Growing up in a predominantly communist Kolkata in the mid 80’s, Vietnam invoked memories of discussions in Coffee House of how the ”Imperalist Americans” have been taught a lesson and that the Communist revolution is round the corner to free the people of the world from the capitalists and imperialists.
Well, a lot of water has flown down the Volga and Ganges in the intervening four decades; the Bolshevik’s revolution is long dead and the Socialist countries have become the champions of free market.
To delve into the recent history of Vietnam, a french colony till 1954 when the reversals at Diem Bien Phu led the French to relinquish the colony and grant them independence. The country was then split into two separate nations along the 17th Parallel. What followed was the famous Vietnam War which captured global headlines. The war ended in April 1975, when the Americans were evacuated out of Saigon. Well, while Vietnam (North Vietnam to be specific) won the war, the long war extracted huge costs in terms of loss of lives (3 million dead) and destruction of infrastructure. Interesting to know that un-exploded ordinance from the war has killed 42,000 people since the war ended more than 40 years ago.
For me personally, Vietnam invoked memories of the French Indo China war, the battle of Diem Bien Phu where the famous ”French Foreign Legion” was decimated, death of Robert Capa while photographing IndoChina war, the ’Nam’ war of the Americans, the mighty Mekong delta and its paddy fields, the Tet Offensive and some of the Hollywood movies made on Vietnam, though not necessarily in that order.
So, on a mid October Sunday morning, three intrepid travelers decided to utilise their Diwali holidays and made their way to Hanoi, via Bangkok. Well, we were off to a good start. The new Noi Bai International Airport was a serendipitous experience. Clean, neat, large, well organised, comparable to the best in the world, albeit smaller in size.
And then came the bad news. As we landed in Hanoi, we realised that a typhoon is on its way and our Halong trips stands cancelled. Well, thanks to some deft manuevering by our travel planner, we managed to swap Sapa Valley Trip with Halong Bay.
As we hit the roads to reach the Old Quarter in Hanoi, we were left wondering if we had returned home already. Overcrowded roads full of two wheelers, driven with scant regard for traffic rules and signals, small shops hawking food, beverages and knick-knacks; people sitting on small setees on the sidewalks enjoying their evening cuppa made us wonder if we had caught the wrong flight from Bangkok.
As we reached the Old quarter in Hanoi, it was a sense of
DejaVu– narrow roads, two wheelers, hawkers scurrying around, food being sold in every other shops, people eating and drinking on the sidewalks. We could have been Chandni Chowk(Delhi), Shyam Bazar (Kolkata) or even Kalbadevi Market(Mumbai)
After a quick check in, as we wound our way through the Sunday evening street market in the Old Quarter for our local food fix, we were reminded of the streetside eateries of Kolkata. There were seats or rather 10 inch setees, set up on the sidewalk with small tables. So you almost squat on the pavement and eat a sumptuous meal of your choice, with a million people milling around you, enjoying their Sunday evening out.
And thus begun our culinary journey into the world of Vietnamese food.
As we Indians appreciate, there is nothing called Indian cuisine. Food habits in India change every 150 km or so, sometimes drastically. The same is true in Vietnam as well. The Vietnamese cuisine can be (for a layman) segregated into the Northern cuisine, the Central cuisine and the Southern cuisine with similar key ingredients but the flavours have a distinct character and keeps changing as we moved from North to South. More on that later.
Next day morning, we hit the road. Destination ? The northern mountains of Sapa. Sapa is a hill station in the far north of Hanoi, famous for its mountains, waterfalls, the terraced rice plantations and home to some of its ethnic minorities like Hmong, Dao, Nung etc. The road to Sapa (320 kms) was a precursor to our travelling experience in Vietnam. The macadam masterpiece, without a blemish on its face, ensured a predictable but memorable journey. Our guide in Sapa was Mai, a lady from the northern tribe of Hmong. What she lacked in language skills (spoke English with limited vocabulary), she made up with her smiling face, positive attitude and the willingness to make our experience memorable.
Sapa is a small hill station with a lake and a Church at the centre, reminds one of Shimla, except for the lifts.
After a soulful Vietnamese lunch, off we went to visit the villages of Lao Chai (Black Hmong tribe) and Ta Van (Giay Tribe), with Mai leading the way. Walking through the villages guarded by high mountains, where the populace subsides on step farming, allowed us a glimpse of lives of the hill tribes. The villagers seemed to be used to having tourists around and we managed to get invited to homes of villagers for a quick preview of their lives.
If we delve into history, we will see that for a considerable time in pre modern era, North Vietnam was was part of the Chinese empire. Thus the prevalence of northern tribes, who are culturally and linguistically more aligned to Chinese than Vietnamese.
Walking through the highlands was a pleasant experience with small hamlets, rice fields, quaint houses, cantilever bridges over small rivers dotting the landscape. The life of those farmers did not seem very different from the average Indian farmer with a small landholding; neither did his economic status. Another interesting fact pointed out by our guide was that there is no inter-tribe marriage, which again reminds us of cultural similarities across South and South East Asia. What was different from our country were signs of development – good roads, schools, electricity and internet connectivity in the remotest part of the country.
The growth of tourism, of course, has provided a fillip to the livelihood of the local folks. From my travels, I have consistently seen, country after country that growth of tourism in a geography does wonders to the local economy and populace. And Vietnam was no exception.
Next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, we set out to see Tram Trong Pass and the beautiful forests, streams and waterfalls that dot the landscape. As we climbed higher from Sapa, the roads reminded us of our drives through the lesser Himalayas. What stood out again was the fantastic infrastructure available at each location – place for parking, washrooms, well build roads, walkways and steps etc.
As we reached Thac Bac waterfall on a cold, foggy morning, the majestic waterfall did not seem too inviting. Well, at the coaxing of ever smiling Mai, we decided to don our rainwear and climb up the steps leading to the midway of the falls. Half the way up lies the bridge across the waterfall. Standing on the bridge gives you an great view of the majestic waterfall as it cascades down the mountain. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up in its height and its ferocity as the water perpetually continues to pound the rocks around us, creating a cloud of mist. One could stand quietly on the bridge for hours and let the torrent of water go by. Standing on the bridge over the falls made the effort to climb up worthwhile, even in the inclement weather.
Then started the trek through the mountainous forests of Hoang Lien National Park. The trek would remind you of the innumerable movies on Vietnam War – impenetrable forests, fast flowing rapids and, of course, mountains. What awaited us at the end of the trek was a beautiful waterfall – Love waterfall. While not as majestic as the Thac Bac waterfall, Love had its own charisma, nestled deep inside the national park. Surrounded by dense foliage and mountains, the waterfall was a placid place to quietly sit down and introspect. The immense mountains, the babbling brooks and the greenery all around the Love Waterfall creates a mystic aura about the place. As we trekked back to the staging point, i was wondering whether a longer trek through the national park would have given us a better sense of the flora and fauna of the region. The trek we undertook, through the hills and dales of Hoang Lien National Park in North Vietnam is a optimum trek for a family, long enough to give you a feel of the location but short enough to be done by people with average fitness.
Time now for a quick lunch and then head back to Hanoi on Sapa Express.
A late night dinner in Hanoi was a Pho Ga (Vietnamese Noodle soup with Chicken) at a small restaurant. The subtle flavours of the Pho will be remembered by us for a long time.
The next day morning, we set out for our Halong Bay cruise. After a long drive through high traffic areas of Vietnam, we arrived at Tuan Chau international harbor.
As we embarked on our cruise (Flamingo Cruise), we knew that this will be an experience that will stay with us for our lives. While the boat was no QE2 (it had 14 double occupancy cabins), it was a well appointed boat (refraining it from calling it ship due to its size). What it lacked for in quantity(size), it made up in the quality of experience – from well appointed cabins with large windows to gourmet meals, the experience was memorable.
As the boat sailed out from the harbour into the bay and the panorama unfolded before us, we understood why Halong Bay has the reputation it has. I would refrain from describing it, since it can only be experienced. The vista before your eyes changes as the sun sets and in the dusk, the silhouettes of the sentinels of the bay can hold you mesmerised till they get enveloped in the dark night. As night falls, sitting on the top deck of the boat, one can spend hours looking at the faint silhouettes of the hills and other boats, while listening to the melody of the waves caressing the boat. If you can enjoy solitude, sitting on the upper deck of the boat , post an early dinner, can be an elevating experience. The slight nip in the air only makes the experience more captivating.
Daybreak on the boat is also an experience to remember. Reclining on the sun deck, watching the daylight seep into the harbour in its own pace was a serendipitous experience.
The meals served on the boat gave us literally a taste of the north Vietnamese cuisine. Well prepared and presented, they were probably the best meals on the trip.
Also worth visiting is the MeCung stalactite and stalagmite caves in bay. A really huge cave system, it is well maintained and well lit, which makes it easier to visit. The caves take tens of millions of years to form and very few around the world are as well maintained. Take it slow and easy. Walk through the caves at your own pace and enjoy the formations which are created by the whims of nature.This is one experience that will not be easily replicated elsewhere. So, we slowed down and absorbed the different formations and shapes with all our senses.
Back in Hanoi, walking or taking a cyclo tour are the best options to see the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter, with its narrow lanes, plethora of shops and roadside eateries is popular with tourists and locals alike. On a weekend, the area around HoanKiem lake becomes a walking street and comes alive with people thronging the area to enjoy food, music or to chill out. Impromptu street performances and dances let the locals and tourists mingle and get a taste of the local life.
And then I come back to food (will keep harping on the subject from time to time). The street food scene in Hanoi would gladden the hearts of any foodie willing to experiment with food. The food street in Old quarter becomes a pedestrian road on weekend evenings and delightful options are there to savour, sitting on the small seats on the side of the road.
And then there is the famous egg-coffee of hanoi. In this coffee, the milk is replaced by egg white and is a delightful concoction. The egg provides a smooth character to an otherwise strong coffee, making it more palatable.
Hanoi, devastated during the war, has managed to rebuild itself nicely and today few, if any, scars remain. What you see is a vibrant rapidly growing city, hugely benefited from the opening of the economy.
Our next port of call was Hoi An. We landed at Danang Airport (from Hanoi). Danang is a vibrant port in central Vietnam known for its beaches. The city was developed as a port by the French and is a staging area to visit the marble mountains as well as Hoi An City ( a 40 minute drive).
HoiAn, a small historic town of Champa people, was an established trading port on the Vietnamese coast in the 18th century. It was favourite of Chinese and Japanese traders and had Portuguese, Dutch and Indian settlers as well. Some regarded it as the best trading destination in whole of Asia. After the demise of the Nguyen empire, Danang emerged as the trading hub of the French empire in Indo China and HoiAn was all but forgotten. This also meant that HoiAn emerged unscathed from the tumultuous two centuries and managed to preserve the old city.
The heart of HoiAn is a small ’old city’. The city was originally divided into two parts, with the Japanese Bridge across a small canal dividing the Japanese and the rest of the population(including the Chinese). The Japanese Bridge or Chua Cau is a covered wooden bridge, build in the 15th Century on a brick and mortar base. In the later years, a Buddhist temple was build on its side, and thus it became a bridge with a temple attached to it. The bridge is a prime example of great indigenous engineering skills of Japan. Interestingly, Japan continues to fund and support a lot of infrastructure in Vietnam, including the beautiful new cantilever bridge in Hanoi. So, the Japs could claim to have build the most modern and the most ancient bridge in Vietnam.
The bridge rekindled my interest in covered bridges. Some parts of Europe and America have covered bridges, which while not as well sculptured as the one at HoiAn, are much larger (See the famous movie – ’Bridges of Madison County’ to see an american specimen)
The historical area of HoiAn is a small area (about 2 sq km at most) is an atmospheric and delightful town, where the architectural clock has stood still for three centuries. The old townhouses retain their old charm, painted in bright yellow. There are some of the old wooden houses where 7 to 8 generations of the family have lived continuously and have mostly remain unchanged over the last couple of centuries. One can buy a ticket and visit them. We choose to visit a couple of them.
One, the Japanese home, which is now converted to a museum is a double storied home, made completely of wood. The access to the building was uninterrupted and we could walk through the whole building. The architecture, while not grand (difficult to build a grand building in wood), was reasonably well engineered. The house was build around a small courtyard at the centre of the house, as is the custom is the area. Again, very well preserved, given the fact that this area is beset by typhoons very often(more of this later)
The second historic home that we visited was a living house, where the descendants of the original owners (the 8th generation) were currently living. The original people were probably of Chinese descent and the home was much more ornate that the Japanese one.
In Hoi An, just walking through the streets of the old city is an experience nonpareil. One can just keep walking through the maze of brightly colored buildings, soaking in the town where time has stood still. The sights and sounds of HoiAn undergoes a metamorphosis once the sun sets and the lanterns that dot the shops and the streets come to life. The historic city then acquires a fairy tale like hue, which is, unfortunately marred by the volume of tourists thronging the area. But then, there are always the coffee parlors to laze and watch the world go by. The Vietnamese coffee, though, is an acquired taste and is too strong for most purveyors of coffee.
I could have wandered endlessly through the old city for a few more days, but that was not to be.
One word of caution though, the shops all seem to sell the same stuff and looked like typical tourist traps.
Like all good things, our visit to Hoi An had to come to an end since South Vietnam was waiting for us.
And then we journey southwards to Ho Chi Minh city see soak in sights and sounds of South Vietnam.
HCMC, as Saigon is known today is another bustling south Asian metropolis which has reminds you of India more than anywhere else in Vietnam. A teeming city of 85 Million, with its slow moving and sometimes chaotic traffic and a plethora of two wheelers would remind you of Bangalore or Mumbai.
The area was historically occupied by Khmer people for centuries till Vietnamese people started arriving here. It was only in 1698 that the Nyugen rulers sent in their noblemen to establish Vietnamese administrative structure. The Nyugen rule continued till the French captured the the town in 1859 and build this as their capital of Indo China till 1945. The french influence is thus visible in the key architectures of the city. Saigon was also the capital of the south Vietnam after independence and bifurcation in 1954, till the fall of Saigon to Vietcong forces in 1975.
The cathedral of Notre Dame, General Post Office, Caravelle Hotel, Opera House and the now razed palace of Governor General are testimony of the french influence in the country.
HCMC is also more cosmopolitan and also has a larger share of people who would quietly murmur against the current dispensation in their candid conversations. Those conversations also give you glimpses of chasms dividing the growing country. If you are able to get people to open up, you get to hear stories of pro South Vietnam people being sent to ’re-education camps’ and their progeny denied opportunity for better jobs in the Government sector.
After navigating through the heavy traffic, we head outside the town towards CuChi tunnels. The CuChi area is a fertile part of the Mekong delta and farmers have been historically growing rice for centuries. The Vietnamese forces build these tunnels during the french war. The tunnels were elaborated during the Vietnam War by the Vietcong forces and was said to be around 250 kms long and in three layers. This labyrinth allowed the Vetcong forces to hide and move supplies as well as decide where to strike and thus frustrate the South Vietnam/American forces. While the American bombing managed to damage the tunnel systems, but it was too little, too late to turn the tide of the war. These tunnels, alongwith a plethora of different kind of traps made life miserable for the American forces. Most of these traps could be produced from basic materials and were deadly effective. No visit to the CuChi tunnels are complete without exploring some of the remaining traps.
The variety of traps were laid in abundant numbers and thus inflicting substantial casualties on the ARVN/American forces.
The tunnels itself were very narrow and is more suited to the east Asian physique than the Caucasian ones, which meant that the Americans and their allies found it difficult to either enter or navigate them. The tunnels were build in three layers and was said to accommodate 18,000 ARVN personnel and families. The tunnels also led to high mortality amongst the ARVN due to malaria and other diseases.
A crawl through a fifty meter section of the tunnel was very challenging endevour, both physically and mentally and led us to appreciate the resoluteness of the ARVN forces operating from these tunnels for years. These tunnel systems also had their own kitchens, makeshift hospitals, foundries etc to sustain the ARVN forces.
The CuChi tunnels are an ode to the ingenuity and commitment of the ARVN and their allies to win the war against the Americans. Build with very little technology and equipments, building such tunnel systems points to great ingenuity of the people building them.
The next day was reserved for Mekong Delta. River deltas have been the cradle of civilization in the old world. To name a few, Nile Delta, Shat-El –Arab, Ganga- Brahmaputra Delta, the Irrawaddy and, of course, Mekong Delta. The Mekong river flows through multiple countries (China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia) and finally meets the South China Sea in Vietnam. It is the 7th longest river in Asia at 4350 km (Ganges 2,525 km and Brahmaputra 2,900 km). Floating on a boat in the river would remind you of the river Ganges in South Bengal, with a Cantilever suspension bridge that seems to be a replica of the 2nd Hoogly Bridge in Kolkata. The banks of the river are highly fertile and hence is very densly populated. The economy is mostly agrarian. A variety of fruits and vegetable cultivation is visible and like south Bengal, lots of bamboo, coconut and palm trees dot the landscape. The people living on the settlements in the delta seemed to be used to tourists and had a side business of entertaining and trading in local produce with the tourists. While the infrastructure was in good shape(roads, power and internet), the economic conditions were not as good as in the urban areas. Walking through the farms producing value added candies from coconut targeted at tourists, we could see another example of how tourism has benefited the economy. The Mekong delta we saw was very different from what I had personally pictured in my mind. I had expected to be a dense tropical forest with limited habitation and a very fertile soil. While there is dense vegetation, a large part of it today is planted by the local populace and yields commercial products like fruits and nuts. While I expected a sparsely populated land, what we discovered is a densely populated delta with a lot of economic activities. People were farming, growing fruits and flowers, rearing Chicken and pigs, (some people also had snakes at their homes to sell skins) and also carrying out other traditional economic activities of any other delta in Asia. We were also able to witness some honey bee rearing and the fresh honey tasted sublime. What has remained unchanged in some parts of the delta still are the narrow waterways, hemmed by dense vegetation and navigable only by small boats. So, we hopped on to a row boat to traverse the narrow waterways of Mekong Delta. With both banks almost within arms reach, navigating the small canals in a small dingy was an experience nonpareil. How do I describe the experience ? The level of water in the canal is slightly lower than the land around, which means you can see the muds and roots of the trees at the eye level ( a different view from what we have seen till date). Raise your eyes and you can see the beauty of the dense vegetation of a tropical forest. Sailing through the plethora of pneumatophores and other tropical trees with their different shades of green playing hide and seek with the sun was an experience to remember.
The end of the short expedition took us back to a floating dock on the wide river, where our motor boat waited for us. Just to board the small floating dock (3 feet square) from the dingy and then to the motor boat was itself an adventure and surely not for the faint hearted.
Next on the list was the Cao Dai temple. Cao dai is a religion that has become popular in South Vietnam in the recent decades and is believed to have between 4 to 6 million adherents. The temples are brightly coloured and are believed to have been influenced by Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism and Islam. The temple should be seen, since I have not seen anything that comes close. The impact of different religions are visible and the ability to synthesize learnings from them is interesting, to say the least.
That leaves us with the last leg of our trip – The historic city of Ho Chi Minh City, historically known as Saigon.
While North Vietnam had strong Chinese links and central Vietnam was champa territory, the area around Saigon was Khmer territory till it was taken over by Vietnamese people in the 17th century. Then, the French invaded in 1759 and made Saigon the capital of french IndoChina and key centre of the french colonial trade. The importance of the city in the french scheme of things can be gauged from some of the historic buildings of the city. The city centre is build around district one and district three. The city centre has a lot of decent hotels and staying in the city centre makes it easier to explore the city on foot (we did so).
The two key buildings that remind you of the french architecture are the Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Basilica (The independence palace has since been pulled down and rebuild).
The Central Post Office was completed is 1891 and still functions as a post office. It is also open to tourists and you can send a postcard home from here. The architecture has a clear signs of french influence and should be experienced. The post office also has a map of Saigon and its surrounding areas from 1890’s, if you are historically minded. Standing inside the post office gives a distinct feeling of going back in time to 1890’s.
The Norte Dame Basilica, stands next to the Central Post office, as build between 1863 to 1880 and has two bell towers measuring 190 feet. If you are interested in Churches, you should go in and see it. It is not as grand as some of the cathedrals of Europé but is one of the better ones of Asia (very few in Asia actually have been influenced by French).
Another french contribution to the city of Saigon was the Ben Thanh Market. The original market was build in 1859 and would remind you of the Old ’ New Market’ in Kolkata. Well, the original market was destroyed in a fire in 1870 and the market was rebuild in the current location to become Saigon’s biggest market in the heart of district 1. The market was renovated in 1985 and three distinct segments – food, local handicrafts, clothings and accessories. The food and local handicrafts are surely a draw for the tourists. After 7 PM, a thriving night market opens up around this place and has shops selling similar stuff. The market is also famous for bargaining and pickpockets. So be warned !
While exploring the city, the Hindu temple close to the Ben Thanh market piqued my interest since I did not expect the city to have Hindu connections. The Mariamman Temple was build in the late 19th Century by the Tamil traders who came to the flourishing commercial capital of IndoChina (incidentally, as I was to learn later, Central Vietnam has Hindu temples dating back to 4th Century build by Champa people at MySon in Central Vietnam and is regarded to be of similar importance as Akor Vat and Borobudur). The temple has no priests of Indian origin and is currently run by Vietnamese people and the trustees are appointed by the Government. While the architectural and sculptural similarities exists with the temples of Tamil Nadu, the impact of the local culture was also clearly visible (including the inscriptions in Vietnamese). What was shared by the local people is that there are not enough Hindus in the country currently and a lot of non Hindus also visit the temple to offer prayers. That a Hindu temple has managed to thrive in a socialist country with very few native Hindus, is what makes it captivating.
The last historical monument we visited was the Opera House of Saigon/HCMC. Again build by the french in 1897 and stands out in the city centre due to its distinct french architecture. After 1956, it was used as the Lower House Assembly and was restored in 1995 to its old glory. The distinct architecture is what makes this a must visit.
In HCMC, incidentally, we moved away from our experimentation around Vietnamese food and stuck more to Indian food or relied upon the tried and tested KFC/MacDonalds. This was not a refection on the South Vetnamese food but was more to do with us missing our ’daal-chawal’.
Next day morning, we hit the streets to cover the modern sights of Saigon – the Walking street (Nguyen Hue Street), Reunification Palace, War Remnant Museum and generally walking around the city centre of Saigon.
The Reunification Palace was originally build by the French (completed 1873) to house the Governor of Indochina and consolidate its newly established colony. The palace was also called Norodom Palace, after the kind of Cambodia (part of the then IndoChina). The palace was partially destroyed in 1962 during the war with North and the newly independent South Vietnam decided to rebuild the palace in 1962 and was completed in 1966. After the end of war in 1975, the palace was renamed Reunification palace and was turned into a museum. The museum lets you experience the life of the early ruling elite of independent South Vietnam, who occupied the palace for less than a decade (must be record of sorts for a palace or presidential mansion).
Next on the list was the War Remnants Museum. One of the more popular museums in HCMC, this museum contains exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and the First IndoChina war. It offers a few distinct category of exhibits – War machinery(tanks, fighters, bombers, artillery guns etc), Reproduction of Tiger Cages (torture chambers), documentation (mostly photographs) of the war with Americans and the French; the graphic photographs of various war crimes including Napalm bombs and Agent Orange.
One can choose to remain neutral and see the devastation a war can bring, irrespective of your country of origin and your ideology. As they say, in War, there is no right, it is only who are left (left alive). The horrendous costs of war(both civilian and military) has been very graphically depicted in the museum.
That brings us to the last stop of our tour, Nyugen Hue Street, more popularly known as the Walking Street. If you are looking for entertainment and have a Sunday evening to spare in Saigon, then look no further. Starting from the banks of Saigon river, it extends till the People’s Committee Building. Surrounded by plush shops, some great hotels and some lovely cuisines from across the world, this short stretch is blocked to vehicular traffic on the weekends. This place really comes alive on the weekends, teeming with various performances and exhibitions. Both locals and tourists, turn out in large numbers to enjoy the performances or just stroll around the place and soak in the atmosphere. Great place to unwind on a weekend.
What we missed visiting and would recommend is the Jade palace and the Saigon Saigon Bar (Caravelle Hotel).
When one looks back, one cannot but compare the two most important cities of Vietnam – Hanoi and Saigon. Both are great cities with very distinct culture and history.
Hanoi has been inhabited since 3,000 BC and was annexed by the AuLac kingdom in 197 BC, which ushered a millennium of Chinese domination. It was the seat of power from 1010 to 1892 and then again from 1902 to 1954(French Indochina). Hanoi again became the capital of reunified Vietnam in 1976. October 2010 marked 1,000 years since the establishment of the city. The Chinese influence on the culture and the culinary tastes of the city is woven in the tapestry of the city.
In contrast, Saigon was Khmer territory till the 17th century when the Vietnamese settlers started arriving. Since this was also the centre of power as well as trade of French Indochina for a considerable time, the city is more cosmopolitan as compared to Hanoi. More people in here speak french than any other part of the country. Some of the most important landmarks build in IndoChina by the French are in Saigon. The heart of the town (district 1 and 3) seems to have a distinct character, different from the rest of the city and has a french touch to it (the wide boulevards and gardens would remind you of the suburbs of Paris)
As we headed back to the hotel to check out and catch our flight back home, we were wondering what could we have done differently. What stood out in that discussion was that we should have dedicated a day to look around Hanoi, beyond the Old Quarter. We did not really explore Hanoi beyond the Old Quarter.
As our trip wound down and we looked back, this was a trip like no other for us as a family. We had never in the past, spend more than seven days in a country and this slightly longer stay allowed us to appreciate the country, its culture, its cuisine and its people better. The wide range of options (from history to geography; from Culture to shopping) the country presents to a tourist does make it an attractive proposition.
It was also fantastic to see the rapid strides made by the country after DoiMoi in the mid 80’s and has all the signs of challenging the Asian Tigers in the battle for economic supremacy.
We also realised that while the war has ended more than 40 years back, some of the fissures do remain just below the surface. Some of the locals who allied with the Americans were either banished from the big cities or have been sent to ’re-education camps’, often bear a grudge at the new dispensation. The benefits of the new found growth has often gone more to some of the erstwhile supporters of Vietcong than to the others. It would be interesting to watch how the new generation, born after the war, react to the feeling of marginalisation due to the ideology of their parents. There seems to be a fear that some of them might not have their share of the rightful opportunities that a rapidly growing country provides due to the political choices made by their forefathers. What this does to the country in the coming years will a great lesson in political science.
Tourism has gathered momentum in Vietnam in recent years and it could soon be competing with Thailand in terms of tourist arrivals (which is not necessarily a good thing). Hence, if you intend to visit this beautiful country, It might be a good idea to do it sooner than later.
Bon Voyage !!