Vietnam by Irene Butler –
Pix by Rick –
Vietnam Photo Gallery/
Hanoi is as colourful as a kid with a box of Crayola gone wild. The country’s brilliant red flags centered by a yellow star, the leafy green of trees whose trunks poke out of earthen squares left in the concrete, the gaudy blues, oranges and reds of plastic stools and chairs outside the local noodle shops, and signage with bold colours everywhere vying for attention.
Our Jasmine Hotel was well situated in the busy Old Quarter, which is a maze of narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants centered by Hoan Kiem Lake with its circling wide promenade where we delighted in a daily walk. Great volumes of traffic whizzed along in chaotic fashion; the motor bike/vehicle ration about 20 to 1. Walking across a street was downright Darwinistic, and without doubt we pedestrians were at the bottom rung of the “survival of the fittest” ladder. The locals just walked into the tsunami of motorbikes, the bikes veering around them with precision timing. What a nuisance us foreigners must be, as we unpredictably stopped and started, throwing the rhythm completely off. One time a stooped and frail Vietnamese lady of 90-or-so-years grabbed Rick’s hand and escorted him across the street. She charged into the mass of motor bikes looking straight ahead. It was all I could do to keep up beside them. Once across, she patted Rick’s hand and off she toddled. I think she was the inspiration for his new bravado; he began forging ahead local-like, with me nervously glued to his side.
As we went over our list of “things to do” I reminded Rick that it is said – you have not experienced Vietnam until you have seen a Water Puppet Show. Our seats were three rows back in the worn and tattered theatre. A small orchestra began to play, and we can only guess that the singers were warbling the story plots of the vividly painted wooden people, horses, water buffalo and dragons bobbing about in the murky water. The long poles that controlled their movement were easily seen poking out from the heavy velvet curtain backing the stage. The fun was in the simplicity. The puppeteers waded out into the waist deep water for a bow at the end. Rick said, “Well…not bad for $3 (for two).”
While on the topic of money, the dong is one of the most zero-rich currencies still in existence. Bills of 500 to 2,000 dong are chump change, equal to 2.5 cents and 10 cents. And lunch of noodles, veggies with chicken and two Tiger beer cost us 120,000 dong ($6 CND). Most entry fees to museums and such cost 15,000 dong each (75cents). Some ATM’s restrict withdrawal amounts to $2 million dong ($100), which luckily goes a long way as each ATM withdrawal costs us $6.
On our meanderings we often stood for awhile in the shade of the most gigantic and gnarly 200-year-old banyan tree. My thoughts were “if this tree could talk” it would tell of an independent Vietnam after centuries of ruling dynasties, of the arrival of the French in the 19th century and of the people’s struggle to end the almost 100 years of colonization, and how during the Vietnam war US bombs fell so heavily from the sky that at one point the city was almost completely evacuated. It would tell of the rebuilding after the war ended in 1975, years of austerity, and since the mid-1980’s (although the Communist rhetoric is for all encompassing nationalism) the country has moved towards capitalism with private ownership of businesses and land, international market trading, and swift economic growth.
Museums were next on our excursion list. The Po Ho Prison (infamously
known as the Hanoi Hilton) was gruesome, especially the section used by the French during colonial rule. Grey figures of clay are shackled to the beds in the small cells that were once death row. One small high barred window barely supplied enough oxygen, and the cell walls were purposefully painted black so the minimal daylight did not reflect into the cells. The original guillotine and torture devises are still within the prison walls.
On the other side of the old prison were the rooms used for captured US soldiers from 1964 to 1973. Photos show how well these POW’s were treated – sitting around playing cards, smoking, and eating. US Sen. John McCain was a particularly famous inmate; his outfit, boots and parachute from when his plane was shot down is encased in glass.
Wanting to find out more about Vietnam’s greatest revolutionary leader we made our way to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. After shuffling forward in a long lineup we entered the security check gate, where Rick had to give up his camera, with a promise that it would be at the exit. As we moved along to the front of the massive grey concrete structure the bright red and yellow-star flags, and the red carpet leading up the stairs stood out in stark contrast. The pomp and ceremony was outstanding. Soldiers in crisp white uniforms trimmed in gold stood a few feet apart along the sides of the staircase into the mausoleum, down a hall to the right, along a second set of stairs, then along yet another hall. Some were riveted at attention, while others somberly pointed in the direction us visitors were to go next. Protocol was strict – Rick put his hands behind his back while walking and was told to put them down at his sides. Upon reaching the inner sanctum we found ourselves on a circular path gazing at Ho Chi Minh whose body lies beneath a glass domed coffin, his white hair and thin pale beard almost matching his skin pallor. The red-carpeted exit is guarded by another long line of soldiers.
After Rick’s camera was retrieved (whew!), it was onward to the nearby
museum to glean some facts about “Uncle Ho”, which turned out to be mostly slogans and speeches of the philosophies of his regime. In the same vicinity is the palace where Ho Chi Minh entertained dignitaries, his humble home on stilts where he preferred to live, some of his vehicles and clothing that he once wore. We learned he was born Nguyen Tat Thank on May 19, 1890 in a village in central Vietnam and learned politics from his high government official dad. In 1911 he left Saigon and worked as a cook on a ship, and then in kitchens in London and Paris where he gained a worldly perspective. He traveled to Moscow and China in the 1930’s forming his socialistic theories and grew a large following. He came back to Vietnam and declared independence in 1945, which led up to an armed revolution against the French. Although he died in 1969 from natural causes soon after the beginning of Vietnam War, his steely resolve to defeat the US lived on in his followers, culminating in his dream of a unified Communist Vietnam becoming a reality.
Hanoi was fascinating, but the continual chilly temperatures brought us to a snap decision to fly to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, although many business signs still contain the name Saigon). Our first step onto the tarmac told us this was a wise move, as warm moist air swirled around us. Ahhh, we can finally leave our jackets and scarves behind.
The location of our Hai Long 5 Hotel was again a great choice, along with the price and amenities. We settled in feeling we would never want to leave.
It was a special time with TET (shortened from Tet Nguyen Dan) or Vietnamese Lunar New Year only days away. We are of a mind that all of Ho Chi Minh’s 10 million citizens were out and about gathering special treats for the grand occasion. Rick wished he had a view of the street from a helicopter, as the motor bikes kept coming down the road like ants, hour after hour, from early morning until late into the night. Wide central Nguyen Hue Street had been transformed into “Flower Street”, spectacularly adorned with thousands of ambrosially scented flowers and plants in a virtual rainbow of colours. Closed to traffic for the holidays, it was a gathering place bulging with families dressed in their finest, taking photos, eating and chatting. Small children strutted about with cartoon-character helium balloons, or gleefully waving plastic flashing toys. It was the largest mass of humanity Rick and I have EVER encountered at one time – more than on our previous visits to China and India. At 12:01 a.m. on February 3rd, the New Year was blazed in with a tonnage of brilliant fireworks being launched from the Saigon River, which looked to be within a dozen feet of our perfectly located ninth floor hotel window. Being that the TET celebration is a four day affair, preceded by days of action-packed activity, we did nothing but walk the streets of the City Centre for a week being royalty entertained until the festivities ended.
It was high time to leave our hood for some of the sites. Our first visit was to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, originally built by the French in 1890. Displays are about the struggle against French imperialism and the war with the US, right up to the fall of Saigon. There is an interesting collection of US captured fighter planes, tanks and artillery in the courtyard. Rick found it interesting how the Viet Cong learned to fly a huge US helicopter within days after it was captured.
Most of the museums are understandably about the country’s history of wars; especially the Vietnam War. The War Remnants Museum has the largest display of US weapons used against the North Vietnamese (Viet Cong) and the South’s Revolutionary Army who sided with the North.
An outdoor section has information on prisons originally built by the
French and later used by the US and South Vietnamese to house political prisoners. Cay Dua Prison (Coconut Tree Prison) covered 40 hectares on Phu Quoc Island and at its peak held 40,000 prisoners. The prisoners were inhumanly tortured. Replicas of “Tiger Cages”, cells used in another prison on Con Dao Island, were coffin-sized rectangles with sides and tops of barbed wire, within where 2 to 3 prisoners had to lie on a base of sandy soil. In a slightly taller version, five or more prisoners had to sit stooped over.
The grounds hold a collection of bombs, planes, tanks and war machinery. Inside the museum are exhibits of war facts: US troop numbers at various times, the tonnage of bombs dropped on south and central Vietnam, and the number of casualties on both sides (3 million Vietnamese of which 2 million were civilians and 58,000 Americans).
A room is devoted to biological warfare used to defoliate the central and south, destroying the lush jungle and crops. The ongoing devastation of Agent Orange rendered us speechless, with scientific studies showing how the chemical ingredient dioxin is in the DNA of those exposed, and continues to plague this nation with birth deformities – an explanation for the many people we pass on the streets with deformed limbs. There is a Requiem room with the photos of 134 journalists from 11 nationalities that died while reporting on the war.
Rick and I sat on a bench in the entrance before leaving feeling paralyzed by what we saw and read. The Museum’s intent is to show the horrors of war and consequences which hopefully is a call to all nations to say NO to war, and YES to peaceful resolutions to disputes.
A good place to glean the country’s ancient past was at the Vietnam History Museum. Archaeological artifacts date back 5,000 years with Stone Age tools, and from the Metal Age, such as 2,500-year-old bronze drums. The dozen rooms of the museum follow the rise and fall of empires and conquerors, with artifacts from each. Most interesting were the Hindu gods and writing in stone in Sanskrit of the Chan Kings, and the Buddha of unusual shapes, some with the many arms associated with the Hindu god Shiva. Rather creepy but fascinating was
the embalmed body in remarkable shape found in 1994 by a construction team while breaking ground for a new housing project in Ho Chi Minh city. Within an outer sarcophagus was an inner coffin with the corpse of Tran Thi Hieu – a 1.5m tall, 60 year-old women of aristocratic background who (it is believed) died in 1869. She was found draped in a shroud with burial articles around her, all covered in a “red solution”, which has since been removed. No further explanation as to “what” this solution was or “why” it was used only added to the mystery.
An all-day bus tour to the Cao Dai Holy See Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels took us out into the countryside past rice fields and rubber tree plantations, through towns and villages. En route our guide Dinh shared some interesting facts on the less than 100 year old Cai Dai religion, which sprang from Buddhist origins. It is an all inclusive faith that embraces the country’s three major belief systems of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, as well as venerating Jesus, Mohammad, Hindu gods, all traditional saints and many world peace leaders (such as Martin Luther King). Practitioners are pacifists, pray four times a day, and follow a vegetarian diet for 10 days of every month.
We entered the impressive grounds of the Cao Dai Holy See with lovely manicured gardens, and colourful buildings around a large central square. It was swiftly into the elaborate temple for us, with only about forty minutes to go inside and see a prayer session in progress. Rows of white clad lay-followers sat in the lotus position on the floor of the gigantic rectangular church; men on the right and women on the left. From a lofty alcove musicians played traditional instruments to the chanting voices of singers. Nearest the altar a woman and man sat prominently in front of the congregation, also dressed in white with an eye emblazed on their headpieces. Behind them were members in coloured robes; the hierarchy, yellow for spiritual allegiance to Buddhism, blue for Taoism, and red for Confucianism. At intervals the gong sounded and all heads bowed to the floor in symmetry. Us visitors climbed stairs to stand along balconies that ran along both sides of the rectangular church for a good view of the ceremony, and the brightly coloured murals, carved pillars entwined with dragons, and the all-seeing eye – which is a recognizable feature in all the 400 Cao Dai Temples scattered around South Vietnam. This Great Temple, the epicenter of the Cao Dai religion, is unlike any in the world.
Our bus next made a stop at a facility under the sponsorship of
Workability International where handicraft people make crafts. We walked through the isles of artists using sand, egg shells, sea shells, paint and glue to fashion intricate designs on metal and pottery in the form of jewellery boxes, jars, vases, and plates – followed by rows of the most amazing finished products. This organization has been operating in Vietnam since 1976 and although we could not carry a purchase as we travel light, we were happy to leave a donation for such a great cause.
After lunch of rice with eggs and veggies at a small restaurant it was off to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are proud displays of the ingenuity and spirit of the Vietnamese in overcoming invading forces. Just 65 miles northwest of Saigon, the Cu Chi area lies at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and were used as a base for the Ho Chi Minh guerrilla fighters. As a result this lush fertile area of fruit trees and rice paddies became a zone that was “carpet-bombed” by the US. The Cu Chi villagers took their fight underground, literally, with this immense network of complex tunnels that stretched as far as Cambodia with meeting rooms, hospitals, sleeping chambers, kitchens, the latter designed so that cooking smoke dispersed out of numerous outlets to resemble low-lying fog to hide the location.
We were shown a raft of homemade snares and booby traps to stop or halt the enemy’s progress. Most incorporated “punji sticks” (sharpened stakes of wood or bamboo) or nails/spikes which were designed to impale an enemy’s foot, or worse his body.
We were also invited to lower ourselves into a tunnel entrance called “spider holes” by the US soldiers, as their large frames did not fit. Silly me, I put my hand up to be the female volunteer, and only fit up to my ample bustline. The male volunteer (which wisely was not Rick) had more success and after standing up to his chest in the hole, he slipped out of sight while replacing the grass-covered lid.
It was time for the grand finale – our walk through a tunnel, which had
been made larger for us Westerners. Our guide warned, “Once in you must proceed to one of three exits without stopping, as there are people behind you.” Not usually claustrophobic, I must admit to pangs of apprehension after I lowered myself into this hole finding I had to double over and scrunch my legs for my head not to touch the top. There were dim lights fixed periodically long the bottom of the wall, until around one bend – TOTAL DARKNESS. I called back to Rick for his flashlight (luckily he is never without it) and we went onward, the air becoming more sweltering with each step, we were never so glad to see the exit. After we emerged Rick exposed his raging red knees saying he had to crawl along in order to fit his 6 foot frame in the tunnel’s one metre height. During wartime, the fighters and villagers mostly spent their days in the tunnels, and came to the surface at night to garner supplies and tend to crops, but at times of heavy bombing they were forced to stay underground for many continuous days and nights. We can’t begin to imagine life with babies, children, parents, elders, fighting men all crammed in to these dark, stifling, spider, ant and mosquito infested tunnels; deaths from malaria being second to war injuries, yet better than the alternative of death from above as bombs rained down.
I convinced Rick that we could not leave Vietnam without a cruise on the Mekong. After bouncing along on a two hour bus ride (the vehicle had absolutely no shocks) to the town of My Tho, we climbed aboard a rickety motor boat with a dozen other people and our guide Hun (Tiger) and cruised past several islands. We stopped at Unicorn Island to see bees make honey, and villagers handmade coconut candy in a living-room sized area open to the elements except for a thatched roof. Rick kept saying, “This is too much excitement for me”. The best part of the tour was going down narrow canals in a small leaking row boat holding 4 tourists and being paddled by 80-pound villagers perched on the aft and stern. We were warned to keep out fingers inside the boat, and with good reason. A continuous stream of boats were being paddled in the opposite direction and with each passing their sides clunked with ours. We were left with a memento of fresh green paint on our backsides; the painted seats, which was obviously a last-ditch effort to jazz-up this rotting hull, was not yet dry.
Our last supper in Ho Chi Minh was at “Pho 2000” (Noodles 2000) where
we often treated ourselves to the most delicious local cuisine at the end of a busy day. In the year 2000 Bill Clinton had a bowl of beef noodle soup there, after he visited the nearby famed Ben Thank Market. Well, if it’s good enough for Bubba…. Rick and I became hooked on the beef ragout – with 3 hearty chunks of beef (we think water-buffalo) swimming with potatoes, onions and carrots in a delectable gravy, with a side order of fluffy white rice to add in scoops…oh, and two Tiger beer…all for 150,000 dong ($7.50). Yum!
Vietnam was a wonderful adventure with its colourful and rich cultural heritage that goes back thousands of years, and whose traditions have survived despite occupation by a great number of foreign incursions. We loved the exciting high density cities producing almost seismic rumblings with the masses of people and motor bikes rushing about – and its tropical topography of jungles, rice fields, mountains and plains, and everywhere friendly people with engaging smiles.
Next is Kula Lumpur Malaysia for a few weeks, before bussing to Singapore, from where we will take to the air for our long flight home.