Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Viva Vietnam - Part 1 : Cities of Joy

Vietnam : The name for many evokes grizzly images of a war that humanity would like to forget, the death and destruction it caused and the far reaching effects it has had across the world. So, I was not surprised when family and friends were perplexed by the holiday destination my husband and I had chosen for our annual vacation. People sniggered and wondered if we had turned to war tourism in our mid lives and wouldn’t Afghanistan and Iraq be better destinations if that were the case. I listened to all of this holding on to my perception of what Vietnam may turn out to be. All I knew about the country, except the facets of the war was that it was the third fastest growing economy in Asia, it was supposed to have the most pristine and unexplored beaches in Asia Pac, it had amazing food (though being a vegetarian I did not know if this would be true for me) and last but not the least, it had an amalgamation of Chinese, French and American influences. This made the decision for us and in frenetic activity of planning itineraries, checking on hotel availability, exploring trip advisor and what it had to say about various places and coordinating with the other couple that was to accompany us for the trip and keeping everyone happy with the plan, I forgot any misgivings until on the flight when anxiety about the unknown hit me hard. A few valiums had to be taken to sooth frayed nerves (of course the fact that I am a very nervous traveller did not have anything to do with it. Ahem ;-)). What followed was an adventure of the senses that was totally unexpected.  I am presenting the story of this adventure in a  2 part series, the first of which on the beautiful cities in Vietnam is given below.
HCMC / Saigon
The journey of our discovery began in Ho Chi Minh City or the more romantic Saigon as it was called earlier in the southern part of Vietnam. Saigon was in the past the nerve centre for all war related activities, and try as I might, I could not get rid of the images of French mansions disintegrating under constant shelling and air raids. But when we stepped out of the airport, I was infected by the electric dynamism of this city. Excitement for hubby dear reached its peak of course when a Mercedes E Class had been sent by the hotel to pick us up and embarrassing photo ops with the car followed till we reached the hotel. When I was able to tear myself away from the excitement of my first Merc ride, I glanced outside the window and was amazed to see the beautiful roads, high rises, smartly dressed people moving around with purpose and of course the plethora of scooters. Ho Chi Minh is the industrial hub for Vietnam and one can make this out as one drives into the District 1 area (akin to the downtown in large cities). It is also a city that loves its two wheelers and so does the rest of the country. But what amazed me the most was the separate lane that was maintained for these two wheelers and wonder of wonders, people actually followed the traffic rules. Mind you, traffic could get as bad as it is in Mumbai, but it is never disorganized and never chaotic. Ho Chi Minh or HCMC as it is called to me seemed to possess a split personality. There was one part of it which I would like to call the scarred yet proud Saigon that preserved and held onto the history of the war it had stood witness to. The other part was the young, glitzy, forward looking HCMC that was speeding its way towards progress and had a nightlife that could compete with the best cities across the world.
Let’s explore the scarred yet proud Saigon first. My first foray into understanding the war history of this wonderful country started with a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels (of course I could never get the name right and ended up calling it the Chu Chi Tunnels much to the chagrin of our guide, Lee). For those of you who are unaware of the significance of these tunnels, they are the tunnels that the Vietnamese in the South dug from a small village of Cu Chi outside of Saigon to the border of Cambodia. This became the nerve centre through which the Southern Guerrillas received their ammunition, food and all other kinds of support. It is testimony to the perseverance, grit and native intelligence of this amazing clan of people that right till the end of the war the Americans were never able to guess how they got their supplies. In fact many parts of the Cu Chi tunnels site are filled with examples of this grit and intelligence. Women were at the forefront of this movement whereby the tunnels were actually being dug by the women of the village in the night and the mud dug up was used by them in the day for agriculture unnoticed by the government that was keeping an eye on the men in the village. Similarly, the native guerrillas collected the bombs and shells being dropped by the Americans, welded them and turned them into the weapons they used in the war. So the Americans were actually defeated by their own weapons. As if this irony was not enough, the native guerrillas, used their smaller size to carry lighter weights and moved around more swiftly than the American soldiers giving them a definite edge in a terrain unfamiliar to the Americans. All these stories and many more anecdotes, made me marvel at the never say die spirit of the people of this small country. My awe at the resilience of the Vietnamese was re-enforced when I saw at the various museums in the city, that this was a country ravaged by war not just by the Americans for 25 years but also by the French for a decade before that and the Chinese for many decades prior. Yet, the overwhelming sense one got is that the Vietnamese people clung to the images of the war but used them to show themselves what not to do in the future. They used this as a beacon to guide them in to a peaceful and prosperous future that they are trying to build by working together. Their pride in what they have created and the forgiveness they have for all their captors is something the world should learn from.
 US Troops retreating from Vietnam
 Bombs and shells that could be dropped in a single hour on Cu Chi
While the days were filled with intense historical exploration, the nights were spent canoodling along the streets of the young, glitzy Ho Chi Minh city. When I saw the number of bars, lounges, restaurants and all nighter clubs that existed in walking distance of the hotel, I felt as if the city was in a hurry to make up for lost time. It is amazing that all this development has happened only in 25 years after a devastating war but there is no looking back for the night life in HCMC. Some of the great places we spent time in were lounge clubs like Saigon Saigon and the 5 o clock follies. Saigon Saigon, was a bar on the top floor of the Sheraton with a panoramic view of the city and an amazing South American band that performed on the Salsa and Rumba till the wee hours of the night and has made Vietnam its home for the past decade. 5 o clock follies with a slightly more historic concept to it was the bar at the Rex Hotel. This was a watering hole for the press that was there to cover the war in the 70’s and borrows its name from the press briefings that used to happen at 5 pm every evening in its bar. The vintage photos capturing some of these moments, made me realise how the media truly came into it’s own during this war. In fact, it was when America lost the war in the media through public perception when the final death knell sounded for the troops to withdraw from a war which many believed was not theirs to fight in the first place. The hotel commemorates this time every day by passing out free drinks at 5 pm. Of course, they may re-consider the free part after the number of drinks we downed thereJ. After a healthy dose of shopping at the Ben Than market and gorging ourselves with the local street food (yippee . lots of choice for vegetarians), we were ready to move to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam in the north.
We were lucky to have explored Hanoi in the year when it was celebrating 1000 years of existence. The locals marked this incredible feat with several cultural programs, fairs, festivals and processions across the streets. The place to be, to enjoy all of this was the Old Quarter of Hanoi. This was a little like the Chandni Chowk of Delhi albeit much cleaner and well preserved. We decided to stay in one of the boutique hotels in the Old Quarter to truly enjoy the festival and the charm of this vintage market that had buildings built during the French rule and still had preserved many of the edifices. Hanoi turned out to be a surprise glimpse into the rich culture, social fabric and heritage of the Vietnamese people. Everywhere we walked in the night, we saw families pull little stools out on the pavement, cook food on a little table and crowd around it having their communal meal while sharing details of their day. This could also be due to the match box like houses they lived in or the general poverty, but looking at the shining, laughing faces of the families, you knew this is what they would do even if they were incredibly well off. Family values and spending time together seemed to be very important to these simple, yet modern people.
 The most charming aspect of Old Quarter in Hanoi was the Hoan Kiem Lake. If the market gave us glimpses of French architecture, the lake was a testament to Chinese folklore and culture that left its imprint on Vietnam during the Chinese occupation. Legend has it that a divine golden tortoise that had come to help the king during an ancient war with the Chinese had left a golden sword in this lake that protects the city till date.  The Lake also had a simple little pagoda built on it for worshiping this tortoise. While exploring the pagoda, we found old men playing Mah Jong (an ancient Chinese game) in the temple square while accompanied by their grandchildren for evening walks, some even on wheel chairs. This was an incredibly heart-warming and interesting site that no tour book will tell you about and we were incredibly lucky to have stumbled up on this serene and calm experience. We later found out through the famous Water Puppet show (a must watch if you are culturally inclined otherwise you may just fall asleep like some of my friends did J) that the Vietnamese people have a rich culture replete with folklore in which animals and the various connotations attached them figure prominently. This was again a revelation to me as I  always thought no other country had the culture of folklore as rich as India but Vietnam shook some of those beliefs.

Relics of the past: Senior citizens enjoying a game of Ma Johng as their grandchildren look on
However, being a woman the highlight of my exploration of the Old Quarter had to be the shopping district around the Lake (and we are not going to talk about how much I spent on the shopping). The shopping district is an ancient one consisting of 36 lanes, each lane named after the article that was being sold on that street. So there were lanes selling only shoes, only bags, only coffee, only gold and so on and walking along the narrow, cobbled lanes, made even more narrow by all the wares on display was a visual delight. It was delightful to bargain not knowing the language and you never knew what kind of local treasure you would chance up at the next bend. It was during one of these long walk around the shopping trail that I discovered the Vietnamese coffee and have become a lifelong fan. The best way to have it is at a local shop sitting on a stool on the pavement and you don’t want to know what goes into making these coffee beans. Just enjoy the taste and leave that story for another day.
Coming up: Viva Vietnam – Part 2 : Nature’s Bounty ( A peep into the amazing rendezvous with natural wonders and deep blue seas in Vietnam).

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