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A New Day in Vietnam

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For Americans visiting Vietnam today, the world has turned upside down. In the past thirty years Vietnam has gone from enemy to growing trading partner, from fields of battle to a major tourist destination. One familiar sight continues to be the traditional conical bamboo hat, worn by peasants still tending rice fields with water buffalo. Fully half of the hard-working population of eighty million people is twenty-five years old or younger, with no memories of the “American War.” Even for those who lived through it, the attitude towards Americans is welcoming, and everyone is happy with the dollars that tourism brings. And the economy is booming, with growth approaching 20% per year. Vietnam Airlines has the world’s most modern fleet. The country’s coffee exports are second only to Brazil. A building boom is putting construction crews to work as investment dollars pour into the country. The low crime rate also makes this a very safe destination for tourists.


Hint: As in other parts of Asia, crossing a city street can seem like a heart-thumping exercise in survival. The streets are so crowded with traffic going in both directions that crossing without a signal looks impossible at first. Cyclos (rickshaws), bicycles, motorbikes and cars create a cacophony of noise and motion that takes a few minutes to get used to. But by watching the locals, and imitating their behavior, you can cross and live. The technique is to move slowly while facing the traffic coming at you, allowing the drivers to steer around as you cross like water parting around a rock in a stream. Another tip is to join a crowd of locals and make for the center of the group. We survived lots of crossings in heavy traffic, always remembering not to move too rapidly.

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Begin in Hanoi and head straight to Hoa Lo (Fiery Furnace) Prison, built originally by the French, but infamous to American prisoners as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Pictures of Senator John McCain’s 2000 visit to this museum are proudly displayed, along with pictures of him during the war years. Life-size plaster casts of prisoners and a real guillotine depict French operation of the prison, reinforcing a somber mood looming over this hulking concrete symbol of man’s inhumanity to man. Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology highlights the dress and dwellings of the 54 indigenous tribes of Vietnam. Although the major part of the museum highlights Vietnam’s colorful cultural diversity, visitors will note with interest the display depicting food rationing, and the benefit to the country of the free market. In 1986 the government abandoned collectivized agriculture, which had led to food rationing throughout the country, and began a new policy called Doi Moi (renovation). Since that time the country’s farmers have produced bumper crops that provide more than enough food for export. Wander through the Old Quarter where 36 guilds set up for business more than a thousand years ago. Every store on each one of these Old Streets sells the same kind of product, e.g., you’ll pass the Hardware Street, the Toy Street, the Housewares Street and the Bedding Street. Since taxes were based on street frontage, stores are only eight or nine feet in width but very deep, with the owner’s living in the back of the store or on the second floor. One of the oldest sites in Hanoi is The Temple of Literature, built in 1070 with a layout similar to Beijing’s Forbidden City. Dedicated to Confucius as a tribute to education, it was founded to teach the children of royalty and aristocracy (called mandarins), and became Vietnam’s first university. Stelae (tablets), usually carved from a singe block of stone, rest on tortoises (symbol of wisdom and long life) to pay tribute to those who completed their doctorates. Today, more than 200 years after the last national examinations were held here, the courtyards and beautiful gardens offer shade and a quiet escape from the noisy streets. A city tour isn’t complete without a visit to Ba Dinh Square. Here are tributes to Ho Chi Minh, both the Stilt House, his home from 1958 until his death in 1969, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The house was built as tribute to Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, and Ho’s simple living rooms have been preserved. Reportedly “Uncle Ho” asked to be cremated, but when he died the higher-ups decided to embalm his body and build a mausoleum a la Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square (it’s rumored that his body goes to Moscow for maintenance). It’s surprising to note his independence speech from 1945 beginning with Jefferson’s “All men are created equal.” Everybody’s a child when it comes to Water Puppets. This ancient art form is performed on a pond of water inside a theater, a vestige of Hanoi’s land and pond-rich area in the Red River Delta. Colorful and intricately carved wooden puppets are painted with vivid water-proof lacquer and are operated via long poles by people standing waist-deep in the water behind a curtain. It’s amazing to watch the antics of fishermen (and their fish!), dragons, and warriors, all dancing and smiling to the accompaniment of percussion music and fire-crackers galore. There’s several standard folklore plays with such titles as “Buffalo Fighting” and “Duck Tender Chasing Fox.”

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Head 100 miles east to HaLong (Descending Dragon), for enchanting views of an amazing emerald bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its natural beauty has inspired Vietnamese poets for centuries. Thousands of karsk (limestone) islands covered with lush greenery provide a not-to-be missed scenic wonder. Fleets of well-outfitted junks take visitors on overnight trips through the bay – you can even jump off the boat and swim in the clear seawater with the pearl divers. Or stand at the junk’s rail and bargain for snacks and souvenirs with the girls rowing small dingies amidst the junks.

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Hoi An

Back on the mainland, head south for a few days in Hoi An, an historic town right beside DaNang that’s very popular with the tourist trade, as the ocean moderates the often hot Vietnamese climate. Nearby China Beach offers expanses of clean white sand and a calm surf that attracted a generation of American GIs. In fact, remains of DaNang Air Base still exist, with reinforced hangars and unoccupied buildings easy to see from the highway. Hoi An itself offers an easy, colorful insight into a pleasant oceanside community, filled with artists, crafts and good restaurants. Rent a bicycle and ride through the city streets, although this can be even more exciting than crossing the street on foot, especially when semi-trucks breeze by. You’ll have earned a break, so sit and watch the world go by while feasting on the best chocolate mousse and cappuccino ever at the Cargo Club restaurant. Another unique treat is a Vietnamese cooking class at the Champa Bar. As he worked his artistry, our chef/host tempted us with promises of mouth-watering vegetable spring rolls and grilled fish in banana leaves. You will learn how to make several new dishes; did you know that passing a banana leaf over a flame makes it completely pliable?

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A short flight south takes you to Hue, made famous in Vietnam-era headlines because of the Tet offensive of 1968. Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam from 1804-1945. Visit the impressive walled Citadel, with huge stone gates and walls surrounding the Imperial and Forbidden Purple Cities. Some areas within the Citadel still bear mute witness to the fierce battles that raged here during Tet, when the Viet Cong occupied the area and were driven out in a bloody fight. Hue’s architecture and cultural relics preserve the feel of colonial Indochine. You can stroll along the Perfume River, passing art deco buildings interspersed with countless pagodas, all surrounded by towering tamarind and flame trees. It’s the most European-flavored Vietnamese city.

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Da Lat

A new highway eases the drive to DaLat, a city that sits at 5000 feet in the central highlands (home of the Hmong, another famous Vietnam War name). It’s a cool climate retreat developed by the French in 1897. Popular today as a honeymoon resort for the Vietnamese, it is also home to waterfalls, vineyards, and hundreds of vegetable-growing greenhouses. Wander through the central market any morning to experience a wonderful chaos. From the fish stands with live swimming specimens, to ducks and chickens lined up in rows, to rainbow hued fresh produce, to dozens of varieties of grains – with bags open to let you inspect the quality – you’ll enjoy mingling with vendors and everyday shoppers. Look closely at the textile products, these goods are often priced 10 to 20 percent below what you’ll pay at home. Don’t miss the Crazy House Hotel, a weird, rambling structure with walkways and stairways often going nowhere, and each room a study in the bizarre. Think Alice in Wonderland meets Dali. In DaLat we found many Catholic churches, which like most in Vietnam today are filled to overflowing during services, with many parishioners having to stand outside. Since the government lifted restrictions, churches are full, and Buhddist monks are back in their temples.

Saigon is the Name

We landed at Tan Son Nhut International Airport in Saigon; nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City – except maybe Vietnamese government officials. Vietnam’s biggest and busiest city still reflects much of the beauty that the French brought to the country. Impressive parks, tree-lined streets and imposing edifices such as the copy of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral and the Old Central Post Office dominate the inner city. The population has mushroomed to over ninety million people, all of whom seem to be riding motorbikes through the streets in perpetual streams of traffic. The War Remnants Museum is a sobering reminder of the Vietnamese battles against the French and the Americans. Abandoned U.S. military equipment has been freshly painted and sits amidst Pulitzer Prize-winning photos seared into our memory – the little girl running from a napalm attack, a Vietnamese mother swimming across a raging river with her children, the thousand-yard stare of an exhausted American soldier. Two hours from the city is the Mekong Delta, ending its 3,000-mile journey from Tibet. It’s the breadbasket of Vietnam, supporting three crops of rice per year, instead of the two that the rest of the country manages. Waterways of varying sizes form a vast transportation network, where rice, fruit, and a plethora of other products on long-tail boats, barges, and sampans compete with fishing boats. Watch for the giant, colorful eyes painted on the front of fishing boats; superstition has it that unpainted boats are “blind” and cannot find fish. Closer to Saigon, the 125 miles of hand-dug passageways and chambers of Cu Chi form a vast underground virtual city built by the Vietnamese during battles with the French and Americans. Descending into the tunnels, and crawling through the tiny spaces, you can hardly believe that human beings could live in such small, confining spaces for long. On the surface, walking through the jungle, it’s virtually impossible to detect any evidence of the vast network; guides have to point out the entrances and ventilation holes that are cleverly hidden as termite hills or fallen logs. Vietnam, like China, has a Communist Party political structure. But the same type of hard-working individual entrepreneur is rapidly developing the country. Go soon, this economic growth is changing the landscape from agrarian to urban. Soon only tourists will be wearing those conical hats.

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