Saturday, January 21, 2012
I must be fickle, but 45 years ago I turned down the opportunity to have an all-expense paid trip to Vietnam. Now, I'm visiting the country entirely on my own dime. While I imagine there would have been some excitement upon my arrival back then, I found thousands of people out on the street in front of my hotel in Saigon yesterday. Vietnam is in the midst of the Tet (New Year) holiday. While Monday is New Year's Day, celebrations began before we even landed. It turns out that Hue Nguyen Road, running directly in front of our hotel, is the functional equivalent of Times Square and is devoted entirely to floral displays and pedestrian traffic. Crowds, hordes, armies, legions of people are moving back forth taking photos every few steps for the half-mile closed to motor vehicles. Our room directly overlooks this scene, but fortunately the amplified music ends hours before the people go away.
Our tour group was slightly reconstituted: our single Bulgarian woman and three Australians left, replaced by another English couple, one Australian woman and a mixed marriage – he Welsh, she Scottish. Except for Jill and Steve, we have not been accompanied by any other Americans so far. We all went off to dinner at the Lemongrass Restaurant, 4 Nguyen Thiep Street. The restaurant is on the eighth floor of a hotel and has an open air terrace one floor above that afforded a fabulous view of the thousands on the street below. While every one else had one main course and maybe shared another, I went for one of the set dinners, in my case consisting of: Lotus stems salad with shrimp and pork; deep fried (crab) claw wrapped in minced pork and crab; roasted chicken with garlic; fried seabass with oyster sauce; sweet and sour shrimp soup with morning glory; shrimp fried rice; and banana fritter (which I donated to America's Favorite Epidemiologist who was eating more modestly). With tax, service charge and a small bottle of Perrier, Franck our guide paid for my beer, this very good meal cost $24.93.
Sunday, January 22, 2012
We drove about 70 km to the Cu Chi tunnels, a Viet Cong stronghold between Saigon and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is now a popular tourist site attracting all sides. There are B-52 bomb craters, exploded US tanks, smokeless Viet Cong kitchens to avoid detection, bomb casings, and an array of simple, but deadly, infernal devices used against hostile (that is, American and South Vietnamese) troops. The high or low spot is the tunnel network itself, with entrances far too small for me, thank goodness. Some were booby-trapped so that a false step would impale the intruder or blow him up. The most perverse element to me was the recent placement of a shooting range on one edge of the complex, so that you heard gunshots, loud or soft, singly or in bursts, as you walked through the grounds. Even at this late date, it was all very scary.
The war theme continued in the afternoon when we visited the War Remnants Museum in the center of Saigon. I found it no more offensive in its propagandizing than a typical evening of Fox News. First of all, they won and they're entitled to tell their story. Second, our story, while full of heroic individual efforts, was ultimately a pointless pursuit that dishonored our past and degraded our future. Pursuing Communists in Vietnam helped their cause and harmed our own far more than benign neglect would have. I was most impressed by the exhibit of photographs by 134photo-journalists from 11 nations killed in Indochina. This was personal not political.
Monday, January 23, 2012
Today is New Year's Day, Tet. Tet combines Christmas, Rosh haShanah, Thanksgiving and New Year's with some Passover thrown in. In other words, it is a time for reunions, eating, drinking, gift-giving, honoring ancestors, and anticipating the future. While huge crowds have been gathering in Saigon since we arrived, last night, at the stroke of midnight, was the culminating event. We joined hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese on the banks of the Saigon River for an enormous fireworks display. We arrived about 90 minutes early and sat on a curb while people of all ages, but mostly young, surged back and forth trying to get into a good viewing position.
We drove about two hours south into the Mekong Delta where we boarded a boat for a ride on the river, rather reminiscent of Apocalypse Now especially when we turned into narrow channels. Fortunately, we were unable to land at the brick factory, so I am not returning home with any building materials. However, the visit to Mr. Tran Van Ha's coconut processing operation was fascinating for several reasons. Coconuts are the source of fiber, liquid, food, and utensils. Mr. Ha and his staff were very generous in handing out samples of several varieties of coconut candy and other treats. The peak moment, which I hope will appear in Steve's portfolio of photographs, was our mirthful handshake when I learned that Mr. Ha was former Viet Cong. Would such tranquility have surrounded an earlier meeting with him, say 45 years ago?
Our dinner was a near disaster after we boated and bussed back to Saigon. The group went to Quan An Ngon, 160 Pasteur Street, for our Tet dinner along with half of Saigon, it seems. This is a very large restaurant with the feel of a colonial mansion. After a long wait, we were taken to a completely empty second floor that was a bit cooler than the crowded downstairs. Then the fun began. Whatever we seemed to order was all gone because of the large numbers of diners preceding us. Eventually, with alternate choices settled on, we drank (an entire journal can be devoted to the drinking habits of our Anglo-Australian companions) and ate as food arrived at random intervals, often not for the person who asked for it in the third place. To the credit of all of us, we enjoyed ourselves and were the last persons to leave the restaurant. On the way back to the hotel, I found an ice cream parlor to help bring the evening to a proper close.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
We flew to Hue, once the Imperial capital of Vietnam. The major site in Hue is the Citadel, the Imperial Palace, where some buildings remain in spite of the efforts of our Air Force.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
We drove down Highway 1 yesterday from Hue to Hoi An, through Danang, a picturesque ride somewhat comparable to US 1 on the Pacific Coast. The United States has been out of Vietnam since 1975 and very little attention has been paid to it by us, or at least me, since then. Yet, as we ramble around on this tour, the past quickly returns. The Rex is an elegant hotel in Saigon which used to be the site of daily American press briefings. We flew into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, a place we saw in countless newsreels as American generals, politicians, celebrities and poor schnooks arrived. We spent overnight in Hue, on the edge of the DMZ. We saw abandoned bunkers and airplane hangars, and other American military installations now used by the Vietnamese for their own not always pacific purposes.
There were few ruins in place; I saw nothing as evocative as the remains of Coventry Cathedral in England, for instance. Our bombing was usually thorough enough to destroy structures and infrastructure, if not ideology. Cynically, I must note that American "aggression" has proven a very effective nation-building tool here. Vietnam without US intervention would have probably remained near the bottom of nations in providing for the needs of its people. Of course, population control by B-52 reduced the number of mouths to feed and bodies to shelter as Vietnam sought to rebuild.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
We are in Hoi An for two days, the only unsripted period during the tour. There's a good reason to spend free time here, because spending is the municipal sport of Hoi An, which must mean Tourist Bargain with Wily Merchant in the native tongue. We managed to convince several vendors to part with T-shirts, scarves, jewelry, and other momentos in exchange for engraved portraits of famous Communists sometimes mixed in with American Presidents.