Vibrant Vietnam

Vibrant Vietnam The more things change, the more they stay the same

Author: Lois Olive Gray Photos: Kay Ellen Gilmour, MD

This is the third country in this whirlwind trip through SE Asia. Travel Arrangements were made by Asia Transpacific Journeys.

Vibrant Vietnam


INTRODUCTION.................................................................................................................. 3

VITAL VIETNAM FACTS ....................................................................................................... 4

SOME REVELENT HISTORY................................................................................................. 5

HANOI.................................................................................................................................. 6

HALONG BAY .................................................................................................................... 22

CAVE EXPLORATION......................................................................................................... 29

HUE .................................................................................................................................... 38

PERFUME RIVER CRUISE TO ANCIENT TOMBS............................................................... 41

DA NANG........................................................................................................................... 46

HOI-AN .............................................................................................................................. 51

SAIGON.............................................................................................................................. 59

WRAP UP ........................................................................................................................... 68

: Lois Olive Gray Photos: Kay Gilmour


Vietnam was the third country we visited during our 35-day trip through Asia starting with Bhutan, then Laos, then Vietnam, next Cambodia and finally Bali. Because of my unhappy and unfaded memories of the Vietnam War, I must admit to being a reluctant companion on this part of our trip. However, it did seem impossible to visit Laos & Cambodia and skip Vietnam, so I raised no objections to the itinerary. Actually, I know that the other three also harbored those same memories but were able to be more optimistic about what we would find there. Anyway, they were right and I was wrong. The trip was most interesting, rewarding, provocative of different thoughts about the area, and downright enjoyable. Vietnam’s countryside is lovely and its people were surprisingly friendly to Americans. It seems the younger generation prefers to stride confidently and hopefully towards a better future they can dream than to dwell in misery and resentment in a past they cannot change. Besides, as Lan our young guide said, “Vietnam has been invaded by so many countries so often and held as a colony for so long that the American time here is just a blip in our country’s history!” It is true we were only there for 20 years whereas the French were there over 100 years and the Chinese even longer. So despite their 4,000,000 dead, the devastation to the countryside, the cities, the historical structures, the infrastructure and the families, the young Vietnamese just want to forget about it all. That fact certainly made traveling within their country much more comfortable psychologically and emotionally than it could have been. Probably if we had had more opportunities to interact with people of our own generation, we would have seen less forgiving attitudes and more resentment. But it is younger people who have adopted the tourist industry wholeheartedly — they are the guides, the workers in the hotels and restaurants, the faces at the tourist destinations, the clerks in the shops and museums, the crews on the various boats we used to see the sights. And they were smiling and friendly, many even thanking us for visiting their country. So, externally caused discomfiture was simply not an issue for us. The Vietnamese seem to be as adept at reconciliation as they are in embracing capitalism. Today Vietnam is one of the most pro-American countries in the world! How about that for a surprise?

VITAL VIETNAM FACTS Lest we have forgotten: Vietnam is slightly larger than New Mexico and stretches along the coast of the South China Sea for 1,025 miles north to south. It is only 31 miles wide at its narrow waist which is very near to the dividing line between the former People’s Republic of North Vietnam and the Republic of South Vietnam. The great Mekong River has its delta in the southern part of the country, below Saigon. The North has a monsoonal weather pattern and the South a tropical climate. The hills and mountains are located north of the divide and the south is flat and low. Despite the high casualties among civilians and military in the Vietnam War, the country is now the 13th most populous in the world with 85,262,000 people living there. The median age is 26 and 26% of the population currently is age 14 or under, so youth is dominant. Literacy among the Vietnamese is 90%, the best in Southeast Asia. The communist influence is seen strongly in the religion-adherent figures: 9% are Buddhist, 7% Catholic, and 80% no religion. Though the Buddhist temples are visited and people do make offerings there, it seems that the visitations are more superstition-based than spiritual. According to our young guide, people will make an offering of fruit or flowers when asking for some favor or blessing but it is more superficial than worshipful.


The Communist Party is the single one in the country and though elections are ostensibly free, there is usually no choice but a CP-approved candidate. However, since the mid-80s, the Party has changed its economic policies to encourage more free trade and free enterprise. The population has embraced the changes wholeheartedly and the national economic growth rate is one of the fastest in the world (9% last year). This year even more changes are being made as the Party seeks to enter new trade agreements with other countries and to encourage foreign investment: currency stabilization, property rights laws, easier investment procedures were all in process as we visited in October 2007. Really impressive is Vietnam’s overall poverty reduction record. Prior to 1993, its poverty rate was estimated at 60% of the population; today that level has been reduced to 20%--a much more amazing reduction than what has occurred in China and India, though both those countries are also lifting their populations up rapidly as well. The government recognizes the need for an educated populace and has made great strides in providing education to all sections of the population. As Guide Lan said, “We have Ho Chi Minh in our hearts and capitalism in our pockets!” An ironic change we noted too is that English is being encouraged as a second language. What we could not win on the ground, we have apparently won in the culture. Westernization is seen all over the country. Movies, TV,

products on sale, dress, music, language, fast food restaurants. The 2/3s of the population under 30 wants the things that middle-class life promises. These youth wear fashionable clothing, use cell phones constantly, drink coffee in trendy cafes, surf the net easily, seek entertainment and travel opportunities. This is a busy, happy, aspiring country today, too occupied with its own rapid advancement to dwell in a miserablepast! SOME REVELENT HISTORY One of the issues that caused my own antiwar opinions was the question of whether or not the conflict between North & South Vietnam was a civil war or an invasion by a foreign country (the North) into another country’s territory (South Vietnam). During the 60s, I was pretty well convinced it was a civil war and that we should not be interfering despite fears generated by the “domino theory” which dictated USA foreign policy at the time. Our visit to this now vibrant country did not definitively answer this question for me because there are obvious differences in the north and south. Sitting just south of gigantic China, Vietnam certainly was colonized and governed by that country many different times. However, oftentimes the dominance did not extend into the South, so Chinese influence is not as strong there. From the 7 th century to 1832, the Champa Kingdom ruled what is now Vietnam from the Da Nang area southward. The rival Khmer Empire controlled much of what is now Laos, Cambodia, part of Vietnam and part of Thailand. The two kingdoms were both heavily influenced by their apparent Indian origins. They constantly made incursions on one another’s territories, but in truth it was the Khmer Empire that was more “sinned against than sinning.” Finally, the French really finished the Champa kingdom off. After the Champa rule was destroyed, North Vietnam was ruled under one set of noblemen and kings (the Le Dynasty) and the South by another (the Nguyen) who basically did not interfere with each other very often. Many of the Cham people fled Vietnam for Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and even India. The French united all of present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia under its protectorate and renamed the whole area French Indochina. Ethnically speaking, the Vietnamese people are considered to be 80% Kinh (Viet) stock. So was the North’s desire to pull all the territories together a foreign invasion or a civil war to determine what type of government the entire country would adopt as its own? Were we so blinded by our fear of communism that we ignored history or were we supporting a previously separate country in its efforts to stay independent? Even though I cannot say our visit to Vietnam answered that question for me, evidently the Vietnamese themselves have stopped brooding over it.

A Caveat: Because Vietnam is so resonant a place in American consciousness, I am treating the visit here a bit differently from the visits to the other countries. I intend to discuss each place we visited in a little more depth rather than simply discussing my general impressions of the country as a whole as I did with Bhutan and Laos, and will be doing also with Cambodia and Bali. After all, echoes of our own history here cannot be drowned out.

HANOI We took a very short flight from Laos to Hanoi, arriving at night, so our first impressions of the city were necessarily a little vague. The airport was a long way from our hotel in central downtown and we mainly were astonished at all the big trucks parked on the sides of the roads into the city. Evidently, traffic rules demand that the trucks stay out of downtown from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. to accommodate the city’s own rush hour. The other surprise was to see the flags on the light poles that identified Hanoi as “City of Peace.” Strange to our eyes since we were used to thinking of this city as the site of the Hanoi Hilton, the headquarters of the Communist war machine during what we call the “Vietnam War’ (called by the Vietnamese themselves, the “American War’), and the place we bombed regularly. At this time of arrival, we were a bit apprehensive about our reception here; but the young man who met us at the airport certainly hid any anti-American feelings he may have had. Of course, we were to learn later that neither he nor most other young people did harbor negative sentiments.

Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel

It was misting as we disembarked in front of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel on a wide and tree-lined street. The hotel was originally built by the French in 1901 and has been modernized and renovated into a luxuriously comfortable facility.

The bed linens alone were simply magnificent: blindingly white, soft as a feather, light as a perfect croissant, and so comfortable that we wanted to forget about sightseeing at all — just staying in the hotel in bed would have been a marvelous experience! The several hostesses in the lobby, one of whom accompanied us to our rooms, were dressed in creamy white “ao dais,” which draped and folded over their slender frames most attractively. They also wore charming little cloche-like hats which highlighted their black hair and delicately featured faces. Each one was a dream of Asian femininity and beauty. The hotel matched their simple loveliness with an unostentatious style of elegance and fascination. It was probably my favorite hotel in Indochina!

This northern city was at the end of its monsoon season so we were treated to drizzles and, sometimes, hard rains, during our visit here, but we were undeterred by the dampness. Our umbrellas sheltered us pretty well and our wonderful Keen shoes dried quickly after a splash through puddles. The sections of Hanoi we visited were very attractive and showed no signs of bombing scars or general neglect of any kind. Most of the architecture we saw was French, if fairly modern, and Buddhist in flavor, if ancient. It was only when we drove out of the city towards to the east and Halong Bay that we saw what is typical Vietnamese style residential architecture.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Appropriately enough, our first outing was a visit to Ba Ding Square where stands the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. There are numerous steps up to the portico framed by large, overbearing columns. We were lucky in that we did not have to pay an obligatory visit to Ho himself because his body was in Moscow at this time undergoing “corpse maintenance” whatever in the world that is. There were several hortatory signs around the Square which Lan told us were slogans and exhortations to be “ like Chairman Ho”— that is moral and industrious and dedicated to the state! We observed ladies in conical bamboo hats and ao dais sitting in the grassy areas hand pulling weeds.

Behind the Square is the park dedicated to things Ho — like his stilt house, a garage filled with vintage cars he owned, a museum housing several personal items, his library and the building which housed Parliament at the time. The renowned “single pillar pagoda” also stands in this place. It is a single story structure which rises out of the lake on one concrete stanchion. The park grounds are lovely, planted with many trees from various parts of the world.

There is a reflecting lake on which floated serene white swans. We were told that Ho liked to take his daily walks in this park where he could enjoy peace and privacy.


The house is very plain since Ho championed a rather ascetic lifestyle but nonetheless attractive because of the lovely wood textures and colors. The house is up on stilts, probably to safeguard it from the periodic flooding that Hanoi experiences during monsoons.

Busy Streets


Hoa Sua Training Restaurant It continued to drip and spit at us when we looked into a Taoist temple and drove through the city streets, stunned at the phalanxes of scooters coming at us from every direction. The drivers and riders were covered in slick, colorful plastic raincoats and barreled merrily on through the puddles heedless of splashes or traffic menaces.

Our lunch spot was down a small alley and into a sheltered outdoor patio where our food was prepared and served by a cooking school student population. The school was founded so underprivileged boys and girls could learn a profitable trade. Since English was not a requirement for entry into the school, we did have some fun interacting with the students who were waiting on tables. Charades, pointing, gesturing, and a willingness to accept whatever was brought to the table bridged the language barrier and we enjoyed the meal very much!

Busy stores and shops lined the streets with constant customer comings and goings. Many sported titles we know well: Panasonic, Sony, Chanel, Hugo Boss, Versace, and Prada — further testament to the high-flying Vietnamese economy!

Confucian Temple Of Literature There is an unexpected oasis of quiet serenity in the very center of this busy, bumptious city — it is called the “ Confucian Temple of Literature .”


Scooter and bus sounds dissolve as do the constant bell-ringing warnings from bicycles. Inside the four courtyards that recede in front of the visitor, there are reflecting ponds, flowering shrubs and trees, ancient stelae (standing stones) listing the names of the graduates from the school once attached to the Temple, and statuary of mythical animals. As we walked through this marvelous place, the rains (monsoon inspired I am sure) came drenching down on us. The rains drummed on the tiles of the gates and the temple and we crouched under the overhangs. The freshly washed stones, paintings, tiles and dimpled ponds glowed and twinkled. It was so lovely that we did not recognize the rainstorm as a harbinger of what we would experience during the remainder of our travels through Vietnam!

Water Puppet Show As if the rains had not given us enough of dampness, our next excursion was a visit to the Water Puppet Theater! These figures are about 1/3 life-size and seem to float on top of a jade- green pool. The stories enacted are from Vietnamese folk tales and are usually humorous rather than doleful. There are water buffalo puppets, bird puppets, human beings and dogs. The puppeteers operate these large marionette-type figures from behind a curtain which just grazes the pool surface. As we would learn when they took their bows, the puppet masters stand in the water themselves as they create the most complex and seemingly impossible dance steps, undulating dragon movements, chases, and birds flying and landing on the water surface. The orchestra with accompanying singers sits to one side providing the story line and music. A very entertaining performance requiring remarkable skills in the puppeteers.

HALONG BAY The early morning drive out to Halong Bay, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, began very strangely indeed. Our guide, Lan, did not show up for a very long time after his appointed hour. We were fretting and fussing when the driver, Mr. Hung, finally arrived, sans Lan, telling us in his very limited English that he was to drive us to the Bay, again, sans Lan. Country Scenes We were in some consternation, but decided that we had better go with Mr. Hung since we were supposed to be boarding a ship around noon to begin our cruise around the Bay. Mr. Hung drove quickly but not alarmingly even though we were still gazing out rain-spattered windows.

The country scenes scrolling by us seemed timeless in many ways, with farmers working their fields by hand, harvesting a rice crop. They were dressed in the conical bamboo hats, long white shirts and loose pants, and mostly barefoot. Little villages were separated by big fields along the very good highway.

On this excursion, we were introduced to the typical Vietnamese buildings: very narrow structures (like our Southern “shotgun” houses) usually two storied with a 2 nd floor balcony. These homes and town edifices were most often painted on the front side only, with the other three walls left bare. The highway traffic was wild, but the drivers seemed to know the rules of the road here too. A two-lane highway often became three lanes as trucks, cars, and scooters created a passing lane where none really existed. After the quiet traffic in Laos, the honking and tootling here were loud and intrusive. There were Daewoo, Toyotas, Mercedes, BMWs (cars & trucks) jostling for position. We even spotted one truck with a clearly anachronistic sign still emblazoned on its side: “Trucking from Elizabeth, New Jersey.” Now we know where some of our used cars and trucks endup!

When we reached the dock at Halong Bay, it was only too clear that we were very late. The crew hustled us aboard the lovely Ginger Junk without much ceremony. And, Lan was nowhere to be seen! The wooden junk with burnt-orange sails sailed out of the busy harbor without much ado at all and we were soon seated with the other 16 passengers for a huge & delicious seafood lunch. There had been a haze in the air all the way from Hanoi and we had decided that it was probably high humidity rather than pollution and we were confirmed in that belief when the haze continued with us out into the Bay and among the fantastical karst (rough limestone) islets strewn about the waters like acorns beneath a huge oak tree. Some of the rocky structures are too small to accommodate anything but birds and stunted trees, others are large enough for some human habitations and structures. The formations are rough-hewn and jagged and create ghostly visions on the horizon as well as quite close to the junk as it passed. The beautiful bay is certainly worthy of protection and preservation.

The Ginger Junk

The junk was comfortable and we were exposed to some foods we had never before eaten: cuttlefish, squid, mystery sealife, huge prawns with their eyes staring up at us accusingly. But there was always enough to eat without our being overtly squeamish. The 10 guest rooms are

rather small, but they include a private bath, comfy beds and seating areas anyway. However, we were not in them except for showers andsleep.

The sundeck atop the boat was partially shaded so sightseeing was comfortable as well, whatever the weather.

On our evening sailing through a floating fishing village, we learned that Halong Bay is being seriously fished out, except the squid. No wonder they served us squid with every meal on the boat. The village houses about 300 families on their boats with about 700 people in total living there clinging to the shoreline. They have electricity, thanks to generators, but pollution has to be terrible there since all their sewage is discharged right into the bay waters where they get their drinking water and wrest their fishing livelihoods. No wonder the bay is losing so many of its fishspecies.


A side trip to a cave was a highlight of the trip - for most, but not all of us. Lois has a fear of caves and waited outside as the other three explored.

K ayaking At S unrise We had a wonderful early morning experience on the bay when we hopped into kayaks and did our own exploring around the karst islands, enjoying the sunrise as it dispelled the silvery early morning light on the waters. We were disappointed in the paucity of bird life, but perhaps the overfishing has left the birds nothing much to eat either. We did see a couple of what appeared to be fishing eagles, but the crewman who accompanied us so we would not get lost in the maze of islands and skerries did not knowmuch of anything about birds.

Our return to the port at the resort town of Halong brought us the surprise of reuniting with Lan! We had previously not known what had happened to him, but now we heard his story. He had been involved in a scooter accident with two other scooters and his had been totaled though he was unhurt. Neither of the other drivers was hurt but their vehicles were all damaged also. There is no such thing as vehicle insurance in Vietnam, so the losses were the individuals’ own to bear. However, the police take a dim view of accidents and all three had to go to the station and give statements so that a report could be filed. Strangely enough, Lan did not seem terribly upset over his loss but then maybe he was just grateful he had not been hurt nor had he hurt anyone else. However, he did maintain that he was not the cause of the accident.

Buddhist Temple


The return to Hanoi was punctuated by a stop at a 13 th century Buddhist temple where a ceremony was in progress. There were about 20 monks in iridescent yellow robes chanting and making offerings of flowers and fruit, while a crowd of laypeople encircled them and the altar. The townspeople were mostly aged but there were young faces in the group as well. The folks were attentive but not participating in the chants or offerings. The temple was constructed of wood and was in good repair considering that it dated from many centuries before. S erenity H umanity B eauty C enter We also made a stop at the delightfully named “Serenity Humanity Beauty Center” where we saw handicapped youngsters working at crafts primarily geared to tourist tastes: embroidery, wood and stone carving, painting, sculpture, ethnic foods in cans and bottles. The prices were not cheap and the skills exhibited quite impressive. There was also a cafeteria where we were advised to stock up on crackers, chips, etc., though we did not realize that those items would constitute our evening meal when we returned to the airport at Hanoi to fly to Hue.

The ride back to Hanoi was uneventful. The rural pace of life was again on display.

As we passed through one of the frequent toll booths, Lan gave us an example of how the people ignore their government and go on about their business of “making do” and “getting ahead.” A person will buy a ticket for the toll road for a regular sized car but drive a van through the gate and pay the toll-taker the difference. That person doesn’t tear the ticket, but returns it to the driver who can then sell it to another person. This is the economy below the official one. Lan told us there are hundreds of such schemes and scams. Everyone knows about them and uses them in a “go along, get along” fashion with no real interference from the authorities. West Lake And Senator John McCain One last incident in Hanoi deserves reporting. As we were walking through the city streets, we passed a large lake near the town center. Lan informed us that this is called “West Lake” and said it is surrounded by parklands and walking paths. Then he offhandedly stated that it was into this lake that John McCain crashed landed when he ejected from his airplane. He was arrested at the water’s edge and taken to what we call the “Hanoi Hilton” to stay fo r the next 5½ years, undergoing torture, starvation and deprivation. McCain is a recognized war hero in the USA and his name is forever entwined with our memories of the Vietnam War. But for Lan, this bitter echo of the past for us was to him hardly worth mentioning

HUE We all relished the irony of our flight from Hanoi to Hue aboard Vietnam Airways. Our pilot was announced as an American female and we cheered those fascinating steps forward. Then the cabin of the plane was filled with the sounds of American jazz music for the rest of our short flight.

Imperial City - Purple Forbidden City The bombing of Hue during the “American War” did destroy much of the ancient legacy of buildings from the period when Hue was the capital city of the southern part of Vietnam. However, many of the tombs of the Nguyen emperors have been restored and rebuilt; the partially destroyed Citadel and Purple Forbidden City are dramatic reminders of the power these rulers once wielded. Because these emperors considered themselves much higher not only in power but also in spiritual importance than their subjects, they built their tombs and palaces on hills and ramparts so that they could be protected more easily. But did they need to be protected from an injured tourist like me too? The many steps up and down were often dismaying to me (at least to my ankle) but the climbs and descents were always well worth the effort required and the pain engendered.

Once again, the beautiful hotel we enjoyed in Hue was an elegant surprise and the service was so excellent. It was another older French property that had been updated and metamorphosed into a 5 star facility.

L a R esidence R esort and S pa

One morning, as we were climbing into our Mercedes van for a tour, we saw about 25 rickshaws lined up along one side of the circular drive approaching the hotel. These “vehicles” were filled with older-appearing tourists waiting for their “motor power” (the rickshaw men) to arrive. But they looked for all the world like a similar grouping of nursing home residents having been wheeled out into the sunshine for some fresh air. We didn’t think they would appreciate us taking their photos, but my three intrepid photographer friends snapped them anyway. Our van looked much more comfortable.

PERFUME RIVER CRUISE TO ANCIENT TOMBS In Hue we took a boat trip on the Perfume River to visit some of the vainglorious tombs the emperors had commissioned as well as to the observe life on the river for present day citizens. The emperors apparently had some of the pretensions of the Egyptian pharaohs because each tomb had to be bigger, more ornate, occupy more acreage, and exhibit more rich decorations than the tombs of the previous monarchs. The three we visited were indeed very impressive and quite beautiful in their display of Vietnamese craftsmanship, particularly in the encrusted inlay walls created of precious and semi-precious stones and glass. The wall designs were dazzling and the columns and canopies over the thrones were simply stunning. Each tomb also had a Buddhist temple somewhere on the grounds and these were quite gorgeous in their splendid contents. We all were so shocked that these symbols of a destroyed monarchy and a cast-off religion had been left intact by the communists when they overran the city.

The life we observed on the Perfume River belied the enormous socio-economic changes we had seen so far in the cities of modern Vietnam and even in the villages we had passed on our way to Halong Bay. The slender boats with so little freeboard when loaded with people and their belongings seemed ancient in design and the arduous life of fishermen was still much in evidence. The people lived and made their living on these boats. A few, perhaps more adventurous, perhaps more imaginative, folks had decided to dedicate their boats to tourism,

as was the case with the boat which took us up the river. Our “captain” piloted the boat and helped us in and out of it while his wife was responsible for selling some of her handicrafts and other tourist items they had to offer, such as postcards, guidebooks covering the tombs we saw, and the history of life on the Perfume River. We were never able to experience the reason why the river is called “perfume;” but there were also no really unpleasant odors there either.

The continuing monsoon weather pursued us to Hue as well and we could see the waters rising in the river under the pressure of the rain. When we disembarked at a couple of the tomb complexes, the water had risen to the point that some of the steps rising to the grounds were already submerged. And still the rains came.

We wandered through the temple and tomb grounds under the shelter of umbrellas, but we could see the roads beginning to flood as well. We got back in the van at one of the tombs to head higher into the hillsides to visit the last of the tombs and we wondered what we would find when we descended back down into the city itself. More roads flooded and the river rising ever higher was the conclusion. The Citadel, a fortress really, and the three tombs were awe- inspiring and beautiful legacies of an imperial time gone by. These structures were resonant too because we remembered the US pictures of these structures under bombardment and then the results of that shelling.

Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang

Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh

That time came alive for us, more alive than the huge edifices and intricate artwork the tombs could resurrect, when we shared a meal at the home of a 60 year old historian and his wife. Phong An Is married to the granddaughter of the youngest daughter of the last Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai. Her grandfather was a high mandarin in the imperial court, important enough for the emperor to allow this marriage to his daughter. Phong An has dedicated his life since the communist takeover of his country to preserving and collecting artifacts from his wife’s family: photos, personal items like clothing and jewelry, tobacco pipes, and documents pertaining to the imperial family and its activities. He has written several books about Vietnam during the monarchical period. Since there was no way he could have denied his connection with the “old ways,” he lost his university position as a professor of history when the communists became the country’s rulers. He and his wife were allowed for some reason we never grasped to retain their large property and home in the city. Recently he has been given a position under the government working on what he called “preservation and restoration of the intangible heritage of the country.” It must not be very well paid, because now he supplements that income by hosting visitors to a tour of his home, his library and a selection of the many documents and photos he has preserved, and a home-cooked typical Vietnamese meal. What a compromise this elegant and proud man has had to make with the new order of his country. However, even though the rains were cascading down in heavy storms preventing our visiting his gardens, Mr. An welcomed us graciously into his home and showed us his proud possessions. He had a good command of English but his carefully chosen words and expressions testified to his thoughtfulness and intelligence. He was slender as though the changes in his life had reduced him to a physical exclamation point, an insistent reminder of the importance and elegance of those imperial days. He bore himself with dignity and interacted with us as though he believed it was important that we foreigners understood the truth of what he was remembering and imparting. Perhaps the strangest thing about the evening was our delicious meal, fixed by the granddaughter of the emperor and served to us by his great granddaughter, the young Me Lin. This pretty girl of about 21 was eager to try her English and to talk to us of her studies at the university. Her English was certainly not as fluent as her father’s, but she could make herself understood. She is studying music at school and hoping to help preserve and perform ancient Vietnamese music as well as modern musical styles. Mr. An absented himself during the meal of many courses and his wife only emerged from her kitchen at the end of the visit. It was obvious that her part of this “tourist treat” was much more labor intensive than his, but she also was dignified and gracious to us though she spoke almost no English at all. The food she

prepared for us was copious, varied, tasty and authentic. There was no way we could eat it all; she had prepared enough for 20 tourists rather than just us four! It was an awkward situation in several ways, not least in the fantasy that we were just guests in this gentleman’s home. Our visit had obviously been paid for through our tour agent and we had no idea whether or not to tip the family for their graciousness or leave with warm goodbyes and no money gifts. We finally agreed that we could not find a way to offer a tip to this proud man and so we left as we had entered, hiding beneath our umbrellas and hurrying out into the still pouring rain, after self- consciously calling out our thanks. It was a memorable experience in spite of the oddities inherent in the visit. M onsoon R ains and F loods The streaming rains continued all through the night and when we awoke we found the courtyard in front of our hotel filled with puddles rapidly coalescing into ponds. We left the city at 8 in the morning hoping to escape before the flooding closed all the roads. We found several of the southward possibilities already completely under water and impassable. Our driver finally located an open road and we joined the almost “lethal” traffic on its way to Da Nang. The winds were howling and shoving at us and the huge trucks that came splashing and lumbering by. And as time passed, the road became more congested and its surface ever slicker. The high pass over which we were to traverse the Marble Mountains was deemed too dangerous because of the wind and rain and we instead used an incredibly long tunnel of 6 kilometers, constructed by the Japanese. When we emerged on the other side, the rain was much softer and the winds had disappeared. Those mountains were a temporary barrier to the storming monsoon; however, only temporary. DA NANG Da Nang is a name with great resonance for Americans. We knew that city was important in shipping during the War and we also knew about China Beach, a place of R & R for the men and women who served over there. Our guide explained as we drove along the coastal highway with spitting rains still blurring our view from the van, that we would not see much of anything to remind us of the American presence there those 40 years ago. And he was quite right. We saw nothing to remind us of our troops ever having been there. As a matter of fact, Lan only casually (and seemingly reluctantly) pointed out China Beach when we specifically asked about it. Perhaps his grudging admission was just another reminder that for young Vietnamese anything calling the “American War” to mind is not really worth remembering!

There is nothing on that beach now except what nature furnishes; nothing that would have told us that this section of coast was China Beach. The ocean was nudging at the shore pretty insistently as we passed and sporadic waves were already pushing up over the dunes and into the rice paddies. The wind and rain continued and we knew that significant flooding could not be far behind us.

And the rain continued. And the people kept on the move.

Museum Of Cham Sculpture The real reason we were stopping in Da Nang at all was to visit the Museum of Cham Sculpture. The museum was an interesting building in itself as it was an open-air structure for the most part, with walls that did not reach the roof but allowed light and breeze to pass through the exhibition rooms.

The French had discovered My Son (one of the holy sites of the Cham peoples) and had brought out many statues, carvings, friezes, and ancient tools & implements from that “dig” between 1913 and 1935. Added to our reading, the trip to the museum made it clear to us that these early and powerful inhabitants of central Vietnam were Hindus, no doubt of Indian subcontinent origins. The gods and goddesses were familiar Hindu deities, Laxshmi, Ganesha, Shiva, the Nandi Bull, Vishnu andBrahma.

The friezes featured Indian dancing girls and stories from the Hindu scriptures. Later, during our visit to Angkor Wat and its associated complexes, we would see that both the Angkorian and the Cham cultures were of Indian origin and were fighting for ascendancy during much of the same periods of history. Whereas the Thai incursions reached down into Cambodia and created an amalgam of Buddhist and Hindu influences, Buddhism does not show up in the Cham relics. The museum visit only complicated my thoughts about how closely North and South Vietnam were in their histories and cultures because the Cham culture did not extend out of the highlands northward, but instead put its tentacles out to the south end of the long, narrow country.

HOI-AN There was another couple of hours to drive to reach Hoi An where we would spend the night, so we left Da Nang after the museum tour. The rains continued right along with us; we began to realize that we would not outpace the oncoming flooding. We saw more and more water- filled rice fields and side roads through the villages between the highway and the shore and there was no let up to the rain. Lan warned us, too, that Hoi An is always subject to flooding and has been throughout its history because of its coastal position and the river that runs through the city to the sea. We were to see dramatic evidence of this truth during our stay in this lovely old city.

Short History Of The City Hoi An was a small settlement until the 1600s when the Ming Dynasty in China collapsed, causing many Chinese people led by five top generals from five different Chinese provinces to flee from probable persecution because they had “backed the wrong horse” so to speak. These immigrants came with the idea that they would settle in this area permanently and they began to build homes and meeting/worship complexes for their own use. The five complexes were different in that they reflected the cultures of the five separate provinces from which the

people came. They are still functional today with the same purposes as originally planned. Of course the people are now completely Vietnamese and most speak only that language. However, they maintain their own worship styles that are not Buddhist and they still keep their ethnicity alive with their social and cultural meetings and arts. In an interesting sidelight, our local Chinese-Vietnamese guide told us that two Chinese premiers have visited Hoi An to address these people and their Chinese speech had to be translated for the crowds because most of the people have lost the ability to speak Chinese, either Mandarin or Cantonese. The Chinese settlers generally became rich in Hoi An because of the river which leads to the sea; it made them successful traders and importers. The Japanese came later, in the 17 th century, because they saw the vast opportunities for traders and merchants. They too became wealthy but they assimilated more completely with the Vietnamese culture and though you can see some Japanese influence in the arts and crafts of the city, they did not build to recreate their Japanese world in Vietnam as did the Chinese. Now the buildings so carefully maintained here are most often homes of successful Chinese families and the only structure clearly identified as Japanese is the Japanese Bridge which spans an arm of the river running right through the heart of the old city. The bridge is picturesque and clearly Japanese in style, arched in the middle like the bridges in Japanese gardens in Japan and reproductions in the USA.

The Japanese Bridge The restored and preserved houses we visited were built between 500 and 225 years ago and most show the effects of the annual flooding. One fine old structure we toured had been flooded up to five feet in 1991, but has been restored and is still used as a home on the upper floors and a shop on the ground floor. Most buildings in the Old City flood every year at least a foot! We were not expecting to see so much construction and renovation, but Lan told us that because of its designation as a World Heritage Site, Hoi An receives a lot of foreign money for restoration. There is even a project to bury the overhead telephone, electricity and television wires so that the Old City looks more like it did in its glory days. The continual flooding through the centuries caused the river to silt up and the businesses that were based on trade began to falter. Today there is money available for dredging and now Hoi An’s prosp erity is more based on its tourism than its mercantilism.

Flooded Streets We explored the Old City on foot and enjoyed the teeming central market with its plethora of stalls, sellers, buyers, visitors, and sightseers. Everything imaginable was on sale and there seemed to be a buyer for everything too. We had been promised a boat ride on the river but because the water was rising so rapidly, it was deemed too dangerous by the boatmen. So, instead, we got to observe the flooding in the streets.

Even in the central market, we would find ourselves blocked by deep water in one aisle and have to turn around and try to find an open one to continue our explorations. As we searched for a recommended lunch spot, the Cargo Club, right on the river, we had to try many of the city’s roads before we could find a way to enter the restaurant, which was flooding at its back door even as we sat eating a really delicious lunch! A typical park bench on the esplanade below the Japanese Bridge was our final evidence that Hoi An was really filling up with water. When we started out exploring on foot, the bench was sitting high and dry above the water. When we returned from our lunch and started back towards our hotel, the bench was completely engulfed! 55

At 7 AM the next day we were on the road towards the ancient city of My Son where the Cham people had built their holy precinct (and where the French had excavated as mentioned in the Da Nang section). We were eager to see the large ruined temples and other edifices connected with this culture. However, we should have known it was not to be because it stormed during the night and the river was even higher. Our driver tried 4 or 5 different exits from the city and all were closed off by the rising waters.

The only way to get down this road was by boat. Smaller modes of transport could be ferried through the deeply flooded parts to higher ground - but not our bus.


We also learned that the only road out to My Son once the city roads were left behind was also impassible. So our trip to My Son was cancelled.

After some short visits with the local children, we turned back to Hoi An and spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing at our comfortable hotel with occasional walks into the city just to see how the flooding was progressing. The river was certainly not regressing. We were somewhat anxious about our drive back to Da Nang in the morning to reach the airport for the flight to Saigon.

SAIGON Smooth transition from Hoi An to Saigon via Da Nang — no hitches. The sun was shining, at last, as we landed in the capital of the former Republic of South Vietnam. However, there was a different kind of “teeming”— not water, but motor scooters in their thousands, mixed of course with cars, buses, trucks, and even a few bicycles.

Street Scenes

The streets are exceptionally broad but not wide enough to accommodate all the traffic in Saigon. Phalanxes of scooters are rolling through every intersection; it looks like the Boston Marathon at the start of the race! It didn’t seem to matter what time of day or night you looked at the traffic either — always, always hordes of vehicles. Surprisingly quiet though — very little honking and no angry gesturing between drivers. Most of the motor scooters had at least two people on board, and many of them contained whole families, or enough groceries to feed a little village! Saigon is a huge city, 8 million people live here, and all of them must be on their scooters much of their lives! We had seen Saigon described in guidebooks as frenzied, tatty, and dilapidated. We did not visit in any such areas ourselves however. The city looked busy, industrious, and prosperous and

filled with well-dressed shoppers with good taste since they had high-end shopping at their disposal. We were told that October and November are the most auspicious months for marriages and the number of bridal shops and other businesses catering to the marriage business that we had seen all over Vietnam, especially in Hanoi and now in Saigon, did prove that point. So many of the names on store buildings were familiar to us that we could see plainly that there is now a middle class, able to afford Versace, , Sony, Samsung, and such.

Reunification Palace Our first formal sightseeing in the city began at the Reunification Palace, Also known as the Independence Palace, it is rather sterile, in a dated 60s sort of style, and decorated as if important meetings still take place there.

Many conference rooms with lots of impressive chairs arranged around huge wooden tables.

There are some artistic flourishes in each room, but mostly it is a boring place. Until you climb up on the roof at the 5 th floor level. There, like a stunned dragonfly, sits a green American helicopter, part of the war materiels we abandoned during our hasty retreat. Across the street is the broad avenue down which the triumphant North Vietnamese troops marched as they captured the building. Some of the tanks they used in their advance face the Palace with their gun turrets aimed at the front of the building. We did have a surreal experience there as we ourselves were retreating from the building and waiting for our van to pick us up. Several smiling oriental youngsters crowded around us and asked in good English if they could take our pictures. At first we were a little abashed and discomfited until we realized these were not Vietnamese kids wanting to get American pictures, but South Korean teens who were having a contest to see who could photograph the most foreign tourists in Vietnam during their own visit here. Then we were glad to laugh along with

the kids and have our pictures made with them. In the center of the city where the most French influence on architecture remains, we visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, still functioning as a Roman Catholic Church with daily masses.

The French had erected the church during the late 19 th century. It is unexpectedly plain inside except for its really outstanding stained glass windows. These are original too so the North Vietnamese did not trash the French section when they won their victory.


Across a broad square from the church squats the 19th century French Post Office building, designed by Gustave Eiffel, he of Tower fame. Behind the church on the same square rises the opera house. It is a large, rather grandiose structure, which no longer hosts performances of any kind, though meetings and art displays are sometimes held there. All three of these French concoctions are painted a mustardy yellow, but that color was more extensively used in the North so we were used to it. The whole square is rather grandly French, with a wide avenue encircling it and fountains and flowers competing for attention. Actually, very attractive!

O pera H ouse And C entral P ost O ffice

UPI Photo-Journalist Next we drove to visit a former Vietnamese reporter for UPI during the “American war”— Hoang Van Cuong.

His home was in an older section of the city, quite far from downtown, and he had it fenced and chained as if the area is not the safest. Or maybe he feared for himself personally. After his services to the American Press, he was one of the “aiders and abettors” of our presence who was not rescued by helicopter as his former friends and employers fled. Instead, he was sent into the North for re-education for seven long years. On his release, he was given no work papers, meaning no company or individual wishing to retain good relations with the communists and their new government could hire him for any job. He set about making his shabby, dirty, and derelict house and outbuildings a museum and memorial to fallen fellow journalists. He has collected many odd pieces of statuary, carvings, paintings, and memorabilia for display to tourists. He also sells oft-copied prints of some of the iconic pictures he and fellow photojournalists took during the war. In front of the house he has made a little cairn with helmets and dog tags, and pictures adorning it: this is his shrine to the fallen journalists.

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