Thursday, March 21, 2013

Freedom Way Way Off the Bay: Vietnam

When I think of our trip to Asia I think in terms of colors: the ubiquitous purple of Thailand, the brown milky waters of Cambodia, the grey industrial feel of north Vietnam, the pink peach blossoms decorating our hotel in central Vietnam, and the ubiquitous and exuberant yellow gold of the Kumquat Tree signifying Prosperity for the New Year in Saigon.

New Year's preparations were in full force when we arrived in Hanoi, and we quickly learned to say Chuc Mong Nam Moi (Happy New Year!) Everywhere you looked Pink Peach Blossom branches, sprang from vases and decorated banners. Kumquat trees, in varying sizes, were transported from shop to home on the backs of motorbikes. Tall Yellow Mums were lined up as far as the eye could see at roadside flower stands.

Photo taken in Hue, under the watchful eye of the Citadel. The vendors would sleep overnight in the tents. 

Markets were full of New Year gifts and traditions. It is customary to burn "money" and paper trinkets representing goals or wishes in anticipation of the new year. For example, if you would like to a new car, you might burn a paper Mercedes; if you need or hope for a new phone, the markets were full of paper iPhones; but mostly there were stacks and stacks of paper money, ready to be burned with the hope of later becoming a reality.
Money to burn

Wishing for a new Cell Phone and eyeglasses

With the biggest holiday of the year approaching, Hanoi was a swirl of people, motorbikes, and anticipation. It is a crowded, noisy city of narrow streets, motorbikes,beeping horns, and sidewalk restaurants. Our hotel was adjacent to the Guild District where traditionally each of 37 streets feature one craft or profession and its wares. We took a tuk tuk ride through this district -- a fascinating, colorful, up close and personal, and at time harrowing, experience! While trying to avoid collisions with pedestrians, tour buses, & motorbikes, my driver would tap my shoulder, point his finger and say "Madam", making sure I did not miss any highlights.

Looking a little nervous about a Tuk Tuk ride through the crazy streets of Hanoi

A trip to Hanoi would not be complete without visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: A grand structure overlooking Ba Dinh Square. Reportedly, Ho Chi Minh preferred a simpler resting place, but that wish was denied. Strict guards kept us moving up the path to the mausoleum  into the building. When I paused to snap a photo it was made quite clear to me, without words,  that this was not to be tolerated. A raised walkway led us around the glass enclosed body of the former leader in a chilly and dimly lit room. Again, no stopping was allowed, and before you knew it we were back outside. The mausoleum is closed for 6 weeks every year for "cleaning." We suspect it is for another layer of wax and restoration.

We also visited the Hanoi Hilton, -- officially named Maison Central and originally used by the the French to incarcerate Vietnamese --  it gained notoriety, and its nickname, during the Vietnam War when US Prisoners of War were held captive there. As an aside, in Vietnam the Vietnam War is known as the American War -- all a matter of perspective.
In an effort to look towards the hopeful future and not to a difficult past, the area of Maison Central where the US soldiers were held has been torn down. Today, a multi-purpose highrise stands in its place. Visitors tour cells from the days of French rule in addition to a museum of pictures and artifacts from the Vietnam/American War. The photographs show the US soldiers playing basketball, cooking Thanksgiving dinner and John McCain receiving medical care: one of the most blatant displays of propaganda we saw throughout the country.

I really enjoyed a stop at the 54 Traditions Gallery where we received a personal tour from owner and US ex-pat Mark S. Rapoport. The gallery exhibits and sells culturall objects of the 53 Vietnamese ethnic groups, collected by Dr. Rapoport, his wife Jane Hughes and co-owner Nguyen Thi Nhung.

When exiting the hotel on our last morning in Hanoi we heard patriotic songs and speeches emanating from loud speakers throughout the city. When questioned our guide said it was songs and speeches about the greatness of Vietnam.  And he said, "Propaganda."  From Hanoi we headed east to Halong Bay and an overnight cruise aboard a 25 passenger ship. The drive was billed to be three hours, but between the bumpy roads, near misses with passing tricks and buses, and stops to view Vietnamese culture (aka, tourist traps) it seemed much longer. The ride did afford us a chance to view the countryside, endless rice paddies and rural villages. We wondered if all that effort was worth an overnight boat trip considering we had just spent 10 sailing in Thailand. Upon reflection, I would say Yes! The dining room was elegant:

Our rooms were spacious and comfortable (complete with spa tubs):

We relaxed on the deck, toured a cave, and took a hands on class in Spring Roll making. It was a great diversion.

Then it was on to Central Vietnam, and the charming town of Hoi An. Our guide delighted in learning that his father had been in the same town as Al during the war. Life was more "open" in Hoi An. Our guide spoke freely about propaganda, the post war re-education programs, his family's need to star from scratch after the war, and his optimistic hope for social and political change in Vietnam. 70% of the Vietnamese population is under the age of 30. Yes, 70%! As in so many developing countries, the internet has brought the world to Vietnam's doorstep, and as young people see the freedoms and opportunities in other countries, our guide is certain they will begin to demand that for themselves in Vietnam.

Set beside the South China Sea, Hoi An was a prosperous seaport from the 16th to 18th centuries. It is now a bustling town filled with tailors ready to make you a new garment of fine silk within 24 hours; beach-going tourists; restaurants,  a 400 year old covered bridge, and a lively market. I loved Hoi An.

While in central Vietnam we also visited the Unesco World Heritage site of My Son, capital of the Champa Kingdom. The area was victim to heavy shelling during the war and remnants of only 10 of the original 27 temples are in view. Deep crevices made the the shells are found alongside the ancient structures (7th-13th centuries).

From Hoi An we traveled by van across the Hai Van "Sea of Clouds " Pass to Hue. Mountain on one side, cliff on the other we marveled at the hairpin turns and blue sky scenery on one side of the summit, low clouds on the other,
Along the way we viewed a former leper colony set in a secluded cove.

The current residents are soon to be relocated by the government to make room for a luxury resort. When I exclaimed, "Don't the residents have a say in where they go?", our guide replied, "Oh, Mrs. Martha, you forget where you are." That day's reality check.

In Hue we visited the Ciadel, part fortress part palace as well as the ostentatious tomb of the Emperor Minh Mang. While his subjects suffered from poverty and starvation, he reveled in all things European and built himself a magnificent resting place on the mountainside.

We arrived in Saigon tired, and with Al a bit under the weather, the Cap'n, Donna and I mustered what energy we had left after 3 1/2 weeks of travel and set out to see the city.  Speaking of energy, Saigon has it: 9 million people, 5 million motorbikes, modern glass buildings, women in trendy clothing, wide boulevards, lively outdoor restaurants. in addition to visiting the very modern and opulent former Presidential Palace, we toured the Vietnam History Museum with its comprehensive exhibits on the development of Vietnamese culture and the struggles its people have faced throughout the centuries, and the War Museum which offered photographs and artifacts from the Vietnam/American War. Particularly difficult were the photos of citizens esp. children) with physical malformities caused by agent orange exposure.  It was an interesting view of the war from the other side.

The following morning our alarm rang at 3AM -- time to gather our things and drive through the dark but not completely quiet streets of Saigon to the catch  our flight home.  As I write this over a month after our return I must admit I am still processing all of the unique sites and experiences of our Asian Adventure, Way. Way Off the Bay.

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