Wednesday, March 2, 2011


After 40 years or so, I finally got my opportunity to travel to Vietnam, but the U.S. Government was not paying my way. Visiting Vietnam is a culture shock for me. We didn't know how they would react to Americans, but as it turns out, about 75% of the 86 million population was born since 1975, so they by and large have no memory of Americans and the war. We found the Vietnamese to be friendly to us as Americans. Incidentally, they refer to the wars of the 1950's and '60's as the "French War" and the "American War".

Before you think my mind is in the gutter, consider that dong is the Vietnamese word for money, and the exchange rate is about 15,000 to the dollar. Thus, we became instant millionaires upon our arrival in Vietnam. Several people in our tour exchanged dollars for the colorful dong notes, but the street vendors also accept dollars.

Our ship sailed into the seaport Chan May, north of Danang and about 60 miles South of Hue. Hue sounds colorful, but it is in fact pronounced "way". Actually, the city IS quite colorful, but after about 20 straight days of rain, the colors were hard to find. The highway trip to Hue was an adventure. Highway 1, a toll road is the main highway in Vietnam but is not well maintained. There are many potholes and loose gravel. The default position is driving on the center line of the road, but our bus found itself often driving on the wrong side or even the shoulder of the 2 lane highway to avoid the potholes and to pass slower moving vehicles. Drivers pass on curves and even when traffic is approaching, swerving at the last moment--playing "chicken" at 40 mph. Everyone on the road uses his horn liberally--Get outa my way or I'll run you over! I'm sure they have a lot of accidents, and we weren't told how they handle them or whether people carry insurance.

According to the World Health Organization, the traffic related death rate is among the highest in the world. In 2009, Vietnam reported 11,500 traffic related deaths, but experts contend the actual death rate is double that. (the U.S. has about 38,000 annual traffic related deaths) The government has raised the traffic fines significantly in an effort to reduce the accident rates.

Most of the people drive small motor scooters, and it amazes me that a family of 4 can fit on one, but they do. We're not talking Harleys here. The law requires adults to wear helmets, and they do so, but their little kids go without helmets. Fortunately for them, the scooters don't go very fast, or the death rate would be even higher.

In the countryside, rice paddies and coffee plantations stretch on for miles. In the U.S. we've seen the 1960's images of Vietnamese people wearing conical shaped hats, driving water buffalo, and these stereotype images have not changed, even today. Many people going to and from the market balance two loads on a long pole across the shoulder. Signs along the road extol the popular beers, Huda and Festival. Many businesses have the word ngoc in their names.
That word can mean either "precious Jewel" or "idiot", depending on inflection when you say it. The Vietnamese language uses Western letters with vowels over them, as opposed to Chinese style characters.

Although Vietnam is obviously a Third World country, the people are becoming more prosperous. Behind their shacks, we often see fairly new substantial brick or stucco two story houses. Roadside pagodas are everywhere.


Hue, a city of 340,000, was the Vietnamese capital from 1802 to 1945. We visited the old imperial capital of Hue where the emperor used to live. the capital, on the bank of the Perfume River, is a large walled Citadel which we toured. Inside was a "Forbidden City" where the emperor lived. It was "forbidden" in the sense that ordinary citizens were not allowed to enter. We also visited the verdant grounds and mausoleum of the emperor Tu Duc. He had 100 concubines and no kids. Apparently he was impotent because of smallpox. When he died in 1883, the concubines were buried with him. It's not clear whether they knew that going in, and emperor probably didn't carry life insurance to support them after his death.

In his 36 year reign, Tu Duc was known for his Confucianism and his opposition to foreigners and innovation. He was the last independent emperor although the country at that time was actually a vassal of China. During his reign, he and the Chinese got into a war with the French and managed to lose. The French haven't won a lot of wars since then, but they controlled Vietnam and Indo-China until 1954 except during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

The original emperor of the Nguyen (pronounced "won") Dynasty unified Vietnam in 1802. He had 150 kids and presumably big child support payments. Not surprisingly, with all those kids, Nguyen is the most common name in Vietnam, and it's also in the top 50 or so in Los Angeles.

Most of the people are Buddhists, and there are about 300 pagodas in Hue, and we visited or passed by most of them. Many tourists took the sightseeing rides on the Dragon Boats which plied the Perfume river. We elected not to do so.

We had a fine buffet lunch at the Green Hotel, which reminds me of the Purple Hotel, but it's painted green. By Vietnamese standards, this is a nice hotel. At lunch they served us a delicious meal of seafood soup, calamari, BBQ pork, beef, chicken, duck and vegetables. Contrary to Western belief, dog and cat were not on the menu.


Although the official name is Ho Chi Minh city, almost nobody calls it that. Saigon is a huge city of 3.5 million, and we visited many of the interesting and important sights. We found the streets and infrastructure to be better maintained than in the rural areas. The French influence in this former capital of South Vietnam is strong, especially in the colonial architecture. Like other major Asian cities, the tall buildings are encased in smog.

Saigon was in a festive mood, as it was New Year's Day, the Year of the Cat. Everywhere else in Asia, it is the Year of the Rabbit. It was not clear why Vietnam is different.

The streets were decked out in bright reds and yellows. Yellow flowers were set out on every street. People, especially children in dragon costumes paraded about with small marching bands. Streets were blocked off for the partying. 3-3-3 Beer was flowing from every tap. At night they exploded fireworks. At least they weren't shooting at us--as in Hue, the people appear to like Americans.

Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office.

Both were built by the French in the 19th Century. the Central Post Office was designed by the great architect, Gustave Eiffel in 1886. You may recall his famous towers in Paris and Las Vegas, as well as the Statue of Liberty. The Notre Dame Cathedral across the street was completed in 1880 and was intended to display the greatness of French civilization. It is a Gothic style with 2 bell towers which were added in 1895. The post office resembles a European railroad station and is a prime tourist attraction. People lined up to purchase stamps for collecting or to send postcards overseas.


It's amazing to me that virtually every city in the world that we've visited has a Chinatown, so why should Saigon be any different. We went into a smoky Buddhist temple and watched the worshippers burning handfuls of incense sticks and praying on their knees in observance of the New Year.

National History Museum

This museum was conceived by the leaders of Vietnam to tell the history of the country in their words. Prominently displayed is the huge statue of the revered Ho Chi Minh. Ho ho, Ho! We were told that their wars of the 1950's and '60's were really about reunification of the country. The fact that the new leaders were Communist and they had to "re-educate" the South Vietnamese after 1975 was incidental to the story. In any event, in recent years, the Vietnamese leadership has begun adopting policies similar to those in China encouraging business and trade--we call it capitalism although they don't.

We were entertained by a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show which is considered a must see on the tourist circuit; although kids probably appreciated it more than did the adults.

Presidential Palace

This imposing mansion was formerly the home of the presidents of South Vietnam. In 1975, the name of the palace was changed to the Reunification Palace to commemorate the reunification of the country. Outside on the lawn is a replica of Tank No. 843 which burst through the gate at that time to end the American War. This palace is a time warp from the 1960's with phones, radios and office equipment from that era. The tour guide led us through the War Room in the basement where the American War policies were conducted.

Majestic Hotel

The historic Majestic Hotel, now a 5-star hotel, was built in 1925 on the waterfront by the Saigon River. This 6-story structure in French Colonial and classical French Riviera styles has a rich history. Back in the 1960's, this hotel was the headquarters for the international press corps and espionage agents from several countries. The hotel was taken over by the government in 1975, and the name was changed, and used as army barracks. However, in recent years, the hotel was renovated to its old glory and the original name restored. We had a wonderful buffet lunch and were entertained by a troupe in traditional dress singing Vietnamese songs. The lobby and dining room are decked out with bright colored murals depicting life in the Colonial period.

Old City Hall

We visited the square next to the famous Rex Hotel and across from the old City Hall, now called the Peoples Committee Hall, the headquarters of the Communist Party. The inside of the building is not open to the public. The lushly landscaped square in front is a favored spot for taking photos in front of the Statue of Bac Ho, apparently another name for--guess who--Ho Chi Minh.

Driving out of Saigon on the main street--there are no expressways--we saw ubiquitous "Ga ran Kentucky" signs on the KFC restaurants. Upscale stores like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel were represented; 7-11's were on every other block, but I didn't see a McDonalds.

The government of Vietnam has become more enlightened over the past 30 years, going the way of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The authorities are encouraging small business and new ventures are appearing everywhere. Vietnam is still 20 years behind the PRC, but they're catching up. Vietnamese are entrepreneurial as we've seen with their immigrants in the U.S. We saw many factories near the port, manufacturing goods for export to the West. Keep in mind that Vietnam is a Communist country, and we saw many reminders of that on billboards, but there were no restrictions on our travel. Our guide told us that the people are free to travel abroad.

Vietnam is socially conservative. Arranged marriages are common, especially in the rural areas. Pre-marital sex is frowned upon. The government distributes condoms--or was it condominiums? In any event, a young man on a date probably needs both. Babies born out of wedlock are often abandoned. There are many TV channels, but no sex channel.

Vietnam appears to be prospering, at least in the cities, as the government is loosening its restrictions on commerce. It is no longer emboldened to strict Communist ideologies, although I have no information on its human rights policies. There is only one political party and criticism of the government would probably land a dissenter in prison. In the future, Vietnam will be an economic power to be reckoned with.




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