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Vietnam: Where the Past is Always Present

My arrival in Hanoi instantly threw back in my face all the visual clichés that I had amassed over the years.

Fresh from my home base in Ireland, where the relatively small Vietnamese community keeps a low profile, from Tran Anh Hung's film 'Cyclo', from Duong Thu Huong's novels, and distinctly less fresh after a flight that clearly revealed seemingly idyllic paddy fields and waterways far below, I had a jumble of preconceptions desperate to find a pattern.



Where else would you see an immaculate old gentleman being chauffeur-driven in an ancient 2CV, resprayed in silver? Or a woman farmer with pink plastic curlers peeping out from under a coolie hat? A man taking his pig for an evening walk, or the quiet acceptance of a Buddhist monk recounting the years of tragedy? And landscape after sweeping landscape that leaves your camera lens on high alert?

Since I was a young man, I have been fascinated by Vietnam. My mental impression was of a country of deep impenetrable jungle and forests, but also of flat agricultural lands where people plough and sow using very traditional methods; elsewhere, massive river deltas fringed with luxuriant vegetation and people in ‘Chinaman's hats’ fishing from tiny boats and odd-shaped junks.

All of these are correct images of Vietnam. I saw the deep jungle and forest in the centre of the country near Hué and My Son; the flat agricultural land in the Red River Delta in the north near Hanoi; the luxuriant vegetation in the massive river delta in the south, where the Mekong flows into the South China Sea, and the fishermen in the Mekong, Ha Long Bay and almost everywhere where there is water. But Vietnam is also a crowded country, and in places quite polluted. Its main highways are choked with traffic and run through a long, continuous semi-urban sprawl rather than open countryside.

It is also a place scarred by its history, which you have to know (at least in outline) if you are to understand what you see. In brief, after centuries of Chinese rule it became a French colony from about the late nineteenth century. The French faced an increasingly violent insurgency, in particular from the Viet Minh forces led by the indefatigable Ho Chi Minh.

In 1954 the French left after a catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu, after which the country was partitioned - Ho Chi Minh leading the Communist north while the south was saddled with a corrupt dictatorship propped up by the United States of America.

In 1972 the forces from the north swept through to Saigon in the south, evacuating the last few American advisers by helicopter. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). The country then suffered from chaotic experiments in various forms of communist rule (like total rationing of everything) until this was given up, capitalism invited in and diplomatic relations with the USA restored.

We started our trip to this spectacular country in Hanoi. Although this vast metropolis has been the capital of Vietnam since reunification, the other major city – Ho Chi Minh City – seems more prosperous. On the way to the city centre from Nôi Bài International Airport, our guide told us he would give us a seminar on how to cross the road in Vietnam. He was not joking. Private car ownership is negligible in Vietnam; instead everyone seems to own a small motorbike. The road system, both in the cities and on the main highways, is poor, so the roads are crowded with these bikes. You could wait all night for a break in the stream of bikes, so you have to walk slowly out into the road with your arm raised and rely on the bikes to weave round you. Generally they do.

We saw families of four people on one bike, and people riding one handed while using the other hand to steady a refrigerator or some enormous item of furniture on the back of the bike. We saw farmers carrying four live pigs trussed up on the back of a bike, taking them to market. Amazingly, we saw very few accidents, which was surprising as most roads continually host a massive peloton of bikes, incredibly close to each other and moving at speed.

Most visitors to Hanoi generally make their way to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the preserved body still recognisable as the man who is on all the banknotes and commemorated in numerous statues. Reverential behaviour is expected.

We visited the Presidential Palace and the notorious Hoa Lo Prison – also known to American POW's as the "Hanoi Hilton" – where American pilots, among them US Air Force Captain Pete Peterson and US Senator John McCain shot down during what the Vietnamese call the "American War" were housed until their release in 1973. Perhaps as a symbol of the new Vietnam, half of the prison has been demolished to make way for a luxury, Western-style hotel. The name over the door – "Maison Centrale" – reminds you that it was built by the French during their colonisation of Vietnam. The propaganda in the guidebook was not all anti-American, as I had expected, but anti-French.  The French guillotine – complete with its label "Head Cutting Machine" – was still there. The Vietnamese seemed pleased that relations with the Americans are now "normalised", and actually boasted about the number of American veterans who had come back to the country as tourists.

From Hanoi we visited Ha Long Bay, where the scenery is genuinely spectacular. Massive fingers of rock rise majestically out of the South China Sea. There is an amazing labyrinth of caves deep within these giant rocks. Eroded over time by the wind and sea, these dramatic pinnacles of limestone have become national emblems and are virtually an obligatory tourist destination. Many of the finest meals I have had in my life have been on boats, and the meal on the "junk" in which we crossed Ha Long Bay was one of the best.

We had some marvellous meals in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, Vietnamese cuisine is very similar to Chinese cuisine, but I felt more care was taken in the preparation and cooking. A feature is "parcels" of food wrapped in rice paper with delicious sauces. We had two meals in private houses and in each case I got the impression that the entire extended family - mother, daughters, aunts, grandparents, cousins etc. – had spent days preparing this feast for the expected party of Western travellers. Doubtless what we paid made it worth their while, but these were exceptional meals.

It was while driving to Ha Long Bay across the Red River Delta that I saw the flat rice fields I had expected. What was surprising was the number of people working in the fields; the fact that they were ploughing with oxen, and the absence of machinery. We saw two women moving water from an irrigation ditch to a paddy field with nothing more than a bucket on a rope. Surely the Egyptians had primitive Archimedes screws to perform this same operation 2000 years ago? Vietnam, unlike China, is self-sufficient in food and even exports their produce. Surely there is now scope for greater mechanisation?

Hanoi has a wonderful old quarter which miraculously survived the daily bombing by American planes. We toured it by pedicab, the three-wheeled bicycle taxis they have in Vietnamese cities, but it has a slightly threatening feel to it, and I wouldn't particularly like to visit the city alone in the evening.

While in Hanoi we went to a ‘water puppet’ show, a traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment. The stage consists of a small lake with an elaborate curtain at the back, surrounded by scenery depicting agricultural villages. To the accompaniment of traditional music, scenes are enacted by puppets controlled by a group of operators who are behind the curtain, up to their knees in water.

From Hanoi we flew to Hué in central Vietnam. Hué was once the capital of the country and has some spectacular buildings, including the elaborate tombs of the Emperors of Vietnam and a set of State Rooms (called ‘The Citadel’) that were once the State apartments of the Imperial Palace. This was, in terms of architectural style and scale, similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing, but is in much worse condition due to destruction in the 1968 Tet Offensive.

We visited My Son where there are ancient (1,500 year-old) towers and chambers built by the Cham people, sadly many destroyed. The traditional Cham music display we saw was noteworthy for a performance on the ‘Cham pipe’ (not unlike a recorder) by an old man who used some form of circular breathing technique so there was never a break in the sound.

Our journey took us south by coach from Hue to Hoi An, passing through Da Nang. I remember reading about Da Nang during the Vietnam War: known as ‘Red Beach’, it was a major landing point for the American troops. Fragments of debris from these times still lie, as sinister reminders, on the beach and at the airport.

Hoi An is heavily marketed by the Vietnam Tourism Board as a traditional Vietnamese town with traditional buildings. However, despite the interesting buildings and setting, it has a similar atmosphere of a town preserved, indeed preserved for tourists.

We flew from Da Nang to HCMC in the south and then drove southwest to the Mekong Delta. Our riverside hotel in Can Tho was a bit noisy and the restaurant a little crowded. Some in our party complained. The next day our guide gently chided them, with a clear subtext that they were a bunch of spoiled Westerners and would they please observe the contrast of the hotel with the living standards of the locals. A very fair point. He spoke excellent English, though he had never left Vietnam. His father had been a translator for the Americans and hence the whole family spoke good English, but his father had been forced to go to a "re-education camp" after the Vietcong victory. He could not get a passport. It was not as bad a history as that of our guide in Cambodia though – his father had been massacred by the Khmer Rouge when he was seven.

In the Mekong Delta most things move by water. We visited a floating market where boatloads of melons, pumpkins and a variety of obscure vegetables were being traded. We also visited a small factory on the river bank where all the stages in making coconut candy, from cutting open the coconuts to wrapping the candy, were being undertaken under one roof. In fact the building had no walls – simply pillars and a roof.

From the delta, we drove back to HCMC and stayed at the now legendary Rex Hotel in District 1, on the road that was once the Rue Catinat. Some things have evidently not changed. The area around the Rue Catinat continues to be something of a red light district and the parade of young women entering and leaving the hotels in the area is quite a sight. Our guide blamed the reputation of the area on the Americans, implying that they had somehow forced all these girls into prostitution, and to ‘smoke cigarettes’, which seemed to him an equivalent crime. However, my reading of 'The Quiet American' suggested that the Rue Catinat had this reputation long before the Americans arrived in such numbers.

From time to time you are reminded that Vietnam is a one party dictatorship. The police are ferocious. We observed them dealing with a man who had parked his motorbike on a forbidden part of the pavement. It seemed to take a great pack of different policemen to haul him off, with some minor violence. But in some ways Vietnam seemed a more self-questioning society than China. In China the guides appear to be reciting text learned to heart from a Government programme. The guides in Vietnam were much more honest about the mistakes of the regime. They were quite amusing on the subject of the "coupon" period in the 1970's, when everything was rationed and people had to queue for days to get the essentials of life, only to find that everything had run out when they reached the front of the queue.

But is it really a Communist country? Hardly. There is no welfare state and at least in HCMC there is an open capitalist economy, though not as aggressive as in China. Ho Chi Minh is revered as a nationalist who unified the country. His communism is explained – at least by our guide – as due to the fact that Russia rather than America responded to his pleas for help to fight the French. Vietnam appears to have a residue of state-controlled industries from the worst of the post-unification Communist era and it has not attracted foreign investment on anything like the scale of China. But the sense of equality is there, together with an extraordinary capacity for survival.

While they rediscover their identity, buried for decades under the dust of war and Communist dogma, people like you and me can only observe without fully comprehending. It makes a unique destination: annoying, exhilarating, always stimulating and ever-enigmatic.