Chapter 35: 10 Day Trip to Vietnam…
WONDERFUL New Experiences and Revisiting the Past!
Old Lady in Market
One of the highlights of our travels in SE Asia so far has been a 10 day trip and tour of Vietnam. While at our home this past winter, planning our cruising season for 2006, we discussed with our cruising buddy boat friends, Lois and Gunter, (who also lived in San Diego and were at “home” visiting the US for a while) a joint “land” trip (leaving our sailboats behind and flying there) to Vietnam. We thought it was a location a little off the beaten path and a place that none of us had been to before on vacation. (As will be noted below, Joe had “visited” Vietnam, courtesy of Uncle Sam, during the Vietnam War… but he saw little of the country and it certainly was not a “vacation” or pleasure trip.) Planning the trip actually began 6 months ago with internet research. Rather than just go there ourselves, book hotels and “wing” it with in-country traveling and tours, we decided to advance book ourselves with a tour company based IN Vietnam, specialists, instead of a middleman stateside travel agent. And what a wonderful choice it turned out to be. Right from the beginning everything about the tour company was about service and pleasing us. They were extremely good about answering all my emails (and I seemed to have a lot of questions), and once we arrived in country, everything was perfect, the hotels they chose for us were wonderful (luxurious, great service, good locations, etc.), and the guides and drivers we had gave us top notch service, were very polite and accommodating, and of course, were “experts” on the area in which we were visiting. In case anyone reading this is interested in using them the company name is Focus Travel (www.focustravel.com.vn). They do customized trips (according to your needs and destination desires) and also, besides tours all over Vietnam, they also do trips to Cambodia, Laos, and even have special interest trips such as cycling, golf, beaches, and trips for Vietnam veterans to revisit places they “fought” or were stationed. Anyway, for the very low price we paid for our private trip (just the 4 of us touring for the local tours in a new Mercedes 10 passenger van with our own private guide and driver), we cannot speak highly enough of this company’s service, attention to details, and making sure we got more than we ever expected.
With each of our trips into a new and foreign country, I read about and study a little of its history, as a country’s history is the key to understanding its present culture, its people, and the way they think, believe, and live. So before I begin on the specifics of our trip there, below in italics is a brief synopsis of Vietnam’s history. Being an American, I was mostly interested in its recent history and involvement with our country, so there is more emphasis on that part below. I was training as an Army Nurse during the Vietnam conflict (or as it is called in Vietnam, “The American War”), and most all of my patients from 1969 to 1972 (when I graduated) were young men who had suffered injuries in Vietnam. I even subsequently married a patient of mine who had been blown up in Vietnam (a marriage that did not last). So although I, myself, did not serve in Vietnam during the conflict, I felt a strong emotional connection to the devastations of war. And of course currently I am married to Joe, who also, way before I met him, served 2 tours on Navy ships in the Danang area just south of the DMZ (line dividing North from South Vietnam) in 1968 (for the Tet Offensive) and again in 1970. Anyway, if you are not interested in my brief historical summary of Vietnam, just skip past the italics and you will get to our trip itself.
The Chinese conquered the Northern area of Vietnam in the 2nd Century and Vietnam was under its rule and influence for over 1000 years before finally fighting and winning their independence. Vietnam was important to China as it was a key stop along the trade route from China to India. They had various other conflicts on and off in the next many centuries with China, but the next significant “invaders” were the French who seized and, eventually, were given in a treaty, parts of Vietnam, and began colonization in the mid 1800’s. By 1887, Vietnam became a part of the Indochina Union, however active resistance from the Vietnamese continued throughout the next century during French rule. The Vietnamese anti-colonialism eventually was the start of the communist movement, which by the 1940’s was led by Ho Chi Minh who formed the League for the Independence of Vietnam more commonly known as the Viet Minh. When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940, the Indochinese government eventually gave in to the Japanese troops that had invaded Vietnam. Again, the only people who gave any resistance to the Japanese were Ho Chi Minh’s group. At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh declared independence for the country, however in the WWII Potsdam Conference of 1945 when post-WWII land was being re-distributed, the French returned to claim their colonies in Indochina. Vietnamese nationalism though (under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership) was at its height and the French were unable to reassert their control. After 9 more years of fighting, the Viet Minh controlled most of Vietnam and neighboring Laos. Finally in 1954 after a 2 month siege, more than 10,000 starving French troops surrendered to the Viet Minh. The Geneva Conference stepped in to negotiate an end to the conflict. Part of the resolution was the “temporary” division of Vietnam into 2 zones near the 17th parallel. The agreement allowed for a “300 days of free passage” where those in the North could go south, and vice versa. After this time, the South was ruled by a government that was fiercely anti-communist and Catholic. The South also had a huge influx of refugees — almost a million, most of them Catholics, who fled the communist North during the free passage period. At this same time in the North, 10’s of thousands of “landlords” (some with only tiny parcels of land) were denounced by envious neighbors and arrested by the communists. Between 10-15,000 executions took place, which contributed even more to people trying to escape to the south.
In 1959, the communist campaign to “liberate” the South began. Hanoi announced the formation of the National Liberation Front which became known by the south as the Viet Cong. …NOW ENTER THE AMERICANS. The Americans saw the fall of Vietnam as a dangerous communist expansion, called the “domino theory. That is, if all of Vietnam fell (with its close ancient association with it’s Communist Chinese north and North Vietnam’s new best friend, Russia), The US believed that the other democratic neighboring nations in SE Asia would also fall to Communist rule.
In the early 1960’s, at the invitation of the new South Vietnamese government, the US had been involved in South Vietnam to “advise” and instruct local troops in the efficiency of US firepower. However we remained there for the next 25 years. A turning point in the US strategy was precipitated in 1964 when 2 US destroyers claimed to have come under “unprovoked attack” while sailing off the North Vietnamese coast in what is know as the Tonkin Gulf Incident. On President Johnson’s orders, the US then began bombing raids on the North. Several days later the US Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution which gave the president power to “take all necessary measures” to repel any armed attack against the forces of the US and to prevent further aggression. The first US troops went ashore in 1965 in Danang. From then until 1973, according to one source, 3.14 million Americans served in the US Armed forces in Vietnam. “Officially,” 58, 183 Americans were killed in action (or are listed as MIA still). The US lost 8,546 planes and helicopters and had an “official” cost of 165 billion$. The same statistical resource stated that the South Vietnamese lost around 224,000 soldiers and the North Vietnamese and VC fatalities are only estimated at around 1 million, with an estimated 4 million civilians (or 10% of the population at that time) injured or killed during the war. 2, 200 Americans are still listed as MIA.
By 1973 all US military had departed Vietnam, but the war raged on… only now (with planes, tanks and munitions left behind by the Americans), the South Vietnamese were fighting alone. In 1975, the leader of South Vietnam fled the country and the North Vietnamese pushed into Saigon smashing through the gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace with tanks and the war was ended. As the South collapsed, 680,000 South Vietnamese fled the country. The formal reunification of the country occurred in 1976.
But like most countries that have been embattled in multi-year wars, the reunification did not come without problems. There was understandable bitterness on both sides. The Communist party did not trust the Southern part of the country and the southerners and the rapid transition to socialism proved disastrous to the affluent (in comparison to the north) South’s economy. Hundreds of thousands of those in the south that had “ties” to the previous government, as well as many of the soldiers, were imprisoned without trials into labor camps and some “camps” that were claimed to be for “re-education.” With the fall of the economy, and left with a post war-torn country, thousands were without jobs and food was in shortage. Another huge problem then and still lingering today was from the effects of Agent Orange that the US sprayed on the jungles towards the end of the war. The chemical was used to destroy the foliage on the jungle so that the Viet Cong hiding there could be seen… however as we all know now, it not only destroyed thousands and thousands of acres of vegetation on their lands, it also burned and mutilated many of their people, and caused thousands of fetal mutations and death in the next generation.
Despite a socialist economic policy, by 1978, Vietnam wanted to re-establish relations with the US, plus they sought economic aid, and Washington was close to establishing some sort of relations with Hanoi. But by then, China also was trying for this same thing … and it was presented either us or them — and the US chose China and instead, established relations with Beijing. Hanoi, was again forced to go back to the Soviet Union, for help for the next decade. After the Chinese “opened” its doors to the west for trade and tourism, and Russia close behind, following in its footsteps, were the Vietnamese. They opened their doors to foreign investments and with it came a relaxation of visa regulations for tourists–and in order to do this, it required a loosening of their strict style of communist style ruling. In doing so it has opened up a whole new Vietnam to the world. In 1994, the US finally lifted its economic embargo and full diplomatic relations with the USA have been restored. Relations have also improved with its historic enemy, China, to its north and Vietnam seems to be following the Chinese road to development: economic liberalization without political liberalization. Today Vietnam is ruled by a centralized government control by a Politburo that represents the communist party. Only one party is allowed to exist and the government is run by a collective style of leadership: The prime minister is in charge of overseeing the day-to-day operations, whiles the president, typically holds more of a ceremonial position. However, the most powerful leader is still the Communist Party head. Although when we talked to our guides about the ability to vote, they said they can, but there is only a communist candidate to choose from on the ballot. The press and TV stations are monitored and controlled by the government, but we did see at least some “opinions” expressed in the papers. One of guides surprised us by openly saying to us that he hated the Communists. We asked if he could say this freely and publicly, and he said he could talk openly to guests, friends, etc, but that “no” he would not stand up in a public place and announce that. Of note according to our guide book, today there are only 2 million “paid members” of the Communist party in a county of over 80 million Vietnamese.
I particularly liked one quote about Vietnam’s history, it’s politics, and it’s current thought process that I read in the tour guide we were using, The Lonely Planet: Vietnam: “They (the Vietnamese) respect but fear China, and in the context of 2000 years of history, the French and the Americans are but a niggling annoyance that were duly dispatched. The Vietnamese are battle-hardened, proud, and nationalist, as they have earned their stripes in successive skirmishes with the world’s mightiest powers… But that’s the older generation. For the new generation, Vietnam is a different place to succeed, a place to ignore the rigid structures set in stone by the communists, and a place to go out and have a good time. While ‘Uncle Ho’ (referring to their beloved, Ho Chi Minh) is respected and revered across generations for his dedication to the national cause, the young men are more into David Beckham’s latest haircut than the party’s latest pronouncements.” [Although I got the gist of the above quote, to show my age, I have no idea who David Beckham is!!!]
Population: the recorded population today is around 84 million making it the 13th most populous country in the world. However 65% of its population is under the age of 30. (Note, because of this statistic, most of the country’s population was not even BORN during the Vietnam / American war, so to them it is just something that they study in history class, and as in the above “quote” from the Lonely Planet… just a small blip in their overall history.) In the years after the reunification, one of the initial communist incentives (to grow their party), was the encouragement of large families, hence its HUGE young population. However, the government now is enforcing in the urban areas a 2 child limit to families. Farmers are still allowed more children to help in the rice fields.
Vietnam is also experiencing a tremendous shift in the location of its population — as increasing numbers of young people desert the farmlands in search of the big city life. The population of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is already around 6 million and Hanoi over 3 million.
Culture and Religion: the Vietnamese people and their culture have withstood centuries of domination by foreign powers. Both China and France have tried to conquer not only the land but the spirit of its people by attempting to impose their cultural standards and beliefs on the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese people accepted only those cultural beliefs they saw as in line and harmonious with their own beliefs in the ways of their lives. Throughout all this, the Vietnamese people have remained strong in their resolution to maintain their own culture. They have endured many hardships and grown culturally due to their ability to take only the best from their invaders while retaining their own core culture.
This can most readily be seen through the many religious influences mixed in the Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese people accepted many religious philosophies into their culture because they viewed them as natural and as above, sensible additions to society. They embraced Buddhism because it stressed endurance of misfortune based on the belief that life is suffering and suffering is caused by man's desire for material comfort and sensual pleasure; one's present life is only the result of ones' desire in previous lives. This belief helped the Vietnamese people face many difficulties during their occupation by invading forces. Many Vietnamese also accepted the beliefs of Taoism because it stresses closeness with nature and that one should live in harmony with nature to ensure health, happiness and long life. Because the majority of Vietnamese people have a strong attachment to their land, this belief was also viewed as sensible. Confucianism has had the widest acceptance and greatest influence on Vietnamese culture because it is a source of high moral and social values. Confucianism stresses social responsibilities, social relations and social organization. Confucianism also stresses the importance of family structure which is where the root of the Vietnamese extended family comes from. Other religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Islam have also influenced Vietnamese culture to a lesser degree.
The ability of the Vietnamese people to take the best parts from other cultures and religions and blend them with their own culture has led to the formation of an unusual religious sect centered in Southern Vietnam known as the Cao Dai. [Note I will write more about this religion below as we visit the Cao Dai temple.] Cao Daism is a colorful mixture of bits and pieces of the many religions known to Vietnam during the early 20th century: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and native Vietnamese spiritism"
Statistically the majority of Vietnam’s people are Buddhist. Christianity is the 2nd major religion, with Vietnam having the highest percentage of Catholics in Asia (outside of the Philippines) --10-15%. Initially under the communist government, Catholics were very restricted in their religious activities, however, since 1990 the government has taken a more liberal line, and Catholicism is openly practiced. Cao Daism is the 3rd major religion.
Language: Vietnamese is interesting as it supposedly is harder to speak than even Chinese with even more tonal variations. However one really different thing is they do not use Chinese Characters. In 1945, the language was (again part of Ho Chi Minh’s claim to fame as a way to help educate the population) changed from Chinese characters to Latin letters to spell the Vietnamese words.
Geography: A bit bigger than Italy in size, ¾ of the country consists of rolling hills and mountains. The central highlands with thick jungles and jagged mountains (rising to more than 10,000 feet in height) form almost the full length of Vietnam. Its almost 2,000 miles of coastline have beautiful beaches, towering limestone cliffs, and thousands of uninhabited islands along its length (and beautiful 4 and 5 star resorts are already popping up!) Along the rivers and deltas are the flat lands and very fertile farming areas.
NOW BACK TO OUR TRIP TO VIETNAM:
As in the previous chapter, Joe and I had been visiting and staying aboard Lois and Gunter’s sailboat, Pacific Bliss in Langkawi, (an island at the NW corner of Malaysia) for the week prior to our trip to Vietnam. So on a rainy morning we made our way to the small Langkawi airport for our departure. Being good conscientious tourists and following our airline’s recommendations for this international flight, we arrived 2 hours early for our flight to a sleepy airport in which barely the cleaning crew was around. So patiently we waited for an hour for finally the airline counters and security checkpoints to arrive and we got ourselves checked in and ready for our new adventure.
We changed planes in Kuala Lumpur (the capitol of Malaysia, and the international airline “hub”) to Vietnam airlines for our flight to Hanoi and were the ONLY westerners we saw on our very full flight! After 2 hours of flight, we landed and I was shocked at the millions (literally) of homes and the development as we flew over. (I think I was still picturing Vietnam as the post Vietnam War movies I saw, with jungles, rickshaws, and small villages.) But then the bigger shock came as we were departing when the airline attendants said “Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!” We were SUPPOSED to be in Hanoi!!! In my thousands and thousands of miles of airline travels I have never gotten on the wrong plane… and of course there were all 4 of us thinking we had arrived in the wrong city. And then I thought, the flight attendant announcer, must have been confused. But upon deplaning, we were rushed through customs and immigration, and sure enough we were in HCMC (as it is abbreviated). We again checked our tickets and our tickets said Hanoi and we had no ticket to HCMC, and no one could seem to explain what was happening. Then we noted there was a big pile of luggage, including our familiar bags in a pile on the airport floor cordoned off and said “Hanoi baggage”… and we gave a sigh of relief. We finally figured out that we needed to pick up our bags, put them again through the customs counter (no one looked at anything!) and then recheck them for a un-be-knownst-to us connecting flight to Hanoi. So it all worked out, but it was the first time I have ever had a connecting flight on a separate airplane where I didn’t have 2 tickets to indicate the change. On the positive side, I should note that Vietnam Airlines was a nice experience. We had 2 plane rides, relatively short, and on both planes we had full meals — something we for sure are not used to anymore aboard US carrier flights! On the down side, not knowing about this 2nd flight made for a long day. As above, we started off leaving Langkawi early, early AM and with our 3 flights, we did not arrive at our destination, Hanoi, until after 8PM that night. But our spirits were not dampened. Our guide was there to meet the “Mr. Michele” party with beautiful flower bouquets for each of us women and whisked us away in our much needed (it was hot!) air conditioned van. We had our first look at the lights and architecture of both the country-side as well as the city of 3 million residents on our nearly one hour trip from the airport to our hotel in the center of the city.
After sharing a drink in the hotel lobby, Joe and I crashed in our lovely 4 star hotel (The Guoman — www.guomanhotels.com) after a long day of traveling, while Gunter, took advantage of the in-hotel, 16$/ hour Vietnamese full body massage, having a lovely light-weight lady walk all over his back!
Day 2: Exploring Hanoi
What a surprise Hanoi turned out to be with its charming French colonial boulevards, beautiful landscaped lakes with huge parks around them, and a wonderful mixture of old and new. The first experience was to get used to the traffic. There were thousands and thousands and double that of motorcycles everywhere! We had seen this in Indonesia and even a tiny bit in Malaysia, but nothing prepared us for this sight. The streets, however, were beautiful, wide, tree-lined — -but the concept of crossing a street as a pedestrian was frightful. We were given advice… NO one pays attention to the pedestrian crosswalks (YES, they WERE painted in the streets), so the idea to get across safely was to look for a small gap in the traffic and just step off the curb and at a moderate pace (not too slow, no hesitations, nor do not run!), and look straight ahead and deliberately put one foot in front of the other and just go… do NOT look left or right or at the oncoming motorcycles (or honking taxis)… supposedly they are used to pedestrians and will somehow go around you. When you get hit is if you stop, or hesitate, or change your speed or direction of walking. What an experience!!! But we did it several times and it seemed to work as I am very much alive as I write about this experience.
Motorcycles Crowd Streets of Hanoi
Our guide and driver picked us up at our hotels and whisked us off to our “city tour” of Hanoi. We were told by our guide that the “average” person in the city makes around $300 US per month and that usually both the husband and wife work. He said with dual incomes of $600 per month, even though property is expensive in the city, most couples can buy or rent their own place and that is enough money to live on comfortably and to raise 2 children.
The first stop on our tour was at the Mausoleum for Ho Chi Minh, and what we saw was a line of (mostly locals) visitors stretching what looked to be a half mile around several blocks. We evaluated the scene before us, plus took into consideration that there was no way Joe, with his still recovering from his back surgery, and the 100 Plus degree heat outside… and we quickly concluded that we did not need that badly to see a waxed preservation of Uncle Ho. Since for the Vietnamese, this is almost a “required” pilgrimage, I think our guide was a bit disappointed in our decision; however, he quickly recovered and took us to tour the oldest University, the ancient Temple of Literature, which we ended up spending several hours at and thoroughly enjoyed. The temple was built in 1070 by and emperor who dedicated it to Confucius. Originally he built it for the children (princes) of the rulers, but eventually it was opened up to honor scholars and “common” people who scored the highest in the country of literature accomplishments. It went on to become Vietnam’s first university. Names and achievements of the top scholars were recorded on stone. Today students (especially just before examinations) come to the temple to touch these ancient carved stones (stellites) for good luck, as well as to give incense and other offerings to the statues of Confucius inside the temple.
Next stop…the Hao Lo Prison, AKA the “Hanoi Hilton” — so named by the US POW’s that were held up there for years during the Vietnam war. The prison was originally built by French in 1896 to hold political prisoners, and even today displays a French guillotine. Most of prison was torn down in 2000 to build Hanoi Towers skyscraper next door , but sections were preserved and restored as a museum. What is left are just a few of the cells and a whole bunch of propaganda. There were lots of photos showing smiling American prisoners, being treated wonderfully, being given presents, being allowed to go to church, smiling at the guards, etc. Included in the photos were Senator John McCaine and Peter Peterson, who would later become the first US Ambassador to Vietnam when diplomatic relationships were re-established in 1995.
There were many plaques and photos in the prison “memorial” but one in particular showing their perception (and for us it would seem to be huge propaganda in contrast to the stories we have heard from our returned prisoner of war, I took a photo of which will be on the website but here is what it said: “From August 6th, 1964 until January 24th, 1973, US Government carried out two destruction wars by air and navy against North Vietnam. The Northern Army and people had brought down thousands of aircrafts, captured hundreds of American pilots. Part of these pilots were detained in Hoa Lo Prison by our Ministry of Interior. Though having committed untold crimes on our people, but American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead, they were treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter, according to the provisions of Paris agreement, our Government, had in March 1973, returned all captured pilots to the US Government. Pictures in this exhibition room show how American pilots had their life in Hoa Lo Prison.”
Last on our morning agenda was a tour of the military Army Museum. We wondered though the outside first amazed at the supply on display of French, Soviet, and Chinese weaponry including a Soviet MiG jet fighter. But there were also a large display of US planes and tanks. The idea, we think was to show all those “captured” in the war, but as was stated above in the history, at the end of the US involvement, we left behind hundreds of planes and tanks for the South Vietnamese to continue to use in their fight… so it is not clear of those on display when these “captured” articles of war were obtained. I took a photo also of another sign (as above) that appeared to be exaggerated. It noted that: “The South Vietnamese Armed Forces shot down 33,068 US Aircraft… and the North Vietnamese Armed Forces shot down an additional 4,181 US Aircraft…” That equals 37,249 aircraft shot down or captured by their statistics — a FAR CRY from the US reported lost aircraft (see above history) of 8,546 planes and helicopters. We pointed this out to our guide, and being politically correct, we told him we realized that the truths to the war and its statistics, lie somewhere in between their history books and ours.
After a wonderful lunch where we seemed to be the only “round eyes” in the place, and a short rest back at the hotel, our guides picked us up again for our much more leisurely pace afternoon tour of “old Hanoi”. They hired for us 4 rickshaw (tri-cycles with a man peddling on the back) — one for each of us to wind our way throughout the old section of town. As we somehow miraculously were peddled across the 6-8 lanes of traffic (and a million motorcycles) we entered from the new into the ancient small streets of the Old Quarter, with over a thousand years of history. Originally the city evolved around the Red River, and the town had a series of 36 ancient guilds or neighborhoods, each only about a street long, where peddlers still today trade their wares as they have done for centuries. With each turn of a corner in our rickshaw pedi-cabs, it seemed we were surrounded with tiny shops all selling or trading the seemingly all same items… one street/alley for gold shops, another for silk and materials, one just with ancient herbal remedies, another for temple items (candles, incense), and of course these “guilds” (specialized areas) have also modernized, as there was also one street just with electronics and another with seemingly with 20 different travel agents.
The houses of the area (and actually throughout a lot of what we saw of Vietnam) were Tunnel houses, with very, very narrow frontages (some barely 6-8 feet wide) but very long. Most were 3 stories high but some were as high as 5 stories, as they build up as the family and extended family grows. Many of the houses were very French or colonial looking with wrought iron, elaborate carved facades and almost art-deco colors (lavender, pale yellow, coral, and even turquoise).
In the center of this old area is Hoan Kiem lake with walking paths around it and a temple on an island in the middle of the lake. In the evening around these parks and lakes, I was very surprised to see public outside Western style aerobic classes going on, joggers, etc.
We thoroughly enjoyed our one hour ride, and somehow, we were all delivered safe and sound back to our hotel to rest and change for our “Welcome” dinner. We ate at a restaurant chosen by our tour-- a wonderful 4 course meal at a French style home converted into a restaurant. It was a training site for “underprivileged” children to learn about the restaurant business and we were treated not only to superb service but a wonderful meal. As many of you know, I am somewhat of a “foodie” and really enjoy trying different foods in different countries that we visit. By the end of our tour, not only myself, but all of us really enjoyed the meals that we had and all the foods that we sampled. Vietnamese food will now go to the top of my list of favorite ethnic foods. The dishes revolve around fresh vegetables, very unique (and never heard of by me) herb mixtures, and a different sauce for each morsel. With all the time the French occupied Vietnam, didn’t see much French in their cooking, with exception of beautiful presentation of foods and baguettes!
Day 3: Hanoi — Vietnamese Cooking Class and Water Puppet Show
This was a day off/day of rest for the “boys” as Lois and I got up early for our Vietnamese cooking class. We pictured being in a large class room setting, but were surprised to find only ourselves and another couple from Australia. It was held at a 5 star hotel chain called the Sofitel Metropole, and again, from start to finish it was well worth our time (and money). After introductions and getting our gifts of a traditional conical hat for each of us, we started off by the 5 of us (4 students and our chef instructor, Miss Hai) getting in the tri-cycle/rickshaw (each donned with our conical hats!) and heading off to the “19th of December” wet market (open air market specializing in fruits, vegetables, live and dead fish and shellfish, fresh meat, poultry and other things which I will write about). Our chef instructor, first showed us many of the fresh herbs and vegetables they use in their foods, and I wish I had the time to have taken a picture of each one that she showed me and written down the names. There were at least 5 kinds of mint and a dozen types of basil and things she called cilantro (I never knew there were so many kinds), not to mention 4-5 types of ginger, and other things I now have no memory of what they were. To a serious cook like myself, and a world traveler who has been to a lot of “wet” (or I would call “fresh”) markets, I was amazed at how little I was familiar with. We also wondered through the fresh fish section… and I mean fresh — still living eels, shrimp, crabs, shellfish etc. Some of the merchants had fancy aerated saltwater tanks, and other women just sat on small plastic stools with a basin at their feet with 3-4 “live” fish that they kept alive by constantly splashing the water (to aerate the water).
We meandered on to the “meat” section and were informed the local people don’t believe in freezing their meat and like it fresh — and fresh to us, was a little revolting by Western standards to see the meat out in the open un-refrigerated in a 100-115 degree market . We also saw live turtles and frogs … and then we got to the roasted dog aisle. We were told by our chef that at the end of each month it is tradition to eat dog. If you’ve had a bad month, then eating dog is supposed to bring you luck in the next month … and if you’ve had a GOOD month, well then you are still supposed to eat dog to hope that your good luck continues. She told us that traditionally rice wine is drank with the dog as the flavor of dog is “strong” and the strong rice wine helps with the strong taste. Thankfully even though this was the end of the month (the lunar month), dog was not to be on our cooking school menu.
After our “tour” of the market, we were whisked back in a taxi, into our kitchen workshop, this time so we could quickly jump into our ambitious 6 dish menu for the school. I will not bore the readers on all the details of the course, but the good thing was that it was “we,” the students, that did get to jump in and chop, slice, roll and assist in a real hands-on course. And of course the 2nd best thing was we got to eat everything as we prepared: pork stuffed and then fried spring rolls, wonderful marinated chicken wrapped in lime leaves and skewered over a BBQ, a banana flower (and about 2 dozen other ingredients) salad , fish (called “snake head fish”) wrapped in banana leaves then steamed, marinated pork stuffed into bamboo and then grilled, and some stir-fried greens made up of the branches and leaves of a pumpkin vine–that was a lot of totally different dishes (with different marinades and dipping sauces) to be crammed into about 2 hours of preparation, cooking and eating.
Then just when we thought the best part was over, (i.e. eating what we had prepared) we were informed as part of our cooking class we were invited to eat at the wonderful Sofitel “Spice Garden” restaurant lunch buffet which specialized in serving individual tastings (not huge buffet pans) of over 200 Vietnamese “street food” specialties. The presentations made each morsel seem almost too pretty to eat — and after stuffing ourselves with our own ample servings of our cooking school creations, I didn’t know how I could eat another bite…. But I dove in and tried a tiny sampling of a few of the restaurant presentations. It was truly an aesthetic masterpiece of art and food. My oh my, what the “boys,” Joe and Gunter, missed by not going “cooking” with us!
I took a few hours later that afternoon to shop and was amazed at how cheap the beautiful souvenirs were — and of course, I succumbed to both of these factors, despite Joe putting me on “buying more of that junk” restrictions (mostly because we have already shipped 9 boxes of “stuff” from the boat home at VERY expensive shipping prices… so the “cheap” souvenirs, then become VERY expensive when I end up paying $200/box to send them home!) But I just couldn’t help myself–beautiful lacquer ware, some with inlayed mother of pearl, silks, intricately carved boxes, beaded purses etc. One thing we were really surprised at even from the beginning of our arrival in Vietnam was the use of US dollars to price things, especially tourist areas we found souvenirs, restaurants, taxi fares, all quoted to us in dollars. In the wet market when I asked the price of things, almost every time, the answer back was “One Dallah”
That night we were picked up again and whisked off to see the Water Puppet show, famous in Hanoi. There is no way to describe the presentation but it is part of 1,000 year old folk art. It started out, that the rice paddy farmer, as a part of entertainment for their families, carved these puppets from water-resistant tree timbers into people, animals (taken from their daily lives, like water buffalo and ducks) as well as mythical characters such as dragons. Today the puppet operators stand in water behind a screen (the whole “stage” is thigh deep water) and in front of a theatre of spectators, operate the puppets telling tales of the farmer’s lives and beliefs and of “spirits.” The plays were both graceful, humorous, with lights flashing, fireworks, and spectacularly magical —- with pastoral scenes, fire breathing dragons, little children swimming, etc. Even though the words were in Vietnamese, the “tales” were understandable by the actions and antics of the puppets. The “plays” were accompanied by a band of traditional instruments of wooden flutes, gongs, bamboo xylophone and even some singing. It was only an hour presentation, but we were thoroughly amused and entertained.
Day 4: Halong Bay
Today we got an early start for our 3+ hour drive to the coastline to Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s natural wonders and now, (since 1994,) a proclaimed World’s Heritage Sites with it’s 3,000 plus natural limestone islands, formed an estimated 250-300 Million years ago, dotting the waterways. [Halong Bay is also part of the Gulf of Tonkin, famous for its “beginning” incident of the Vietnam War as far as US involvement.]
"Junk" with Sails Up in Halong Bay--World Heritage Site-- with Limestone Cliffs in Background
We were amazed at how quickly the Vietnamese have taken advantage of the World Heritage proclamation and have turned it into a tourist site. There were tour boats galore. (We were told by our guide that there are over 500 boats, each with a capacity of 20-50 boats each… that are all filled during the “high” season!) Each “junk” is wooden in construction and most have dragon heads carved on their bows, partially open air, and most have an enclosed air-conditioned (MUCH needed!) seating section where lunches are served. Many of them also are built for overnight trips, with guest cabins… something we wished we had booked an extra day for. Anyway, this being LOW season, we had a boat all to ourselves… we had the 4 of us (plus our guide) and a crew of 6 for our 4 hour bay tour . Besides the wonderful views as we passed the limestone islands, and the sumptuous 4 course seafood lunch that was prepared on board and served to us, we also had one stop where we hiked up into a beautiful limestone grotto with stalactites and mites… (always forget which is which!) with 3 huge chambers. They had beautiful strategically installed lights of red and green and blue giving a mystical feeling to the chambers interiors.
On our way back to Hanoi, we stopped at several craft “factories.” They are training spots for children and youth (from poor families, and many of them were handicapped) to learn ancient arts and crafts for a future way of supporting themselves. They did lacquer ware, beautiful embroidered pictures, silk weaving, pottery, painting, etc. It was interesting to watch their work and of course we contributed to the cause by our purchases of more souvenirs to pack for home!
Day 5: Danang, China Beach, Hoi An
Unfortunately it was time to leave Hanoi. All 4 of us would have liked to have at least another 1-2 days with no planned tours —to have more time to walk the ancient streets, to shop (me!), to enjoy more of the good eats, and to just relax and explore on our own. [So if anyone reading this is planning a trip to Vietnam, our recommendation is to allow at least 5 or more days in Hanoi and perhaps change the 1 day trip to Halong Bay into an overnight trip aboard one of the boats.]
We flew from Hanoi into Danang City, now the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, and a large seaport of endless stretches of unspoiled sandy beaches. It was pretty much the Navy’s home-base for its military ships during the Vietnam War. Joe’s memories of Danang only consisted of a couple of short “errand” trips ashore, as mostly the Navy personnel stayed aboard ship day after day. From the airport we went to China Beach, famous as an R & R location during the conflict… and from the edge of the beach Joe looked out into the bay there and remembered the view that they looked at day —after- day for his two tours (aboard a heavy cruiser and destroyer) of the mountains that they were shooting over to the “bad guys” on the other side. The beach was beautiful, but blazing hot and no tourists were around. We thought it had been hot in Hanoi, but now that we were further south (central Vietnam), we were facing 104-106 degrees (in the shade) with 90+% humidity. We quickly retreated (after our views and walk on the beach) back to our air-conditioned Mercedes van, and were whisked off 45 minutes south to the ancient town of Hoi An, our destination for the next couple of days. We were booked into the Hoi An Beach Resort (www.hoianbeachresort.com.vn) hotel, with a beautiful white sand beach on one side of the hotel and a river on the back side. Although it had 2 pools, the pool water, due to the outside temperature was warmer than bathwater, and even in the shade it was an unbearable thought to “sit outside” by the pool for enjoyment. But our rooms were luxurious and we were again pleased with Focus Travel’s choice.
Hoi An several centuries ago was one of the most important trading ports in southeast Asia for merchants from China, Japan and the Middle East. And because of the “traders” having to stay somewhere during the cyclone seasons, they built their seasonal homes there — which turned the town into a mélange of temples, pagodas, and homes of all types of architectures with different sculptures and decorative styles from the homelands of the traders. Today, Hoi An’s ancient past has been superbly preserved and many of the narrow streets are “walking streets” only.
The other thing Hoi An is famous for are it’s numerous tailor-made clothing stores. We were amazed at the literally hundreds of shop fronts that you can choose from, walk in, pick out a design (or bring your own cloths to be copied), get measured and hours later your items are ready for pick up. Although I think they started off specializing in suits and tailored clothing, we could see the influence of the “back packer” young tourists, as many of the displayed designs were quite modern, western, and designed in the latest of hip hugging/crop tops/ skirts/ cargo pants, etc…
Although Joe and I didn’t originally plan to have anything made, Lois and Gunter came prepared with clothes they wanted copied, and we gave in and had a couple of things made also. They were to be ready for pick up the next day!
I think one of the highlights of our day was our evening meal. We sat in an open air restaurant (with 2 fans blowing on us as it was still over 95 degrees even in the evening!), along the river front in the old section of town. We all 4 decided on the multi-course meal where we could choose from 6 items from a huge selection of local foods PLUS a desert and coffee for $2.50. (Actually Lois and Gunter elected for 8 items for an extra dollar!) We didn’t expect much from the price, but it was wonderful and more than we could eat. Again, we are really impressed with the Vietnamese food.
Day 6: Hoi An–touring the countryside
This was and easy going day for us as our guide and driver took us to the “country-side” to tour an old catholic church (interesting to see a Christian church decorated with dragons!), a “traditional village’ and a market (of which we had seen plenty of). But mostly we had the afternoon off for exploring Hoi An on our own, for picking up our new clothes (which turned out wonderful), and a dinner meal at “Good Morning Vietnam!” (Yes, American movies have made an impression!)
Day 7: Hue
We were on the move again… this time we had a 90 minute ride over the mountains a little inland to the former capitol of Vietnam (1802-1945) of Hue. There before checking into our hotel, we toured the Tu Duc Emperor’s tomb — set in very pastoral grounds with beautiful lotus ponds and gardens.
Our hotel this time, the Pilgrimage Village, (www.pilgrimagevillage.com) was set in a country type setting, a little bit out of town, with another beautiful pool and spa. Again we were pleased with the place, and were sorry we only had one night here. After a little rest, swim in the pool, (and another massage for Gunter!), we were off to see the ancient Citadel. Unfortunately this was the location of a big battle between the US and Viet Cong, both bombings as well as actual hand-to-hand combat, so much of it had been destroyed. However they are in the process of restoring it and what was left was impressive and worth a visit. We ended our evening “touring” with a trip on a barge down the Perfume River, being entertained by local lady singers and musicians using the old traditional instruments.
Day 8: Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
This morning we caught an early flight to the largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), population of over 6 million people, and the industrial, commercial, and cultural center of the country. There are still many signs up with the wording Saigon, and the central city area is still referred to by most as “Saigon.”
We checked into The Grand Hotel (www.grandhotel.com.vn), originally built by the French in the 1920’s, and after renovation, it still was architecturally very elegantly “French”. The other main attraction to the hotel was it was perfectly located in the heart of downtown, so we were just steps away from beautiful shops (more shopping for me!), restaurants, the central market, etc. [Unfortunately, again we wished by the time of our departure that we had added at least another day or two to our trip so we could have had more time on our own just to explore.]
After quickly checking in and dropping off our bags, we were off for our “city tour” of HCMC. We thought the traffic and amount of motorcycles was bad in Hanoi — well it was doubly scary here. We were told that most people cannot afford cars, however, motorcycles are very affordable for almost all families. Originally they were buying US/Japanese “knock-off” brands that were cheaply being made in China and sold here — but now Vietnam is actually manufacturing their own, so nearly every person from teenage on, owns their own. As in our observation from other Asian countries, it was still interesting to watch as whole families of several generations all load onto one motor bike… father in front, mother holding baby or child in middle with grandma on the back.
Saigon is considered a “new” city in comparison to Hanoi, as it is only 300 years old. This is because the Chinese did not get down this far south in their “invasions” of Vietnam, however you wouldn’t know it now from the huge China town we drove through. (Over 500,000 Chinese live here and are mostly the “business men” of the city.) Like Hanoi, HCMC was filled with huge skyscrapers, 5 star hotels, and quite modern architecture, right next to small family owned shops… a real diversity and visual collage of contrasts. We also drove by the Reunification Palace, previously called the Presidential Palace (closed while we were there)… which, I remember vividly watching on the news at the end of the Vietnamese (American) war, as the VC tanks burst through the gates of the palace to signify the end of the War. Other places of interest that we viewed were the Notre Dame Cathedral, a catholic church right in the center of town constructed as a replica of the original one in Paris (with all materials imported in from France) in 1883 by the French. And across street from the cathedral, we walked in the old colonial French style Post Office, preserved as a monument to the Colonial government and style of architecture.
One thing we noted in our driving around, not only here in Saigon, but throughout all our stops in Vietnam, is this is one of the few countries that we have seen in the world where there were NO McDonalds, KFC, Pizza hut etc… No food chains of any kind. But with expected entry into World Trade Organization later this year, I’m sure there will be a quick and thorough invasion of US Fast foods into their cities and towns and even villages.
I wouldn’t call it the “highlight” as it was a very emotionally MOVING stop, was our final stop of the day, the War Crime Museum (actually officially called the War “Remnants” Museum). The first part of the museum was a memorial to the War Correspondents for the Vietnam (American) war… the 134 who lost their lives while reporting on the war. It was mostly a powerful photographic display of their works, and mostly slanted towards showing what they called “historic truths” showing American aggression… for example of the captions under a news correspondent’s photo of “A Vietnamese mother crossing the river with her children to flee from American bombs”… and another: “GI’s from the 1st Air Cavalry Division pointing their guns at villagers expelled from bushes.” Or another: “GI’s dragging a Vietnamese peasant from an underground shelter.” ETC. They were very moving photos, but from our point of view, of course, the only photos shown were slanted towards the Americans as being the bad guys.
The next area of the museum we went to was even worse. It was a display of even more horrible devastations of war — in particular the result of the US use of Agent Orange. There were mutated fetuses in jars, lots of photos of deformed 2nd generation children of the soldiers of war that had been exposed to Agent Orange, etc. that took my breath away. Following that was examples (mostly photos, again) of horrible war crimes… including the My Lai massacre, photos of American GI’s holding up a VC corpse and smiling, examples of torturing tools and devices supposedly used by the US, etc. It was awful to observe, and even more horrible to know that so many people from so many nations (besides just the Vietnamese), visit these one-sided exhibits daily. We left the exhibit feeling drained and quite emotional. On the positive side at the end of the exhibit was a hall with hundreds of paintings from children in Vietnam in a collection called “War and Peace”… some showing a child’s perception of war and planes and bombs, but many showing pictures of people around the world holding hands, and their depictions of dreams of peace.
Day 9: Mekong Delta Tour
Today we took off for a couple-hour drive out of the modern-ness of the city into the countryside to one of the world’s largest deltas, the Mekong Delta. It is formed by various tributaries of the Mekong River, which begins its journey to the sea in Tibet and winds its way for almost 3,000 miles through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally through Southern Vietnam out to the Sea. Known as Vietnam’s breadbasket, it produces enough rice to feed the entire country with a sizeable surplus leftover.
Rice Paddy along Country-side
And we did see rice field after rice field along our way to the river. We learned that although Vietnamese (different from PURE communism/ socialistic beliefs) ARE able to own land, property, their houses, etc, in general…however, the farmers are NOT allowed to own their fields. They lease the land, fields, etc. from the government. We were told this is so that they would be unable to sell “Vietnam’s breadbasket” to developers, and to insure that they are able to produce enough food for their people.
We also, besides farmlands, close to the outskirts of Saigon, passed through quite an industrial part of town. We were told that Daiwa, Hyundai, Kia (Korean), Mercedes, and Toyota all have assembly plants in Southern Vietnam. It was interesting to me, as in America, we used to think of Korea as the maker of “cheap” Korean cars and assumed they were made there because the labor was so cheap. But evidently now the labor in Korea is “expensive” in comparison to China, Indonesia, and now Vietnam. So Vietnam is getting in the assembly business. We were told by our guide, that very soon we will be seeing new Vietnamese brand cars being exported as they are just now being designed and starting production but not “export quality” yet.
Finally we reached the delta, and our journey was to start with a private sampan ride exploring the intricate waterways and just sitting back for several hours relaxing and taking in the sights put-puttering down the river. We also got off on one of the islands and had the opportunity to see some of the farmer’s products and works, stopping for some wonderful fresh grown tropical fruit, then to a family that made toffee-like coconut and banana and ginger candy. Unfortunately, a couple of chews pulled out my gold crown (meaning a very near future dreaded visit to a dentist). Then we took a Horse cart through one of the villages and went to a bee farm, where we stopped for some sample honey and honey covered nuts… and then with a few more steps through the jungles of the island, we found a tiny canoe waiting for us to paddle us down one of the small tributaries. It was easy to see how hard it was to fight the war in this river/rice paddy/ jungle atmosphere — and we did have many a battle on this Mekong delta / river area during the Vietnam (American) war.
Our canoe dropped us off to a restaurant that was camouflaged in the jungle and we had a feast of a lunch. First they brought to us a deep fried whole Elephant Ear fish … and a beautiful young girl brought to the table the Vietnamese dried rice wrappers and a bowl of green herbs and “flavorings.” She delicately, soaked the wrappers each for just a second or two and they instantly were soft. Then she filled them with fresh mint, and herbs and greens I couldn’t identify, a sweet type of soy sauce and scrumptious chunks of the fish that she expertly removed from the bones… then wrapped everything into a tight spring roll, which we quickly wolfed down. Delicious! We thought that was our lunch, but then they brought out 4 more courses each very different and delicious, and not a morsel was left on any of our plates. Again we were impressed with the diversity of tastes, so much different from Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, etc., foods.
On our way back to HCMC, we stopped at a couple of temples, one called Tin Hau… which was dedicated for the Lady goddess of the sea and considered a protector of sailors from typhoons and other bad spirits at sea, (Where was this temple when we needed it!!!) with beautiful, intricate carvings. Gunter decided to buy and light some incense there to bring him good spirits from Tin Hau, for the future travels of theirs aboard their sail boat, Pacific Bliss.
The 2nd temple we stopped for a quick visit and photographs was the Cao Dai temple. We learned that Caodaism is a religion, (and fairly unique to this part of Southern Vietnam where it was started) that worships all “gods”–a combination of the beliefs of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. It was very interesting to see a stature of a Sacred Heart Christ next to Buddha in the temple.
While other countries around the world wage wars based on religious beliefs, the Cao Dai have managed to combine religious philosophies from around the world to create a colorful new religion, built on the strengths of both Eastern and Western philosophies–to create one strong “whole” built on pieces of “all” is the culmination of the Vietnamese ability to accomplish the unexpected. The first temple and beginning of the religion was built in 1926. Within one year after that, Cao Daism had over 26,000 followers and by 1990 there were an estimated three million Cao Dai followers. It is now the 3rd largest religion in Viet Nam (after Buddhism and Roman Catholicism). One statistic I found said that they currently have 7 to 8 million followers in Viet Nam and about 30,000 members elsewhere, primarily in Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, and even in the United States.
After arriving back to our hotel in HCMC, we found ourselves still full from our huge feast from lunch, so we retired to our room exhausted, but reveling in not only our wonderful day, but our wonderful trip so far in Vietnam.
DAY 10: End of the Road… Departure from HCMC and Vietnam
Today we flew out of Vietnam to Singapore, ending our wonderful, but way too short, journey from North to South Vietnam, and sadly said goodbye not only to our guides but also to our friends Lois and Gunter as they return back to their boat in Langkawi. [However we will see them shortly back in August in the USA, as they fly home for a break and we leave our Mi Gitana and return also.]
In a very quick summary of our trip we found the people there to be very friendly to us as Americans and just as tourists in general. At no time did we feel that we were hated and disliked for our part in the Vietnam (American) war. All of the Vietnamese that we came across were gracious, giving, and very eager to please. The scenery of the areas we saw was beautiful and many places seemingly unspoiled, from the mountains, beaches, rivers, deltas, and farmlands. The cost of hotels and tours currently are very cheap in comparison to visiting China, Thailand, and other “popular” SE Asia vacation spots, which also makes it inviting. The food was wonderful and very different from other Asian foods we have tasted! The people are proud and are holding onto their culture, but I feel soon (especially after they are allowed to be members soon of the World Trade Organization), they will quickly industrialize, westernize, and I’m sure much of the beauty the views we saw of the simple lives they now live will be harder and harder to find. So if I’ve inspired any of you reading this to want to visit there, go soon!
[Note for those of you interested in the TOTAL cost for us to tour there 10 days INCLUDING, guides, private transportation, 4 star hotels, all above mentioned tours (even the cooking class!), 10 breakfasts, 4 lunches, and 1 dinner (rest of meals were on our own), AND all the domestic flights (from Hanoi to Danang, and from Hue to Saigon) was $673/pp.]
As for us, we know more adventures will happen soon (we’re next off to Thailand!)… however for now, this has again been too long of a Chapter for those of you trying to read this in one setting -- so I will end for now.