Good Morning Vietnam – June 2009
My regular barber recently returned from a two-week vacation to Vietnam and the animated manner in which she conveyed her adventures reminded me of our trip to Vietnam five years ago. During the winter of 2008, while my wife and I were deciding where to spend our vacation for the upcoming summer, my stepdaughter suggested Vietnam. Vietnam…really (cue an incredulous look)? Hmmm…I was skeptical at first since all I knew about Vietnam revolved around U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War back in the 1960s thru the 1970s. I recall reading about places like Hue, Da Nang, Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, Cam Ranh Bay, Tan Son Nhut, and of course, Saigon. Besides, it is a communist country! What self-respecting American would want to visit a communist country (for the benefit of deceased Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, in case his minions are still alive and monitoring amateur blogs)?
After doing some research, however, we found out that Vietnam has had an economic resurgence of sorts since the economic and political reforms enacted back in 1986. Traditionally an agrarian society, upon joining the World Trade Organization in 2007, Vietnam has seen a dramatic decrease of economic output attributed to agriculture, decreasing from 25% in 2000 to less than 20% in 2013, with the corresponding increase in export-driven industries from 36% to 42% over the same period. Vietnam has also been attracting tourists, with a healthy percentage of them being American military veterans from the Vietnam War era interested in “retracing” their steps through this country with rich history and heritage. We also spoke to another American couple who took a trip to Vietnam and just absolutely raved about their experiences.
Since we haven’t visited Vietnam previously, and cognizant of the language barrier we would be facing, we opted for a visit tailored by a travel agency with experience in arranging tours in Vietnam. We outlined our desires to visit Saigon, Hanoi, and of course, Halong Bay and the agency handled everything. The agency booked our flights into, out of, and within Vietnam, reserved hotels in Saigon (Caravelle Hotel) and Hanoi (Sheraton Hanoi), booked tourist guides with air conditioned vehicles (highly recommended during the hot and muggy summer days), arranged for entry into various museums and attractions, to include the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, as well as booked an overnight cruise on Halong Bay aboard a junk boat thru Bhaya Cruises. The agency also handled the requests for visas for our visit.
Upon arrival in Tan Son Nhut airport, one cannot escape thinking back to the Vietnam War when Tan Son Nhut was a busy airport for military personnel transiting into and out of the country. The airport wasn’t particularly notable, but I recall a crowd of people just outside the airport held back by a metal barricade. I don’t remember where or when we took out some local currency, Vietnamese Dong, but did so prior to leaving the airport…as you run the risk of being ripped off if you use dollars to pay for services or goods. I did some research prior to our flight, and recall an advice to avoid being ripped off by less than reputable taxi cabs by arranging taxi service just to the left of the terminal as you exit baggage claim. I did as advised and the taxi ride to Caravelle Hotel was uneventful…although we found out later, after receiving a call from the lobby, that we actually had a van with our guide (Ding as in “ding dong”) at the airport waiting to pick us up and take us to our hotel. Oh well, I guess it pays to read the fine print and go over in detail what the tour package entails.
We had enough time in the afternoon, prior to being picked up for a tour of the city, to have some afternoon tea at the hotel…and it was delicious. During our brief stay in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC), we were able to visit the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Basilica, and the Central Post Office (where we mailed off a postcard back to relatives back in the US) on our first day. The Reunification Palace was the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace and the site where the scene of North Vietnamese tanks crashing through its gates signified the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
The Notre Dame basilica in Saigon pales in comparison to the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris but one can see the strong French influence in the old, majestic buildings in this country that survived the Vietnam War. The Central Post Office building, across the street from Notre Dame, was designed and built in a neoclassical architectural style in the early 20th century by none other than Gustave Eiffel…yes, that same Eiffel who built his namesake tower in Paris. The ever present French influence visible and palpable in Vietnam’s architecture and cuisine (Saigon in particular), prompted our guide to remark that “the French imparted to the Vietnamese three things: French architecture, French cuisine, and poverty.” In the immortal words of rock artist Meat Loaf, “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.”
The Caravelle Hotel, located right across the Saigon Opera House, is a state-owned hotel opened in 1959. During the 1960s and certainly during the height of the Vietnam War, the Saigon bureaus of American broadcasters ABC, NBC, and CBS operated out of this hotel…and there were black and white photos depicting journalists looking out towards the former U.S. Embassy from the famous Saigon Bar in this hotel, prior to the evacuation of Americans leading up to the fall of Saigon. The hotel is centrally located and within walking distance to various tourist locations.
To cap off our day, our guide took us to a factory that produced lacquered art, lacquered eggshell art in particular. The art pieces were incredible but seemed a bit overpriced, leading me to believe that the guide and the vendor must have struck an arrangement whereby the guide gets a cut of any sale made to tourists the guide brings in. We didn’t see any other tourists there when we stopped by. My wife and daughter fell in love with a couple of modest pieces and we bought those two. For dinner, we went to Lemongrass Restaurant located close to our hotel. This place appeared to cater to tourists and the prices may have been higher than other restaurants in the immediate area serving Vietnamese cuisine…but we liked our dining experience.
On the morning of our second day we braved the chaotic traffic, with what appeared to be hundreds of scooters and motorbikes with little to no regard for traffic laws (traffic lights were few and far between), and walked along Dong Khoi Street to Saigon River, explored Ho Chi Minh Square and City Hall prior to being picked up by our guide. We then explored the War Remnants Museum, where various relics of previous wars in Vietnam are displayed. It was interesting but nothing spectacular in my opinion.
I don’t recall stopping by for lunch, but we were on our way to Cu Chi, after a brief stop at Emperor Jade Pagoda (or Tortoise Pagoda known in Vietnamese as Chua Ngoc Hoang or Phuoc Hai Tu) to see a traditional Vietnamese temple filled with figurines and carvings. Located in the Cu Chi district, northwest of HCMC, the Cu Chi tunnels are a vast network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong as a base of operations, especially during the Tet Offensive. One of the Cu Chi guides, whose name eludes me now but I will just refer to him as “Charlie”, nonchalantly demonstrated the various booby traps employed by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War as well as the rather miniscule entry into the vast tunnel system. At one point during the tour, one would be allowed to traverse a section of the tunnel system which has been enlarged to accommodate the Western audience…and it was still small. I couldn’t wait to get out of that tunnel even though the portion we went thru must have been less than 15 yards long. I can just imagine the hardships and singular dedication the Viet Cong had in waging their campaign while operating out of tunnels like these. Reminded me of a scene/dialog between Willow and Hazard from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1987 movie “Gardens of Stone”:
Willow: We’re not gonna lose to a bunch of little Asian farmers.
Hazard: Yeah? You take a look at that farmer. He can march 100 miles on no food, through a jungle…slaughter his own people, even babies. That’s a soldier.
Willow: Firepower. He can’t soak up our firepower.
Hazard: I saw a photo, one of our choppers coming back with arrows in it!
Willow: How do you beat a helicopter with bows and arrows?
Hazard: How you gonna beat an enemy that fights with arrows?
Indeed (although one could argue the U.S. Army beat the “bow and arrow toting” American Indians…but that’s another post). Therein lies the conundrum. Guess we should have heeded one of Vezzini’s (from the movie “Princess Bride”) maxims: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia!”
After Cu Chi, we were on our way back to Tan Son Nhut to catch an early evening Vietnam Airlines flight from HCMC to Hanoi.
Our evening flight from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport to Hanoi’s Noi Bai international airport was uneventful (despite my apprehensions with flying on a regional Vietnam Airlines flight) and we were met by our guide in an air-conditioned van at the airport and transported to our hotel north of the city. After a few discussions with the staff of Sheraton Hanoi Hotel regarding previously agreed upon arrangements that were unfulfilled, we settled in for the night. The following morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we headed off for the Temple of Literature and National University, the first university in Vietnam built in 1070. The tranquil grounds of the Temple of Literature, with its quiet courtyards, high brick walls, and various tributes to Confucius and Vietnamese scholars, provided a sanctuary amid a bustling Hanoi. We had lunch at the nearby KOTO on Van Mieu restaurant for some savory Vietnamese fusion cuisine for a decent price. KOTO (Know One, teach One) was founded by a Vietnamese-Australian restaurateur on the premise of “giving disadvantaged youth the possibility to learn and strive in their lives” in the hospitality business. Not only was the food delicious, but you would also be supporting a worthy cause in the process of stuffing yourself.
Following our lunch, we headed off to Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” (not to be confused with Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel which is a functioning hotel by the Hanoi Opera House) where allied forces during the Vietnam War were held captive by the Viet Cong. Built by the French colonialist in late 1880s through the early 1890, it was called Maison Centrale or Central House, and housed political prisoners. While touring “Hanoi Hilton”, we ran into an American veteran of the Vietnam War with his wife, whom we met earlier while having lunch at KOTO. I could not help but try to espy his reactions seeing the displays in Hoa Lo Prison, especially those pertaining to the Vietnam War which were mainly propaganda, at least from this American’s viewpoint. He seemed stoic and detached…like he was at peace with this part of his life. My stepdaughter, however, was simmering with anger as the rosy depiction of American Prisoners of War (POW) playing volleyball and “celebrating” Thanksgiving with a hearty meal, obfuscates this place’s reputation as a house of horrors, with numerous stories of abuse, torture, suffering, and even death of American POWs at the hands of their Viet Cong captors.
Still trying to suppress anger mixed with incredulity after leaving Hoa Lo Prison, we went to the Vietnam National Museum of History. The visit was brief, which was all well and good since nothing in there was impressive at all. We then went to St. Joseph’s Cathedral and to Hoan Kiem Lake area, while anticipating an exploration of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Built on a similar style as Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, located within the Old Quarter, is the oldest church in Hanoi, having been built by French colonialists in the late 1880s.
Prior to our trip to Vietnam, and Hanoi in particular, we saw and read about “civet coffee”. “Bizarre Foods” hosted by Andrew Zimmern, while on a trip to Vietnam, sampled and raved about the civet coffee (aka Kopi Luwak or weasel coffee). And in the movie “Bucket List”, a multimillionaire character played by Jack Nicholson obsessed about Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee. For the uninformed, civet coffee is produced when civet cats in the wild (although there are areas in the world where civet cats are cared for within a coffee plantation) eat choice coffee beans, digest the pulp and the undigested coffee beans in their droppings are collected by farmers, cleaned, and roasted. We thought, why not try it. There were quite a few vendors that sold this coffee within the Old Quarter, but we didn’t really know what it was called, with our guide saying it is called one thing but vendors didn’t know what the heck we were talking about. While walking along one of over a dozen purveyors of coffee beans, my stepdaughter saw an image of what looked like a weasel on a plexiglass container filled with whole coffee beans. That must be it. Not really knowing what it tasted like, we bought a modest bag of whole bean coffee from Vi Lan Cafe. Upon returning home, we ground up the whole bean coffee and brewed it using a French press…and whoa! That was the best coffee we have ever had…hands down! Our only regret was we didn’t buy more of the civet coffee when we were there. To this day, we still long for that smooth tasting coffee…but unwilling to shell big bucks for a bag of Kopi Luwak.
The Old Quarter can be a haven for shoppers and tourists seeking low budget lodging in the center of the city. Streets upon streets are named after the products they sell (for the most part anyway) and bargains can be had. Haggling is expected in this part of the world so it was somewhat fun haggling for certain things…although my wife always reminds me that the vendors probably need the money more than we do so I better ease up on the cut-throat haggling. While in the Old Quarter, we also bought some souvenirs as well as a traditional Vietnamese dress for my wife, an ao dai. However, we didn’t notice until we got home that the vendor pulled a bait and switch on us. While at the store, my wife tried on the ao dai and the vendor offered to place the item in a special gift box. One of the store attendants took the ao dai back behind a curtain and emerged with a box and a small gift (I believe it was a cup of some sorts) to take with us. When we opened the box upon arrival at home, we noticed that the ao dai had discoloration on the shoulder area, probably from long exposure to the sun. This was not visible when my wife tried the dress on. Word to future shoppers, make sure you see the item you bought being packed in front of your eyes, limiting the vendors’ ability to pull a “bait and switch”.
Dinner was in a vegetarian restaurant called Tamarind Cafe. My stepdaughter became “an chay” (vegetarian in Vietnamese) after leaving home for college…and to think, she used to love crispy bacon and my pasta carbonara. Go figure. I, on the other hand, am a proud carnivore, with my mantra “no meat, no eat”. I tried this place anyway and I was surprised at how good and filling their food was. Highly recommended for the “an chays” of the world.
The following day, it was time to explore Ho Chi Minh Residence and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Even though it was warm, we had to don long pants for our visit to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, lest we run the risk of not being allowed entry. The mustard yellow hued Presidential Palace was built by French colonialists back in the early 1900s to house the French Governor General of Indochina. When North Vietnam achieved independence in 1954 (with the anti-Communist South Vietnam declaring independence in 1949), shortly after the French forces’ humiliating defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu at the hands of the North Vietnamese forces, Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the ornately designed Presidential Palace and instead lived in a modest, traditional Vietnamese stilt house on palace grounds.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was this imposing, gray granite structure situated next to the Presidential Palace complex. Supposedly inspired by Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, the building appeared cold and uninviting. There is a strict dress code enforced for those visiting the mausoleum and photography is prohibited inside. Inside the building, you would find Ho Chi Minh’s creepy embalmed body. Fortunately, our visit didn’t correspond with the few times Uncle Ho’s embalmed body is scheduled for “restoration” wherein the mausoleum is closed to visitors. By the way, what is it with Communists and their penchant for displaying embalmed bodies of their former leaders? Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Beijing (does Fidel Castor have one in Havana?). Our last tour of the day was of the One Pillar Pagoda, a historic Buddhist temple built in 1049 regarded as one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples.
The following day, after a night where my wife battled some intestinal ailments (could not have been the civet coffee since we haven’t tried it yet), my stepdaughter and I set off to find a local pharmacy (with some understandable trepidation) to purchase some Imodium or Pepto Bismol (and to this day, Imodium or Pepto Bismol remains in our packing list when we travel). We were scheduled to travel from Hanoi to Halong Bay (or Ha Long Bay) that morning, travel that can take from 3 to 4 hours…and traveling on an upset stomach would be far from ideal. Fortunately, the Imodium worked like a charm and my wife was fine during the long travel. There is supposed to be a bus and tour company that caters to tourists charging $8 one way from Hanoi to Halong Bay, but since we booked through an agency, all arrangements were taken care of.
We arrived in Halong City close to lunch time. After a brief wait, we boarded the Bhaya Classic junk boat and on our way to exploring Halong Bay. We were joined on the boat by tourists from Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France, China, and Hong Kong. A scrumptious buffet lunch was served as we sailed along the quiet and serene salt waters of Halong Bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is located in the Gulf of Tonkin in the northeastern part of Vietnam and notable for the thousands of spectacular karst limestone towers and islands. Ha long, or “descending dragon”, is aptly named as the limestone islands resemble the spikes on the back of a giant dragon making its way along the glassy waters of Halong Bay. While in Halong Bay, we visited a Floating Fishing Village and the Cave of Surprises or Sung Sot Cave. While visiting one of the floating fishing villages, where up to 400 fishermen and their families live and make a living with fishing and aquaculture, I had a mixture of admiration and guarded compassion for its residents. Not being able to achieve land ownership, its residents are resigned (I am of course assuming this) to a Spartan existence on the bay with little to no alternatives in how they make their living aside from fishing and selling trinkets to tourists “gawking” at them.
Towards the end of the day, my stepdaughter and I found an occasion to get on a two-person kayak. Competitive juices began to flow as we rowed harder, and harder still, at the sight of a “team” from Spain challenging us. In the end, we rowed victorious and crossed the “finish line” first, even though the couple from Spain was probably oblivious to our perceived race. Though there were jellyfish in the waters, we followed the cannon balling New Zealander into the salty waters of Halong Bay. While we were swimming in the water, you can see the crew members earnestly beating away any visible jellyfish nearby. What a refreshing swim right before dinner…and dinner was top notch once again. We even had a chance to fish for some squid at the back of the junk boat after dinner, using a bamboo fishing pole with nothing but light to attract and snag any approaching squid. This is supposedly how the locals catch squid. Alas, we didn’t catch anything.
The following morning, after a very restful sleep in the plush accommodations in our cabin, amid the tranquility of the bay while the junk boat is moored in an exclusive inlet away from other boats on Halong Bay, we participated in some relaxing and rejuvenating tai chi session before breakfast. It rained a bit, but not enough to dampen our buoyed spirits. We were soon on our way to Sung Sot Cave or Cave of Surprises. Founded by the French in 1901 and called “Grotte des Surprises”, it is a large cave with over 12,200 square meters of space. The colorful and strategically placed lighting within the cave made the stalactite and stalagmite formations even more dramatic. Soon, it was time to leave Halong Bay and head back for a late flight back home.
Our overnight stay in Halong Bay, aboard the luxuriously designed and appointed cabins of Bhaya Classic junk boat, was the highlight of our Vietnam vacation. We could feel the tension melting away during our brief overnight stay in Halong Bay. You simply owe it to yourself, if you are visiting Vietnam, to spend at least one night aboard a junk boat on Halong Bay.
We thoroughly enjoyed our Vietnam vacation and we still think of it as one of our best vacations to this day, if not the best. I doubt if we will have another occasion to go back, but whenever the chance presents itself, we would not hesitate to visit other sites like Hoi An, Hue, Sa Pa, and possibly Dalat…but we will always “have to” go visit Halong Bay once again as it deserves its billing as Vietnam’s number one tourist attraction. Oh yeah, we also better get some more of that civet coffee! Nothing says “Good Morning Vietnam” like a delicious, piping hot cup of civet coffee.
– The Vietnamese people appear to have little to no animosity towards Americans. This may be a function of the relatively young population. I’ve read that about 70% of the Vietnamese population is under the age of 35, thus too young to harbor resentment and remember the Vietnam conflict.
– There is a healthy wariness between Vietnamese from the south and those from the north…no doubt influenced by the days when the two regions were two distinct countries from 1965 to 1975 and even further back following the Trịnh-Nguyễn War (1627–1673). Aside from cuisine, language, and attire, differences perpetuated by stereotypes abound. The folks from the south, especially those from Saigon/HCMC fancying themselves as more cosmopolitan, deride the northerners’ “conservative” ways…while folks from the north, Hanoi in particular, are critical of the southerners’ lack of culture, pointing to Hanoi’s rich history with Vietnamese art, literature, and scholarship. A Los Angeles Times article shed some light on this.
– While the country is a developing one and progress is visible, there is still a great divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Even though Vietnam is still a Communist country, capitalism is alive and well…prompting the Economist to declare in a 2005 article “America lost, Capitalism Won”. Our Hanoi guide expressed his views on the co-existence of Communism and Capitalism in Vietnam by relating a story about a businessman, when asked by his driver where to turn when they came upon a T-intersection. The businessman gave the question much thought, then told his driver to set his turn signal left…but turn right.