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Vietnam from North to South: A Travel Journal

Cruising along Halong Bay

Text and photos by OSCAR F. PICAZO

1.  On a Cyclo Tour, Hanoi – I find Hanoi’s streets living museums of trade, handicraft, cultural encounters, and motorbike and cyclo traffic.  Some of the alleyways are heady with incense smoke and the aroma of pho (noodles), strong coffee, and other delicacies cooking in little stoves and being served in low, tiny plastic tables.  These streets are for fanciers of urban anthropology; immediately, one notices their democratic ambience as well-heeled office folk and vendors in sandals jostle each other.  The best way to navigate the streets is to take a cyclo, half-a-bicycle with a seat attached in front with two wheels, which offers the passenger an unimpeded front view of pedestrians and vendors. The cyclo tour magically turns an otherwise annoying Hanoi afternoon into something of an ethno-medieval Indiana Jones experience as the ever-accommodating driver threads the vehicle through labyrinthine streets.
2.  At the Jade Mountain Temple, Hanoi – At the southern edge of Hanoi’s Old District is the Hoan Kiem Lake.  After watching the one-hour-long water puppet show, I stroll across to the Hoan Kiem Lake, at the center of which is the Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) temple that one reaches through a red wooden ‘Bridge of the Rising Sun.’ I tarry at the bridge, survey the lake, and wonder how it must have looked from here when, in the 18th century, the Trinh lords had as many as 52 palaces on its shores… The temple provides a restful respite from the frenetic streets of the Old District.  Under the trees, men play Vietnamese checkers, lovers walk hand and hand, and couples herd their children to make temple offerings of fruits.  Amid the gossamer of incense, I peer at an elderly man intently doing calligraphy on rice paper. The main room of this temple, after all, is devoted to the patron of the literati, Khuong Moung.
3.  The Majesty of Terraced Hills, Sapa – Sapa is a bustling provincial town tucked in the highlands of northeastern Vietnam.  It is reached through a nine-hour overnight train up to Lao Cai, the border town with China, and then another hour in a zigzag bus ride up to Sapa, built by the French in 1922 as a border post.  On the map, Sapa looks very close to Yunnan, China and to Laos, but the mountains here are magisterial, forbidding and cold, the trees grow all the way to the top of mountains, and the Chinese panda are not coming down anytime soon to munch on the plentiful bamboo groves.  The mists rise in the early morning to reveal beautifully terraced hill sides, shorn of the last season’s rice harvest.
4.  Being Fussed With by the Hill Tribe Women, Sapa – Sapa town is surprisingly modern. The old French villas have been turned into guesthouses, and there seem to be new vertical construction going on everywhere. Adventure-seekers have been coming here since Vietnam opened in the 1990s, for Sapa and its surrounding villages are home to several groups of minorities (H’mong, Dzao, Tay, and Xa Po) known collectively as hill tribes.  They are easily recognized by their cheerful demeanor, and their dark-blue garb appliqued with small curved designs, colorful headgear, and back baskets. They live in sturdy wooden houses perched on mountain ledges or tucked near river valleys.
5.  Cruising Along Halong Bay – Two hours by bus directly east of Hanoi is Halong Bay, which holds 1,969 islets of limestone.  It is often cited as the best example in the world of a karst landscape being invaded by the sea.  The name ‘Ha Long’ means ‘where the dragon descends to the sea,’ based on the legend that a dragon mother descended from the mountains with her children, armed with rocks, and killed a monster that had been frightening the people. We come back as the legendary dragon children, marveling at the rocks that have turned into islands.  The bay area has become overdeveloped, with too many constructions on-shore and too many boats plying around the isles, which is a pity because this UNESCO World Heritage Site – and certainly one of the 1,000 places you need to see before you die – is indeed jaw-dropping.

6.  Strolling Around the Imperial City of Nguyen Kings, Huey – A 13-hour overnight train ride takes us from Hanoi all the way south to Huey, the ancient capital of the Nguyen kings. Huey is very near the 17th Parallel, which used to divide Vietnam politically into north and south, and is the scene of much fighting during the Vietnam War, especially from the 1968 Tet Offensive. Huey’s major draw is the citadel and Nguyen kings’ Imperial City, which we visit the next day.  This city within a city was planned in accordance with the geomancy and architectural layout of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It consists of a series of palaces, pavilions, libraries, towers, gates, gardens, and walkways that have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  My colonial education glossed over this period of Southeast Asian history, and it is only now that I am beginning to appreciate the grandeur of the civilizations of Southeast Asian countries.  However, much work remains to be done to restore Huey to its old glory, and UNESCO has been beleaguered with inadequate funding to complete the massive task.
7.  Tree-Pruning Monks at the Thien Mu Pagoda, Huey – The best way to see Huey is to take a motorbike tour. In the mid-morning drizzle, we tour the city in a convoy of motorbikes, slightly cold under the poncho behind our respective local drivers.  We pass by grand ancestral pantheons decorated with colorful ceramics, waterlogged rice paddies, morning markets, and people doing sundry chores.  The motorbike tour ends at the Thien Mu Pagoda overlooking the swollen Perfume River that borders the downtown area. In the pagoda grounds, young monks are pruning potted trees to coach them to flower in the spring. Ahn Huyen, our guide, says that ill-behaving children are often sent to pagodas to get ‘trimmed’ of their wayward ways, so that they can flower fruitfully in years to come.
8.  The Ancient Trading Houses of Hoi An – From Huey to Da Nang and thence to Hoi An takes about three hours by bus, crossing the natural border of mountains (the “Cloud Pass”) that divide what used to be Communist north and American-supported south Vietnam. Less than an hour from the modern city of Da Nang is Hoi An, an ancient trading post, and inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.  Although Hoi An is 4 kms. away from the sea, it is strategically located beside a navigable river where boats continue to be moored, as they have been for centuries.  Hoi An was a major base for the ocean silk route during the pre-colonial era. Refugees from the Ming dynasty sought refuge here when the Qing dynasty came into power in China, and established their own Chinese Quarter in the 16th century, as did the Japanese in the 17th century. Many of Hoi An’s wooden one-story trading houses that date back to the 18th century have been restored and used as stores, restaurants, and living quarters.  The great pleasure of being in this city is simply to walk, tarry at temples, watch artisans do their craft, stare at street scenes and do nothing but be.
9.  The Undergound Vietnam War Tunnels of Cu Chi – Two hours from Saigon, the Ben Douc and Ben Dinh underground tunnel complex in Cu Chi are a cobweb of more than 200 kms. of multilayered underground refuge that the Vietnamese anti-American fighters used during the Vietnam War. It remains covered with thick foliage like a jungle, but under the trees, tourists can now see and appreciate the resiliency with which the Vietnamese military, and the Cu Chi minority people, managed the war. The tunnels and the defense activities there prove that the Vietnam War is the victory of humble low-tech over mighty high-tech warfare.  Life-size dioramas of peasant-fighters show that downed helicopters and ordnance were recycled into weapons; vehicle tires were turned into handmade rubber sandals; and bamboo traps with blades fashioned out of sharpened metal parts of aircraft trumped over sophisticated bombs. It was as if the Americans gave the metals that the Vietnamese then used to defeat them.
10. Canoeing in the Mekong Delta – The Mekong is the third longest river in Asia (4,500 kms.), with its headwaters in Tibet.  It flows through six countries (southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam) and acts as a border in some of them.  The delta region begins in Cambodia and goes all the way to southern Vietnam where the river branches out into nine outlets to the sea, hence its appellation as a nine-headed dragon. In the late afternoon, we take our respective canoes and paddle our way along an estuary lined on both sides with low-growing palms until we reach our homestay where we spend the night. The thatch-roofed sleeping quarters are basic, but each room has electric lighting and mosquito net, and the en-suite bathroom is clean and has running water. Best of all, the matron is a superb cook, and treats us to a six-course supper, an unexpected luxury in the middle of the delta.
11.  The Cruise Ships Along the Saigon River – Saigon is a feast of silks and spring rolls, of incense smoke and the drone of scooters, of sensuous ladies in ao dais and saintly monks in orange robes. The French colonists partially succeeded in turning it into the Paris of the Orient, leaving behind the Opera House, the Post Office Building, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and several art deco structures.  In 1958, Dorothea Lange, the American Depression-era photographer, wrote: “Saigon affects me like fine wine… There is something in the air, in the rhythm, in the soft water, a somnolence, a richness, something exquisite, a lightness, a quick smile, quick foot…” I try to capture something like that as I walk along the banks of the Saigon River, heady with humidity in mid-afternoon. The river is wide and clean, and several dining cruise ships are plying it.
12.  The Pain One Feels at the War Remnants Museum, Saigon – This modern museum captures the brutality of the Vietnam War, from the point of view of its out-armed but not out-witted victor. It is a deeply moving museum whose story is told mainly in black and white photographs, some of which were taken by American journalists: the stark pictures of napalm bombings, Agent Orange sprayings, massacres sometimes are too much to bear… After seeing three floors of documented war atrocities, I leave with a lump in my throat, and I stare at the fecklessness of the U.S. military aircraft captured by the Vietnamese which are now parked in the museum yard.

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