Story and photos by ELLEN CREAGER • FREE PRESS TRAVEL WRITER
October 26, 2008
HOI AN, Vietnam -- Temples and monuments are interesting. But they
don't hold a candle to Vietnam's people.
Why? The duality of this nation, with one foot in slow, ancient ways
and the other in a hectic future, begs to be noticed. The only way to
do that is to get out of the tourist bus. Step out of the bubble and
meet people. Walk around. Ask questions. Pay attention.
Since Vietnam normalized relations with the United States in 1995,
the nation of 85 million has soared economically. Skyscrapers rise.
Cell phones spread.
But work here is labor intensive. People still pick rice by hand. If
a tablecloth takes 10 weeks to embroider, so be it. If silk requires
the cultivation of silkworms, consider it done. If a hole needs
digging, bring on 10 men with shovels.
Although Vietnam likely won't meet its goal of 5 million tourists
this year because of the slowing world economy, more than 330,000
Americans have already visited this year, up 6% from a year ago.
Vietnam is not only historically meaningful to Americans, it is
With $3 dinners and $60 hotel rooms, you can spend nearly three weeks
in Vietnam for the same price as a week in Europe. It's also possible
to plan a custom trip at a reasonable price. Best of all, you can
request cultural tourism opportunities that will expand your experience.
The wider you roam, the better you will understand this country.
Here are six indelible images of Vietnam:
Hoi An (central Vietnam)
Mr. Sanh, Mrs. Bay and I sit in a shallow wooden boat on the Thu Bon River.
They drop a trailing net and lift their paddles.
Bam! Bam! Bam! They hit the sides of the boat. They give me a paddle.
Bam! I hit the boat. The noise, they say, attracts fish. We paddle
back and pull up the silvery net, revealing four wriggling fish no
bigger than my hand from the brackish river.
We throw the line out again. And again. And again. Along the
riverbanks grow thick water coconut palms. During the Vietnam War,
the Viet Cong hid in those palms, unseen by their enemies.
Mr. Sanh and Mrs. Bay -- I never do find out their first names --
fish to make a living. They fish to eat. They live on the riverbank
in a small concrete house, which has electricity and a TV. So their
whole world is not fishing. Just most of it.
This town, Hoi An, is also an arts mecca, a haven for painters,
lantern makers and silk makers. You can have a custom suit made
overnight. You can buy original art. You can visit a Chinese temple
or Japanese bridge. You can go to the beach on the South China Sea.
Or, you can just go fishing.
Duong Lam (2 hours northwest of Hanoi)
Mr. The Ha Huu brews his own soy sauce and sells it. He knows how to
raise honeybees and grow rice. He lives in a 375-year-old home of red
brick, owned by his family since it was built.
Mr. The's wife serves visitors a complex meal she whips up on two
tiny kitchen burners -- seaweed-wrapped pork, delicate fried tofu,
spring rolls -- while Mr. The regales tourists with the history of his house.
Eleven framed pictures of Catholic saints hang on the walls. They
were given to Mr. The's relatives by missionaries decades ago. He
says he is Catholic. Also Buddhist. Also, like most Vietnamese, he
worships his ancestors.
Mr. The has opened his house to tourists, offering lunch. Afterward,
he takes them on a driving tour of his village, including the pagoda
where he worships and an old Buddhist temple.
Duong Lam evokes an old Vietnam -- no billboards, little traffic and
quiet vistas of farmers in conical hats harvesting rice growing heavy
in the fields.
Mr. The has relatives in America. They lived in Saigon and fled after
the Vietnam War.
They came back to visit him once, but he's never been to visit them.
What do they do in America? I ask.
He shrugs. "Something with fish."
Hanoi (northern Vietnam)
It is pouring rain. I step out from my hotel onto the crazy street,
cars and motorbikes going every which way, heedless of traffic signs,
honking, honking. My umbrella keeps inverting in the post-typhoon
wind. I need another. I walk past many small shops, but I can't see
inside their dark interiors. Then I see a little girl minding a shop.
Behind her is a shelf with one red plaid umbrella.
How much is the umbrella? I ask. She runs to get her father, or maybe
it's her uncle or brother. He says $3. I nod. I give the girl $3. I
pop open the new umbrella and walk down the street, just like a Hanoi
woman, deliberately and with dignity.
I try not to cross the street for fear of being killed by a
motorbike. I look up at wrought iron balconies and slanted red roofs,
at thick electrical lines crisscrossing like spider webs. The city of
6 million is full of funky and colorful French-inspired four-story
houses only about 12 feet wide and very deep, so multiple generations
can live together. On the ground floor is usually a shop. On the
upper floors, the families.
The streets are a maze of all these shops. Different streets have
shops that sell the same thing. So there's the paint street, the
appliance street, the shoe street, the box-and-paper street, like a
mall without a map.
Before I get completely lost, I navigate back to the hotel in the rain.
Cu Da (10 miles west of Hanoi)
A one-legged man in his tiny shop beckons me inside. His shop is part
of a crumbling villa at least 150 years old. His town is billed as
another "ancient village" like Duong Lam, another stop on the
cultural tour I requested. But Cu Da is not ready for tourists.
Inside his courtyard, five dogs whimper and bark. He shouts at them
and they cower away. He just recently moved to this old home, which
looks out on a dirt street. Rain falls steadily. A motorbike roars
past. Across the street is the Nhue River, which smells ripe and
heavy with sewage. Trash litters the bank and boxes float down the
shiny dark surface. The smell is overpowering. Like some other
"former" rivers in metropolitan Hanoi, Nhue has become a sewer.
The village is in an otherwise pretty spot, surrounded by rice
paddies and fields of arrowroot, which the residents make into flour
for vermicelli noodles. Canals contain plenty of fish, caught with
picturesque bamboo fishing traps. Morning glories grow in the canals.
Rice paddies line the road.
Many dogs -- small, short-legged and brown -- roam the streets.
Chickens cackle. Ducks skitter.
Like the chickens and ducks, the dogs will be killed and eaten.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, southern Vietnam)
Saigon living, admits my guide Bui Do Cong Thanh, is more relaxed
than in the uptight north.
"We are in a hurry here to do business, but there will suddenly be a
moment in the day that we notice we have forgotten to see the bird
singing in the tree," he says. "We love life."
They also love danger. On the roads, everyone goes. Nobody stops, not
even for traffic lights. Wild drivers on motorbikes carry everything
from ladders to stacks of caged birds to babies on their laps.
This has been a sophisticated -- and even decadent -- tourist and
ex-pat destination since the French ruled Indochina in the first half
of the 20th Century. Novelist Graham Greene wrote "The Quiet
American" here. War correspondents hung out at the Rex Hotel, which
today is finely restored and accepting guests.
And tell this to your mail carrier next time you see him. The most
interesting building in Vietnam's largest city (7 million people) is
the Saigon Central Post Office. Built by the French, it has glorious
arching ceilings and a cathedral-like air. A giant portrait of a
smiling Ho Chi Minh hangs high on the wall.
The post office is the second busiest tourist attraction in Saigon,
after the Cu Chi tunnels.
Cu Chi (45 miles north of Saigon)
Squeeze down the stairs and through a low, tiny tunnel. Hunch over
and follow the man with the flashlight.
It is claustrophobic and panic-inducing. Also riveting.
The Cu Chi tunnels are the most famous site from the Vietnam War.
From about 1965 to 1975, 16,000 Viet Cong and their families lived
underground here. Their mission? Hold territory in South Vietnam and
fight off the American attack.
Visitors can see how the Viet Cong expanded into about 125 miles of
tunnels. They dug by hand, using only tiny shovels and small bamboo
baskets. The incredibly complex web was complete with booby traps,
secret smoke-releasing structures, air vents disguised as termite
mounds, and weapons created out of leftover metal bomb parts.
Cu Chi was the terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, connected to North
Vietnam during the war.
Above ground, American forces dropped bombs and chemicals to strip
the land and force the Viet Cong from their underground lair. It did not work.
Now, Cu Chi has a souvenir shop. Its grounds include parts of the
original tunnels visitors can walk through (widened for larger
Westerners), some original bunkers and some B-52 bomb craters. It
also has a visitors center with a cutaway scale model of the
three-level tunnel complex, which looks an awfully lot like an ant
farm. Visitors also see a 10-minute scratchy black-and-white film
about Cu Chi, produced by the Vietnamese in 1967 during what they
call the American War.
"Like a crazy bunch of devils, the Americans fired on women and
children and chickens ... who were destroyed by the bombs and bullets
of Washington, D.C." the movie's narrator says.
My guide says some American visitors are upset by that film. I found
it interesting as an historic artifact.
And a testament that former enemies can turn into friends.
Contact ELLEN CREAGER at 313-222-6498 or firstname.lastname@example.org.