Archive for December, 2016

Ho Chi Minh City

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Cu Chi tunnel guy

For many years (since my mid-teens) I’d heard about & read about & wondered about Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – called Saigon then & still commonly called that today – and I had finally arrived. We started off at a well-known war site: the Cu Chi tunnels, located some 70 km northwest of the city. This was a network of tunnels – by some estimates, 250 kilometers long – serving as underground cover, & hiding a host of stealthy military activities (including weapons caches, meeting rooms, hospitals, and kitchens). It was initially dug during the French occupation in the 1940s, and expanded during the Vietnam War era of the 1960s. The tunnels frustrated American forces, and U.S. Army ‘tunnel rats’ had the extremely treacherous job of going down into them to search for – and eliminate – the enemy. Today, the open sections have been expanded a bit – for larger Western tourists like me! – but I can attest that the tight, narrow tunnels are scary enough, even without having to worry about booby traps, getting shot, or other wartime perils!

Other notable war-related sites in HCMC were the Reunification Palace (formerly the Presidential Palace), whose gates were crashed by North Vietnamese tanks on April 30, 1975 during the Fall of Saigon; and the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes). Especially notable in the latter was the Requiem Gallery, featuring photos taken by 134 journalists (of 11 nationalities) killed during the war.

But Saigon today is about much more than history & war, and we took full advantage of that….. by dining at some incredible Vietnamese restaurants, such as Nhà Hàng Ngon. I’ve really become quite a fan of Vietnamese food – and the coffee as well! Another interesting site was Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown….. & a famous market & shopping area. We visited the Thien Hau Pagoda there, one dedicated to Mazu, the Chinese goddess of the sea…. yes, the very same goddess found in Nanjing’s Jinghai Temple (noted in my Zheng He posting). You can see that the incense was thick & heavy, & we bought some of their long-lasting, multi-day incense spirals that hang from the rafters, holding petitions for good luck & other necessities.

Air quality at Thien Hau Pagoda

On this part of the Vietnam trip I was reading the quintessential Saigon novel: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It’s truly amazing how prescient this 1955 book was…. & while the symbolism is very upfront – the cynical European journalist Fowler; the naïve, idealistic American aid-worker Pyle (looking for a ‘Third Force’ beyond colonialism and communism); and the beautiful, complaisant Vietnamese Phuong – it nonetheless is an extremely well-written and fascinating look into an interim (i.e., essentially post-French, pre-American) era. It’s really a shame that Americans didn’t learn much from such knowledgeable views.

Academics have had a field day examining Greene’s views about innocence vs. experience… a theme which runs through much of his work. Upon returning to Nanjing, I re-watched the 2002 movie starring Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser & Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen. Caine received a well-deserved ‘Best Actor’ Oscar nomination for his world-weary Fowler, & the movie – and its Saigon settings — was certainly very entertaining. Greene had disavowed a 1958 film adaptation of the book (a gung-ho, pro-American, Audie Murphy version), and the later movie was certainly more closely attuned to his novel. Pico Iyer’s comments on NPR about the novel are really spot on: The Quiet American has a “disquieting resonance,” he notes, but leaves plenty of room for complexity & dissonance: “The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.”

Hoi An and Hue

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

We headed down to the central part of Vietnam, to visit the old trading town of Hoi An, & and then drove up along the coast – through Da Nang & over the scenic Hai Van mountain pass, eventually joining National Highway 1 into Hue, the imperial capital of the country during the Nguyen dynasty.

Hoi An was an international trading center during the 16th and 17th centuries, and ships from China, Japan, the Netherlands, India and many other countries visited…. & established trading emporiums and quarters within the town. These have been quite well preserved, and the Ancient Town does a brisk tourist trade today. One of the notable sites is the Japanese Covered Bridge, built in the Japanese district at that same time—and proudly displayed on the country’s 20,000 Dong note (worth just a little less than a U.S. dollar).

Hoi An’s Japanese Bridge

Hue is the site of the Citadel, a part of the Imperial City complex in the heart of the city, on the banks of the Huong (i.e., Perfume) River. We took a cruise up the river to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist sanctuary built in 1601 by the first Lord of the Nguyen family – and later came back to explore the Citadel and its surrounding area. Hue was also the site of a major battle during the Tet Offensive in 1968, one of the bloodiest and longest of the war. Considerable portions of the city (including the Imperial City’s grounds) were destroyed during the battle, with American aerial bombing playing a key role — but the communist side did its own damage, with a purge of civilians (the massacre at Hue) that later led to tremendous fears in the South, especially as the victorious People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) moved onto Saigon.

The Citadel at Hue

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

We enjoyed our trip to Cambodia & Laos last year so much that we decided to arrange another one through that same company – About Asia Travel — and the obvious target this year was Vietnam. I had spent a considerable amount of effort (as well as six years in the National Guard!) making sure I avoided that place earlier in my life….. & so it was perhaps fitting that I now had to pay to go there. We were joined on this trip by my sister Susan (whose late husband was a Vietnam vet), and their daughter Laura…. & it was really great to hang around & travel with family once again!

It was certainly a remarkable trip, and those war years loomed very large in our memory – and also in the country itself. We started off in Hanoi, with visits to the infamous Hoa Lo prison (i.e., the “Hanoi Hilton”), where John McCain and other U.S. POWs had been held after being shot down…. as well as the Army Museum which highlighted the effects of the 1972 “Christmas bombing” of the city by B-52s. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and his modest residential “house on stilts” was next, as well as a stroll through the city’s Old Quarter; and we made sure to check out the commemorative marker at Truc Bach Lake where McCain was shot down.

Hoa Lo prison & Truc Bach Lake

I’m sure many of you can guess my Hanoi reading material on this trip – yes, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. It’s a fascinating tale about a communist mole working for a South Vietnamese general, & following the general to the U.S. when the war effort collapsed in 1975. Such a structure gives the author plenty of opportunities to comment about America from a Vietnamese perspective, as well as the ultimate betrayal of the Vietnamese people by the victorious ‘liberating’ communist forces. The author does so in a mordantly funny manner, although there are times when the observations are sufficiently grim to give pause….. & to bring to attention the seriousness of the subject matter. Certainly a well-deserved literary award – and I look forward to the (sure-to-come) movie version as well.

After Hanoi, we headed over for a (more peaceful!) overnight cruise amongst the incredibly beautiful karst formations at Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Island caves, slow-moving sampan rides through water villages, & some beautiful scenery made this a relaxing part of the trip, far, far removed from the country’s urban hustle.

Ha Long Bay