When the United States instituted a draft lottery during the Vietnam War, my draft number was 19 – which meant I was sure to be drafted if I had not been in college at the time. As it turned out, America’s involvement came to an end just before I graduated in 1973.
I took pictures of Vietnam’s shoreline from an airplane while en route to Singapore and Indonesia in 1971, and that was as close as I wanted to get at the time. With the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, this year, Susan and I had an opportunity to visit Vietnam in a more peaceful time.
It would have been more fun if not for the country’s continued desire to portray itself only from the North Vietnamese perspective, and as a battle for independence from France rather than the ensuing civil war between the Communist-controlled North Vietnam and the democracy-minded Republic of South Vietnam. Our guide in Hanoi, who was not yet born when the conflict came to an end, would not even acknowledge that there had once been a South Vietnam: only that “thousands of people had died for no good reason.”
Whether from government pressure or because they truly believe visitors want to go there, standard tours include a maudlin visit to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, who led the fight from independence from France and allied himself with China, Russia, and other Communist nations. Visitors must wear sleeves and cover their knees as if visiting a temple while standing in a long line to climb through the austere building and parade around the glass-encased, well-embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, who fans referred to as “Uncle Ho,” believing his true interest was in the common people.
We also visited a small stilt house where he once lived to demonstrate simplicity, not far from a much larger house where he lived for far longer. Cars used to chauffer him around were on display.
Tours also typically include the Maison Centrale – a ghastly prison originally built by the French to house Vietnamese independence fighters, and later used by North Vietnam as a place to imprison and torture captured American soldiers, especially pilots. The narrative in posters and videos throughout the prison was so propagandistic and duplicitous they could have been written by the current White House spokesman: the stories emphasize cruelty shown to the Vietnamese freedom fighters held by the French, but insist that American prisoners were always treated well and were fortunate to have been captured by such kind and gentle people as the Viet Cong. It was a bit hard to take.
Of more interest was a visit to the “Temple of Literature,” Vietnam’s first university, some of whose facilities date back to 1070, when a temple was built to Confucius. People come to bring food offerings not only to Confucius, but to statues of other famous scholars who taught at the school — a type of academic respect we’re unlikely to see in the states. A pavilion of stone steles perched on giant turtles includes the names of students who passed their exams: impressive transcripts, but they would be hard to mail.
Hanoi itself is a warren of streets laid out with little evidence of planning, all crowded by buses, cars, bicycles, vendor’s carts, and thousands upon thousands of motor scooters that swarm around other vehicles like red corpuscles flowing around the larger white blood cells.
One challenging aspect of visiting Vietnam is getting used to the currency. The “dong” is worth so little that it takes about 22,500 dong to make a dollar: exchange $100 for dong and you’re a millionaire twice over. The problem is that, with so many zeroes and Ho Chi Minh’s picture on every bill, it’s easy to confuse one bill for another. More than once I used the wrong bill — paying 200,000 dong instead of 20,000, for example, but the merchants were always honest and gave the proper change, even when I was surprised to get it.
There was little about Hanoi that I liked other than the food, including a grilled pork and noodle dish called bun cha, and a surprisingly good oyster omelet. Hanoi is also the gateway city to Ha Long Bay, about three hours away, and few if any places in the world can compete with it in the category of stunning beauty. The bay is peppered with limestone islands, generally small and steep, weathered through the eons to produce enough soil for trees to grow.
Some of the islands include caves that invite visitors to gape at the majestic formations, including the “Surprise Caves,” which consist of three adjoining caverns. Either the original explorers or tourism officials had a rather ribald sense of humor. The second cavern includes a rock formation – bathed in red light – that bears a remarkable resemblance to an erect penis. “That’s why it’s called the ‘surprise’ cave,” the guide said (no, I’m not posting that photo).
Another island features a rare beach. Named “Ti Top Island” in honor of the former Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who met there with Ho Chi Minh in 1962, the tall island is topped by an open-air pagoda that reportedly offers a spectacular panoramic view of the bay. We can only take their word for it, as it was pouring rain the morning we visited. After slogging up more than 400 steps to reach the top, we could barely see the outline of the nearest neighboring island.
The only downside of Ha Long Bay is that we didn’t get to stay long enough. We enjoyed the small ship, built like a Chinese Junk, on which we spent most of a day and a night. Obviously, thousands of other people want to see the bay as well, and even though we visited during the off season, other boats were always in sight.
Ha Long Bay is a long ride from Hanoi, but it gives travelers a chance to see miles and miles of scenic rice fields dotted with tombs of past family members, buried in the fields in hopes of increasing future productivity.
A visit to southern Vietnam offered a study in contrasts. After North Vietnam captured the city in 1975, officials imposed the in-your-face name of “Ho Chi Minh City” on it. Not surprisingly, locals still prefer to call it Saigon. People in the south continue to prefer democratic rule, and are happy that the country, though still under one-party rule, is not fully Communistic: residents can own and sell land or houses, operate their own businesses, and so forth. They pay taxes (those who don’t deal entirely in cash, at least), and pay for their own medical care.
Saigon is a more modern city, but huge and just as teeming with swarms of scooters as Hanoi. Once again, our favorite things were those that weren’t reminders of the war. Tourists are typically taken to the CuChi Tunnels, an underground maze of low tunnels, barracks, kitchens, and workshops where Viet Cong infiltrators – supported by many surrounding villagers – stayed out of sight while inflicting heavy damage on American soldiers through booby traps and surprise attacks. Heavy bombardment and defoliation of the area never succeeded in dislodging them. As we ventured into tunnels and noted how well they were disguised, we could hear the noise of guns firing. At first, I thought it was a recording designed to add atmosphere, but it turns out that the exhibit includes a firing range, where people who always wanted to fire Vietnam-era weapons can do so, for a price.
As in northern Vietnam, the fun for us did not lie in the city, but in a visit to the Mekong Delta, a two-hour bus ride south. There we took a small boat across the wide and muddy river and then down a smaller offshoot to visit villages where we watched coconut candy being made, from husking the coconuts to grinding the meat, pressing out the coconut milk, boiling it down with various natural flavor additives, then molding, cutting, and packaging. In another village we had a delicious drink of green tea mixed with local honey and kumquat juice. In yet another we enjoyed locally grow
n tropical fruits, including berry-like longon, sweet jackfruit, pineapple, papaya, and tart slices of guava, typically dipped into crystals of pink salt.
Along the way we rode in a horse-drawn cart (Susan felt terrible for the horse), and in smaller boats called sampans. It was hard not to laugh when the women paddling the sampans back to our larger boat let us out, then cranked up a hidden inboard engine to motor themselves back for another load.
Our tour concluded with dinner at a non-profit organization called KOTO (Know One, Teach One), where at-risk teens are taught life skills such as cooking and waiting tables. Our waiter at dinner that night regaled us with an a capella version of Celene Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” from the movie Titanic.
Coming home was an adventure: we left the hotel at 3:00 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. flight to Tokyo, which lasted six hours and put us 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. We left there on a flight to Washington-Dulles airport, flying for more than 12 hours but arriving before we left. Such is the miracle of travel involving the International Date Line. The trip went without a hitch until we arrived at the Raleigh-Durham airport, where lightning in the area kept us sitting on the plane for a half-hour, and then a false fire alarm kept us waiting another hour for our luggage.
As much as we enjoyed the food in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, it may come as no surprise that our first meal back in the states involved a juicy hamburger with fries, lots of American-style ketchup, and no misleading propaganda — until the next tweet from the White House.