We looked forward to a return to Southeast Asia after our fascinating trip to Thailand in the 1990’s. Vietnam would reveal some similarities but many stark differences from other places in this region. The ethnic people who migrated from what is now southern China before 2500 BC to the north of what ultimately became the country of Vietnam would undergo two thousand years of struggle to achieve independence only within the past forty plus years.
Nearly always threatened by China, challenged for centuries by the great Khmer Empire to the south and west, dominated by the French for over a hundred years as part of a colonial empire and locked in a death struggle with the Americans for over a decade, the Vietnamese have endured. Led by Ho Chi Minh, an inspired revolutionary, who was born in 1890 and left Vietnam in 1911 to become deeply involved in socialist and communist causes in the west,returned in 1941 to lead his people in expelling the Japanese, then the French and finally the Americans to attain independence in 1975.
The communist government confiscated private property and caused economic stagnation and desperate poverty in the years following the end of the American War (we called it the Vietnam War). Hundreds of thousands of southern Vietnamese were sent off to re-eduartion camps or newly created “economic zones”. Witnessing economic growth in other parts of Asia and a dramatic turnaround in China, in 1986 the Vietnamese government loosened economic restrictions and introduced a market economy. Amidst much poverty, Vietnam is experiencing dynamic economic growth. Business and industry from around the globe is investing here and exports of rice, coffee and the potential of new offshore oil are driving progress. New, modern homes are being built by families adjacent to the humble structures they have inhabited for so many years.
Like China, Vietnam is sending its brightest young people to the West for college education. Unlike China, the Vietnamese have access to western media and the internet. This will ultimately lead to greater political dialog and a questioning of the dominance of the communist single party system open to membership by only a few thousand people who make all governing decisions and perpetuate their power through party membership limited to family members and friends.
This long narrow country with its 2000 mile coastline has varied habitats from the mountains of the northwest to the Mekong Delta in the south. This historical capital of Hanoi is relatively unchanged with its maze of long, narrow buildings with ground floor shops and long rows of large, stately trees lining major streets. Bombing in the war was concentrated in the industrial suburbs and the port of Haiphong down river from the capital. To the west of attractive Hoan Kiem lake in the city center, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum dominates the area near his modest home on the grounds of the presidential palace.
Our first exposure to the natural beauty of Vietnam came with a cruise on Halong Bay east of Hanoi on the Gulf of Tonkin. This UNESCO World Heritage Site features limestone and dolomite pinnacles rising from the water, some with enormous caves filled with bizarre arrays of stalactites and stalagmites.
Our next destination heading south was the former imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam. North of the Perfume River, the massive walled citadel containing the forbidden city and royal palaces is impressive in spite of war damage. The Thai Hoa Palace with its magnificent columns and the Mieu palace honoring ten Nguyen emperors highlight the early emergence of a Vietnamese national entity encompassing the entire country.
Continuing south, the historic port of Hoi An attracted traders from China, Japan and Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. Historic Vietnamese homes, Chinese assembly halls and a rustic Japanese covered bridge provide vivid testimony to foreign influence. A beautiful waterfront setting with excellent restaurants and cafes made this a most enjoyable visit on our itinerary.
The Champa kingdom emerged in the second century AD as a maritime power originating in Java and at its peak close to 1,000 AD it stretched from the central coast of Vietnam to the Mekong Delta. My Son, northwest of Hoi An, was a Cham religious center. The remains of about 70 towers and temple complexes are set in a dense, vegetated valley at the foot of a mountain. Many were destroyed by US bombing when the Viet Cong took refuge here. Extensive carvings of Hindu deities reveal the influence of Indian culture with Javanese elements.
Our travel to south central Vietnam brought vivid reminders of the war. At Danang, we saw the remains of the vast US military base and the nearby long stretch of white sand where US forces enjoyed rest and recreation at China Beach. Our flight to Nha Trang landed at a former military airfield on Cam Rahn Bay where US naval forces were headquartered during the war. It is ironic that years after the war when we withdrew from our huge naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines the government of Vietnam invited the US to lease Cam Rahn Bay as a replacement naval station because of its concern about the growing military power of China.
Nha Trang is a fishing port which evolved into Vietnam’s main beach resort. An elegant promenade along the waterfront is packed with high-rise hotels with more in the luxury class under construction as well as upscale shops and restaurants. Street and building lighting to celebrate the Tet holiday created a festive, glitzy atmosphere equal to beach resorts on the Mediterranean or the US Florida coast. Included in the throngs of people enjoying this resort were a large number of Vietnamese families.
Southwest of Nha Trang, the town of Dalat was a hill station popular with French colonists. The region surrounding this town’s beautiful mountain setting is a rich agricultural area producing a wide variety of vegetables and flowers. The massive local market, the beautiful Thien Vuong Buddhist Pagoda built by the local Chinese community and the summer palace of the last Vietnamese emperor provided interesting touring opportunities.
Our flight to Saigon ( Ho Chi Minh City) and the south landed at Tan Son Naht airport where so many thousands of American service people arrived and departed this country during the war. Renamed Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnames still call it Saigon and it continues to be the most dynamic and powerful economic center of the country with a population of over three million. The Dong Khoi area downtown near the handsome French colonial General Post Office and the 19th century Notre Dame Cathedral is lined with upscale shops and restaurants.
The Presidential Palace is well maintained with the metal fence in front where a North Vietnamese tank pushed through during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The same or a similar tank is displayed adjacent to the Palace on the edge of a park. The US embassy from which helicopters took off in the remaining hours of the evacuation was subsequently torn down by our government and replaced with a new consulate. Our embassy is now in the capital, Hanoi.
The Continental Hotel built during the French rule is still the grande dame whose guests have included Graham Green while reciting the Vietnam novel, The Quiet American and Walter Cronkite as well as other top wartime journalists. We enjoy a fine lunch and then walked about the hotel.
An afternoon visit to Saigon’s Jade Emperor Pagoda provided a unique experience; very different from previous exposures to Oriental religious practices. Dedicated to the chief deity of the Taoist pantheon, the temple was built by the Cantonese Chinese community in 1909. It was jammed with worshipers, mostly women, and filled with smoke from the incense being burned by the worshipers. In addition to the usual Buddhist demon guards, alter rooms included a Mother of Five Buddhas in Hindu style effigy, rows of colorfully dressed ceramic female figurines each representing a lunar year and a King of Hell and his red life-sized horse surrounded by large carved wooden panels depicting lurid scenes of damnation.
A day long boat trip to the Mekong Delta revealed the scale of this vast waterway laced by innumerable winding canals. This is a rice bowl of Asia. Surrounded by dense foliage, it is easy to see the hell this must have been for American fighting forces during the war. Life has changed little over the centuries for the delta people with their fishing boats and floating villages.
Our most vivid impressions and lasting memories of Vietnam will be the people Their friendliness, warmth and hospitality towards us was not something we expected. Many of these older people served in the North Vietnamese Army in the northern provinces or the resistance Viet Cong in the south. Additionally,we encountered others who had lost limbs from remaining land mines or were deformed, including second and third generations, from exposure to Agent Orange. To walk through villages and be invited into homes where families were celebrating the Tet New Year was a surprise and a very special experience.
We were unable to understand the
absence of resentment and anger on the part of the Vietnamese people due to the war. Revenge and never forgetting or forgiving wrongs of the past are deeply ingrained in our Western culture. In part this difference may come about from the observance of Buddhismwhich so strongly emphasizes acceptance of events and circumstances. Another element may be Vietnamese history where a millennium of Chinese domination, a half millennia m of incursion from Indic kingdoms to the west, a century of French domination and over a decade of American military involvement resulted in a people who have only known subjugation until the last several years. The years following independence in 1975 brought recrimination and punishment to those in the south and confiscation of private poperty and poverty to all people under the mismanagement of a repressive communist regime. Only in the last quarter century has economic opportunity and reasonably open information flow and educational opportunity opened the door to a brighter future for the Vietnamese people. They have seized that opportunity and are making impressive progress.
This was another impressive Overseas Adventure Travel trip with an excellent tour manager,Lee, who offered us remarkable opportunities to meet many interesting people and learn about his beautiful country.