Land of the Ascending Dragon

Several years ago, few people would have spent their holiday in Vietnam. Today, the country has become one of the most desirable destinations in East Asia. Not so long ago, the image of Vietnam conjured up the horror of war, the “killing fields”, and the exodus of the “boat people”. The Vietnam of today is a country at peace…the Vietnamese are very friendly towards foreign visitors. Known for their industry and diligence, they will become one of the “dragons” of Asia within the very near future.

Nostalgia for Days Gone By

Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is 300 years old, with a population of over five million. Two seasons exist during the year….the dry season and the rainy season. The city is reminiscent of Bangkok thirty years ago, and my visit is a journey back through time, as it still maintains its traditional charm and beauty. In spite of the war, most streets are tree-lined and named after the historical heroes or cultural celebrities. Sitting in the Delta Caravelle Hotel lobby, I felt nostalgia for days gone by as I watched children flying kites on the street. Nearby, a group of cyclo drivers waited and called out for passengers.

Offering cheap and (environmentally friendly) transportation, the cyclo (xich lo), or pedicab, is an abbreviation of the French “cyclo-pousse”. Many of the drivers are former Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers and speak some English. Buses and taxis are other means of transport. Always bring along a map and your destination address, written in Vietnamese. Unfortunately, some drivers don’t even know how to read a map. Of course, the best solution is to have your trip organized by a proper tour operator, or better yet to have a local resident take you around.

A Delightful Cuisine

Vietnamese cuisine is delightful and, although subject to colonial influences from the French and Chinese, it retains its unique flavor…largely due to the use of fermented fish sauce and a lot of fresh vegetables and herbs. Do try the Ancient Town situated at 211 Dien Bien Phu, District 3, where you can dine in a beautiful villa. VY at 164 Pasteur, District 3 is also another fine choice for Vietnamese food. For French cuisine, try Dong Du Restaurant, 57 Dong Du, District 1. Le Caprice in the Landmark Building at 5B Ton Duc Thang, District 1, offers a great view of the city and elegant dining. For a popular lunchtime spot, try Santa Lucia at 14 Nguyen Hue, District 1. Lovely seafood can be had at Ngoc Suong Restaurant, 19C Le Qui Don Street, District 3. A dinner cruise at Bach Dang Quay is very relaxing, and will round out your stay in the city very nicely.

Before leaving, you’ll want to buy souvenirs for family and friends….try the stores along Le Loi, Nguyen Hue, and Dong Khoi Streets. Jewelry made of gold, silver and precious stones is still relatively inexpensive and as beautiful as jewelry made in other countries.

About the War

I’ve always wanted to visit Vietnam to see the places I heard so much about during the war. Above all, I wanted to see the Reunification Palace….then known as Independence or the Presidential Palace. The place has somehow captured my imagination over the years. It was here that the first Communist tanks dramatically crashed through the wrought-iron gates on the morning of April 30, 1975. A soldier entered the building and ran upstairs to the fourth floor balcony to unfurl a Viet Cong flag.

General Minh, who had become head of state only a few hours before, was waiting in the reception hall on the second floor. He told the VC officer who entered the room that he and his cabinet had been waiting since dawn to “transfer power” to the VC. The officer gave a reply that has become famous throughout the world…”There is no question of your transferring power. You cannot give up what you do not have.”

The Catholic South Vietnamese President Ngo Din Diem ordered the palace to be built in place of his former residence, which was bombed in 1962 by his own air force – in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. The building, designed by Paris-trained Vietnamese Ngo Viet Thu, won the Architectural Laureate in Rome. Construction took four years to complete, and the inauguration ceremony, was held in October 1966. Diem, however, did not get to see it…he was so hated that his own troops murdered him in 1963.

A Labyrinth of Tunnels

While there, you must go down to see the basement with its network of tunnels, a telecommunication center and war room. Another must-see is the Tunnel of Cu Chi, 60 km northwest of the city. The cobweb-like tunnel complex is a network of underground dugouts over 200 km long, consisting of many layers and turnings with meeting, living and fighting quarters. Crawling through the tunnel gave me an eerie and claustrophobic feeling. Looking at the tunnel, I could not help but feel an admiration and respect for the will, intelligence and pride of the people. The Cu Chi Tunnel has become a symbol of the revolutionary heroism of Vietnam.

When a unit of US troops landed in Da Nang for the first time on March 8, 1965, little did they realize that a long and drawn-out war, and a no-win situation, was beginning. According to figures made public by the US government, 352 billion dollars were spent in the war.

Another must-see is the War Remnants Museum, which depicts the horror of the Vietnam War where hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had been killed and injured. Over 58,000 American soldiers died “without a cause”, not to mention the untold misery suffered by the innocents. The Vietnamese government is ready to point out that the purpose of the War Remnants Museum is not to incite hatred, but to teach lessons from history.

As Robert S. McNamara said in retrospect….”Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”