The first time I landed in Saigon it was 1969. I was a 20-year-old soldier assigned to the 265th Radio Research Company which was attached to the 101st Airborne Division at Camp Eagle outside Phu Bai. I spent much of my 18 months in-country on fire support bases in the A Shau Valley and at Khe Sanh intercepting encoded North Vietnamese radio traffic that our three-man teams relayed back to headquarters.
Several decades older and wiser, I returned to modern-day Vietnam with my wife Dahlynn. We started in the south in Ho Chi Minh City, although its citizens still call the city Saigon, its original name. I was surprised by the pulsating energy of this communist country’s “capitalism-gone-crazy” businesses within the city, while nearby miles upon miles of rice paddies were being worked by hand laborers and water buffalo-pulled-plows. I quickly realized that after my nearly forty year absence, Vietnam remained a land of stark contrasts.
Our trip was not to be about the war, but instead about capturing the Vietnamese culture and everyday life. We enlisted the help of professional tour guide Hung Pham Tien. Hung, who calls Hanoi home, spoke excellent English, had a wonderful sense of humor and his knowledge of the country, its people and history were invaluable.
A must-do first stop was at Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market. Located beneath a city-block-sized shed, hundreds of vendors crowded in their stalls selling everything from clothes to fish and televisions to jewelry; it was a jamboree of colors, sounds and smells. Few vendors spoke English, but negotiating prices proved easy; even though Vietnamese dong is their official currency, nearly everyone eagerly accepted U.S. dollars.
Dahlynn and I were amazed with the country’s youthful population. We constantly searched for those stereotypical old men and women to photograph, the ones with their lives etched deeply into their creased faces. We seldom encountered them and understood why after Hung explained that half of Vietnam’s 77 million people were under age 30, born years after the Vietnam War ended. As to the older folks, he said many disdain the city’s modern hectic life and remained indoors throughout much of the day, only venturing out in the early morning.
As we wandered Saigon’s streets, one obvious change since I was last there was in the number of motorbikes. Because car purchases are heavily taxed, upwards of 7 million motorbikes crowd the city’s streets, horns bleating their nonstop warnings as they zip in and out and around one another, barely dodging disaster, some ignoring red lights and driving down sidewalks. Traffic laws were merely suggestions and seldom enforced, and entire families often shared just one motorbike—at the same time.
Hung shared the secret for safely crossing a street through these hordes of buzzing bikes. Garnering courage, we waited for the slightest traffic lull then quickly stepped off the sidewalk. Once committed, we dared not hesitate, change speed or even direction. Like a swarm of bees splitting and flying around an obstacle, the motorbikes anticipated where we were going and magically missed us! It took getting used to, but it worked.
Today there are few remaining signs of the Vietnam War, although we did tour the tunnels at Cu Chi where thousands of North Vietnam soldiers and the Viet Cong lived mostly underground to escape detection. The Vietnamese government “requests” that all tour groups be taken to the War Remnants Museum and to Reunification Palace, originally built as South Vietnam’s Independence Palace. Having won their war against America, the communist government has written its own version of history. We spent an hour touring the War Museum’s grounds with its captured American helicopters, tanks and artillery pieces. Inside the museum are scores of photos, many depicting Americans as aggressors and war criminals and the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong as liberators and heroes.
There’s less propaganda at the Reunification Palace, which is today a museum. A Russian-made tank greets you as you enter the grounds. It’s similar to the one that made world news photo headlines as it crashed the gates and proclaimed the North’s victory on April 30, 1975. The grand palace’s main and upper floors house elegant conference rooms, the president’s office and a prominently displayed bust of Ho Chi Minh, the North’s most revered leader. The tour included a descent to the cold, concrete basement, originally an underground bunker and command center.
After several days we flew to Phu Bai, a few miles outside the city of Hue with its famous Citadel, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From our hotel room overlooking the Perfume River, we watched the movements of dozens of small shanty boats that serve as homes for entire families. Anchored in clusters, the river’s brown water serves their drinking, bathing, cooking, laundry and sewer needs—quite picturesque but bothersome to Western stomachs.
Hue—pronounced “way”—is less hectic than Saigon. Crossing the city’s streets wasn’t suicidal and the restaurants, the Perfume River walkway, the shops and the food market are fun to explore. We had lunch one sunny afternoon at the Mandarin Café where we enjoyed a delicious meal for just a few dollars. The owner, also a photographer with his work displayed throughout the restaurant, served in the South Vietnamese Army; his affection and gratitude for American Vietnam veterans is obvious as he visited with us and shared his photographs.
Hue’s biggest attraction is the Imperial Citadel, which is modeled after China’s Forbidden City. It’s easy to spend several hours inside the massive stone walls with their water-filled moats, wondering through the colorful pagodas and expansive gardens. Much of the Citadel was destroyed during the infamous 1968 Tet Offensive. Most has been restored since, and it all looks very ancient, as monks old and young alike attend to their duties.
Before we left, we took a “dragon boat” several miles along the Perfume River. We learned from the operator that the boat’s carved and painted dragon heads warded-off evil spirits as we plied the river’s brown waters. Besides fending off evil spells, dragon boats are the perfect platform for seeing life outside the city and the peoples’ close connection with their land. Vegetable gardens and shanty-like houses dotted the shoreline as out on the water, families in their large sampans “mined” sand from the river’s bottom to earn the equivalent of a dollar or two a day. Added bonuses to the river cruise were stops at the magnificent tombs of Minh Mang and Tu Duc, 19th century rulers of the Nguyen dynasty. Each of the expansive burial sites is surrounded by a mile-long stone wall, built mostly by conscripted soldiers. Inside are meandering lakes, beautiful stone bridges connecting temples, pavilions and gardens.
After a few days in Hue, we jumped on a bus for a drive down the coast to Da Nang. After lunch we took a short walk in the warm sunshine along the white sands of China Beach, which we shared with fewer than a dozen other people. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is finally discovering that China Beach is more than a years-ago canceled weekly television program as new “Americanized” hotels are being built just across the street from the beach.
We continued on to the small town of Hoi An, looking forward to finding great deals on silk and shopping at one of the famous “over-night” custom tailor shops. And we were not disappointed. Choose any of the many silk shops that line the town’s narrow streets, flip through the dozens of clothing catalogs as we did, make a selection, and the following day you can return for a final fitting. Or you can simply purchase yards of cloth from any of the hundreds of colored bolts for your own use. And the prices are phenomenally inexpensive.
With our purchases packed, we flew north to Hanoi. Since the North was enemy territory during the war, this was my first time above the 45th parallel. This was also the only place we saw armed Communist soldiers. There is a tacit warning not to photograph soldiers or military facilities, but when we visited Ho Chi Minh’s massive marble mausoleum, the honor guards didn’t mind the clicking cameras. Ho Chi Minh had wanted to be cremated with his ashes scattered throughout all of Vietnam. The country’s leaders had other ideas and after he died, they preserved his body for viewing instead. You can follow the line of visitors for a quick glimpse, but taking photos inside the mausoleum is strictly prohibited.
Taking photographs, however, at nearby Hoa Lo Prison, originally a French-built jail, was not a problem. Already infamous for its decades of cruel treatment of “revolutionaries” and misfits, the concrete walls gained an even more onerous reputation as the Hanoi Hilton for downed U.S. pilots from 1964 to 1973, including presidential candidate John McCain. Much of the prison has been razed, but a one-block area has been retained as a museum. But it’s obvious that it wasn’t a place you wanted to be, as the original French guillotine, dank cells and leg irons attest.
Our last stop followed a three hour bus ride from Hanoi north to Ha Long Bay, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along the way, we saw countless rice paddies and workers, and coal dust from Hon Gai—a major regional coal producer—covered much of the road. By the time we crossed over to Bai Chay, the coal dust disappeared as we approached this incredible meeting of land and sea that became Vietnam’s first international trading port in the 12th century. Boarding one of the hundreds of tour boats, the gray overcast added a level of mystery as we sailed through misty passageways. Modern traders in their sampans, filled with everything from clothes to food, frequently pulled alongside our vessel to offer their wares.
Vietnam is considered by many in the tourism industry to be one of the safest tourism destinations in the world. But this gem of Southeast Asia is evolving quickly with the influx of American and Chinese “big business” investments, obvious by the many new luxury hotels designed to attract more visitors. My hope is that Vietnam and its people remain a land of contrasts despite outside influences—a land of hope, peace and many more dragon boat trips to come.
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