Part Four: Hoi An to South Vietnam
February 25, 2012
Dateline: Hoi An, Vietnam
Latitude at Hoi An 15.88 Degrees North, 108.33 East
Today we drove a scenic route, south on Route 1 from Hue via Danang, through dramatic mountain passes, past the Marble Mountains and several beautiful beaches stretching for miles, including the famous China Beach , where many US servicemen spent time in the evacuation hospital or on R&R. We also saw the equally beautiful Lang Co Beach.
The morning was cooler, but foggy from all the moisture still in the air from yesterday. We took the old road over the Pass of the Clouds (Hai Van), climbing to a blissfully cool 5,000 feet near the Bach Ma National Park. Our final destination today was to be the old fishing village of Hoi Ann. We noticed that there are countless little markets lining the road selling produce and the local beer, Huda, seemingly oblivious of the dust the traffic generates. Ngoc pointed out that while no one obeys traffic rules, it works out okay because if they did, it would create massive traffic jams. I am thinking there is something profound there if I could just put my finger on it.
On the ride Ngoc entertained us with a discussion of how all Asians do not look alike. Take the eyes for instance. In Westerners, Africans and Indians the eyes tend to be round or almond shaped. Indonesians have a teardrop shaped eye, with the point next to the nose. Chinese have a lidded eye with a fold of skin at the top so the eye looks flat on the top and round on the bottom. Mongols have just the opposite shape with eyes appearing round on the top and flat across the bottom. Then there are faces –Westerners have a mixed bag of face shapes, but Chinese are almost always round and Melanesian, Indian and Indonesian are almost always oval. And then there is the matter of the nose. Caucasians tend to have a big honker (relatively speaking) with a pronounced bridge. Chinese have a very flat nose with no bridge and just a slight protrusion for the nostrils. Melanesians and Indians tend to have a small dainty nose with a small dainty bridge. As for skin color – if it is light – the owner of it is probably a Westerner or Chinese, if it is dark, they are likely Indian or Malaysian. Hair of Asians is almost universally black, except for the occasional person with Mongol blood who may have light brown hair.
From this discussion Ngoc proceeded to give us information on various and sundry topics such as farming. Central Vietnam is able to have 2 crops a year and in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam they can have three. Farmers typically wear long sleeves in the fields to protect them from the sun and from leeches. Local wisdom says that wherever you find water buffalo, you will find leeches. Ngoc told us that rice is best grown on mudflats in shallow water with a consistent depth. The water helps keep the weeds down, but it has to be drained for the harvest.
On the topic of social media, Ngoc told us that sometimes Facebook is blocked and sometimes it is not, since the technology is easily able to outstrip those who want to restrict it. They must think there is something subversive about it, but they do not restrict email, texting or cell phones. They have made huge strides in education since today 70% of Vietnamese children go to school whereas 20 years ago it was only 15%. Ngoc also cautioned us, and I quote “do not flash your dong in public or you may encourage ‘tieves’ (thieves)”. Of course here the currency is called dong, but still it sent us into a fit of snickering. Ngoc, of course, was quite puzzled, but we decided it should remain lost in translation.
We drove around the Bach Ma National Park rather than through it since a recent monsoon had washed out the road. It is a wildlife refuge with some of the most rugged countryside in Southeast Asia. We took Route 1 all the way from Danang to Hoi An. Much of what is today the National Park was sprayed with defoliants during the war including Agent Orange, but it had a negligible and limited effect in this part of the country where vegetation grows rampant.
We stopped to see Lang Co Beach, with its small fishing village in the distance with its pastel buildings on a spit of land between the lagoon and the open ocean. There were pristine sandy beaches below heavily forested mountains in the background with long rollers coming in. We had left much of the humidity behind and were enjoying the welcome change of sunny skies and a brisk breeze. Off the coast we saw fishing sampans that look like a canoe with an igloo shaped cover on it. Fisherman go out around 4 in the afternoon and will fish all night We had heard about resorts being developed and saw first-hand the reasoning behind that.
In front of us was Cloudy Mountain which we would have to traverse. There is a 6 kilometer tunnel going through it, but since it was a beautiful day, we went over the mountain pass. We first drove into the clouds and then we were above them. From the top of the pass, the clouds lifted and we had a wonderful view, hemmed in by the sea on one side and the Truong Son Mountains on the other. There were a number of bunkers and military materiel used by both the French and the south Vietnamese that was still there, but the real attraction was the view. From the pass we could see the peninsula, village and beach of Lang Co and its saltwater lagoon with the South China Sea beyond.
As we made our way to Danang, we noticed many family altars along the roadside. Some of the most interesting had a touch of Vegas with neon lights on Buddha accompanied by flower and cigarette offerings. We also saw a real assortment of shade devices as local people worked hard at keeping the sun off. Ngoc tells us that the Vietnamese value pale skin, much more than dark, and to maintain the palest skin possible they always try to find shade or provide it somehow. To that end we saw (in addition to hats) books and magazines, parasols, dish cloths and assorted items of clothing, all being used to provide shade to heads and faces.
At Danang, now a large industrial city of 2 million people, we saw rows and rows of Quonset huts left by American troops during the Vietnam war. Near a village called Dong Hoi, we visited the Marble Mountains where we found the Xa Loi Temple and the Tang Chon Cave where the Viet Cong set up hidden artillery positions to fire on the Danang Air Base, set up by the Marines in 1965, which had to be defended on a daily basis.The Viet Cong however, had a totally different way of fighting – guerilla warfare. They would strike and move with no bases.
In Danang we visited the Museum of Cham Sculpture, also called Bao Tan Dieu Khak Champa. The Cham Empire existed in Vietnam for around 1,600 years until 1832 when the last principalities of the Kingdom were wiped out. Today there are still Cham people, but no empire. The artifacts at the museum were gathered from nearby sites in order to preserve them.
The sculptures here date from the 7th to the 13th Century and include altars, and busts of Hindu gods including Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma , as well as scenes from the Ramayana, an epic poem in Sanskrit that is one of the foundations of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. It is intended as a historical account of events in India around 1000 A.D. and offers up stories of dharma – the principles of cosmic order and the teachings of Buddha. The art from this collection rin addition to Hindu deities, also has demons and dancing girls, which are called apsara (a celestial nymph, where elaborate jewelry and hairstyles and/or headgear were the order of the day. The demons included mythical sea creatures called makara and an eagle/dragon combo called a garuda. One of the more interesting artifacts was an altar pediment sculpted with a circle of female breasts, which were said to represent the Hindu mother goddess, Uma. There were also beautiful altar friezes in both marble and sandstone depicting detailed sculptures of mortals in their daily pursuits such as riding a horse or playing a flute. All the sculptures came from sites nearby and tomorrow, we have a visit planned to My Son, one of these sites. It was kind of jarring to see that they were selling American dog tags and cigarette lighters from the Vietnam War era in the museum gift shop. We could only hope they were knock-offs and not taken from dead soldiers.
Perhaps one of the most interesting, certainly from an appearance perspective is the deity Ganesh, who has the body of man and the head of an elephant which creates an arresting visual. There are several stories of how Ganesh came to be and some of these tales get a little convoluted, but as we understood it (at least in this version), there was a woman named Parvati who was the mother of a small boy. She took a shower and told her son to guard the door. The dad who happened to be the god, Shiva, came home and demanded that Ganesh open the door. He refused in order to keep his word to his mother and his dad chopped his head off. Mom insisted that he fix it, so Dad went out and got an elephant head and attached it and Ganesh came back to life. This is only one of several versions of how Ganesh came into being, but they are all equally bizarre. Today he is venerated by the Hindus as the god of wisdom and learning and his statue can be found throughout Hindu communities and shrines.
The Cham people came from India centuries ago to settle in what is today the Danang and Central Vietnam. There are only about 70,000 of the Cham left today. The Vietnamese drove them south and then in turn drove the Cambodians out to occupy this land. When the US left Vietnam, they buried tons of war materiel used at the Danang Airbase to keep it from the Viet Cong. Later the locals dug it up to sell for scrap metal. Today there is a casino across the street from where the base was and a Hyatt Regency, although many of the hangars and bunkers still remain. According to Ngoc – the turning point in the Vietnam War for the local people was when American planes starting bombing temples. That tipped the balance and made them regard the US as the enemy. Before that they were indifferent.
We drove past the scenic China Beach which has perfectly white sand and a line of causuarina trees along the beach with the mountains looming behind it. Today China Beach is catering to golf resorts (including one just built by Greg Norman) and sun-seeking tourists. There is a bridge to a small island called Monkey Island, however the locals during hard times apparently ate all the monkeys so they are now monkey-less. From April to August it is jellyfish season so there is not much ocean swimming going on during those months. Vietnamese who left the country after the fall of Saigon were denounced as traitors at the time, but have since been welcomed back with open arms to spend some of that money they made and the can be found at these resorts, alongside prominent Communists who choose to sample a bit of the good life that capitalism has to offer. Given the difficulty Vietnamese have with certain consonants grouped together Communist sometimes becomes “communik” and so those could have been “communiks” under those beach umbrellas at China Beach. It seems that the Israeli leader, Moshe Dayan, was correct when he said “the best way to defeat Communism is to let it win first”.
Along the coast we saw a Boat Temple where fishermen go to pray for a good catch. It was also interesting to see their boats which are round and made of bamboo, about the size of a large bathtub. They are supposedly easier to steer in the waves than a long boat. The seawall was lined with a dozen of these little bowl shaped vessels. In the lagoons there are fish and oyster farms tended by squatters on stilt houses. They have fished the streams using electric shock to the point of depletion so now almost all fish comes from farms.
Our next stop was for a tour of the Marble Mountains just south of the old Danang airbase. They are made up of five rocky outcrops that are believed to represent 5 natural elements and are the source for many legends. There are huge caverns within the mountains that have in the past housed temples, an army hospital and hidden artillery positions used by the North Vietnamese. At the time of the Vietnam War, the river at Danang was still navigable and thus provided a valuable port for military operations. It was both heavily attacked and heavily defended, as was the air base, the latter quite often from the Marble Mountains.
n the past the mountains have also provided high quality marble for statues and construction, but today it is a venerated site with a Buddhist temple, the Xa Loi, at its summit so marble is quarried mostly elsewhere. In the heart of the mountain is the Tang Chon Cave which today is a grotto with all sorts of shrines and statuary, but back during the Vietnam War, it was used to conceal Viet Cong soldiers who could fire on Danang and then seemingly melt into the jungle. Finally American gunships figured out where they were and would bomb the cave trying to eliminate enemy positions. There is only one pagoda left that dates prior to the Vietnam War. The rest are shrines and memorials built since then. There is a great deal of marble statuary and other gewgaws for sale along the hundreds of steps up to the top of the mountain and down into the cave.
The guards here were the only camera shy people we met and we thought that perhaps it’s a security thing. They sat in groups of two or three eating the tiniest of little ant-sized oysters. They picked them out of the shell with toothpicks and ate them, smiling and nodding the whole time. They did offer to share with us, but we declined as graciously as we could. We have found throughout Vietnam that the local people are unfailing polite and friendly. Being kind to other people is part of their religion (just as we Christians are taught) however they seem much more frequently to put it into practice.
We ended our travels for the day in the delightful little village of Hoi An, (pronounced “hoy ann”), where we found a nice breeze from the ocean, but it was still so humid we needed to change clothes twice a day. Hoi An is on the banks of the Thu Bon River and was an important trading post for several centuries before the river silted up and the ships went elsewhere. There were Japanese, Chinese and European traders here from the 16th to the 18th Century who have left their imprint on the village including Chinese pagodas, a Japanese covered bridge and the so called “tube” houses which feature a shop in the front, two courtyards in the middle (one just for women) with living quarters and a kitchen and bathroom areas in the back. They are an amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese and French design. They could be as narrow as 6 ½ feet wide and as deep as 262 feet, and thus the “tube” moniker. These houses were the forerunners of the “rocket buildings” we saw in Hanoi, which were limited in ground area by original deeds, and so the only place to expand was up.
The covered bridge was built in 1593 by the Japanese Trading community who needed it to access the Chinese Quarter in the old town . However in 1663 the Japanese Shogun decreed that Japan would no longer trade with foreigners and the Japanese community here ceased to exist, but the bridge and its Japanese character were maintained. Hoi An has remained untouched by modern warfare, which enabled us to enjoy it as it has been for centuries.
In its prime, Hoi An was a trading center along the lines of Macau, and an international melting pot. In the Old Town there is still a specific Chinese Section and a Japanese Section. We took a walking tour of the Old Town which still has almost 850 ancient structures. Today 2,000 people live here – a much smaller population than in the olden days when it had a deep water port. The city used to be called Faifo and it reached its peak prominence during the 16th Century. The houses were largely built by Chinese, Thai, Portuguese and Dutch who needed “trading houses” to wait out monsoons and storms. Wares from India and Europe were traded in the old Chinese Quarter. It has narrow streets, two story shops with elaborately carved pillars and facades.
We had a stroll though the village and walked through some of the houses and community halls that were open to the public. We stopped at the Cantonese Assembly Hall (Quang Dong) which was built in 1786 by seafaring merchants. We had a short walk through to see the elaborate carvings on the altar and the wall hangings. The altar is dedicated to a Chinese Warrior named Quan Cong, identifiable by his red painted face. The Chinese Dragon, symbolic of power, stability and prosperity is prominently featured in the majority of the ancient buildings.
We also visited the the Quan Kong Temple and the Central Market. At the Fish Market we missed the action since it starts at 5:30 a.m. and the market closes when the fish are all sold. Chinese specialties in the Old Town today are tailoring and cooking classes. No cars are allowed in the old part of city, which is about 30 kilometers and 100 years away from Danang.
We had lunch at a Restaurant called the Morning Glory, which we understand is a flower that the locals actually eat. For certain hours the streets of Old Town are pedestrian only which makes for very nice leisurely strolling. As we walked we found that there is stiff competition for laundry business here and the ladies, extolling both their skills and affordability, clamor loudly for business. We gave our business to an enterprising woman who met us at the gates of our hotel hawking the superiority of her enterprise called the #1 Laundry.
We checked into the Life Resort Hoi An, a beautiful garden oasis of tranquility amid the hubbub of the village of Hoi An. There is an abundance of flowering trees and shrubs that make the hotel grounds spectacular such as frangipani, hibiscus, oleander and gardenia. We were thoroughly pampered at the hotel with cold towel and tea, flower arrangements in our room and rose petals scattered across out bed.
By the pool with flowering vines dangling over the water, we enjoyed cool cocktails, followed by more drinks at happy hour at the bar. We walked into town for dinner at the Brothers Café and had a great meal beside a waterfall with a table overlooking the river. The weather had cooled to perfect and we enjoyed the tropical gardens and ponds with lily pads. The ponds had big brown frogs that have a croak that is something of a cross between a dog barking and a duck quacking. On our walk back it was very quiet with no motorbikes allowed, but we did see a few renegades furtively sneaking down the deserted streets.
February 26, 2012
We were to start our day with a tour of My Son (pronounced my sohn), one of the principle centers of the Cham civilization. We continued to see strange vehicular sightings – today’s highlight was two men and two dogs on a single scooter. We thought it was really sweet until we remembered that it is not unusual for Vietnamese to eat dogs (they put the dog in hot dogs literally), but we chose to believe these are just two guys and their pets going to the dog park. In other strange vehicular sightings, we also saw a guy balancing a big pegboard full of cheap sunglasses on his motorbike and a woman on the back of a scooter, balancing a laundry basked full of plucked chickens heading into town.
We were told that corruption among traffic police is quite rampant and payoffs are openly and frequently made to them. Motorbikes do not legally have any sort of right of way here, but they seem to just take it, and the traffic cops, if properly incented, turn a blind eye. There is a law against vagrancy here, so to avoid detection, the unemployed often erect ramshackle shops full of useless stuff they’ve gathered and advertise it for sale. This provides a front to allow loitering by the would-be proprietor and would-be customers. Apparently the government wants to give the illusion that everyone is happily employed.
As we drove the 1 kilometer to My Son, we had time for a quick refresher in Vietnamese. Hello is xin chow (pronounced seen chow). Thank you is cam on (pronounced cum un), yes is vang (pronounced vung) and no is khong (pronounced comb). Good is tot (pronounced tote) and bad is khong tot (or no good). Thus armed, we were ready to mingle with the locals.
There were stands along the road selling sticky rice which the local people buy for special occasions such as a full moon or an offering at a temple or shrine, hopefully in exchange for a blessing. Shrines are often in incongruous places, often seen in the middle of rice paddies. We followed the course of the Thu Bon River, which gets its start in the mountains of Laos and proceeds to the sea at the village of Hoi An.
The translation of the name My Son is Beautiful Mountain and it is indeed beautiful here. There were at one time 70 classic Cham monuments dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries set in the valley below Cat Tooth Mountain. They were made of bricks with tree resin used as mortar and adorned with sandstone carvings. It was the center of the Champa (a.k.a. Cham) Kingdom from the 2nd to the 15th Century A.D., and it actually predates the more famous Angor Wat in Cambodia by several centuries.
Until August of 1968 they were in relatively good condition, but American B52 Bombers destroyed many of the structures when My Son became a battle zone in “The American War”. Large craters are still in evidence today and only 20 buildings were able to be restored. The rest have just a few vestiges of rubble and foundation to suggest their presence. The Viet Cong had been operating bases out of My Son and other historic sites, thinking they would be safe from American bombs, due to our regard for historical treasure. Unfortunately for that historical treasure, this was not always the case. My Son is only 30 kilometers, less than 20 miles from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After efforts by archaeologists to intervene, the US State Department in January of 1971 ordered that all possible measure would be taken to protect what was left of My Son. The French had left behind detailed architectural drawings so some efforts at restoration are achieving results, but much of the site was simply obliterated.
Throughout our journey through Vietnam, we saw people making offerings of money to whatever spirit from which they seek blessings. They burn this at the pagoda, but it is only copies of paper money (they aren’t crazy, after all), but it was interesting to note they are paper copies of US Currency. The idea is that the smoke will drift to departed loved ones in the afterlife and provide wealth for their next re-incarnation, but then if they are reincarnated as a gold fish for example, they would have no use for money – but of course faith is not always logical – that’s why they call if faith. Other offerings we saw included Marlboro cigarettes (or the box anyway), Coca Colas (or the cans anyway), flowers, incense, rice cakes, fruit and photos of ancestors.
We walked the paths of the ancient complex, which is still impressive, despite the destruction. The Hindus have sacred cows as they do in India and so it was not uncommon to see them grazing amid the ruins. (We wondered if the phrase “holy cow” come from the Hindu religion). A short Hindu-style dance performance was staged for us, which seemed to have a lot of Middle Eastern touches. For the second number, a guy playing what sounded like a kazoo came out to serenade (a.k.a. toture ) us in a tune that sounded like the one you here when the snake charmer is coaxing the cobra out of the basket. We found that a little of this music goes a long, long way. But after that there was story telling which Ngoc translated for us which went something like this. The brother of Ganesh (the god with the elephant head) had a brother named Skanda, and while Ganesh represented good and peaceful things, Skanda represented war and other bad things. Their mother set up a competition to see which of her two sons could run the fastest. Skanda tried to cheat and to ride a peacock and took off. Ganesh simply walked behind her and then appeared before her coming from the opposite direction and declared himself the returned winner. We were wondering if Ganesh’s mom was a little slow not to pick up this small deception.
In My Son, the statues and sculptures were created by building brickwork and then carving relief forms into the brick. My Son was not known to the outside world until the late 1890’s when the French found it, although it had been a religious center for centuries. The 70 original temples are divided into 11 groups, named after letters of the alphabet. Some of the distinctions between groups are based on influence and time frame. For example the deities portrayed in a structure designated C1 seem to show Javanese influence, demonstrating a link to Indonesia. All the Cham towers are divided into 3 parts – the base represents the earth, the center is the spiritual world and the top is the realm between earth and heaven. Temples contained sanctuaries called kalan, and were dedicated to one of the gods, typically Shiva. The Shiva Lingam is a phallic symbol and the yoni is the symbol of the goddess. In a ceremonial ritual water would be poured over the lingam through a spout in the yoni to symbolize creation. Typical embellishments were stone pillars, religious carved images, and ornately decorated false doors. There were also causeways and meditation chambers called mandapa. Typical carvings might include figures of Dancing Shiva, Shiva, Nandi ( a mythical bull) and a stone Garuda (a large mythical bird).
In the Hindu Religion there is a triumvirate of gods: Brahma is the Creator of the universe, Vishnu is the Preserver of the Universe and Shiva is the Destoryer of the Universe. This is a continuous process, but the destruction is not necessarily a bad thing in that much that is evil or impure is what is destroyed and the world and people are continually improved.
In Structure D2 there is a small museum showing sculptures including apsaras (dancers) salvaged after the bombing, with a modern roof with skylights added. Structures in Groups E,F,G,H are heavily damaged with only fragments surviving. Much of the sculpture in the Cham Museum that we saw in Danang has been rescued from these sections. The structure designated B6 is mostly noted for its image of the Hindu god Vishnu being sheltered by a 13 headed naga (dragon). Group A was almost totally obliterated by the bombings of 1969, but it once had a very striking tower and sanctuary. Almost all Cham temples have a door facing east. The one here had a west door to associated with death – facing complexes B,C, and D which are believed to hold tombs of Cham kings.
The Cham had dark curly hair and it is believed that they came from Java. They are one of 54 minorities in Vietnam today and interestingly enough, they all seem to get along today. There was once a huge number of Cham people, but the Dai Viet tribes from the north started encroaching on the Kingdom of Champa and eventually their society was wiped out.
We had lunch and relaxed by the pool at the hotel, and then in the late afternoon, Ngoc came to get us for a bicycle ride through the rice paddies and into the countryside. It was a leisurely ride of only 3 to 5 miles, with many stops to see rural Vietnam. Notable sights that we chuckled at en route were – a bike repair shop called Hung Manh, a laundry service called the Dung Laundry and a shop run by a family named Thit ( we laughed about this and then Ngoc told us the “h” was silent and we tittered anew). Leaving town we noticed a gas pump, not as at a typical gas station, but in a portable tank with a hose set up on the sidewalk under an umbrella, with a steady stream of motor bikes stopping in to fuel up.
In a more educational vein, we stopped to watch a family working a field with their water buffaloes, and then turning them out to pasture for the night. The pasture was about the size of a postage stamp so it is a good thing it is quite the jungle here so they could have enough to eat. We saw many of the local people with conical hats and baskets balanced on poles to haul goods that we have grown accustomed to here. We also saw our first Vietnamese scare crow which entailed bamboo poles with plastic bags wired to them to simulate a farmer flapping his arms and legs.
We stopped at a beautiful beach, just steps from out hotel and a young girl selling fans and chop sticks gave her sales pitch to Gary, and he promptly bought a pair of her top of the line chopsticks. When she learned that today was his birthday, she gave him a complimentary vial of tiger balm (which is eucalyptus oil) which is good she said for headaches and mosquito bites. She then pronounced him “Happy Buddha and rubbed his belly for good luck, and” as the locals often feel free to do for good luck when they see a large man.
After our bike ride we retrieved and paid for our laundry, which was a considerable bargain of $25 for 10 kilos, washed, ironed and folded, but alas a few garments were also made significantly smaller in the process. It is a good thing clothing is cheap here.
At dusk we had drinks at the Heritage Bar at our hotel, outside under trees hung with lanterns. Gary was presented with a gift of a bag of peanuts by the waitress when she learned that today was his birthday. And of course she took the liberty of the requisite belly rub as well. We asked her to teach us how to toast in Vietnamese and it was something like “Moi Hai Bai Yo”. There is no telling how badly we mangled this toast, and the staff probably did some tittering of their own. The hotel brought out birthday cake (of sorts) and the staff sang a mangled version of the birthday song, something starting out “hop burse dai to ooh). Then there were roses presented to the ladies and matchbooks for the gentlemen. All in all it was a really special birthday for Gary.
We walked into town and had dinner at the Good Morning Vietnam restaurant (apparently they liked the movie here – it never would have flown in Hanoi). It was Italian food instead of American, but we were glad to have it since we were getting “noodled out” at this stage of the trip.
February 27, 2012
Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City
Latitude at Ho Chi Minh City 10.75 Degrees North, 106.66 Degrees East
Today we caught a Vietnam Airlines flight out of Danang and flew to Ho Chi Minh City known during the Vietnam War as Saigon. Here the Vietnam War is called by government propaganda the War of American Aggression, but more commonly, when mentioned at all, it s called the American War, and nobody seems to be bearing a grudge. We arrived at the former Tahn Sa Nhut Air Base, which is now their commercial airport. We were met by our local host for Saigon, the lovely and vivacious Mandy who said that Hanoi thinks of Saigon as a crazy place full of naughty people too immersed in capitalism for too long – straying far for the ideals of Communism. Mandy told us that she learned English by listening to Voice Of America Radio Broadcasts.
The city is home to 11 million people. Government people call it Ho Chi Minh City, locals call it Saigon (which has a much more exotic ring to it). We saw the Korean Volleyball team at the airport baggage – we just knew they were Asian, but Mandy recognized them as Korean by their appearance – she says Koreans are tall people (by her standards, not ours) with flat faces and a more pronounce fold above their eyes.
We arrived in 35 C degree heat (about 95 Fahrenheit), and while this is winter and the dry season, the humidity combined with the heat was close to suffocating. And so we decided cocktails at the hotel would be just the thing to revive us, but we did have one military museum to visit first.
Mandy told us they have “military museums” all over the country, even in small rural villages, but most often they are just war left-overs stuck on a parking lot, but it passes for culture here, since the powers in Hanoi tend to micro-manage culture and strive to keep it non-Western. Saigon tends to resist this sequestration from things Western and is consequently much more sophisticated than Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam.
There are many parks here and a lot of traffic with vehicles everywhere – mostly motorcycles, taxis, bicycles, but it seems more sane than in Hanoi with its kamikaze drivers. There are still propaganda posters everywhere that are so stereotypical, that they are almost parodies of themselves – except nobody local who might see the humor is actually allowed to laugh – at least in public. We tourists can, but locals can’t because Big Brother is indeed watching. Saigon is much more westernized than Hanoi and not nearly as grim looking. They say it is hard to get people to live anywhere else once they have seen Saigon (along the lines of “how do you keep them down on the farm, once they have seen the bright lights of the city) and seems obviously true. Vietnamese pay a 10% Income tax and a tax on luxury items, but not on food. Government workers make very low wages and it is a common practice to peddle influence and insider information to supplement their income.
The heart of in Saigon is a street called Dong Khoi, now lined with shops, restaurants and museums, along with leftovers from the colonial era such as the Post Office, the 19th Century Notre Dame Cathedral and the Municipal Theater (also known as the Opera House, which was once the center of French Society). During the colonial era it was known as the Rue Catinat. Back in those days the street had elegant shops that co-existed with bars and brothels, although the communist regime pretty much cleaned up the sinful stuff. They also renamed the beautiful Hotel De Ville (essentially City Hall) with the name “People’s Committee Building”, which sounds like it would be a drab blocky structure, but they had the good sense to keep the building intact. After the economic liberalization of 1986, the glitz came back, minus the sleaze factor. The Jade Pagoda, the most renowned in the city is nearby, as is the district called Cholon, or China Town. Ethnic Chinese are known as “Hoa” and they sell all sorts of traditional medicines and other Chinese goods. Some of the most ancient pagodas are found here. A popular way to explore is the motorbike taxi called “om”, but this looked a little too death defying to us, so we stuck to our Mercedes van.
We drove to the Grand Hotel down wide tree line boulevards (Saigon has been called the Paris of the East, as well as Pearl of the East) and since these boulevards and many structures were constructed during colonial times, the similarity is no co-incidence. In 1855 the French selected Saigon as the capital of what they called Indochine. At that time the French were the top of the pecking order, but with today’s oligarchy, the Communist Party members comprise the aristocracy.
There are two seasons here – Hot and hotter and even now in the so called dry season it rains around twice a day for around 30 minutes. In the wet season if there is to be any contrast, it must rain all day.
Office workers get a 2 hour lunch break from 11:30 to 1:30 to allow time for lunch and a nap and people actually take pillows and mats to work. They work late, from 7 until 10 p.m. in some cases. In 1975 the Communists tried to introduce commercial farms (collectives) which involved sending city people out to farm, which proved to be a monumental failure. The city people lacked the skills and the will to do farm work and there were widespread food shortages. Vietnam ended up buying food from China and Russia, who had already pretty much arrived at the conclusion that the collectives were not such a good idea. In 1985, the government leaders agreed on capitalism for farms and they have been largely self-sufficient ever since and even have leftovers for export. With that came added wealth, which led to Western business invited in. It seems somehow that once McDonald’s and KFC infiltrate, Communism is doomed. It has continued to slide downhill ever since. Retirement age in Saigon is 50 for women and 60 for men and in Hanoi, it is 60 for women and 65 for men which gives Hanoi more reason to discount the value of their Southern countrymen.
We are finding that South Vietnam doesn’t seem to be as thrilled with the Reunification of the country as the north is. There seems to be a lot of civil liberty abuse and Big Brother activity, and of course the seat of power is now in Hanoi, which seems to be an irritant
We saw the Continental Hotel, steeped in history, where most of the Western journalists stayed during the Vietnam War and had cocktails at their sidewalk café. We had an excellent lunch at the Vietnam House and briefly visited City Hall and the Rex Hotel – another popular place for westerners during the war.
Our stop after lunch was the former Presidential Palace which is now a museum called Reunification Hall. It was first home to the French Governor General and called Norodom Palace. Then after the French left, President Diem moved in to take up a rather tumultuous reign, along with his Vice President who happened to be is little brother. The little brother was married to a woman known as Madam Nhu , who virtually ran the country, made possible by the ineptitude of the two brothers. In 1962 Diem’s own air force bombed the palace in an assassination attempt. That particular attempt failed and the palace was rebuilt, but then there was a successful assassination in 1963 before Diem was able to move back in, masterminded by Vietnam’s military generals. Diem was succeeded by a series of leaders until they settled on President Thieu. It was here at the palace that President Thieu
received a steady stream of dignitaries, until, seeing the writing on the wall, he resigned, leaving the country to his Vice President named Huong (as in Huong out to dry). Thieu boarded a helicopter at the American Embassy, and fled Saigon, as the city was falling to the North Vietnamese. There is an iconic photo of a North Vietnamese Tank breaking down the Embassy gates that has furnished no end of propaganda to the Communist regimes. President Huong was only in power for one day before he fled, and left it up to his top General Minh (no relation to Ho Chi Minh) back at the palace to surrender.
They have kept the palace just as it was in 1975. (They say it “fell” here in the south, but they say it was “liberated” in the North). The palace looks very much the part of a 1960’s building, sort of an art deco vibe with lots of wood paneling and marble floors and really uncomfortable looking furniture. It is not an enduring architecture for the ages, but quite evocative of the time.
Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum, located in the former US Information Service Building. Mandy sent us into the museum and cautioned us to be careful about what we say. We would not get into trouble, but she would. She said guides have been disciplined and lectured and re-indoctrinated if they should stray from the script, so she chose to not provide a script.
The museum was filled with pretty much one-side propaganda, but they did lose an estimated 3 to 5 million people in the war and there were some awful things that happened in a lot of places, and so this is the spot where they choose to point out the horror of it all. They didn’t spare any grisly details including a human fetus deformed by Agent Orange which we chose to skip looking at. The most interesting display was a collection of war photos of the 134 journalists who were killed in both the Indochina War (the French) and the American War. The journalists were from all over the world.
There was a lot of US military materiel in a large parking lot adjoining the museum which was rounded up from around the country including Huey and Chinook helicopters, downed planes and so-forth. Of course in 1975 when Saigon fell, anything that could fly did fly so they only have the disabled equipment to display. It wasn’t a particularly well organized museum, given the number of odd historical juxtapositions, such as a French guillotine next to an Army tank.
For those who may wonder or have forgotten or never known just how the US got embroiled in the war, here it is in a nutshell. The French were defeated by the Vietnamese in a decisive battle in 1954, leaving a power vacuum. World powers at the time came together and came up with the Geneva Treaty, splitting the country into North and South. The treaty said they should hold elections and reunite the country under whomever was elected. Ho Chi Minh, a Communist was the candidate in the North. Supposedly the South, without a strong candidate and backed by fervent anti-communist French and American influences, reneged on the treaty and established what was supposed to be a democracy, but it looked, smelled and tasted like a monarchy under Diem. At this point the French pulled out and over the course of 10 years the Americans pulled in, largely out of fear of the Communist Domino theory that was prevalent at the time, i.e. if one country falls to the Communists, they will all follow suit. (If they had only known to send in our burger joints and fast food places, maybe along with some headliner entertainers, things might have been vastly different. Instead thousands of US soldiers and millions of Vietnamese were killed, Communism took over and failed miserably.
We stopped by the Notre Dame Cathedral, (called Nha Tho Duc Ba), built in 1880 by the French. It is built of locally quarried stone and ceramic tiles imported from Marseilles, France and was the tallest structure in the city at that time. A statue of Virgin Mary outside erected in 1959 with the hope that she would bring peace – which eventually did happen, but only after a lot of bloodshed. Religion struggled here under the Communist regime, but today 10% of the population is Catholic. Mass is held 3 times a week, with one service each in Vietnamese, French and English. Buddhism and Hinduism both are waning here. Buddhist in Vietnam are not allowed to ask for food in exchange for blessings as they do in Thailand. Mandy told lazy people would dress up like monks to get free food ( a big news story exposed by journalists) and also it looked bad for the Communist Party ( like maybe their system was not working so well).
We also visited the Post Office, which sounds like a yawner, but this is a most unusual post office with a beautiful French Colonial exterior and interior. It is a salmon colored building, with elaborate carvings of western philosophers an scientists. Inside it is reminiscent of a train station with intricate tile floors and columns. In the midst of all this spendor however is a larger than life portrait of Ho Chi Minh which somewhat detracts from the overall ambiance.It still functions as a post office but there is also a souvenir shop What used to be banks of telephones are now ATM’s. There are benches inside and it is blissfully cooled by air conditioning.
We did a drive by of the old US Embassy which was turned back over to the US and demolished. Today there is a US Consulate there and the US Embassy now is in Hanoi. Pictures are strictly forbidden, but there were so many trees it was hard to see anything in the first place. This was the scene in 1968 of an attack during the Tet Offensive and also in 1975 of the chaotic evacuation where so many Vietnamese desperate to get out had to be left behind.
We also drove by the Municipal Theater ( Nha Hat Thanh Pho), also called the Opera House. It was built in 1899 as a concert hall for the French. It has a sweeping staircase, fountains and statuary that you would expect from the French, and another refreshing change from the austerity of Hanoi. It served in 1956 as a government legislative building, but today, it is back hosting performances.
After 1975 a new urban zone was created and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The zone encompasses former towns and districts into one zone, so names like Saigon Cholon and Bien Wa are still used. In French Colonial times, Saigon was sort of an outpost, and it gained all of its sophistication once it was the capital of South Vietnam.
Back at the hotel, we went to the rooftop bar at our hotel where journalists used to congregate during the days of the Vietnam War. We decided there must be a new generation of bar tenders since when Gary ordered a martini, they brought him a glass full of Martini & Rossi. He tried to explain how to make a martini and ended up going behind the bar to make his own and to make them for other customers who wanted one. It was quite an evening, concluded with a quick supper.
There are two things among many that we will have to save for next time – a walk around Cholon (the Chinese District) and a tour of the Jade Pagoda. We were out of time and energy at this point and since we still had Cambodia and Bangkok to visit, we figured we might get overloaded with pagodas.
February 28, 2012
At breakfast we were talking about a CNN news story and Stu and Sharon said they did not get CNN. Mandy had to explain that at the hotels they have rooms for westerners with all the news channels and rooms for locals with no outside media. It appears we had a western room and Stu and Sharon had a local room. We chalked it up to “Big Brother trying to maintain control of the locals and still cater to tourists and business people from abroad.
Today we had our choice of seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war or to go the Mekong Delta. We chose the delta, thinking it would be the cooler of the two, both literally and figuratively. We drove south from Saigon in madhouse traffic, resembling a motocross race with a new adventure at every intersection. As they were in Hanoi, suburban Saigon buildings and houses were narrow with very little road frontage and none of the French charm we found in the older parts of the city. Twenty million people live in the 11 cities and departments in the Mekong, so it is by no means a rural outpost.
We passed a lotus farm that looked remarkably like a swamp from the road, but on closer inspection you could see the blossoms. Lotus is both cultivated and grown wild. It is a water plant with big round leaves resembling lily pads. The blooms are held up by pods that hold seeds and are quite decorative in their own right. All available real estate is used for agriculture. We saw people planting grass by hand in the medians to feed their animals.
We were told that helmets are compulsory for motor bike riders over the age of 6. We didn’t quite get that logic, but maybe they figure younger ones will be okay in a collision. Mandy’s husband and daughter are members of the communist party because – he is an engineer and that is the only way he can win bids for projects and the daughter wanted to go to one of the best schools and you have to be Communist to get into it. Mandy is not a member, but nevertheless has to toe the party line.There are a wealth of billboards leaving the city, the government ones clearly evident with their self congratulatory propaganda that we wonder if anyone believes.
Once the Communists in power learned that people do not work well on land they do not own (and it took them 10 years to figure this out), here in the Mekong Delta each little farm has a family plot that is owned by the farm workers. We also saw grave markers in the rice fields so they make multiple uses of the land. The rice fields we saw were a pea green color and we were told the rice had two more months to ripen (it is a 3 month process).
We were told that they are building an amusement park here – sort of a Disney knock-off which is another interesting venture into capitalism We stopped at a rest stop – similar in some ways to those in the US in that they offer restrooms and things to it, but different in other ways – you can nap in a hammock out back by a lotus pond under the coconut palms and almond trees. Motor bikers often use these and they can sleep as long as they want at no charge. Mandy says these only exist in the south. In North Vietnamese, this would be considered naughty and slothful.
The name Mekong comes (a.k.a. Song Cuu Long meaning the River of 9 Dragons) It is named for the 9 estuaries of the river that flow through the province of Vinh Long. There are two main channels, the Mekong and Co Chien, creating islands with canals crisscrossing them. The river has its origins in Tibet and it transits China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before entering Vietnam. The delta is called the Rice Basket and the Fruit Basket of the nation, covered with coconut, mango and longan trees (a relative of the lychee) growing in the rich alluvial soil from the thousands of years of silt brought on the 2,800 mile journey from Tibet. This area has long been the center of conflict with occupation and wars including the Vietnam War with a liberal dousing of Agent Orange, and a bloody 1978 massacre and takeover attempt by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. Today if you knew nothing of the history – there is nothing here to give it away. There are numerous pagodas throughout the delta belonging to the Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese that reflect the ethnic diversity and all seem to peacefully coexist now. There are beautiful beaches and islands to see here, but our focus would be on the busy river itself.
We stopped at the Mekong Delta town of Tay Ninh, home of the Great Temple of the Cao Dai sect, established in the 1920’s. Cao Dai has attempted to create a synthesis of all the great world religions. The sect uses spiritual mediums who channel spirits of the dead, and this is an essential part of its worship practices. The religion was codified (written down) in 1926, largely based on spiritual séances conducted by the founders, channeling such notables as Joan of Arc, Descartes, Shakespeare, Pasteur and Lenin. Entrances to the temple are separated by gender. We passed on the temple in order to take a Mekong Cruise.
We met up with our boat, a private sampan, in the village of Cai Be, a 3 hour drive from Saigon. Our boat guide was Su An. Our first stop was the land market and factory complex called Cuu Long where they made candy, rice cakes, popcorn treats, crackers and other snacks that we sampled. Our guide here was named Phuc (no tittering – the “h” is silent, and it is pronounced “puck”). We encountered a hat salesman who convinced Gary that he need one to keep the sun off – a fine idea, but this one had a distinct Gilligan look that was not the least flattering so I think it might not have been worn since the day of its purchase.
The Mekong is a fascinating place. A wide brown river the color of yellow tinged chocolate milk flows lazily through dense jungles in various shades of green, and if you ignore the fact of gasoline engines powering the sampans, you can imagine they way of life has it has been for hundreds of years.
We saw the Cai Rang floating market that has been in operation for over a thousand years. Farmers sell to merchants who use their boats to reach their customers who come shopping in their own boats, or in some cases, the seller’s boats go house to house along the river. They advertise what they are selling by hoisting it up like a flag. E.g. a man selling, onions, garlic and cabbage will display those on a bamboo pole. The fish sellers have live wells to keep their fish river fresh, except for the unlucky display specimen. And the chicken salesmen – yep they hoist up a chicken, protesting all the way. We learned that his way of life is actually endangered. Well intentioned Americans built a bridge, and investors built grocery stores and imported vehicles. We felt fortunate to experience it before it is gone.
We had a delicious lunch at a home stay Bed and Breakfast call Ba Linh. To reach it, our sampan had to plow through water hyacinths to get us close to a dock. From there we had a short trek through shacks and jungle to get to our restaurant – feeling somewhat skeptical about the whole thing
We made our own fish wraps (called, we thought, something that sounded like “yum” – or maybe we just thought it was the name since they were “yum” indeed. We later saw they were called bahn trang and weren’t sure how we derived yum from that. They brought out a whole fish and showed us how to flake the meat off to make our wraps and this was some of the best fish we have ever had anywhere, chocolate milk colored water notwithstanding. We started with what they call rice paper, but it is totally edible made from a thin batter of rice flour and water. It is stretched over a pot of simmering water. The steam cooks the wrapper in a matter of seconds. It is not that different from a flour tortilla, but it is thinner. Included in the wrap were the fish, lettuce, mint, cucumber – all wrapped in rice paper. We also had chicken soup with noodles and the best eggrolls ever along with prawns, pork sticky rice and local fruit – papaya, jack fruit, guava and pomelo. We all agreed that this was the best meal we have had on this trip, and interestingly enough, it was in the most humble surroundings.
There are two types of houses here – stilt (fixed on bamboo poles above the river and floating (drifting on pontoons which in many cases are 55 gallon drums). Bridges here connecting houses to the shore are often what they call “monkey bridges” – not that different from the monkey bars from American playgrounds only more rickety. Along with the floating homes there are often floating villages offering all sorts of goods and services Roofs of both houses used to be thatch, but almost all have converted to corrugated metal since it is cooler and lasts longer. Many floating house have fish traps and thus many residents of the river rarely have to set foot on land. There is a covered hole in the floor of the floating house, under which is suspended a large net. Fish caught here are stored live until they are ready to be eaten. The area is also used an in incubator for fertilized fish eggs.
We had a tour of the restaurants gardens and orchard where they showed us how they grow just about everything they serve. Then we had a little local music and some folk dancing, involving hoes and brooms, which was intended, so we gathered, to represent local history and customs, but I have to say it was a little hard to follow. Local music still sounded quite tinny to us, but they finished off with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne and Freres Jacques so we could all sing along and make our own awful music. All in all – it was a fun day.
Then it was back to the dock and through water hyacinths to get back to open water. We were told that water hyacinths can be a menace because they grow so quickly, but he locals use them for weaving and erosion control. As we made our way back to the dock, our local guide provided individual foot massages – truly a full service operation.
We started back to Saigon in the late afternoon. On the way home Mandy pointed out a kite flying park jam packed with both children and adults flying kits. Saigon is too congested (including traffic and low strung power lines) for kite flying, so families come here and bring a picnic and make a day of it. Mandy said sometimes people will put a flute-like on the kites to make “music”. Saigon also has an annual kite competition with Hue, but we weren’t quite sure how the judging went.
Sometimes attendees will have sort of rolling picnic, eating en route, such as the family we saw, each with a bowl of rice on the back of a motor bike, eating away at 40 MPH. The driver thankfully was not joining in the meal on wheels while they were underway. Mandy said that in addition to kite clubs, Vietnamese also have goldfish clubs, nightingale clubs, bonsai, stamp collectors – all on the tame side and then on the wild side they have motorbike clubs.
It is also common for people to work as volunteers. Mandy does this herself to work with the monks taking care of abandoned babies, some of which are just a few days old by unwed mothers. Such abandonment is common since there is no such thing as child support in Vietnam and many babies are adopted overseas. She said that some mothers come back to the agency saying they want to meet with the adoptive parents, but often it is just a scam to shake them down for money, and so that is not allowed.
We returned to the city close to dusk and decided to visit some of the hotels made famous by journalists during the Vietnam War for rooftop cocktails. Our hotel, the Grand was another one frequented by journalists and westerners was built in the 1930’s, but we had visited its rooftop the night before. Three other hotels prominent during the Vietnam War included the Caravelle, the Rex and the Continental. The 10 story Caravelle Hotel (with its bullet proof glass), was built in 1959 and became popular with journalist and diplomats
The Rex, built in the 1950’s was the tallest building in Saigon during the Vietnam War, topped by the much patronized rooftop Garden Bar where journalists also used to hang out. Many famous journalists stayed here, most notably Walter Cronkite, whose candid reporting convinced then President Lyndon Johnson that support for the Vietnam War at home was evaporating. This report generated the famous Nixon quote: “If we have lost Cronkite, we have lost the nation”. The Rex was also the hub of US and social and military activity. It was from here that US military officers gave the daily press briefings that became known as the “Five O’Clock Follies” which were blatantly misleading and self serving. These are the briefings that Cronkite largely debunked after his visit. The hotel is once again a hub of social activity today.
The Continental, built during French colonial times, has an elegant atrium which is popular for afternoon tea. The rooftop terrace bar on top of the Continental Hotel was dubbed the Continental Shelf. Prior to the war it was popular with writers such as Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. All the major American Newspapers established news bureaus in Saigon. Reporters joked that they could cover the whole war and never leave the rooftop bars. Of course all this glamorous hotel and war correspondent business ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Mandy had told us about a Tex-Mex place that is really popular. We did a walk by but kept on walking – it was way too popular and had too many menu items that were neither Tex nor Mex. Finding it was a challenge because street addresses were never numbered sequentially. People kept their original house number so you might have 112 next door to 114 or you might find a lot of other numbers in between. There was no odd-even numbering either. We asked Mandy how fire or policemen find an address if someone calls for help. She said every neighborhood has someone who knows every person in every house and quite a bit about them so they can do double duty (1) they can direct the emergency crews to a specific house (2) they can report to the government if there is anything that might be unapproved going on. (like having foreign guests in your house). They also can keep an eye on suspected criminal elements and drug addicts so they can be rounded up and sent to a rehab center to be reformed. Mandy also told us that many Vietnamese would like to travel to the US, but visas are hard to get. The government of their country and ours are afraid they won’t come back. She says the best way to visit the west is to escort a tour group, but you are under constant scrutiny to make sure you don’t defect. We thought it was interesting that so many structures are said to belong to the people (e.g. The People’s Committee Building) but they are not open to the people.
We have had a wonderful and fascinating visit to Vietnam, far exceeding our expectations .Tomorrow we fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia to continue our adventure. One of the key lessons learned here was that the Vietnamese seem to bear no ill will toward Americans. We were told that the Vietnamese feel that Russians, the French, the Chinese all came to take. The Americans came to try to give something of value – democracy, and that is why they like and welcome Americans so much today.