This was a marvelous trip though it has been difficult to get my words together to describe it. There are people who have feelings of bitterness about this country. I’ve been asked, “Do the Vietnamese hate Americans?” No, just the opposite. They love Americans. You couldn’t experience a more welcoming and caring people. There are about four and a half million communists, the ruling party, but the rest of the 91 million are a working class plus the wealthy, at work each day making a living with a business along the streets, farming in the rich and fertile countryside, foreign business and creating an excellent tourist experience which feeds many. Free enterprise is flourishing.
At first feelings overwhelmed me seeing so many people working so hard on the streets, yet once I understood their lives, it looked and felt happier and more contented than many who have more. It may be due to their culture which is Buddhist oriented, a philosophy that believes in reincarnation, which I feel sure of the truth of too. The energy was one of knowing that their souls continue and never die. That the richness of life can keep on improving, giving them a sense of future growth, love and knowingness. Their continuing optimism and industriousness is overwhelmingly apparent.
Flying so far from the US was difficult, the flights are long to Asia. But this fit with the sense of arriving into such a different culture than ours. I was joined by 2 other women turned 80. We celebrated by visiting Vietnam and Cambodia on a Viking tour and cruise. Our journey started in the capital city of Hanoi and ended in Ho Chi Minh City, though the locals and I like to still call it Saigon. Lovely Cambodia was sandwiched in-between.
After landing in Hanoi which is in the north of Vietnam we drove to the water at Ha Long Bay. Terraced rice fields and sweeping lush green scenery were everywhere. Ha Long Bay Vietnamese say is the prettiest place in the country. I’d disagree as there was so much beauty all over if one looked. Cruising on board a traditional wooden junk brought a needed slowing down. We learned information and legends about the various rock formations, islets, caves and grottoes of this famous landmark that we viewed and visited.
Back to Hanoi, a city that sent shivers of fear to us in the US years ago. What a jolt it was to walk into the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel and be greeted and treated with courtesy and respect. This stately and formal grand lady of the past had gorgeous polished woods and tiles. French influenced architecture was everywhere in what’s called the French Quarter. Never bombed during the Vietnam war, the hotel has a small outdated bomb shelter that we visited and quickly left. Though still a communist run country, the streets bustle with competition. Tourists from all over the world are jammed into the streets, shops and restaurants. They walk with no fear, (except for crossing the streets), a possible contrast to how they may feel at home.
Hanoi is a city of 6 million people, and it seems as if all the millions are out in their cars, trucks, or on a
motorcycle or scooter. The same in Saigon. I find it impossible to describe how all these millions drive inches from each other, carrying many people and objects and do not yell or hit each other. Crossing streets is a test of courage and guts. The advice was to start crossing and to not hesitate, letting the traffic dodge you. Imagine hundreds of vehicles bearing down at you while you continue walking in front of them while trusting your life to them. I found myself saying over and over, “Oh God, Oh God.” As long as I was in Vietnam, I never got over seeing such a varied combination of transport and parking, and the navigation seemingly with no accidents
The city and village streets are lined with small shops, everywhere. Each of these tiny businesses operate on the street level, products displayed for the passerby to see. Above are their homes built two to six stories high, one or two rooms wide. This to conserve use of the expensive land. The buildings in the big cities fit together like a puzzle, with many having no side windows.
When visiting the prison that during the war captive American POWs named 'The Hanoi Hilton,’ it reminds of a sad time in both country’s history.
Vietnam has endured conquering influence from China, India, France, the Dutch and the Americans and like so many after a war, it has moved on to appreciate a life of freedom. As long as the citizens have a home, food, work and are left at peace, it seems the communist party can continue in power. Many are hopeful for the end of communism, today it’s benefits are few. My impression is that if we had left them alone, staying out of the take-over of communism, that the country would have ended up where it is today without all the blood shed on both sides. The ideologue Ho Chi Ming’s vision is gone, fading with the overlay of brilliance of a joyful education about the free world.
The countryside is a continuous farming community, the cities are filled with high energy and activity. Hanoi and Ho Chi Ming City’s “French Quarters” advertise capitalism with streets lined with foreign couturier stores. The “Old Town” streets are a never ending splash of color from millions of local small businesses. At night the streets are a moving mass of families and couples on all sorts of transportation. I emphasis again that how they navigate is one of the additional wonders of the world.
We traveled from northern Vietnam, into beautiful Cambodia, sailed south down the Mekong River and reentered Vietnam at the southern tip of Vietnam. Visitor must sees are the Gothic style Central Post Office, the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Opera House. I fell in love with the lacquer factory, where the workers create the most gorgeous wares. It's wonderful to note that Saigon is filled with spacious parks. Food? Pho is the soup to try, nutritious and easy on the wallet. Fun? The Vietnamese love parties, the kind with friends and family.
Little is left from the bombings except for tanks on display, ones that stormed the gates of Independence Palace, ending the war. When I looked out my window of our Sofitel Saigon Plaza Hotel it looked like any big city in the world with skyscrapers and new buildings under contraction. Only when we went out on the streets did it revert back to a special and somewhat misunderstood culture, beautiful in its entirety.
A shameless plug: The Viking Company’s Mekong River Cruise and tour to Vietnam and Cambodia couldn’t be a better host if you choose to go in a small group. The maximum is around 50 to 60 people. We were divided into two groups of 25, each with a guide. Our guides, Tommy and Bob (Viking given names for our ease), were splendid souls whose knowledge of these countries and their unending courtesy were excellent examples of their countrymen and women.
“My” travelers who like traveling from home may find some closure of their memories of our past in Vietnam. Cambodia is coming next in my travel pieces for all of you.