Article & photos by Jon Haggins.
The war in Vietnam costs both sides uncounted casualties and created a diplomatic tangle that took decades to heal. Today the country welcomes American visitors and many of them have included former U.S. military personnel who fought and lost comrades in the prolonged conflict.
Today Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is a thriving metropolis with much to see. One large and imposing structure is the Reunification Palace, which was the former residence of the President of South Vietnam until end of April 1975. The War Remnants Museum exhibits several floors with posters, photos and artifacts of the devastating war. There are also a number of aircraft on the grounds to remind everyone of the country’s past.
France progressively carved for itself a huge colony, which would become French Indochina in 1887. France continued to rule Vietnam as a colony until France’s defeat in the First Indochina War and the proclamation of Vietnam’s independence in 1954. Some French colonial structures remain, including the very impressive Notre Dame cathedral. The Old Central Post Office is a grand building that includes a modern shopping mall. China Town is intriguing and colorful, especially the Thien Hau & Quan Am Pagodas and the Thanh That Saigon where locals come to worship.
A must visit is the Ben Thanh market where anything and everything is for sale. One of the fascinating features of the market is haggling for the best price on leather goods and trinkets. Actually I didn’t need anything, but I wanted it, so I did the old walk away trick and pretended I didn’t want it. Eventually the vendor surrendered to my price. It is a cultural game and I love it.
One must take a Rickshaw ride through bustling streets and interweaving with a million motorbikes and tons of traffic. It’s a very energizing experience. It’s also amazing that there aren’t many accidents. It seems that everyone respects the other’s space. While riding in the Rickshaw you get the lay of the land, passing hotels, shops and restaurants. There are a number of street vendors selling everything from flowers to fresh fruit. The city also has a number of lakes and public parks where families come to relax. A lovely Buddhist temple with the best view of the city sits in the middle of one of the lakes.
The locals are very friendly; it’s the land of smiles. They are always willing to assist with directions or whatever you ask. English is spoken throughout the city. Ho Chi Minh offers a variety of terrific restaurants serving the best cuisine. We dined at Home Restaurant. The building was once a mansion during the French occupation. It has been converted into a fine dining experience. There are also many first class accommodations throughout the city.
At an early evening dinner cruise on the Mekong River the entertainer encouraged guests to participate in the show. The shoreline was lit up to show off its treasures and there were several other dinner cruise boats passing us on the river.
We were picked up at the boat station heading to My Tho. We stopped briefly at the bricks-kiln to watch the brick makers at work. Then we boarded the boat to a coconut processing workshop along the canal. The workers were making coconut candies and colorful souvenirs.
We also stopped in Nhon Trach village by motor cart “Xe loi” to visit a mat-weaving village and then to a local house to enjoy some seasonal-fruit and coconut juice. Then we transferred by row-boat to a motor-boat along the Nhon Thanh creek and back to Ben Tre River.
The next morning, we traveled along the Mekong River to the Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho. It’s a fascinating market where vendors start their day at 4 a.m. selling their goods from boats. They are very creative, displaying their fruits and other items on bamboo poles, which are called beo poles and are used to advertise their goods. Lovely ladies, in their coolie hats, and gentleman parade up and down the river. This is not a tourist experience, but a local experience. It is magic to the eye. From every angle there is a fascinating and colorful photograph to be taken.
The river was sprinkled with floating patches of algae and buzzing boat traffic that passed in both directions. Cai Rang floating market is a wholesale area specializing in fruits and vegetables, local staples commodities, merchandise and delicacies that characterize the region’s cultural identity and enhance the market’s distinct charm. There are 400 to 500 boats on an ordinary day and up to 700 trading boats during the run up to Tet holidays. By 9 a.m. the boats grow thin and the market closes.
Hanoi is the modern capital city with lots of skyscrapers and an abundance of new development. The city is very green with a variety of parks throughout. It has a number of lakes such as Hoan Kiem Lake. You can cycle ride around the Old Quarter streets from Hang Dau to Hang Gai.
No visit is complete without visiting the Temple of Literature. It is a site of special significance that encapsulates the culture and heritage of the Vietnamese people. One of the temple’s outstanding features is the garden of mandarin stelae, which is home to 82 carved stone tablets that list the names of over 1,000 outstanding scholars from the 15th to 19th centuries.
The Temple of Literature was constructed in 1070 during the Ly Dynasty. Five years later, the royal court hosted its first national exam, yet it was not until 1484 that Emperor Thanh Tong of the Le Dynasty ordered the erection of the stelae listing the names of the top scorers from the exams of 1441 and onwards. In 2010, UNESCO honored these 82 stelae as a World Heritage of Memory Site in Asian Pacific.
Vietnamese cuisine is very light and often a combination of noodles. Restaurants offer a variety of updated dishes that are very satisfying. I met with Nguyen Quy Phuong, the Chairman of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, for a fine dining experience at The Wild Rice Restaurant. He talked about a variety of attractions the country has to offer.
The Vietnamese are very proud of their Hydro-Electricity Plant in Hoa Binh, which supplies energy to the country. It’s an amazing site with an endless tunnel that leads to an underground power plant. After departing the plant, we were off on a fantastic boat ride on the Da River where we shared lunch on board with local entertainment. The captain allowed me to take the helm of the boat and wear his cap. I was captain for an entire hour. After disembarking, we stopped at some Muong and Hmong tribal villages.
Then we boarded a motorboat to go up the river. Next we boarded a canoe where the guide steered our boat with a long pole. He worked up quite a sweat maneuvering though the narrow and shallow waters of the estuary passing many small villages.
Homestead Lodge is located in the heart of an oasis where the freshest cuisine is served such as: elephant fish, fresh vegetables, and an array of assorted dishes. Dining under a thatched roof is a perfect way to spend the afternoon. Homestead also offers lodging and bikes to explore the surroundings. While walking from the Homestead Lodge through the thick jungle, suddenly a green snake dropped from the tree in front of me and scared me half to death. Someone told me it wasn’t poisonous. That was a little too much excitement for the day.
Mai Chau is an eco lodge that sits high on a mountain with the best view of rice fields. We biked along the rice fields and stopped for a photo op. We met a young lady who was tending the fields and asked if we could borrow her basket and coolie hat for a photo. She was most agreeable. Then we were off to a village before returning to the lodge for a dip in the pool. The outdoor pool was a perfect place to cool off after a fun day of touring.
The lodge’s restaurant serves an array of spectacular dishes to whet your appetite. The accommodations are first class. Dinner was celebrated with a traditional music and dance show.
Vietnam is a fascinating destination that has to be explored because it has so much to offer and the people are so hospitable.
WINDSOR HOTEL SAIGON
Phone: +84 8 3833 6688
FORTUNE LAND CAN THO
Phone: +84 710 3656 656
LA CASA HOTEL HANOI
Phone: +84 4 6656 0560
MAI CHAU ECO LODGE
Bản Nà Thia, Xã Nà Phòn, tt. Mai Châu, Hòa Bình, Vietnam
Phone: +84 4 6275 1271