From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
By Cecilia Manguerra Brainard (The Freeman) Updated October 07, 2012
CEBU, Philippines - Last year my husband Lauren, friend Doug Noble, and I booked our trip to Vietnam via Overseas Adventure Travel. The plan was to start North in Hanoi, and make our way South to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon). Along the way, we would see Halong Bay, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, and Dalat for two weeks.
My companions were Americans and we all still remembered the Vietnam War. I wondered if the Vietnamese harbored bitterness at American involvement from 1955 to 1975. How did they feel about Americans who had been the enemy of the North Vietnamese? Had the land and its people recovered from the effects of the war?
It was February when our group of sixteen flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. It was surprisingly cold when we arrived. All of us felt the chill, and even our hotel was caught off-guard. The central heating wasn't working; they didn't have enough portable heaters and blankets. We slept with our sweaters and jackets on; in the daytime, we layered our clothes. The cold weather, far different from the tropical weather in southern Vietnam, made us realize the great distance between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam is long and narrow, curving around the South China Sea, sharing borders with Cambodia, Laos, and China.
Hanoi was the seat of the North Vietnamese government. The older people in Hanoi would certainly have remembered the war. What I learned was that the median age in Vietnam is 26.4 years, meaning the majority of Vietnamese didn't even experience the Vietnam War. Right away, I observed that there was no overt animosity towards Americans; they treated Americans in the same way they treated other tourists. It is a generalization, but the Vietnamese are friendly and lovely people. The children in particular are very open, and they look you straight in the eyes without fear or hesitation.
We were there during Tet, or the Vietnamese New Year, the most important Vietnamese holiday. People were hurrying back to their ancestral villages; they scrubbed their homes, especially their kitchens, home of their three Kitchen Gods who observed what went on in the household and who would report to the supreme divinity of the Taoist Heaven on Tet. The people decorated their homes and offices with yellow and pink flowers and small trees; market stalls displayed rice cakes and delicacies. There was the same anticipatory and joyous excitement that happens during Christmastime at home.
Hanoi is a beautiful city. It has a lake, the Hoam Kiem Lake in the heart of the city. There are French colonial buildings, pagodas and temples; and the avenues around the lake are simply lovely with their benches and multitude of flowers. The city has a feeling of formality; more women wore oa dais than in Ho Chi Minh.
We visited the Ho Chi Minh complex, which included Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, his house, the Presidential Palace, pagodas, and the Temple of Literature where aspiring scholars took their exams in ancient times. To better experience the Old Quarter, we each rode a cyclo that meandered through narrow busy streets that throbbed with life and commerce, some parts of which are over 1,000 years old.
On thousand years is a long time. Americans refer to 200 years ago as "old" but the Vietnamese talk about the heroic Trung Sisters who rebelled against Chinese rule in 40 A.D. and the Champa Kingdom in Central Vietnam that existed in the 7th to 18thcenturies. Hue was the ancient capital of Vietnam from the 19th to 20th centuries. The Vietnamese have a longer sense of time, so what happened in 1955-75 (the Vietnam War) was, in a sense, a drop in the bucket of their history. This may have accounted for their forgiving attitude towards Americans.
The further south we went, the greener the country became. The Hill Station of Dalat astounded us with their extensive agriculture. This "City of Thousands of Pine Trees" supplies vegetables, fruit and flowers, not only to the rest of Vietnam, but to Japan, Australia, Russia, Taiwan, and other countries. Dalat has cool temperature and the French colonial government had used the place as their playground to escape the heat and humidity of Ho Chi Minh and the coast. In Dalat I discovered what I consider to be the best coffee I've ever tasted, Moka coffee (not to be confused with Mocha). Moka has a suave coffee taste, with a hint of chocolate; it is not brassy or strong like Robusta or Arabica coffee. Moka is best taken with condensed milk, the Vietnamese way.
By the time we got to Ho Chi Minh City, it was Tet and the frenzy of the festivities was at its height. Ho Chi Minh hummed with people on motorcycles and people promenading in parks that were decked up with floral decorations. People wore their finest clothes and the children wore silk ao Dais, looking like little emperors and empresses.
The city of Ho Chi Minh sprawls with many districts, reminding me of Manila. Most of our sightseeing was in the center of the city, which has French colonial buildings, including the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. Not too far away is the Reunification Palace which used to be the presidential palace when Ho Chi Minh was the capital of South Vietnam. There are pagodas, temples, and lively markets, Ben Thanh market being best known. I must pause and mention here that shopping in Vietnam was wonderful: they have clothes, lacquer ware, carvings, shoes, paintings, coffee, and countless other things to buy. Prices were great although one had to haggle.
It was in Ho Chi Minh, in the Vietnam War Memorial Museum where I felt tension between the Vietnamese and Americans. There was nothing personal; no one was ever rude to Americans, but there was a feeling of Vietnamese blame as we looked at the documentation of the war, in pictures, in film, in war machines, and even in the presence of some Vietnamese disabled because of the effects of Agent Orange. There, it was painful to see the evidence of American aggression during that war, although some Americans in our group pointed out that the museum focused only on the Americans, not on the French (who were in that war before the Americans) and that the museum did not show the Tiger cages used for captured Americans. Our companions who went to the Cu Chi tunnels, the underground network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong, felt some of this discomfort.
From Ho Chi Minh City, we took a daytrip to the Mekong Delta where we saw rice fields, small villages, and the peculiar Cao Dai Temple which has the image of Jesus Christ along with Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu. The Mekong River itself is big; the river is the twelfth longest river in the world and runs from China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Our short river cruise showed us fishing boats and markets and a sense that life teems along this great waterway.
The Vietnamese are very entrepreneurial. Businesses thrive everywhere: lacquer ware, clothing, agricultural products, even fishing. In Ha Long Bay, to backtrack, I was surprised when we witnessed dynamiting in the sea to catch fish; and in Dalat, I noted the extensive use of the land to extract year-round produce. Environmental protection, at least when we were there, was not in the forefront of Vietnamese thinking.
Vietnam has a communist government, which even now discriminates against Catholics and those who had sided with the South Vietnamese government or American government. Politics is not discussed openly, and people are still fearful of being bugged. But despite these and even though some people still dream of migrating to the West, Vietnam is vibrant and progressive with a lot of future. (FREEMAN)
tags: travel, Vietnam, Hanoi, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, Mekong Delta, Vietnamese