September 2008

A Country Of Contrast: Facts and Impressions of Vietnam

Author: Kathy Mason

I saw a sea of helmets from the bus window after arriving in Hanoi, all riding on motor scooters, darting in and out of traffic. My initial (and lasting) impression of traffic in Vietnam was “no rules or regulations” and everyone tries to “fill a space” if they can find it. The drivers seem to straddle the middle line, and whoever has the loudest horn has the right of way. Most of the nation lives on these scooters; we saw families of five or six, farm produce up to six and eight crates and baskets, but the best was a 400-pound live hog, upside down with legs kicking! Fact: Do Not Drive in Vietnam!

Fact: Vietnam is a country of contrasts, from mountains forming the spine of the country with steep valleys to green countryside and 2,157 miles of coastline. It is a country of water with the ocean, Mekong River, canals, lakes, floods, monsoons and rice paddies. Myth and history combine to tell the origins of the Vietnamese, dating back to 1000 BC. Their history is full of violence with wars, rebellions, and tribal uprisings. They were dominated by the Chinese for a thousand years then occupied by the French and finally the United States. Our guide proudly told us the Vietnam culture and old traditions still survive. He said that when a woman married, she moved in with her in-laws to work, cook and clean for them with the “family” being all-important. Impression: the land is lovely, very fertile with fruits, vegetables and certainly rice being grown. The people are friendly, hard-working and welcoming. It is hard to believe they endured war for so long.

We started our tour in Hanoi where we stayed at the Inter-Continental Westlake, a new hotel only three months old with all the amenities and a staff eager to please—if they could understand what you wanted. Impression: they are trying so hard to acquire capitalism and modernize, but still have a way to go.

That evening we were treated to a water puppet show, a very old Vietnam art form that combines traditional music, fireworks and elaborate puppets floating gracefully over the water, depicting old myths as fire-breathing dragons. It was delightful.

The next day on the way to the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, we passed a lake where the guide pointed out the exact spot McCain had crashed and also showed us the Hanoi Hilton. At the war museum we were told of the Vietnam people’s “fight for independence.” The over 3,000 exhibits covered ancient war boats, founding of the Communist party and a scale model of the battles against U.S. troops. Outside was a monument of a crashed U.S. plane and other military weapons. Impression: a bit of Vietnamese government party line which made me very uneasy.

The Vietnamese are very proud of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum which is a huge marble monolith (even though the leader asked to be cremated and buried very simply) where thousands stand in line to view his body. It was built in 1973 and is a square, columned, forbidding structure. The embalmed body lies in a low-lit coffin, guarded by soldiers—no cameras, purses or pictures allowed. Impression: a Communist ritual a little overdone.

I enjoyed more The Temple of Literature, the largest temple in Hanoi, established almost a thousand years ago and dedicated to learning. After passing many exams, a scholar earned the right to have his name engraved on a large stela, resting on the back of tortoises, representing strength and longevity. Superstition says rubbing the turtles’ heads will bring long life, so I rubbed as many as I could!

We drove (in the middle of the road with horn blaring) to HaLong Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, noted for the rock formations that rise from the bay, forming thousands of oddly shaped islets. It is a truly beautiful site—some of the isles have large caves, full of stalagmites and stalactites. When we were there, a fine mist hung over the water, giving a rather ethereal atmosphere. On a lighter side, the junks sailing out on the bay must follow the same rules as road drivers. Hundreds of boats were milling around, taking on passengers, maneuvering for dock space and then all departing at once.

From Hanoi we flew to Danang, which is the third largest port in Vietnam and has white sand beaches on the South China Sea. It is where China Beach was located, the area where the GI’s took their rest leave during the war. We also visited an open-air Cham Museum, which houses superb stone carvings from ancient tribes from the fourth to the 14th centuries. From there we visited the riverside town of Hoi An, which maintains the quaint and rustic life of “old town” Vietnam. We saw the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, built about the 16th century, and a beautiful pagoda.

The narrow streets do not allow cars, so the town’s center is a haven for shoppers. These shops were arrayed along the rather uneven streets with colorful baskets, purses, vases, statues, and clothes. That night we stayed at a beach hotel across the street from the sand and water. Impression: they are rapidly developing “beach property” with hotels, casinos and condos being built or planned. In the past five years, the Communists have welcomed “foreign development” in factories and investments.

The quaint town of Hue housed the Imperial City, home to generations of the country’s emperors, now a UNESCO site. It is enclosed with thick outer walls, surrounded by ditches and canals, with watch towers and gates. We sailed by boat up the Perfume River to the site of the very large Thien Mu Pagoda and then traveled by road to the tombs of Emperors Khai Dinh and Tu Duc. Impression: so much history and dedication to their ancestors with lasting stonework memorials.

We flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the largest city in Vietnam, with population of over 6 million and growing. It seemed very Americanized with billboards, modern appliances, advertisements and a thriving economy. Our hotel was a block from the Ben Thanh market, an eighth world wonder! It is a two- or three-block covered area brimming with individual stalls, selling everything from fresh produce, meat, fish, beautiful flowers as well as souvenirs, luggage, watches, lacquer ware, needlework and clothes.

We drove from Saigon to the CuChi Tunnels to view some of the 124-mile complex of tunnels excavated by the Viet Cong. The entry to some of the tunnels was only nine-by-twelve-inches, totally camouflaged and booby-trapped. Impression: Sadness for so many killed as well as very claustrophobic.

On the tour we had different guides in each area. Overall they were knowledgeable and very eager to present their country to us. Their English was stilted and the pronunciation of some words was very confusing, but the trip was informative, interesting and presented a country emerging from a history of war and devastation trying hard to get out of “third world” status. It was summed up by one of our guides as he said farewell: “We really envy you; you are free!”

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