Sunday, 31 May 2009

Reader Travelogue: Visiting Vietnam

A taste of this fascinating country will leave you longing for more.

It's not often that you can visit a city that is 999 years old. But that was the case during our trip to Hanoi in March.

The city is preparing to celebrate its 1,000-year anniversary next year, and we took a trip to see old Hanoi before the inevitable changes come.

If you're going to fly to Vietnam, you'd better be prepared for some serious air time. Our itinerary took us from Memphis to Los Angeles, then to Taipei, Taiwan, and on to Hanoi. Total travel time including layovers in LAX and Taipei: 26 hours.Flying from Chicago, our daughter, Jaime, and her fiancé, Ron, were to meet us in Hanoi.

Ron had booked the hotel for us; a small one in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The Rising Dragon hotel was a perfect fit. It is small (17 rooms), very clean and located in the Old Quarter, which is by far the most charming part of Hanoi. And, the price per night (breakfast included) was $27.

Stepping outside the hotel was to be thrust into the daily life of tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Because almost all of the shop owners live above their shops with

extended families and because air conditioning is very rare in those old buildings, most of the daily life is lived on the streets. This means cooking, eating, reading the newspapers, and especially, chatting with neighbors and family members. Throw in an unbelievable number of motorbikes, cyclos (bicycle cabs), bicycles and cars, and you have what can only be described as chaos. But it works. People shop, prepare their meals, eat, clean up, etc, all in the streets and on the sidewalks in an amiable atmosphere.

A fascinating aspect of the Old Quarter is the system of streets catering to a specific commodity to sell. For example, the Rising Dragon is located on Hang Be street. Hang means market and Be refers to what is sold, in the case, shoes. Tens of thousands of shoes in hundreds of shops. Other streets specialize in jewelry, electronic gadgets, flags and banners. There's even a street specializing in counterfeit goods, many of which are made to be burned by mourners at funerals to send the deceased off with some of the amenities they had enjoyed in their earthly life.

Another feature of the Old Quarter are the restaurants that offer only one item on the menu. The one we visited, Cha Ca La Vong, billed itself as the oldest restaurant in Vietnam. Its only offering is monkfish. The fish is cut into small chunks of meat and brought out to the table sizzling in an iron pot over red hot coals, It's placed on the table with greens and rice noodles. Mix these in the pot to your satisfaction and continue cooking until you're ready to eat. It was excellent. Other restaurants specialize in pork patties with noodles or pancakes stuffed with pork, as well as other dishes.

One breathtaking activity is crossing a busy street on foot. The traffic never stops, but the locals nonchalantly step off into the street. The key is to keep moving, albeit slowly, and constantly eyeing the traffic.

Of course, must-see sights in Hanoi are the water puppet theater, the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh lies in state. Lines are long, but move quickly under strict supervision. And of course there's the Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain and other U.S. pilots were held after being shot down. The museum displays his flight suit and shows hundreds of pictures detailing the bombing campaigns and how the people suffered under the American bombardment (and the French occupation prior to that) and lays it on pretty thick that, in contrast, the Vietnamese treated the downed fliers well. No mention is made of the torture the pilots suffered .

Many people ask if there's any residual bitterness toward the U.S. over the war which in Vietnam is referred to as the "American War." The answer is no. The primary reason is one of demographics. To visit Vietnam is to see first-hand the demographic revolution that has swept the country in recent years. At the end of World War II the population of Vietnam was approximately 20 million people. Today it is 86 million. The median age is 27 and this is evident everywhere you go. The number of young people is staggering. You see relatively few older Vietnamese (over 50). This means there is little interest in rehashing past conflicts.

There are many side trips to take from Hanoi. The one we chose was to Ha Long Bay about four hours by bus. It sits not too far from Haiphong Harbor and is the site of some spectacular scenery with stone peaks protruding from the sea. This is also where people live in floating villages, complete with banks and stores.

We continued our trip by flying from Hanoi to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the jumping off point for Angkor Wat. It's a small town almost wholly dedicated to serving tourists. It has an area jammed with Western-style restaurants and bars called Pub Street. There is a large market next to this area dedicated to selling wares produced by local craftsmen.

Many tourists plan to visit Angkor Wat at sunrise. The departure time was 5 a.m., which allowed for the trip to the ruins (approximately 4 kilometers) and then getting processed for a visitor's pass. The price of the permit depends on how long you stay. Our choice was the one day permit, which was $20.

The ruins are huge, covering 38 square miles. They are truly awe-inspiring. One of the more popular sites is one in which the forest has reclaimed much of the ruins. Giant trees have grown on top and down into parts of these sites.

Everywhere, you're accosted by hordes of ragged kids selling knickknacks, postcards, T-shirts, etc. The poverty of this area is staggering. One third of the entire population of Cambodia lives on less than $1 per day. But along the route from the airport there are scores of first-class hotels catering to tourists. The contrast is striking.

From Siem Reap we flew back into Vietnam, heading for Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. Saigon is where the money and most of the economic activity appears to be. The streets and buildings look more prosperous. The number of motorbikes and the traffic has to be seen to be believed.

In Saigon, there are relatively few historical sights, other than the Rex Hotel (the home of journalists during the war) and the War Museum, as well as the former presidential palace.

We decided to travel to the Mekong Delta and after a 4-hour journey south of Saigon, we arrived where we immediately boarded a small boat to travel to an island in the Delta. From there, we visited the obligatory coconut candy factory, the snake wine facility, etc. We also took a sampan trip down the canals that divide the islands. It was both interesting and enjoyable.

We're aware that traveling to Vietnam and visiting Hanoi and Saigon and saying you've seen Vietnam is a bit like hitting New York City and Los Angeles and maintaining you've covered the U.S. The diversity in the country is amazing. It's more than 1,000 miles in length from North to South.

We did not visit Hue or the Central Highlands or any of the hundreds of fascinating sites between these two major cities. But getting a taste of this marvelous country is enough to whet the appetite for more.

Philip Newsom is an international sales manager for FedEx. He has traveled extensively throughout the world. He and his wife Susan live in Memphis.

The Commercial Appeal

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