Blumenthal: Getting perspective in Vietnam
November 20, 2013
Our Vietnam/Cambodian adventure came to an end over the weekend, and all six spirited adventurers returned to their respective homes a bit more enlightened and unforgettably impressed with all of the treasures we discovered during our three-week adventure in Southeast Asia.
As related by our very knowledgeable and personable tour guides, furnished by Trails of Indochina, Vietnam of today is a youthful nation fueled by the desire for modernization and commercialization while protective of its traditional past.
Having already touched on our time in Hanoi and our two-day river cruise on Halong Bay in my last column, I'll pick up the commentary with our arrival in Hue, which served as an imperial capital and home to 13 Nguyen emperors from 1802 to 1945.
Although imperial rule ended more than six decades ago, Hue still bears the marks of its royal past. We viewed several of its luxurious palaces and tombs and were familiarized with the practices of feng shui, which dictates the location and shape of spaces in harmony with both the physical and spiritual — might not be a bad idea to implement feng shui practices into the completion of Base Village, which clearly could benefit from harmony on many levels.
Since most Hue people believe that Buddhism is a plan for living in such a way as to derive the highest benefit from life, we visited the Ba La Mat pagoda, which was built in 1885. We toured the pagoda and sipped a cup of tea with the monks followed by a vegetarian lunch prepared by some Buddhism followers. No chicken/fish exceptions here; this is the real thing.
We spent a couple of days at a beautiful beach resort hotel, the Nam Hai, in Hoi An for some much-needed R&R after all our intellectual pursuits of the prior days.
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Aside from taking in the beauty and peacefulness of this fabulous resort, we were treated to an early-morning purchasing tour of one of the most colorful local marketplaces in all of Southeast Asia, led by charismatic Duc Tran, the chef and proprietor of Mango Mango. He then escorted us back to his restaurant, where he prepared in front of us, using the fruits, vegetables and shellfish he purchased during our market tour, the best meal we had during the entire trip.
Having rested, relaxed and stuffed ourselves with great food. we were off to Ho Chi Minh City, which prior to 1975 was known as Saigon. This city in southern Vietnam is Vietnam's commercial center, with well over 8 million inhabitants and 4 million motorbikes, and never is at sleep. The streets are bustling night and day with thousands of people on motorbikes with no apparent rules of the road other than "Pedestrians beware."
We took in the city's historic landmarks, including the Notre Dame Cathedral, a red-brick edifice with twin spires based on the original construction from Paris; then across the square the Central Post Office, designed by French architect Gustav Eiffel; a visit to the former Presidential Palace, the headquarters of the Saigon government during the American War, revealing the history of Saigon during its turbulent recent past; and finally the War Remnants Museum for a vivid insight into the American War through the locals' eyes.
We capped off the day with a street-food tour of the city on the backs of six Vespa scooters with, thank God, six very experienced drivers piloting us all over the city in the middle of hundreds of other scooters and motorbikes for the most unique progressive dinner we've ever experienced.
The next day started in the early morning with a two-hour drive northwest of the city to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnel complex was initially started in 1948 to protect the Viet Cong guerillas from French air and ground sweeps. This vast network of tunnels also served as communication routes and storage facilities for food and weapon caches as well as hospitals and living quarters for guerilla fighters during the American War, all of this evidencing the hardship of life underground and the Vietnamese resilience during combat.
The next day included a trip to the Mekong River Delta and a cruise along the An Hoa river for a glimpse of the delta scenery, with side excursions on rowing sampans to discover the maze of small canals and visits to a small brick kiln where locals still make bricks by hand and a home where the resident, a former soldier who survived after four years fighting the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, and his wife live on making rice paper.
Our final days were spent in Cambodia with visits to Angkor Wat, one of the modern wonders and most important religious monuments in the world; Angkor Thom, the ancient royal city of the Khmer Empire; the floating village of Kampong Khleang, one of the largest living settlements on the Tonle Sap Lake; and Banteay Srie temple, a red-sandstone structure with elaborate wall carvings in an amazing state of preservation.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable experience that six close friends were fortunate to share together.
Back to business as usual in my next column, but until then you can contact me at email@example.com.
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