Vietnam: An Unspoiled Vacation
It was relatively hot and humid at the end of January for my stroll in Ho Chi Minh City (even the natives call it Saigon). Outside the Municipal Theatre, built in 1899, a newlywed couple was having their pictures taken. Rex Hotel, once a garage in the 1960′s, turned into a beautiful four-star hotel. Later that night, the hotel lit up for Tet Festival (New Years) that was coming up. The boys buzzed around on their motorcycles on this warm, drizzly Saturday night hoping to run out of gas. Or so the tour guide said. If the floods of motorcycles were all cars the streets would be jammed. The traffic lights and lines on the road are merely there for decorations. No one abides by them. I found myself in the middle of the road and all of a sudden loads of traffic came my way. I just stood there and let the traffic go around me.
I’m fortunate to have experienced Nha Trang before tourism spoils this popular seaside resort, forecasted to be another Cancun. We had the boat to ourselves on the day cruise. Shaped like a silkworm, Tam Island is a quiet, picture perfect get-away-from-it-all. But who knows how it’ll be five years from now.
Cruising closer to Temple Island the clutter of colourful fishing boats came to view. I couldn’t believe my ears when told the 1.5 sq. km. island could be destroyed in 10 years to make way for condos.
Progress has not made life easier for many Vietnamese. While driving about the countryside I saw people washing clothes in the river, workers bent over in rice fields under the glaring sun, women both young and old carry heavy baskets suspended on sticks across their shoulders and farmers sowing rice seeds with water buffalo.
There are 67,000 M’Nong people remaining inVietnam. The women are head of the household and children take their name. The people of the M’Nong village of Jun invited us to their Tet Eve festival (similar to New Year’s Eve) celebrating with food, drink and song. The Australians on my tour sang their native songs. I declined to sing, saying I’d get kicked out of Vietnam. That got a chuckle.
One of the many markets you’ll see in Vietnam
Because of Tet, My Lai, site of the massacre on March 16, 1968, the single most shameful act of American involvement in Vietnam, was closed much to my disappointment.
Three nights weren’t enough in the picturesque river town of Hoi An. I lost myself on the main street of Tran Phu among the shops, tailors, restaurants, market and traffic jams then strolled along the bustling river.
Tickets in hand, our tour guide led us to Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, displaying a replica of a Chinese boat used by Fujian families who fled China to Hanoi in the 17th century. The Chau Assembly Hall was built in 1776 by the Chinese and has a remarkable display of woodcarvings.
I was in awe of the incredible architectural design of Tan Ky House, 200-year-old well-preserved dwelling with hanging artwork of Chinese poems created with inlaid mother-of-pearls, each character made up of several intricately carved birds.
Built in 1593, the Japanese Covered Bridge has a pair of monkeys on one side and a pair of dogs on the other guarding the bridge. It has become an emblem of Hoi An.
Marble Mountains consist of five stone hillocks made of marble and each representing the five elements: Water, Wood, Fire, Metal or Gold, and Earth. We climbed the steps of the largest, Water, and reached a point to witness the beautiful view of the other four elements and South China Seas.
Walking on the white sand of China Beach watching the surf break, I wondered how many Americans on their R&R got home to tell family and friends of this tranquil beach in the midst of a war torn country.
One of the most scenic routes is Hai Van Pass, meaning Pass of the Ocean Clouds climbing up the Truong Son Mountain range for an unforgettable view of the South China Sea.
Hue was the site of the bloodiest battle of Tet Offensive. The walled Citadel contains the once magnificent Imperial City battered by wars, fire, typhoons, floods and termites. The Thai Hod Palace, present building dates 1833, escaped bomb damage while the Forbidden Purple City was mostly destroyed in 1968.
I soaked in the slow paced life cruising down Perfume River. People make boats their home and/or workplace. Thien Mu Pagoda is situated along the river. Across the main entrance is a blue Austin Car used by a monk who, in 1963, drove to Saigon and set himself on fire to protest against the Diem regime.
We cycled back to Hue with a stop at Tomb of Tu Duc, the longest Nguyen emperor for 35 years. He had 104 wives but no offspring because he became sterile after contracting smallpox. This tomb has it’s own lake and pine forest.
After we said good-bye to our driver, pedicabs took us to a smoke-filled crowded train station. The train left for Hanoi 1½ hours late.
A beautiful city combined of lakes, Chinese architecture, French colonial buildings and tree-lined boulevards, the capital Hanoi is known as the Paris of Vietnam. Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of the business district, means Lake of the Restored Sword. It was Valentine’s evening when we walked past the lake; lovers strolled or sat on a bench.
Old Quarter in Hanoi where the 36 streets are named after a particular craft
With 36 streets each named after a particular craft, the Old Quarter is full of colour, hustle and congestion in this 1,000-year history of a maze of back streets to get lost if you’ve got the time.
It takes about three years to learn the art of maneuvering puppets attached to a long pole to make them look like they’re literally walking on water behind a bamboo screen at the Water Puppet Theatre. The story is told in Vietnamese.
The crème de la crème of my Vietnam trip is Halong Bay, meaning “where the dragon descends into the sea”. Many different stories are told of how a dragon created Halong Bay. Of course, geologists have a different view but I like the legend better. Our boat slowly cruised along some of the 3,000 limestone rocks rising out of the water on a misty, cool day. I was told if the sun shone, the rocks would sparkle like jewels.
I couldn’t believe my vacation was over. What made this trip special? No one particularly liked the idea of my traveling here. The timing was perfect to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of Vietnam before hoards of tourists overrun the place. Yes, new hotels are being built. Internet cafes are there. At least there’s no McDonald’s – yet.