Most folks assume that a travel agency owner has been everywhere, but not so. Although I have traveled extensively, a visit to the orient had somehow just had never taken place. Southeast Asia and particularly Vietnam were on my short list for a while, and this past January, that wish became a reality. The trip consisted of a two week cruise with five days of that in Vietnam or on its waters. Many people put a trip like that on the back burner so to speak as the travel to and from are not easy. From Savannah, we went to San Francisco and from there it was a fifteen hour flight to Hong Kong. Coming home, we came from Singapore with a one-hour stop in Tokyo and then on to Los Angeles to Atlanta and then Savannah……a true endurance test. Friends traveling on the cruise with us went via New York and London…both of our choices dictated by frequent flyer programs, not because one was easier than the other. My husband had not been to Hong Kong in 45 years, so needless to say, the changes were enormous. No longer do sampans fill the harbor which keeps getting smaller as it is filled in for more buildings. The Star Ferry still plys the waters between Kowloon and Hong Kong; however, riding the subway between them at rush hour packed like sardines was far more exciting. The city remains a capitalist enclave and the Chinese have honored the “One country, two systems” promised.
Staying at the legendary Peninsula Hotel exceeded expectations. Remembering all the books I have read with that hotel as a central element and seeing it in reality with movers and shakers having business lunches, couples meeting for a drink made me feel as if I were part of a novel. The lobby restaurant and bar are a people-watcher’s paradise. Hawkers trying to entice one to have a suit made or buy a “copy-watch” made simply walking down the street a challenge and became annoying at times. A walking tour of the dried herbal medicine market was a sensory experience, with our guide explaining how each item from strange shark parts to dried geckos is meaningful to the soup kept at the ready in many Chinese homes. We learned that one must have both a male and a female gecko in the soup or it is thought that it will be poisonous. Sailing out of the harbor as the famous light show illuminated the buildings was a great beginning to our cruise.
Our first excursion into Vietnam was to Hanoi…a three hour trip each way but worth every minute and mile, as it was truly visual overload! When one mentions Vietnam as a destination, there are varied reactions. Some say, “I have no desire to EVER go there” and there are others who are interested in seeing the country as it is today. My brother in law who was there during the war in Ban Me Thuot and Pleiku predicted that one day it would become a major tourist destination, and that it has. Along with India and Cuba, it is now considered one of the top emerging travel destinations. Tourism is now a major part of Vietnam’s economy which is considered one of the fastest growing in the world. Seeing the activity throughout the country, one can easily believe this. Vietnam has taken significant steps toward a market economy, opening its frontiers to tourism, trade, and investment. Along the way to Hanoi and indeed, throughout the country, one sees magnificent new bridges and brand new buildings indicative of a growth economy. Additionally, although Vietnam is a communist country, small businesses are everywhere and usually are thriving. Cheerful faces also evidence the new found optimism coming from these steps.
The country itself is a strip of land bordered by China, Laos, and Cambodia with the East Sea and the Pacific Ocean on its east and south. In a more picturesque way of speaking the Vietnamese say that the map of their country resembles the bamboo pole with baskets balanced at each end that they use to carry goods to the market, one basket representing the Red River delta, the other the Mekong delta. Three fourths of its land consists of mountains and hills. Its’ major religion is Buddhism with Catholicism a distant second. Ancestor worship is a very popular belief among the Vietnamese people with its theme of fidelity and gratitude toward their ancestors, whose souls they believe still rest with their descendants and that the dead and living have spiritual communion in everyday life. In Hanoi many ancient architectural works still exist along with newer structures, such as the famous sites of the One Pillar Pagoda built in 1049, the Temple of Literature built in 1070, the Hanoi Citadel, the Opera House, and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. With its ochre colored colonial buildings, tree lined boulevards, and scenic lakes, Hanoi is a beautiful and charming city. It is booming economically along with the country. Our day here began with a lecture by Dr. Huu Ngoc, a noted historian and writer who at 90 years old presented his own fascinating experiences as well as varied aspects of Vietnamese culture, covering some 3000 years quite adeptly in one hour.
Our first experience with Vietnamese food was at the famous Metropole Hotel that was built in the early 1900’s. Businessmen, well-dressed ladies, and families were also enjoying the elegantly served cuisine in its Spices Garden restaurant. Attesting to the change in Hanoi and Vietnam’s economy were the elegant shops attached to the hotel….Louis Vuitton, Prada, Ferragamo and Cartier. In stark contrast was a one hour rickshaw (also called cyclo) ride through the Old Quarter of “36 streets and 36 wares” to witness Hanoi as it has existed for centuries. With the thousands of motor bikes, regular bikes, and cyclos it seemed that all of Hanoi was going from one place to another. Families of four ride on one motorbike, with Dad as driver, Mom sitting behind him, a toddler in front of him, and another child on the back with arms around Mom! No one but the father has on a helmet! Another picture comes to mind of a fashionably dressed young woman wearing stiletto wheels and Burberry helmet driving her motorike up on the sidewalk and hopping off to use an ATM machine.
Our trip to the The Hoa Lo Prison known to American prisoners of war as the "Hanoi Hilton", was an emotional one as we thought of the suffering American service men endured there. The prison whose name means “hell hole” or “fiery furnace” was built and used by French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Most of the prison was demolished during mid-1990s for construction of a high rise office/apartment building . This is where John McCain was taken after his capture. His uniform and parachute are enclosed in glass in the part of the prison that still exists today as a museum. He visited the prison in 2002.; and I can only imagine the feelings and memories evoked at that visit. He had visited Vietnam several times prior to that, and the Vietnamese have praised him for his role in helping restore diplomatic relations with Washington The interrogation room where many newly captured Americans were questioned is now made up to look like a very comfortable, if spartan, barracks-style room. Hard to take were the displays in the room claiming that Americans were treated well and not harmed (and even cite the nickname "Hanoi Hilton" as proof that inmates found the accommodations comparable to a hotel's). A Hilton Hotel in Hanoi opened in 1999 and was carefully named the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel.
A quick stop to view Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum from the outside as it was closed the day we were there completed our day in Hanoi, and we set off for the three hour ride back to the ship. Rest stops both going and coming were at very modern tourist facilities, one of which housed a school where arts and crafts were being taught to younger generations of Vietnamese, probably high school age. The results of their work were sold in the gift shop.
Next was Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most spectacular natural attractions. It is located in the Gulf of Tonkin and is made up of 1969 islands of various sizes. The densely concentrated zone of stone islands is world famous and was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1994. Scientists have proven that Halong was one of the first cradles of human existence in the area from archeological sites. As we cruised through this labyrinth of islands, we could only be thankful for the skill of the pilot and the Captain of the ship. Because it is a World Heritage site, we were disturbed by the less than pristine water, making us wish for better controls in the beautiful area.
Our next port of call was Da Nang, central Vietnam’s dominant port and third largest city. It is the commercial, educational, and transportation hub for central Vietnam. During the war, the American airbase near here brought about the largest concentration of military personnel in South Vietnam and today is called Phu Bai Airport. We disembarked the ship to set forth on another long ride along the coast and into the hills to the beautiful city of Hue’. The city was severely damaged during the war but many architectural gems remain, and it is well worth a visit and the long ride from the port. Once again the scenery enroute and the small villages through which we drove made the trip seem much shorter. Our ride took us along a beautiful coastline up into the mountains. During that ride we noticed the absence of sea birds such as we see in abundance here; and further inland the absence of birds in general! To our dismay we discovered that birds, all kinds, are considered food and eaten. Shortly thereafter our guide pointed out a roadside stand selling birds, de-feathered and ready to cook, to give credence to this discovery. Also sold to varying degrees of acceptability and eaten primarily in the north is dog meat (called Thit Cho.) Some Vietnamese consider eating it a special tradition.
Known for its monuments and architecture, Hue was once the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.. The dynasty of the Nguyen family lasted almost all of the 19th century and half of the 20th when in 1945 the last emperor abdicated and control once again went to Hanoi. The seat of the emperors was in the Citadel, which occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the river and is a primary draw for visitors.
Inside the citadel was a forbidden city similar to the one in Beijing where only the concubines, emperors, and those close enough to them were granted access with severe punishment for trespassers. At the time of the Nguyen Dynasty there were many buildings and hundreds of rooms on 2 square miles of land. Today, little of the forbidden city remains, though reconstruction efforts have been and are underway with credit for much of the rebuilding due to efforts of Unesco, the Vietnamese government, and other organizations and private donors.
Less ancient but not less important are the French-style buildings along the south bank of the Fragrant or Perfume River, among them are the famed Quoc Hoc High School and the Hai Ba Trung High School. Another enjoyable and exhilarating rickshaw ride took us past these buildings enroute prior to visiting the Thien Mu Pagoda.
A bit farther along the Perfume River (Huong River) lie many other monuments, including the tombs of several emperors. Notable among the monuments is the Thien Mu Pagoda which we reached by a boat making getting there half the fun! The ride along the river offered gives a glimpse of Vietnamese life as it apparently was “Wash Day” and entire families were at the edge of the river taking care of this task. Sampans are still everywhere from the simplest to one with a television antenna and often are residence, workplace, and transporation. The Thien Mu Pagoda is the largest and best preserved religious monument in Hu?,, as well as the official symbol of the city. In addition a Buddhist monastery is housed there and the spartan conditions made me ever thankful for my comfortable bed at home.
Hue is a quiet, relaxing city, with a totally different vibe than Hanoi, whose pace can only be pronounced fast. With some 350,000 inhabitants, Hue is big enough to be interesting but small enough to get around easily. The food is great, said to be the best in Vietnam, and the women are touted to be the most beautiful in the country. One of the most outstanding meals of our trip was here at the Ancient Hue restaurant, consisting of five ancient Hue houses set in magnificent grounds. Dragons and roosters carved from vegetables that took an hour and a half to create decorated the serving dishes. Evidence of the French influence here was the Sancerre we were served with our lunch. The meal ended with an ice cream accompanied by a green bean mousse, something that we would never consider a dessert…..strange but excellent!
Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh city, but rarely did we hear anyone call it by that name…..it is still Saigon which is far less a mouthful that the new name! We rose at dawn to experience cruising up the Saigon river to the city, as our captain said we shouldn’t miss it! What a busy river and very wide, reminiscent of the Orinocco or Amazon with huge ships of all kinds the size of those we are used to seeing here in Savannah navigating their way to/from the large Saigon Port. Not intimidated at all, the sampans and smaller vessels share the river with seemingly no thought for the difference in sizes!
Saigon is the largest city in the country and one of the most densely populated in the world. Estimates predict that by 2020, the Greater Ho Chi Minh City metropolitan area will cover about three million hectares and contain a population of 20 million residents. Many houses here have a business on the ground floor with several families or various generations of the same family living “above the store” on the upper floors. The houses are typically very narrow as property is taxed on frontage. One of our guides said that his house is 11 ft. wide. He shares it with his parents who occupy one of the lower floors and he and his family take the floors that entail lots of stairs. No elevators!
Saigon is not only crowded, it is fast paced, noisy (particularly during traffic jams), and frenetic. Change is everywhere as new houses are built to replace ones torn down. Bicycles are being replaced by motorbikes at a rapid clip, and car use is also climbing. With seemingly all of its millions on their motorbikes at the same time, crossing the street is challenging and must be done accordingly to their custom. Often there are no traffic lights nor pedestrian crossing areas, so one just starts walking slowly and steadily, looking directly in the faces of the drivers who will then avoid you. When apprehensive, stop and the motorbike drivers will then have time to react. No one EVER runs across the street….it would be suicidal! It is a busy city, and it is setting the pace for the rest of the country. Everything just seems a bit “more” in Saigon!
Saigon is the business center of Vietnam, with many international companies headquartered here. Investments tends to be in the areas of high-tech, services, and real estate projects. Like the rest of the country, Saigon eagerly welcomes tourists. The number of foreign tourists visiting Vietnam in the first quarter increased 36.2 percent in the space of a year and continues to grow.
Must see sight in Saigon include notable French influenced buildings, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral opened to the public in 1880. At one point, foreign press dubbed the city the “Pearl of the Orient.” Just across the street is the Saigon post office. Most post office’s aren’t tourist destination, but this one is. Constructed in the late 1800’s it was designed and constructed by the famous architect Gustave Eiffel.
The Independence Palace or as it is now called Reunification Palace was the official residence of presidents of the former South Vietnam government. All the furnishings are intact and the entire five story building is open to the public, even down to the command bunker and tunnels that the regime's leaders used. The bunkers were eerie, and I was very glad to emerge into the sunlight The main building is of an architectural style typical of the 1960s. It was here that the Vietnam war ended when the North Vietnam army invaded the Palace forcing the President to resign. Today with restoration completed including 1960’s telephones, it apparently looks just as it did when occupied by the Presidents. As is the case in most palaces, those in power lived very well.
At the War Remnants Museum our guide said that he would not be going inside the building with us as it was too sensitive. Originally called the War Crimes Museum, the name was changed after normalization of Vietnam diplomatic relations with the United States. It is room after room of pictures with obvious bias against the U.S. as well as a courtyard with tanks and other items from the war. The exhibits are basically North Vietnamese propaganda with history presented from one viewpoint only. People have varied reactions to the museum…..our stay was short as this was a more difficult stop than the one in Hanoi. I remembered my brother in law asking me to collect clothes books and toys for children in an orphanage in Ban Me Thuot and the boxes and boxes that we sent at his request. No pictures depicted that! As we emerged, I asked our group if they had noticed that the entire time we spent in the museum, there was complete silence.
No visit to Saigon or any Vietnamese city for that matter would be complete without a visit to a market. One of the most famous is the Ben Thanh market, that has been in existence since the French occupation. Covering a city block, one can purchase everything from cosmetics to fish! The very narrow aisles, flanked by stalls bursting with merchandise of every kind can be claustrophobic and I personally was put off by the vendors who kept taking my arm or touching me to entice me to buy something! Nevertheless it was an experience, and of course I emerged with purchases after having bargained hard for treasures I couldn’t go home without! It was here that two teenage Vietnamese girls took a look at my scowling husband while I was trying on the tenth oriental jacket, touched his tummy and said “Happy Buddha!” Not!
As I said earlier, some people have no desire to ever visit this country. Some have memories that make it difficult, if not impossible. For me, I am so glad to have experienced it. Not going to Vietnam is like not going to Russia, or Germany, or Japan. People are always happy to meet people from other countries and exchange smiles, if language prevents conversation.