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
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
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
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
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.