments.

The Muong Thanh Hotel, Dien Bien

The hotel was comfortable enough.

I guess I'll have to confine my social evils to the lobby then.
"This is minibar." Ideal for thrifty travellers; free, unlimited drinking water.

 A number of the battlefield positions have been preserved.

The French dug themselves in to withstand Vietnamese bombardment.
Massive craters left by mines exploded under French positions still remain.
A French tank has been preserved. They only had 10 tanks to defend Dien Bien.
A monument watches over fallen comrades in one of the military cemeteries.

 Apart from the historic battle relics there is little to attract the foreign tourist but I did manage to pick up a couple of T-shirts at bargain prices.

The airstrip which was key to the French strategy is now part of Dien Bien airport.

Time to return to Hanoi.

A seat at the front of the plane but not first class.

Red River, Black River – Travels in Northern Vietnam PART 2. SAPA & FANXIPAN

PART 2.  Sapa and Fanxipan

It was time to depart for Sapa which is a hill town in northern Vietnam and the jumping off point for people who are mad enough to want to ascend Mt. Fanxipan. We took the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, close to the border with China, a journey of about 8 hours. To travel on a Vietnamese sleeper train sounds exciting and adventurous but it is probably an experience that I will not be looking to repeat in a hurry. The train carriage looked comfortable enough. Clean bedding and soft mattresses were provided in our 4 berth, first class compartment. But the whole journey was in the dark so there was nothing to see and the carriage jerked and juddered and was very noisy so sleep was next to impossible for me. Nearly all the other passengers were foreigner tourists – Vietnamese probably know better and take the plane! Arriving at Lao Cai station at 6am, feeling pretty tired, we took a van to Sapa, dropped off some bags and a couple of hours later were transported to Tram Ton or Heaven’s Gate, the starting point of the Fanxipan climb. 

Mt. Fanxipan , 3,143 metres, on a clear day.

Mt. Fanxipan (sometimes spelt as Phan Si Pan) at 3,143 metres, is the highest mountain in Vietnam, or, even more impressive sounding, the highest in Indochina. Since the starting point was already over 2,000 metres I was thinking how hard can this be? The answer was very hard! 

The climb started here but the first half hour or so was down hill!

A guide and porter were provided. The porter carried everything we would eat for the next 2 days in his basket.

After a gruelling afternoon’s hike we arrived at our luxurious base camp accommodation to rest up for the night.

We had to spend two miserable nights in this shack (one night on the way up and one on the way down). The hut could accommodate up to 16 people sleeping sardine-like. My grubby sleeping bag was located underneath the leak in the roof meaning I was cold and wet as I lay awake on the uncomfortable bamboo slatted floor. The sleeping bag – what vile instrument of torment. The guy who invented the sleeping bag must be the same person who invented the straight jacket, and for the same reason – to drive the poor occupant nuts. Not enough room to curl up, when I rolled over the top half twisted but the bottom half stayed put. It started off cold and clammy and then became hot and clammy without ever being just right on the way.

At least the food was good, amazingly so given the primitive conditions in the ‘kitchen’.

The kitchen, dining and bar facilities at base camp.

The porters and guides managed to knock up an impressive meal which was washed down with generous slugs of rice wine.

Hell’s Kitchen. The cosiest place in base camp.

The worst aspect of base camp had to be the toilet facilities which consisted of a wooden platform built over a pit containing a large pig who would eat the ‘droppings’. Eco-friendly, I suppose, but I won’t be eating pork again.

The disgusting toilet at base camp. The pig lives under the wooden structure.

After an early breakfast we began the final ascent to the summit of Fanxipan. It was one of the most exhausting things I had ever done. Mud, mud everywhere, oozing over the tops of boots. Muddy trousers, caked boots, shirt soaked with sweat, glasses steamed up, visibility zero. Lungs wheezing, heartbeat audible, leg muscles aching, hour after hour.

After 1 hour: “Are we there yet?”

What were the feelings on reaching the top? Not really exhilaration. Relief to get a rest but tinged with anxiety about having to go all the way back down again. It was not the best view in the world due to poor visibility but when the clouds parted there were some impressive vistas. On the way down my knees were buckling and I had to be careful not to slip and injure myself. At least my breathing was easier going down.

Not likely!

Finally back down to the bottom feeling strangely invigorated for several hours afterwards, perhaps due to the after-effects of prolonged heart pumping exercise and the intake of super fresh air.

The quaint and touristy hill town of Sapa.

Back in civilisation, we were able to explore some of the charms of Sapa while recovering for the next stage of our travels.

Cute Hill Tribesman

This region of Vietnam is home to a number of ethnic minorities such as the Hmong people who are happy to pose for tourists in their traditional dress and sell examples of their skilful handicrafts.