Who would have dreamed that the war-ravaged Vietnam of the 1960s would become one of the most in-destinations for Western tourists? And that American and French Jews, as well as Israelis, would be flocking to this Southeast Asian land, which last year saw about 8 million international visitors arriving in the country?
Historically, this past April 30 marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. Depending on when you begin — between the late 1950s and 1975 — Vietnam stands with Afghanistan as the longest war in American history, and an undeclared one that still haunts the United States.
Yet, today, unbelievable though it may seem, both countries are seen as allies. For example, the U.S. Navy often holds joint-maneuvers with the Vietnamese Navy in the South China Sea.
A trip to Vietnam can be seen as a tale of two different cities. The well-traveled tourist realizes that capital cities vie for visitors with other metropolitan areas in their nation: Washington-New York City, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, Rome-Milan and Brasilia-Rio de Janeiro. In Vietnam’s case, those cities are Hanoi in northern Vietnam and Saigon, the latter now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Hanoi does not boast the elegant restaurants, or the night life or the frenetic activity of Ho Chi Minh City. However, Hanoi stands on its own two feet for the visitor, especially in the art and culture evident in the museums as well as exquisite French architecture dotting the city. Add to that some historic sites, and you have a worthwhile trip to this capital of about 6 million situated on the west bank of the Red River, 55 miles from the Gulf of Tonkin. No wonder this traditional center of the country’s administration is called “the city within the river’s bend.”
Although the restaurants, the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake and the shops in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter draw tourists, a main attraction is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, designed by Soviet architects and modeled on Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. Ho was the revolutionary founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party and leader of North Vietnam, recognizable in photos by his characteristic goatee.
But before visiting Ho’s mausoleum in Hanoi, I sought out some fun and relaxation: a visit to the ever-popular water puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, 57 B. Dinh Tien Hoang St., usually quite booked. This is a unique traditional Vietnamese art, which originates from rural festivals. The puppeteers — men and women — stand waist deep in the water to manipulate the puppets, making them move about, talk, laugh and even dance on the surface of the water. Their technical skills are outstanding.
Because I’m interested in history, I went to Hao Lo Prison, 1 Hao Lo St. in the Hoam Kiem District and located in downtown Hanoi. Americans know this infamous prison built by the French, but used during the Vietnam War to house downed U.S. pilots. The prison was nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.” Here is where John McCain, the senator and former Republican candidate for president was held prisoner. In October 1967, while on a bombing mission over Hanoi, McCain had been shot down, seriously injured and captured by the North Vietnamese. He refused an out-of-sequence early repatriation offer, and his war wounds left him with lifelong physical limitations.
I noticed that at the back of the museum was a guillotine.
The next day, I waited in the hot sun to visit the mausoleum, one of the most visited sites in Hanoi. Even in the heat, I had to stand still in relatively long lines, and move along with almost military precision. Schoolchildren went first. Uniformed veterans with their green uniforms and red epaulettes joined the line. I took their pictures; they knew I was an American, and it seemed they forgot yesterday and looked to tomorrow.
Finally, I entered the darkened room where Ho lies in state. Total silence. The guard moved us along. It was all over in less than a minute, and I filed out into the bright sunshine, where there was a picnic atmosphere and where schoolchildren belted out lively shrieks. They love to be photographed, so I recall that in previous years, I had visited the embalmed Lenin in Red Square, and Mao Tse-tung in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Now I had seen Ho.
Walking the now-peaceful streets of Ho Chi Minh City, I realized what other travel writers before me understood: This metropolis on the Saigon River remained fast-moving and exciting, especially in the large ethnic Chinese section, Cholon, which adds to the city’s cosmopolitanism.
The sounds and pace of Saigon get to visitors immediately; it’s frenetic, energetic, hectic and loud, a reminder of New York City. During long walks in early evening, I noticed streets packed with pedestrians. At night, tourists flocked to the Rex Hotel at the corner of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue Boulevard, and rode up to the popular rooftop bar which during the Vietnam War served as a watering hole for journalists. The view was magnificent; this was, after all, “the Paris of the Orient.”
Down below were rivers — rivers of motor bikes moving through city streets. Every visitor to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi remembers those motorbikes, and if you stand at any corner in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and you, too, will be mesmerized by the swarms of motor bikes, their bee-like sounds ringing in your ears. And you, too, will find that getting across major intersections is like trying to dodge the traffic swarming around Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.
One reason that Vietnam has been described as “a fashion maven’s paradise” is that it’s not uncommon for tourists to buy an extra suitcase to hold purchases. After visiting Ho Chi Minh City’s Ben Thanh market this seemed like a prudent move. Booth after booth, section upon section of clothes, textiles and tchotchkes — everything imaginable was for sale; eBay had nothing on this open-air shopper haven, price-wise and commodity-wise.
Get another suitcase, but don’t linger too long in Ho Chi Minh City. Visit the country’s beautiful beaches, trek through hills and valleys. Fly or drive to the ancient capital of Hue to see the Citadel; it’s quieter there.
Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of “Klara’s Journey, A Novel,” “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” and other Jewish travel guides. His blog can be found at bengfrank.blogspot.com.