Discovering the New Vietnam
by Karen Misuraca and Jessica Misuraca

When the American embargo of Vietnam ended, the two of us--mother Karen, fifty-something, and daughter Jessica, thirty-something--were curious about the country after its long isolation. We decided to see it before it became another of the roaring, developing nations of Southeast Asia, before doi moi, "change for the new" as the Communist party calls it, rolls over this ragged ribbon of land trapped between sea and mountains.

We expected a tropical paradise lightly touched by the West, and great French-Asian food. On a three-week journey from the beaches of the South China Sea to the flooded river towns of the Mekong Delta, from ancient Chinese traders' villages to Ho Chi Minh's hometown, we found a fragile green kingdom, truly fabulous food, and a surprise--veritable tidal wave of affection and hospitality from the Vietnamese.

Our first day in Saigon--officially known as Ho Chi Minh City--we awoke at daybreak in a shuttered room at the Majestic Hotel, a white wedding cake of a place restored to its former French Colonial glory overlooking the Saigon River. Standing on our balcony, motorbikes buzzing like bees below our feet, we watched people practice tai chi in the waterfront park under purple-blooming jacaranda trees. Mothers soaped up their babies in the mud-colored river. Fluttering down the boulevard on bicycles like flocks of colorful birds peddled young women in ao dais--semi-see-through, high-necked dresses slit hem to waist with long slacks beneath--sexy symbols of Vietnam. Relentless, the sun rose to a white-hot glare on the neon signs lined up on the far shore, and the air turned thick, hot and wet.

On a brief city tour, we visited the Reunification Palace, a Communist showplace complete with a camouflaged Huey helicopter, an artifact of the infamous American evacuation in 1975. In Cholon, the Chinese district, you can buy everything from a live duck, slaughtered on the sidewalk while you wait, to CD knock-offs and tiger claw powder. A magnificent, century-old botanical garden shelters a heart-breakingly run-down zoo. Under a canopy of 200-foot-tall breadfruit trees, a sad elephant and tigers with dull, sagging coats pace madly in French-built iron cages.

Within the garden, the circa-1929 History Museum is a welcome retreat, with garden courtyards and relics from the Cham and Khmer civilizations, and precious pieces from Angkor Wat. In a wall-sized poster and a bronze sculpture, Uncle Ho is conspicuous in the museum, as he is throughout the country.

Connecting with our traveling companions--four Aussies, two Germans, an American couple and a Norwegian guide--we headed south along the Mekong River in a mini-van, past green-velvet rice paddies and coconut palms bent low over waves of lavender morning glories. As in our dreams of Vietnam, men in conical hats and black pajamas drove water buffalos behind plows. It was rice harvest season. Drying grain was piled over the roads, where vans and trucks drove right over it, filling the air with fine dust. Lines of women knelt beside the roads tossing flat, round baskets of dried rice into the wind, separating the grain from the husks. A typhoon had swept through that week, flooding the roadways, gardens, and the thatched-roof huts. The farther south we drove, the higher the water rose around us until the road seemed to float on a vast lake. The locals were unconcerned. They paddled in small boats right into little restaurants and perched above the knee-deep water on high counter stools, enjoying their bowls of pho--noodle soup with a few vegetables and a slice of meat.

As the sun began to set, we left the van for a narrow "longboat," and motored up one of the hundreds of Delta river channels. The night was starless and black. We tied up at a bamboo-stilted guesthouse with yellow lanterns glowing on the porch, on the tiny island of Minh. Swaying in his knotted string hammock, the proprietor, the diminutive Mr. Muoi Day, smiled calmly down at us and said, in crisp, quiet English, "Not to worry, not to worry. The tide is high, but Buddha is in the house."

As in most Vietnamese homes, Buddha has his own fruit- and flower-bedecked corner at Mr. Muoi's, an elaborate shrine where incense burns eternal. Above the altar sat another household god, the TV, which also burns eternal. Electricity had arrived in the Delta just six months previous. At night, bluish lights flickering like fireflies in modest houses along the shore turned out to be reruns of "Baywatch" and "I Love Lucy".

After a dinner of pork stew, grilled felta prawns and long bean, we slept under mosquito nets on cots in a common room, the walls open to a night sky blinking with lightning and a warm, soft rain.

A basket of fresh, French-style baguettes--a ubiquitous staple in Vietnam--arrived by skiff early the next morning, to go with our breakfast of bananas and thick café filtre. Exploring the island, we came upon green snakes in the lotus pond, and dragonfruit and paw paw orchards. Mr. Muoi showed us a hibiscus-like flower that blooms white in the morning, turns pale pink by noon and vivid magenta at night, living only a single day.

Back aboard the longboat, we jetted down the river through a web of canals bordered thickly by mangroves, palms and tall grasses. Among the weeds on the riverbanks--and throughout Vietnam--are crumbling French Colonial mansions in overgrown gardens. Like a ghostly apparition, the grey stone spire of a Gothic cathedral reached into the humid yellow sky. School children in navy-blue and white uniforms raced down the paths on either side of the river, waving at us and screaming with delight.

Mid-morning, we stopped for tea and homemade snake wine at Mrs. Vu's tea house, which is surrounded by bonsai trees and orchid gardens. Jessica spied an eight-foot-long, reticulated python in a green glass case and asked to see it, whereupon Mrs. Vu eased the snake out and draped it over Jessica's shoulders and around her waist. Jessica said, "His body is so cool and heavy, like a big, pulsating necklace. I could get used to this!"

Back on the river, we reached a floating marketplace, where dozens of beamy, 30-foot-long wooden boats groaned under the weight of the local harvest. Families live on the boats, selling produce and fish. Children are the vendors, hawking prawns and crabs, pineapple, coconuts, jackfruit and stalks of bananas, "water spinach," huge orange squashes and armfuls of long bean.

Fresh fruit, vegetables and fish are abundant in outdoor markets and in restaurants throughout the country. Our favorite market was in Dalat, a European-style mountain resort town, complete with a half-sized Eiffel Tower and elegant, French-owned hotels. One of the few towns to escape war damage, Dalat is a cool, misty mirage in a pine forest at 4,800 feet, surrounded by coffee plantations. Deserted villas of long-gone, French rubber-plantation owners are sprinkled across the high ridges around the town. Dalat has a uniquely sophisticated ambiance, due to a waxing and waning population of several hundred university students, French tourists and Vietnamese honeymooners.

From Dalat we descended from fresh mountain air back into the warm, moist climate of the coast, stopping in the beach resort town of Nha Trang, where a battle-scarred boat captain, Ha Chau, took us on a "dragon boat" cruise in the South China Sea. "Just call me Captain Cook," he said, "I'm glad you're here but I don't want tourists to come to Vietnam, I don't want this to be like Thailand in five years."

During the day of snorkeling and lolling on the beach, Karen luxuriated in a $5 tiger-balm massage given by Chau's Cambodian wife, Thuy. Alternately giggling with jokes and wiping tears from his eyes, Chau told stories of his thirteen years as a platoon commander in the war with Cambodia. "I killed many Khmer Rouge," he said, "and I saved my general's life. Only four of my sixty men survived. I dream of them. I can't let them go."

Two of the survivors comprise his dragon boat crew, their brown skin lumpy with shrapnel wounds, like their captain. One of the men told us that Chau has a serious wound in his heart and a short life expectancy.

Chau talked on moodily, "We were overrun by China for a thousand years," he said, "by the French for a hundred, and then by the United States and Cambodia. For a long time I made $30 a month in the army. Now, I have two daughters and I work for myself," he said, "and I like it."

Half-asleep on the sand at the end of the afternoon, we heard a sudden outburst of screaming. Thuy had spied a palm snake in the tree overhanging our picnic table. The snake is the same shade of green as the palm fronds, and highly poisonous. Chau ushered us back up the gangplank of the boat and we sailed off to an island fishing village. Young girls paddling a spinning flotilla of six-foot-across round baskets transported us, one at a time, from the dragon boat to a rickety dock on a small, rocky island. On a path recently drenched by a thunderstorm, we waded in the mud through a village as quietly as we could, as advised by Chau. The fisherman were asleep. At night, they sail great distances to fish in their bright blue- and red-painted boats.

The village kids trailed us, asking, "Where you from?" and "How many children?" and "Where is your husband?" The littlest ones held up their hands to us and swirled their tiny forefingers around in their palms, a traditional greeting.

Chau left us at the port of Nha Trang, laughing as he called out, "See you in next life!"

Our next stop was Hue, a European-looking city of wide, tree-shaded boulevards, reclining on both sides of the Perfume River. We stayed in a former summer palace of the Bao Dai, Vietnam's last king, a wealthy and flamboyant lothario whose swan song played in 1945, when he abdicated his throne to Ho Chi Minh. After dark on a rainy night while the city's electricity was down, the two of us rode snugly together in a cyclo--a three-wheeled bicycle rickshaw that is Vietnam's taxi--and were pedaled through narrow, silent streets under dripping chestnut trees. Oil lanterns flickered on the noodle vendors' tiny tables. Across a yawning moat we bumbled, through a stone gate, down a cobbled path with crenelated walls close enough to touch, and into the Citadel, the former royal enclosure, to a cafe where we had river fish and morning glory sauté in chili and garlic, delicately sweet shrimp rolls, and Tiger beer.

Late the next night, we boarded the Reunification Express and hurtled north over the DMZ towards Hanoi, rushing through the dark in a vintage train compartment right out of an Agatha Christie thriller. Through an early morning mist, Hanoi arose--a Communist outpost of gargantuan, faceless government buildings, gleaming, new high-rises, and 1920s-era Art Nouveau neighborhoods of small restaurants and shops. Repairing to the Kinh Do Cafe on Hang Bong Street in the old quarter, we drank filtre a café and ate croissants, à la Catherine Deneuve, who has been known to frequent the place.

On our last day in the country, we paddled in wooden canoes on a flooded river, and climbed stone stairs carved into a limestone cliff on the "Mountain of the Fragrant Traces" to see Buddhist pagodas built in the 1600s. Flitting around the gardens like mustard-colored moths, young monks tried to avoid eye contact with us. They disappeared through bright red and gold, elaborately carved doorways, whereupon American rock and roll came drifting out, which Jessica promptly named, "Monk Rock."

Driving back to Hanoi, we saw a man standing on his roof, winnowing a basket of rice in the wind. We realized as we passed by that he was standing on the roof not to catch the river breezes but for the steady rush of air from his electric fan. He wore black pajamas and a Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.