Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Mekong Delta, Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue, DMZ, Hanoi, Ninh Binh

July-August 2000


Vietnam is a long, skinny country shaped like a barbell - with Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south and Hanoi in the north. Saigon is prosperous, entrepreneurial and flashy; Hanoi is the greener, less commercially-flamboyant seat of government. Our two-week journey led from Saigon down to the Mekong Delta, then up to Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue, the DMZ and concluded in Hanoi. Along the way, we took several small-group, one- and two-day guided tours. (Normally we prefer to discover a country on our own, but these tours were an efficient way to cope with our two-week time constraint here; they were excellent tours, too.)

What was our dominant impression of Vietnam? That its two main cities are exploding with entrepreneurial activity. In the countryside - where 80% of the population lives - people are working the rice paddies, fishing the rivers, growing livestock, and running truck farms and small businesses. The economic units are families, not communes.

We were both heartened and bemused by all this activity. Isn't it ironic that - although the war to stop communism failed - the free market system is eroding communism's foundations and succeeding? The government of the graying Vietnamese Communist Party continues to control the media and own the land and most large companies, but it's been allowing reforms which have unleashed economic incentives. This has resulted in a strange and changing political/economic dichotomy. As one wag put it, Vietnam operates under "Market-Leninism!"


We experienced the burgeoning free market economy as soon as we taxied from the airport into Saigon - in the midst of a horrendous downpour that flooded the streets. The boulevards and narrow lanes were lined with bustling shops and filled with vendors. Coolie-hatted farmers hawked fruits and vegetables from baskets balanced on bamboo poles. Cyclos (pedal rickshaws) moved precariously under huge burdens: eight 80-pound bags of rice; or four live, trussed-up hogs; three dozen ducks, feet tied, heads hanging down, squawking indignantly. Young women pedaled their bicycles to work, (improbably, given the heat and humidity) wearing bandit-style bandanas over most of their faces and long evening gloves - the men here reputedly prefer light-skinned women. CD shops blared Asian and Western pop music, and hordes of motorbikes raced dangerously through wet streets crowded with pedestrians.

Cafes and small restaurants seemed to be everywhere. We especially enjoyed the fresh spring rolls, grilled snapper in banana leaves, and a delicious shrimp salad served in a banana blossom. Below, Joan is surrounded by dried shrimp and fish in one of the many markets. Vietnamese fish sauce is the most pungent of all; it's made of remains of rotten fish. Strangely, a few drops of it can make a dish taste delicious.....really!


When we journeyed through the rivers, canals and villages of the Mekong Delta, we visited several small "factories" in people's homes. We stopped to watch rice noodles being made in one place, rice flour in another, and rice/popcorn candy in a third. In each case, the family slept, ate and watched television alongside the factory equipment. Floating markets along the rivers were a tangle of boats piled high with cement, bricks, thatching, and foods. Many of the foods boats were flying cabbages, green onions, fish or bananas from their masts, to indicate what they had for sale.

Roadside stands sold a variety of wares, including banana leaf-wrapped packets of pork and rice, and bottles of rice wine. The latter was also available at our Mekong hotel - a special variety of "snake wine" that is supposed to increase male virility. Large glass jars holding the wine had huge dead cobras coiled at the bottom. We were proud to be able to drink it, keep it down - and even order a second round! We later saw jars of rice wine that also had whole birds (feathers, beaks, claws and all) piled on top of the snakes - along with sea horses and geckos!! Glad we didn't have to try that, too.



Several times, we came face-to-face with the country's lingering poverty. We discovered that the lovely, elegantly-dressed young woman at a hotel desk in Hue was paid only $30 a month. She was about the same age as our daughter, who has had all the benefits of being born into a wealthy country - including the freedom and means to pursue a graduate degree. This bright Vietnamese woman, fluent in at least two languages, has no such opportunities. Vietnam is expensive for her, but very cheap for Western travelers. Our trip through the Mekong Delta cost only $10 a day apiece - including tour guide, bus and driver and hotel room. We figured the hotel room couldn't have cost more than $4 a night, and wondered what the maid was paid to clean the room. At least, says economist Lou, she has a job - thanks to the beginnings of tourism. We did our best to bolster the Vietnamese economy in Hoi An, where we bought entire wardrobes of tailored clothing for one-third price. See SHOPPING

The young generation, according to some accounts, is apathetic towards politics and broader social issues. With no memory of the "American War," young people seem interested primarily in their own welfare. Many hope to buy a Honda Dream II motorbike (a big status symbol) despite its price tag of $2,800 - more than ten times Vietnam's per capita Gross Domestic Product of $250. Perhaps this is not much different from the aspirations of many American young people, if you substitute a BMW for the motorbike.

Hardest of all to face were two rural women (one is shown below) we met during a day-trip to Nihn Binh, outside of Hanoi. They poled us along in a boat for three hours - through flooded rice paddies, into huge caves and past towering karst formations. At the end of the boat ride, the women begged us - almost on hands and knees - for money. They said (our tour guide interpreted) that the government takes almost everything that our tour ticket cost, and leaves them with little for their efforts. We felt such an inner struggle between our opposing desires to discourage begging and to be humane. It's difficult to know the extent to which our tourist spending trickles down to the common people. There's evidence that much of the trickle gets dammed up in corrupt politicians' pockets.  A Hong Kong firm that issues annual rankings for corruption among Asian nations, put Vietnam at the top of the list - honoring it with the "Imelda Marcos Golden Shoes Award" for grand larceny.


Unexpectedly, we found Hanoi to be a captivating city. The French influence lingers on its cream-colored villas and tree-lined streets. We stayed on the edge of the Old Quarter, a noisy tangle of narrow streets jammed with life. Waking early one morning, Joan spent an hour at our hotel room windows watching the street awaken. At first, there was only a lone walker swinging her arms in some five a.m. exercise routine. Then a man opened the whole front of the narrow building across the street, put blocks in the gutter and drove his car down into the street. His wife moved mannequins and display cases into place - and voila! The garage was transformed into a clothing shop. Both garage and shop are just the street-side portion of the family's living quarters. In most of these narrow buildings a back room holds the television, rolled up sleeping mats and an altar with family photographs, ancestral urns, flowers and incense. Usually the kitchen and bathroom are shared by several families. This type of narrow "tube house" is only about ten feet wide but 150-180 feet deep. As Economist Lou expected, a tax levied in the 17th century on the width of shop fronts in Hanoi led to the construction of these weird narrow footprints. We longed to enter the long corridors between the tube houses to see the beehives of family life hidden from tourists' sight.

The Old Quarter evolved around different guilds and trades, and this pattern is still evident today. Near our hotel was what we called the "hardware street." Other streets specialize in shops selling thread, gold watches, bamboo ladders, woven mats or brightly-colored temple goods. The "Thirty-Six Streets", as the Old Quarter is known, form one of the most crowded spots on earth. In 1954, its inhabitants lived in an average of 15 square feet. Today, each resident lives in an average of about one-third of that. No wonder pajama-clad children play on the sidewalks after dinner - there's nowhere else to play. On these warm summer evenings, Hanoi simply empties itself inside out.

The sidewalks of the Old Quarter are filled with tiny "cafes" - most of which are merely a cart serving noodle soup, surrounded by 6-10 plastic stools often occupied by old men smoking long bamboo pipes amidst tangles of parked motorbikes. There's no room for pedestrians on the sidewalks - we had to pick our way cautiously on the crowded, narrow streets through frightening traffic. We witnessed two collisions between motorbikes ridden by helmet-less drivers at terrific speeds.

Lou describes the Vietnamese traffic situation thus: 1) The first rule of the road is that there are no rules. 2) The red color of the very few traffic lights provides only a mild suggestion for drivers' "possible conduct." 3) Loud horn honking is the best way to approach intersections. 4) The white lines down the middle of highways leading out of the city mean nothing. To be fair, Lou notes there is a "weak tendency" for drivers to veer to the right in the face of oncoming trucks and buses, but no concession is made to pedestrians, bicycles or motorbikes. 5) If in doubt, always remember Rule 1.


As Americans, we couldn't think of Vietnam as just another travel destination. During our pre-trip reading, we began to feel guilty that we had never taken a stand - one way or the other - regarding America's involvement in the Vietnam War. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the war and the war protests were raging, we had our noses to the grindstone. Joan was both exhilarated and exhausted from teaching in inner-city schools, while Lou was immersed in the rigors of graduate school. Our own lives consumed our attention. We read the newspapers and watched the war on television, but remained emotionally and intellectually detached.

During that time, Lou was nearing the end of eight years of reserve duty in the army. He was a paratrooper trained as a specialist in Southeast Asian economies. Military training had always seemed to him like playing "cowboys and Indians" - until the possibility that he might get called up became more and more real, along with the prospect that he would have to kill human beings and perhaps be killed himself. He was glad when his term of reserve duty ended and he resigned his commission. Our two-week visit to Vietnam in 2000 caused us to search for an understanding of America's massively destructive, immensely controversial involvement there.


For those too young to remember the Vietnam War - or who, like us, tried to forget it - here's a brief review:

France colonized Vietnam and exploited it for 100 years. During World War II, the French were forced out by the Japanese. After the war, the French fought for nine years (1945-1954) to regain control of their former colony. The U.S. paid for much of the French war in Vietnam - $3 billion in military and other aid. Despite this, the Communist Viet Minh forces overran the colonial French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the French gave up. The country they left was divided into a Communist dictatorship in the north and a right-wing dictatorship in the south. Shortly afterward, the Geneva Accords provided for a temporary division of Vietnam into two parts, separated by a demilitarized zone (DMZ) bordering the Ben Hai River near the 17th parallel. The Accords also provided for a nationwide election to be held in 1956, which most observers say would have been handily won by the Communists. However, Diem, the anti-Communist, right-wing leader of the southern part - with the backing of the U.S. government - refused to allow the election, and the Ben Hai line became the de facto border between North and South Vietnam.

In 1960, the Hanoi government founded the guerilla Viet Cong (VC) to take the South by force. In 1963 Diem was assassinated, and in the next two years the VC infiltrated the South in such numbers that the Saigon regime was on the verge of falling. At this time the US propped it up by committing its first ground troops, increasing these to over 500,000 by 1968. That's when the war turned. As the divided nation celebrated Tet - the Vietnamese New Year - the VC launched a massive attack. The "Tet Offensive", combined with the deep divisions in America over the war, convinced the US politicians to get out of Vietnam. The Paris Agreements of 1973 provided for a cease-fire and total US withdrawal, and Saigon surrendered to the North in 1975.


We signed up at our hotel in Hue for a 13-hour small group tour to several battle sites in and around the DMZ at the 17th parallel. The eight of us plus driver left Hue in a van, stopping in the small village of Lap Thach to pick up our Vietnamese guide Nguyen ("ooh-yen.") During what the Vietnamese call "the American War," he taught languages at a university in Saigon. In 1972 his village was blanket-bombed by B-52s and 120 people were killed. These included an aunt, some cousins and several friends. (He still returns to the village every year to join with others in commemorating the dead from this bombing.) Nguyen then joined students in protesting the American presence in Vietnam. At the end of the war, he was subjected to a couple of years of Northern "re-education" on how to think and teach.

Nuygen's attitude towards us Americans appeared to be genuinely friendly. Indeed, all of the Vietnamese we met treated us with respect, despite the fact that we had showered them and their land with explosives, napalm and agent orange. We asked Nguyen: "We are sure that you like us for our tourist and foreign investment dollars, but how do Vietnamese - the old as well as the young, in the North as well as the South - privately view Americans today?" He responded, "No problem. Almost all Vietnamese like the American people."  All around the world we've found that folks easily make the distinction between American people (whom they like) and the American government (whom they often don't.) Of the two giant nations they've encountered, most Vietnamese fear China far more than America and see the U.S. as a potential ally against their historic enemy.

The DMZ (demilitarized zone) was, ironically, the scene of many of the fiercest battles of the war. This zone was called the McNamara Wall because it was the idea of the U.S. Secretary of Defense to build a "fence" of fire bases to prevent the North from infiltrating the South. However, the VC then did an "end-run" around this fortified area via the 16,000 km Ho Chi Minh trail in the hills of Laos, Cambodia, and western Vietnam. This led the US to beef up its isolated, westernmost firebases - such as Khe Sanh. We traveled westward along Route 9 which is 10-25 km south of the Ben Hai River, passing through areas of fierce fighting around Quang Tri, Cam Lo and Khe Sanh. Then we moved north over the Ben Hai River to visit the Vinh Moc tunnels. This was largely a trip to imagine things that are (after 25 years) no longer there, but Nguyen gave us a strong dose of history and interesting stories to make it more real for us.

Our first stop was a ruined church in Quang Tri. The badly shot-up edifice was the scene of 81 days of fighting in 1970. At different times, both VC and American troops occupied the church. The incredible number of bullet and artillery holes suggests that there were more than a few casualties here. One particularly disturbing perspective appeared as we moved into the right nave and looked up through a high arched opening. There, perfectly framed in the war-ravaged window, was a fallen cross. What a collision of symbols!


As we drove along, everything was apparently normal. We traveled alongside several small rivers, where men strained to muscle in their fishnets; below a bridge 35-40 water buffaloes cooled off in the river. The two-room houses along the road typically were surrounded by a clean-swept yard with a pile of drying chili peppers or coffee beans. There were stacks of bundled sticks for fuel, a bicycle or motorbike, a couple of chickens and laundry on the line. But the landscape was deceptively placid. Most of the region is still plagued by unexploded land mines hiding beneath the foliage. It's an ever-present danger and an impediment to economic development. In Nuygen's province of 500,000, some 5,000 people have died from mines and traps since the end of the war.  Every week, a water buffalo gets blown up. A month before we arrived, two children playing in a field were killed and a third was badly maimed. Further, although the land can recover from Agent Orange in about 15 years, humans can't. Some of the women who live in this area are still bearing grotesquely deformed babies. (We had seen such bodies bottled in formaldehyde and displayed in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.)

We were reminded of danger from a different source as we rode down the highway. Although there are very few cars in this country - and almost none on this particular road - there are many other vehicles. Huge trucks and overbearing buses barreled down the middle of the narrow road air horns blasting, "playing chicken" with our bus driver, who was also straddling the center line to avoid the many weaving bicycles and motorbikes on the shoulder. Life seems cheaper in this part of the world.


 Although the famous Khe Sanh airbase is gone, there is a small museum on the spot with a photo collection and maps. We stood right where these photographs were taken and could see the same profile of the surrounding hills from which the Viet Cong bombarded the base. Outside the museum, there are a couple of rusty old howitzers and an M-41 tank. A vendor was persistently "hawking" U.S. military dog tags. Joan was so upset about the selling of these tags - when some American families still don't know the fate of their loved ones - that she told him, "No! Bad!" and pointed at the tags. As she walked away, he spat on the ground behind her. Without turning around, she also spat on the ground. This was a first for her. She can only use her total frustration at the whole issue of the war as her excuse. At least they made their points without spitting on each other!

Back in 1968, Khe Sanh was one of two relatively isolated western outposts. The Viet Cong had thousands of troops in the surrounding hills. Every time the VC detected that a U. S. plane or chopper was coming in to the airstrip, they fired artillery rounds timed to arrive there at the same time. Fear and chaos must have surrounded the unloading and loading of personnel and supplies with those rounds coming in!


In response to bombardment by U. S. airplanes and offshore naval vessels, the 1200 people in Vinh Moc fishing village went underground. Between 1966 and 1968 they dug out three kilometers of tunnels - emerging only to fish or work in the fields. Lou was excited about going down into the tunnels, but Joan went just a few steps inside and decided it was too claustrophobic for her. She retreated to await the others outside. They descended in a narrow tunnel for 75 feet, shining flashlights along the walls as they crept carefully in the warm, stuffy darkness. They had to hunch way over to clear the ceiling, as the Vietnamese are considerably shorter than most Westerners. The group passed countless tiny cubicles dug out of the clay in which entire families once lived. Some larger spaces included conference room, warehouse and a clinic where 17 children were born during the war. After 15 minutes, the group emerged - covered with dirt, blinking at the light and gulping in fresh air. How scary it must have been to hide in crowded darkness for five or six years! This was one of many such tunnels inhabited during the war. Although this one was not damaged by the bombs and shells, thousands of people were trapped and died in some of the other tunnels when their exits were demolished.


This was a long, emotionally-draining day. Of course, we didn't have the same experience as a tired Marine being shelled at Khe Sanh airbase or a scared Vietnamese villager hiding in a tunnel. But we did feel as if - in some small measure - we were bearing witness to a terrible time that shouldn't be forgotten.


Along with thousands of Vietnamese we slowly shuffled through the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi. "Uncle Ho" - as he preferred to be called by the Vietnamese people - lies in state in a glass case, his wax-like face and hands eerily lit. (When he died in 1969, the Russians embalmed him using the same secret technique that they used on Lenin; every year Uncle Ho flies to Moscow for a check-up!) Afterward, we went through the small stilt house where Ho Chi Minh lived and directed the war effort. During his colorful life he lived in the U.S., England, France and Russia, assumed different identities and mastered many languages - including English, French, Russian, Mandarin and Thai. The Moon guidebook to Vietnam says, "In late 1941 he entered China disguised as a blind man, intending to muster support for the Vietminh. However, he was arrested by the Nationalist Chinese on suspicion of being a Franco-Japanese spy." Biographical accounts of Ho Chi Minh differ wildly. Some writers describe him as a womanizer and the mastermind of atrocities; others liken him to a wise and gentle intellectual. An enigmatic figure.


Our travelogue from Vietnam caused us the most difficulty of any we've written. We sat back-to-back at computers in Internet cafes in Saigon and Hanoi, dueling for hours over whether the U.S. should have been involved in Vietnam.

Why did the U.S. get involved in Vietnam? The reason repeatedly given to the American people was the "domino theory." If Vietnam fell to communism, countries across Southeast Asia down through Australia and New Zealand also would fall - like dominoes. The 1950s and 1960s were decades when the West was terrified of this communist threat. This was the period of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Soviet missile bases in Cuba.

Was this perceived threat real? Yes, says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman in her fascinating book, The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam. Nevertheless, Tuchman maintains that the U.S. committed serious folly sending troops there. Our government misread the communist world as united, and didn't understand the Vietnamese desire for independence from all exploiters - including the Chinese. Tuchman does not condemn all war; she says that some wars seem just or inevitable - America's entry into World Wars I and II, for example. But she finds evidence that five of our presidents ignored the advice of many respected experts - including some military commanders - who opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Other experienced leaders believed just as strongly that this war was vital to U. S. and free world security. Hindsight, of course, is always clearer than vision during the smoke of battle. In his 1995 book, Robert McNamara (U.S. Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson) makes the devastating admission that the U.S. involvement in war with Vietnam was a mistake. He writes, "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why." It's easy to blame  misguided politicians, but Tuchman puts the ultimate responsibility back on the electorate. She decries the fact that commercial fund-raising and image-making techniques lead to the election of ill-equipped leaders. We must learn to elect those with integrity of character and moral courage, she says, if we are to avoid the results of ambition, corruption and emotion.

Although the past was very much with us as we traveled through Vietnam, the excitement of the contemporary scene continually pulled us back to the present. Twenty-five years after the end of the war, Vietnam is beginning to rejoin the world community. Until recently, normal economic incentives were muted, investment, trade and travel were restricted, and the country was entrenched in poverty. This isolation was a legacy of the war, sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies, and the Communist government's denial of many forms of private enterprise. The situation has been changing rapidly in the last few years. People now have room to move and they're not afraid to bear risk for personal gain. Through all the strife and struggle, the people and the landscape remain beautiful. Of all the countries we've traveled through since retirement, Vietnam is one we'd like to visit again.



GUIDEBOOKS:  South-East Asia on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet); Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook (Moon Guides)

BACKGROUND READING:   To understand something of the American foot soldier's experience in Vietnam, we highly recommend Tim O'Brien's books, especially two novels: The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato (the latter won the National Book Award for Fiction.) His first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, is the autobiographical account of his year as a foot soldier in Vietnam. Also highly recommended are Dispatches, Michael Herr; The Sorrows of War, North Vietnamese soldier Bao Ninh; Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, Andrew X. Pham

FILMS: The Fog of War (filmed interview with Robert McNamara); Indochine; Scent of Green Papaya; Apocalypse Now; Deer Hunter; Cyclo

(2000 Prices)

HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON):  Hotel 64, $15/night double, including bathroom, refrigerator, fan, a/c, breakfast and simple dinner. Clean, friendly place, used mostly by young backpackers. 64 D Bui Vien  Ph: (848) 836 5073

Saigon Tourist Travel Service: Excellent 2-5 day tours through Mekong Delta. Cost for the 2-day tour was about $20 apiece, including one lunch, hotel room, guide, tour bus, factory tours and ferry rides. (Our 2-day tour was not long enough for this fascinating area.) 49, Le Thanh Ton St., Ho Chi Minh City  Ph: (848) 823-2009; Fax: (848) 822-4987

HOI AN: Thanh Binh Hotel #2, $25/double including bath, a/c and breakfast.  www.vngold.com/ha/tbinh/ (We spent 3 days and many dollars in this city, which has lots of fast, reasonable tailors. We had a good experience with (don't laugh) A Dong, 36 Leloi Street  www.adongsilk.com 

HANOIi: Asia Hotel, $18/double, including bath & breakfast. Clean, spacious, with a good location near the Old Quarter.   826-9007. www.vietnamstay.com/hotel/asia/



Lou and Joan Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net