Vietnam, a Fascinating First Visit

A young country: bride and groom posing for photos, Hanoi Opera House

It was a long ride from Tokyo to Hanoi, longer than expected. We landed just after ten, and it took awhile to get through the airport. The cab driver was really pokey, but $14 on the meter was way cheaper than the proposed $30 from a travel agency in airport arrival hall. On the way into town, in the dark, I thought back to the 1960s and 1970s, a time very different for Vietnam and for my country. I was really looking forward to seeing the place.

The Quoc Hoa, a small hotel I found after a lot of research, was pleasant and welcoming, and my room, $60, had everything I needed. Called home, ate three bananas, and clocked out. I was dead tired.

Was up at first light Saturday morning, ready to explore. Stop one was a HSBC ATM, then, map in hand, ambled toward Hoan Kiem, a pleasant small lake nearby. The place was bustling and really interesting. Traffic was crazy, mainly motorbikes zooming in all directions. At the first busy intersection, I advised two American tourists (from Tampa as it turned out) not to look, but simply to walk slowly but decisively across. Once we got to the lake, I volunteered to snap their picture. There were more Western tourists than I expected; lots of French at my hotel, tons of Aussies, plenty of Yanks. The street sellers, offering bananas, postcards, guidebooks, motorbike rides, were hustling, but were not aggressive, and a friendly wave-off worked well.

Crumbling colonial home, Bat Dan Street

Motorbikes are the de facto mass transit; city officials know that public transport will soon be an essential

Long Live the Heroic Workers; vanished nearly everywhere in the world, posters like these are still common in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, often in splendid contrast to, say, a new KFC fast-food joint or a glitzy high-rise

First stop was Ngoc Soan Temple, for the Buddhist and Taoist faithful, in the lake (across a short red bridge). Along the shore were lots of trees and lots of park benches, making for a pleasant place. I spotted lots of hammer-and-sickle symbols, and propaganda posters – a throwback (you never see that stuff in China). I walked to the south end of the lake, then east toward the wonderful French-built opera house. It was a popular place for wedding photos, and I congratulated a young (and nervous-looking) couple; at a moment like that, I wished I could have spoken reassuringly in their language.

The faithful, Ngoc Soan Temple

Dragon and offerings, Ngoc Soan Temple

Hanoi Opera House

It was time for a coffee, and I stopped into the splendid Sofitel Metropole Hotel, which opened in 1901. I enjoyed a couple of cups of French-pres coffee by the pool. I did not enjoy the affluent Europeans and Americans wearing torn T-shirts and other inappropriate clothing. Stop them! Take their passports!

Splendid contrast, Hai Ba Trung Street

Former French school or hospital

From the Metropole, I walked west on a busy retail street (mostly devoted to electronics and appliances) to the Hoa Lo, the French-built prison that American POWs dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.” From August 1964 until the end of March in 1973, Hoa Lo housed people like John McCain. Before that, the French used it to incarcerate revolutionaries and others they deemed troublemakers. It was a grim reminder of past mistakes; I kept repeating the latter word. One room focused on what the U.S. officially called Operation Linebacker, December 11-29, 1972, which many of us remember as the Christmas bombings; there were some very graphic photos of death and destruction. In that room was also the sense of defiance and determination that ultimately led to U.S. withdrawal and national unification – one interpretive panel noted that heroic forces shot down 23 B-52s, 5 F-4s, and 2 F-111s.

Entrance to Hoa Lo

Depiction of manacled Vietnamese political prisoners

Christmas art done by a U.S. POW, 1972, during the Christmas bombing

I took my first motorbike ride from the railway station to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which was closed; walking north, I snapped a pic of the presidential palace before I saw the sign with the no photos symbol. Oops. In the old days, I probably would have been jailed, but the guard just wagged a finger and I walked on, toward the Quan Thanh Temple, then to lunch at Malaideli, a jazz cafe-bar on West Lake. Mr. Luc, owner of cafe asked where I was from, and I introduced myself. A very friendly city. On the walls were framed, autographed pictures of musicians, like Herbie Hancock.

Facade, Quan Thanh Temple

Glitzy high-rise apartments under construction near West Lake

A good lunch restored my energy. Hopped a taxi to the Temple of Literature, actually a sort of ancient university, established 1076, interesting. Ambled back toward a statue of Lenin (flowers at the base – there are still True Believers), then zigzagged through a pleasant and leafy neighborhood of old French mansions, many now embassies. A friendly motorbike guy, Doan, asked about providing a ride; he was very engaging, and before hopping on we had a friendly but quite serious dialogue about the Vietnam War. I apologized to Doan for what our government did to his people – that was the only time on my short visit when I expressed something that I have long felt. He zipped me back to the hotel. It was a long but efficient day of touring, covering stuff I wanted to see.

Statue of Vladimir Ilich Lenin

Young artists, Temple of Literature

After a tonic nap, I headed back out. Stopped for a beer by the lake, then hopped in a human-powered pedicab to my dinner venue, Hoa Sua. It was my first ride in such a vehicle, and it was interesting, and by definition green! I found Hoa Sua on the web version of Frommer’s Vietnam guide; it was actually a hotel-restaurant-tourism training school for disadvantaged youth, which delighted me: I could eat well and do well at the same time. The staff was friendly and eager to please, and the place was filled with fellow do-gooders, including a table of 25 Norwegians next to me. I had spring rolls, and a yummy plate of Hanoi-style grilled fish. Fortified, I opted to walk back to the hotel.

I awoke at first light again Sunday morning, quick breakfast and out the door, ambling around the fascinating Old Quarter. It was a place of hundreds of small specialty shops: in the first five minutes I spotted the door-hinge guys, the plastic-bucket ladies, the locksmiths and keymakers, and the canary sellers. Similar purveyors were often clustered, as along Hang Vai Street, where the bamboo masters offered all gauges of pole, simple ladders, and even decorative pieces with green plastic leaves. The Old Quarter had lots of small tourist hotels like the Quoc Hoa, and minibuses plied the streets, collected visitors bound for cruises on Halong Bay, a hugely scenic area about 60 miles east (next trip, for sure). It was fun just to hang at a busy intersection and watch the Sunday morning scene, especially the movement of scooters, cargo bicycles laden with bales of clothing, building materials, cabbages, and more.

Fruit seller, beneath a Budweiser awning

I hopped in a cab and headed south to Bach Mai, a large hospital that U.S. bombers destroyed during the 1972 Christmas bombing. I ambled freely around the outside corridors, and toward the end came upon a moving bas-relief sculpture commemorating the attack. Powerful and grim.

Bach Mai Hospital

Memorial to the hospital bombing, December 1972

Took a cab back to the Old Quarter and found a very agreeable perch at the Highlands Coffee outlet at the top end of Hoan Kiem lake. This store was on the third floor, and the balcony was the perfect place to watch the bustle below. I connected via Wi-Fi and sent family and friends a video of traffic, which looked less chaotic from above. I had my first ca phe sua da (literally coffee, milk, ice, the wonderful Vietnamese iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk). Yum!

I also used the internet connection to learn a bit more about the Vietnamese language. The Romanized alphabet, rare in this part of the world, began about a century ago when education became more widespread, and a simpler writing system was sensibly viewed to be more expedient and accessible. The language is tonal; for example, the simple “ma” is pronounced with six different tones, and can mean ghost, but, cheek, tomb, horse, and rice seedling! Whoa!

Leaving the café, I learned something: because tipping is not expected, it’s best not to hand one directly to the person. The sweet young woman seemed embarrassed; subsequently, I left them on the table, tucked inside the table wallet.

Stimulated, I hopped in a cab and headed to the last site from the U.S. war. We headed west, past Ho’s mausoleum, which was clearly open on Sundays – a long line snaked a block south. The taxi driver did not seem to know where to go. I was sure we were too far west, and sure enough we turned around, driving for ten more minutes until he asked directions. I don’t think it was a scam, I think he was truly lost – my direction read “Hun Tiep,” but the signage was for “Huu Tiep.” I walked a few hundred feet down a narrow lane, and came to a pond, Huu Tiep. In the middle was wreckage from a B-52 downed in December 1972. There was a memorial, and, further on, a strongly-worded plaque. It was a remarkable sight.

B-52 wreckage, Huu Tiep

Took a very short siesta at noon, then walked a half-mile across the Old Quarter to another Frommer recommendation, Restaurant 69, a simple place on Ma May Street. My table on the second-floor verandah offered a swell view of the street scene below. Way fun to watch the comings and goings – people having lunch at across the road, an old lady carrying brassieres and undies on a shoulder pole (common in East Asia, you suspend both loads at both ends of the pole), an older white guy fumbling with his scooters controls (the idea of a tourist renting a motorbike just seemed like a bad one). Lunch was ground pork, noodles, grilled vegetables, yum. I was certainly eating well.

Enough leisure. Time to work, even on Sunday! I suited up and at 2:30, a young faculty member from the Hanoi Foreign Trade University, Nguyen Thi Huyen (Vietnamese name order is the reverse of ours: last name, middle name, given name), picked me up on her motorbike and we drove across town, getting to know each other a bit. She was not shy about asking what some would consider personal questions, and I found her directness endearing. The school is 50 years old, established in a very different time to build relations with the rest of the world. The campus was pleasant and green, and surprisingly busy for a Sunday. I met the Dean of the Faculty of Business English, Bui Nguyet Anh, as well as Phong Phuong, who was my original contact person (met via my USC host, Joe Nunes; Phuong got her MBA there). At 3:30 I was introduced and gave my career-advice talk, well received, and with good questions. Loud applause at the end, and one of the students presented me with an enormous and fragrant bouquet. How sweet was that?

After the lecture, we drove to a great restaurant nearby, Highway 4, for a colossal Vietnamese dinner. When you travel alone, you can only order a dish or two, but when there is a table of four, you get lots of variety. The first two dishes were barbecued smoked pork (like ham, but with more character), and fried tofu. The next dishes were outrageously good catfish spring rolls with a remarkable dipping sauce, not piquant but very flavorful, and a mixed wok dish. Then we had a dish made from freshwater clams and chopped vegetables, scooped onto rice crackers. To finish, soup and rice. It was a really lovely meal. Anh drove me back to the hotel, where I read for awhile, but was asleep just after nine, for the deepest slumber since leaving home.

Was up at dawn and out the door for a brisk walk to a public market. I was expecting food, but it seemed mostly to be clothing and housewares. Ambled back to the hotel, suited up, and headed to the second school, RMIT University Vietnam, a branch of the Australian institution formerly known as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. The school was in a high-rise office building, not a campus. I lectured on alternative energy sources (at my host’s request; I told her I was no expert, but I did manage to cobble together a coherent presentation), repeated it, and spoke in the afternoon about leadership and charisma. New topics! Lots of fun, good questions.

At six, Phuong took me back to the Hanoi Foreign Trade University, by motorbike. It was nearly dark and rush hour, and even though I had not yet (in three days) seen a single accident, it still seemed like risky business! But we got back to the other campus with nary a scratch. I gave the leadership talk again, fourth presentation of the day, and by the end I was beat. But I was also hungry, and Phuong and a student took me to dinner (again by motorbike, whoa) at a fish restaurant, for grilled fish, a Hanoi specialty. It was good, but better was the seafood congee that was served last (in Vietnam soup comes at the end). I was happy to climb in a taxi for the ride to the hotel.

The next day was pretty much a repeat, with three lectures instead of four. At noon, Gareth O’Hara, the school’s external-relations manager, took me to lunch, back to Highway 4, where we ate dinner two nights earlier. We sat on the second-floor balcony and had a great chat. Gareth had been in Vietnam eight years, had worked for several NGOs, and had just the week before married a local woman (his parents came out from Ireland for the happy moments). Early in the conversation I mentioned that I had visited some reminders of the war, and he offered an interesting insight, one that locals would never tell me: the absence of animosity – despite the devastation and the loss of family – stemmed in large measure from the fact that they won. They won, against all odds. Interesting.

Gareth also offered a funny story walking back from lunch about his learning the tonal Vietnamese language; not long after arriving, as he worked to get some basic words and sounds right, speaking to an old one-eyed lady, did not quite intone the word for pig (lợn) correctly, and it came out as the word for, well, a sensitive part of the female anatomy. Oh dear. I would have been glad to spend days with that fellow.

After two afternoon talks I said goodbye to some new friends and rode a cab back to the hotel.
Changed clothes and zipped out the door, bound for a little shopping. The Old Quarter was hopping, and the near-dusk made walking a challenge (at one point motorbikes were rolling on the sidewalk. I bought a stuffed animal, a dragon, sewn from different fabrics by tribal folk in the mountains. It was a wonderful cross between folk art and toy (I had spotted the style at the Highway 4 restaurant two nights earlier). It was time for a beer, and I headed back to the building where I could sit above a busy intersection and watch the traffic ballet. Instead of the coffee shop I went two floors higher to a café-bar and enjoyed a beer. Dinner that night was at Koto (Know one, teach one), a charity similar to where I ate earlier, a place that trains and helps street kids. The place was full of earnest-looking people from all over; above my head a plaque noting the visit of the Queen of Denmark in November 2009. Food was superb – I had green-banana stew, a vegetarian dish that included the peels!

Was up early on Wednesday the 10th. As I did on the previous two mornings, I had a nice chat with the bellman, who spoke pretty good English (“I listen to the BBC”) and who each day said he wanted human rights and freedom. That morning, when I said goodbye and headed to the airport, he told me he wanted our countries to live in peace. Nice.

I flew to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) on Jetstar, a new low-cost airline that Qantas owns. The brand-new Airbus A320 was packed. Vietnam opened its market to competition, and Jetstar is giving the state-owned Vietnam Airlines a run. As happens everywhere, open markets mean lower prices, making it possible for a peasant in a coolie hat to fly. That’s progress! Onboard, the cabin crew hawked food, drink, and an array of Jetstar merchandise: T-shirts ($4), ball caps ($2), tote bags.

The democratization of air travel

North of Ho Chi Minh City

As we approached Saigon, I could quickly see it was as people in the north described it: bigger, richer, flashier. I spotted two golf courses, one with a Florida-like villa development adjacent. It was also much bigger than Hanoi. I dropped my suitcase and hopped in a taxi. The propaganda posters on the wide street leading from the airport (close in, only five miles) seemed even more incongruous. I think Uncle Ho might be disappointed with his namesake city, though perhaps not – he was a practical fellow.

That this place was way more market-driven was made plain in two of my first three transactions. The luggage-storage guy was honest, but the taxi driver had installed a cheater-meter. The fare should have been $10, and was $35. I was in town just for the day, so I got out not at a hotel, but at the Reunification Palace, a sort-of museum where no one spoke English. Not worth the protest, I entered it in my ledger as U.S. restitution. The palace was closed for the lunch hour, and a seemingly friendly pedicab driver told me that the nearby War Remnants Museum was open and he’d take me there for one dollar. Done. But when we got there, it was also closed for lunch and he claimed I misunderstood the fare. Nope. Handed him the local equivalent of a buck. I needed some lunch, and a decent-looking place popped into view. I bulked up with fried rice and a beer.

Money and flash, exemplified in this new mansion, are much more common in the former Saigon

Then something fun happened. A Vietnamese toddler approached my table. I smiled at him. He smiled back. In a blink I zipped out my iPhone and scrolled through recent pictures of Dylan and Carson (and one or two of Miss MacKenzie). I’m pretty sure that the tot’s mother and aunts were squealing “so cuuuute” in Vietnamese. It was sort of T-t-S, and a sweet reminder of our common humanity

My new friend, curious about the man who looks different

The War Remnants Museum was far grimmer than the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. The courtyard was full of restored American fighters, ‘copters, and tanks. Inside were a whole series of exhibits reminding us of the tragedy that was the Vietnam War, French and American: the notorious “tiger cages” for Viet Cong prisoners; black and white photos of destruction and civilian massacres; quotations from Abraham Lincoln and the late, great Senator Wayne Morse.

Perhaps the name of the institution, the War Remnants Museum, is not so odd; the front yard is filled with captured U.S. war materiel

Glass handicraft for sale, made in a rehabilitation hospital by an Agent Orange survivor

The notorious "tiger cages," used to hold Vietnamese POWs and political prisoners

The most hideous were words and photos accounting for the impact of Agent Orange and other toxins. Some of the facts were stunning: 2.8 times more ordnance was dropped on Vietnam than in all of the Second World War (in both theaters). On the top floor was a special exhibit entitled “Requiem,” which showcased the work of photographers of all nations and beliefs killed while covering the war. I was drawn to Ms. Dickey Chapelle of Shorewood, Wisconsin (1918-1965); born Georgette Louise Meyer, she reinvented herself and in her role as war chronicler moved to the front lines, snapping pictures at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Then there were photos from Robert Capa, for Life magazine, including the famous photo of a medic tending a gravely injured soldier. I seldom walk away from grim truth, but I could not enter the gallery with yet more photos of Agent Orange victims. I had seen enough. Tears flowed. We must never forget.

War widow, from a portion of a touching painting

It was still summer in Saigon, and I was thirtsy and in need of a jolt. Iced coffee, yes! And there was Gloria Jean’s coffee house, like Starbucks, right down to the prices, which were about 2.5 times higher than those of Hanoi. They had free Wi-Fi, and air-conditioning. Nice! Soon I was in a true T-t-S moment, with three Dutch accountants from Eindhoven, who had just opened an office in Ho Chi Minh City. We yakked across a bunch of topics, including the recent U.S. elections (they were dumbfounded); tax laws in Wyoming (go figure); the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup, and more.

Zipped and cooled, I ambled around the very leafy and agreeable old section of downtown, past a church right from France, and the truly amazing main post office (1896), where I mailed Dylan and Carson the second postcard that day. I hopped on a motorbike down to the Saigon River. I had hoped to find a short boat ride, but none of the hydrofoils headed upriver were returning that night. Second best was a four-minute ferry crossing, round-trip for five cents. Thunderclaps suggested an imminent tropical downpour. I walked briskly, pausing at a crafts store to buy another of the distinctive stuffed animals from the mountains, a water buffalo. I admired the wonderful city hall (while they were looting and oppressing, the French did build some nice buildings).

Main post office

Interior, main post office

Ferry to Thu Thiem

A commuting family of four

Saigon River

Graceful old mansion, downtown

Entered the 1930s-era Rex Hotel just as a heavy rain began, and made my way to the rooftop bar on the fifth floor for a beer and some chilling. The wet breeze felt good, but I was still really sweaty. The rain stopped, and I walked around a bit more, snapping a night-time shot of a lovely colonial opera house (in much better condition than its Hanoi sister), then on to another old hotel, the 1925 Majestic, right on the river. It also had a rooftop bar, with a great view of watery traffic: the ferry to Thu Thiem, tourist boats, barges laden with containers (which must have been transferred at a downstream port).

Main facade, Opera House

It was time to go home: loneliness was setting in. The evidence was clear in the zeal with which I engaged the Dutch accountants; and the fact that I started talking to myself on the street (Australian tourists moved to the other side of the sidewalk)! The kindly bellman at the Majestic hailed a taxi for me, and after relaying the ripoff coming into town he barked the fare to the driver. Nice! Enroute to airport, I spotted another convincing indicator of too-too: offices of Herbalife, the bogus sellers of modern-day snake oil. Ugh.

Waiting for my midnight flight to Tokyo (then home to Texas), I thought about a quotation from Ho Chi Minh that I read earlier in the trip. In September 1945, Ho declared Vietnam’s independence in a stirring speech that began with the “all men are created equal” quote from our Declaration of Indpendence and ended with this: “Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country, and in fact it is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.”

I left Vietnam with the same thinking as I had four decades earlier, when the United States was at war with that small, poor, but resolute country: all countries should be free to decide for themselves how they wish to organize their society and their economy. That Vietnam now has that basic right is a great thing.

It was a wonderful trip.

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