A whole new ‘Nam
November 29, 2005
I’m sitting on the back of a Honda Wave X100 motorbike, the seemingly ubiquitous form of Vietnamese transportation. A light rain is falling as we weave through the streets of Saigon, but it doesn’t seem to faze the thousands of people that surge around every corner, pass each other, turn on and off side streets, honk and signal – but never shout.
Jung, the driver of the other motorbike, carrying my boyfriend Mike, laughs aloud with mischievous glee as we cross what seems like eight lanes of oncoming traffic, barely missing at least one other motorbike. He must have caught a glimpse of my terrified (decidedly not passive) face. I can tell Mike’s getting a kick out of this – I feel the thrill but am still nervous.Whether Saigon has traffic rules I have no idea. The occasional stoplight is roundly ignored. Honking is the only discernible traffic routine: One honks as one is about to pass, turn, make any movement or speed up. And the prevailing mantra seems to be, “Go, do not stop, look straight ahead, don’t show emotion.”
This scene, repeated in every city, town and village (although with more oxcarts in the rural areas), is a perfect metaphor for the dichotomy that drives this country: Calm chaos.The seeming contradictions are everywhere. Ninety percent of the population is Buddhist, and it shows in their calm, meditative approach to life – even as they’re honking their hearts out. People exude a fierce pride, even as they spend 20 minutes trying to convince you to buy a useless trinket. Ancestral shrines crowded with candles and burning incense grace the entrance of electronics stores carrying every conceivable brand of high-tech gadget. Women still wear the traditional national costume of a long white tunic over loose-fitting pants and a conical hat, but now most ride motorbikes instead of bicycles.Politically, Vietnam is a communist country, but economically people are whole-hog capitalists. A series of market-based economic reforms called doi moi were instituted in the mid-1980s. Later, the collapse of the Soviet Union forced Vietnam to emerge from isolation, and in the last few years it’s shown its stripes as perhaps the next Asian tiger. Currently, investment in Vietnam is rampant, labor is cheaper than in China, and this tropical, mountainous country with a nearly 2,000-mile coastline is one hot travel destination.
Vietnam’s past is fascinating. Its isolation and cultural growth under the Nguyen dynasty, a century as part of French colonial Indochina, and nearly a decade of brutal warfare with the United States, have molded a strong, though scarred people. The last American troops pulled out in 1975, having failed to quell the northern Communists, who overran Saigon and took over the country after some 30 years of resistance – first against the French, then the Americans.But it’s the future that’s even more interesting. Finally at peace after nearly a thousand years of war, Vietnam’s population is 80 million and rising in a country slightly larger than New Mexico. More than half the people are under 21, and most live in the country, employed in traditional areas like the rice industry and trade.Vietnam is not for the fainthearted. It is an assault on the senses in every way. And don’t try to understand the way things work here – just go with the flow.
Vietnam is a country defined by water. Near its two main inland cities, Saigon and Hanoi, are the vast Mekong and Red rivers’ delta regions. In both areas, the rivers rule daily life. Boats, from simple wood sampans to massive tankers, travel up and down the Mekong River’s nine branches all day and night. Residents trade goods in floating markets, clusters of boats selling their particular specialty, indicated by a sample hanging from a pole high above the deck. More often than not, residents travel to and from work, home and errands in boats and on ferries. The low surrounding lands are a patchwork of rice paddies, and rice-processing plants – the Vietnamese use rice to make every conceivable food and product, from paper to candy.Impressive Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is peppered with nearly 2,000 limestone islands of all shapes and sizes. A multi-day boat tour is the best way to see this area, visiting caves and beaches and marveling at locals’ ability to live in floating houses and make their living from the sea. We visited during the winter rainy season, and it was easy to see, as our boat crept along and the islands emerged through the mist, how the bay got its name – Ha Long means “dragon rising” and refers to the legend of the celestial dragon, which spat out great quantities of pearls and formed islands to deter the enemy fleet.
Then there’s Vietnam’s 2,000 miles of coastline, which boasts numerous spectacular beaches. Mui Ne, a sleepy fishing village fast becoming a popular beach resort, is the perfect antidote to the round-the-clock chaos of cities like Saigon and Hanoi. Here, a long, turquoise, crescent-shaped bay is flanked by undulating white and red sand dunes. So, once you’ve had your fill of lounging on the beach, you can take a motorbike or taxi to the sand dunes to do some scampering and sliding (the local children will gladly rent simple plastic sleds for that purpose).But even here, watching local life is the main attraction. We rented a motorbike (what else?) to tour the countryside around Mui Ne, where rolling grasslands with occasional groves of trees resemble the African savannah. We ran out of gas near a small cluster of homes, much to the amusement of a local family, whose children clustered around us giggling as we tried to communicate, then filled up with a liter of fuel in a plastic soda bottle they sold us.One morning, we rose at dawn to watch sunrise on the beach, and witnessed an age-old fishing ritual. With a boat, a massive net was laid over an area the size of a football field. Gradually, the two sides of the net were pulled to shore by teams of four to six people. Digging their bare feet in the sand, they strained as a team to drag in the net, made heavy by water and sea creatures. Their moves were poetic in the soft, warm light of sunrise, drawing life as they could from the sea. After about 45 minutes, the nets were fully drawn in, and the teams quickly sorted their catch. Their yield for all that labor? One large wicker basket full of various fish and crustaceans.
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Nha Trang is a bustling city of 300,000 set behind a 6-kilometer white sand beach. Even at 5 a.m., this beach is teeming with people – fitness-conscious locals practicing tai chi, playing badminton, or methodically swimming back and forth parallel to the shore. Nha Trang is also the diving capital of Vietnam, and a mini-archipelago of islands off its shore provides ample opportunity for snorkeling, exploring, or just finding a remote, uncrowded beach.A shopping trip to Hoi An, one of the most architecturally interesting towns in Vietnam, is definitely worthwhile. Among 80,000 residents, there are more than 200 tailors, many of whom have set up shop in the historic center. In its heyday, Hoi An was a bustling Asian trade center (situated at the mouth of an important river), and its core reflects a fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and various European influences, with some buildings dating back to the 16th century.Some visitors have whole wardrobes made in Hoi An; the tailors can copy just about any design from fashion magazines and catalogs, and can usually turn even huge orders around overnight. I indulged in two tailor-made silk cocktail dresses (with matching silk-covered shoes and handbag), several Chinese-style silk shirts, a wool coat and multiple scarves – for about $100 – and my tailor kept my measurements so I can e-mail her with whatever I need.
Temples, pagodas and other religious sites are ubiquitous. Outside of Mui Ne, we traveled to the giant sleeping Buddha, a massive concrete structure on a jungle hilltop reached by gondola. Another giant (sitting) Buddha was in Nha Trang, watching peacefully over the town from a high point flanked by temples and pagodas. At the Marble Mountains outside of Danang, an extensive network of limestone caves holds shrines, statues, altars and temples. One large cave even housed a Viet Cong field hospital during the war with America. Exiting the labyrinth of caves, we began to descend a series of steep staircases in a pouring rain when we came upon three shrunken old ladies, most likely temple workers at the end of their work shift. We offered them our hands and helped them down the slick stairs as they gabbled excitedly, repeating the only English words they knew: “Number one!”
Vietnam has to be one of the most entrepreneurial, convenience-conscious places in the world. Everywhere we went we could – and were encouraged to – buy anything we wanted, from food and clothing to souvenir whistles and lighters (imitation GI Zippos, inscribed with phrases about war, are a popular item). Much of Vietnam’s commerce takes place on the street through individual vendors.Food vendors walk the streets with two baskets of their particular specialty, each hanging from the end of a flexible pole balanced on one shoulder. Some carry all they need this way to set up a sort of portable kitchen: a bowl of coals or gas ring on which they’ll cook up a steaming pot of pho, Vietnam’s national dish (a flavorful, brothy soup with meat, vegetables and rice noodles garnished with cilantro).Throughout the country, you can buy gasoline at nearly every house and small shop, no matter how rural. Some places have makeshift pumps; others indicate they sell gas by placing a liter of the stuff out on the curb. We ran out of gas three or four times, and never had to walk the motorbike more than 20 feet to refill.In Saigon, we were driving along a busy street as it started raining. Almost before the pavement became visibly wet, the savvy street vendors along this thoroughfare moved their collections of rain ponchos into prominent positions at the front of their stalls.
Another time, in Hanoi, we happened to be enjoying a beer at a fourth-floor terrace bar when Vietnam’s soccer team won an important match against Malaysia. The streets below us filled with cheering fans, but not before a handful of flag vendors had rushed to the scene. Soon the streets were a sea of waving red and gold flags of every size, many streaming from the backs of motorbikes. No doubt the quick-thinking vendors made a handsome profit that night.If pampering is your thing, you’re in for a treat in Vietnam. Massages, manicures, pedicures and every imaginable type of skin service are available on nearly every corner in the larger towns, and they’re dirt cheap. Spa services are so convenient and affordable that we made it part of our daily routine. In Nha Trang, we found a place that offered an hour-long treatment (manicure, pedicure, foot massage and body massage) for $5 – although the lack of any signs and the large group of giggling, robe-clad businessmen made us wonder if something else was going on there.
Most markets and restaurants literally teem with fresh seafood, thanks to Vietnam’s 2,000-mile coastline. Strong Chinese, Thai, Indian and French influences make the culinary repertoire richly varied and flavorful. And thanks to the northern and southern delta regions, Vietnam is the world’s third-largest rice producer.A bowl of pho (noodle soup), com (rice dish) or a fresh baguette sandwich at a street market can cost a quarter or less, and be just as good as a $1-$3 restaurant entree – and those are the inflated prices for foreigners. At some street eateries, you just take your pick from an array of mouthwatering dishes, refilling your rice bowl until you’re sated.Eating on the street made me nervous at first, but almost everything is cooked on the spot – a steaming pot of pho broth will kill any parasite on the meat or vegetables dunked into it. Many restaurants in tourist areas are keen to Westerners’ delicate constitutions and take care to prepare food properly.I relish a few memorable food experiences. In the Mekong Delta, I tried curried snake – chewy but not bad. Really. In Mui Ne, we went to a popular local restaurant where we chose our meal from dozens of tanks of fresh, live seafood. At a small, nondescript eight-table restaurant in Nha Trang, I ate the most incredibly tender and flavorful tuna steak, with a caramelized onion, spicy cream sauce – a Vietnamese dish with French flair. In Hanoi, we returned repeatedly to one pho vendor, a plump grandmotherly woman whose three sidewalk tables were always full and who doled her out-of-this-world soup in a friendly, comforting way. A neighboring vendor sold fresh escargot and clams by the dozen. A few streets away, we discovered a shop selling every imaginable kind of pate (its menu was in Vietnamese and French) along with the freshest, lightest baguettes I’ve tasted outside of France.
Being an American (even one with a French passport) is not taboo in this country that is clearly still healing from a war. An estimated 3 million-plus Vietnamese were killed, countless thousands were maimed or suffer from illnesses from chemical weapons, and huge swaths of land are ravaged and dead from chemical bombings. We were reminded of that brutal history during a visit to Saigon’s War Remnants Museum (which until recently was called the War Crimes Museum), with its extensive and graphic photographic displays and sharply anti-American text explanations.
But everywhere else in Vietnam, we were seen not as Americans but as Westerners with money to spend. Many people guessed we were British or German or Canadian, since relatively few American tourists visit Vietnam. Upon learning our nationality, the curious ones asked about the wealth of our country, recognized New York and California, and hoped we liked Vietnam.Catherine Lutz’s e-mail address is email@example.com