Tuesday, February 10, 2009


It was very surreal for me to visit a country I have flown over several times but never set foot in, and which I spent some portions of two years of my life targeting during the war. As we drove around the country I recognized names of places because I had seen them previously on target maps.

It did not appear to me that much had changed since the war. Hanoi was a shock because it appeared frozen in time. It was dirty and congested with motorbikes. At night it was dark with little street lighting or illumination from neon signs in shops or billboards.

Few buildings in the downtown area were over two or three stories, and electrical wiring was a spider web of hundreds of wires tacked haphazardly to poles or store fronts. In fact, there was no downtown. No area with tall buildings, banks, government buildings, or grassy parks. The downtown consisted of crude shops surrounding the lake in the center of town and looked no different than it had decades ago.

The one thing that did give Hanoi some life was that the beginning of the lunar New Year was only hours way and people were busy preparing, one feature of which was to get an orange tree to decorate their homes. Hundreds were for sale or rent along side the road, and it seemed that every motorcycle had a tree of some size lashed to the back on the way home for the celebration.

Ho Chi Minh City was better. It was cleaner although the treatment of utility wires was no different. There were some high rises, many with hugh neon signs on top. There were some really upscale hotels down near the water front. It appears that Hanoi is a government town and HCMC is the commercial center.

The one bright spot in Hanoi was the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. All the streets leading to it were clean and transit upscale neighborhoods (actually the embassy housing area). I understand that Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body is inside and available for viewing on some days, but not on the day we were there. But the grounds and surroundings are well groomed and decked out with flowers.

The Ho Chi Minh museum is nearby, and for its size it is really quite remarkable. Of course, all that is in it are tributes to all the martyrs and historical figures of the communist revolution in Vietnam from Ho's time in Paris all the way through the war with America. There are displays of American weaponry from the war and commentary about the heroic efforts of the Vietnamese people in defeating a superior power. No surprise there; they were the victors and victors can usually determine how history is told.

Surprisingly Vietnam has turned into a tourist designation. When we were in Hanoi, there were lots of Caucasians walking around; it turned out most of them were Russians. Compared to the fridgid temperatures of eastern Russia, Vietnam must seem tropical. One of our destinations was Hai Long Bay near the Gulf of Tonkin. It is notable because of the hundreds of karst islands with their small fishing villages. We cruised for hours among them while we ate an on-ship lunch of Vietnamese food. I should note that Vietnamese food is much superior to Chinese food. It was very enjoyable.

While in HCMC we had the most interesting tour of the Mekong delta area. It was a long bus trip, but that was the interesting part. We drove south along the famous Route 1. It was very heavily populated with shops cheek by jowl and vendors along side the road selling everything imaginable.

It was slow going because the road was choked with motorcycles and scooters, the main form of transportation in this part of the world. By boat we cruised around on the Mekong River and ended up on some islands where we sat under a veranda on a 80 degree day and lunched on fish and fruit amid banana palms and breezes. It was hard to believe that 30 years ago the Viet Cong moved clandestinely through these marshy areas and American gunboats cruised these waters looking for them.

In many ways visiting Vietnam was like going back in history. We visited what used to be the Presidential Palace. It was a little haunting right from the first minute our bus drove through the gate. The palace is in prime condition now and a favorite tourist sight, but the minute I looked at it another image flashed through my mind. Compare these two pictures below and you'll see what I mean. If the second one doesn't mean anything to you, then Google it.

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