V for Vietnam. V for Victory. V for visual splendour.
A heroic people who won their freedom against overwhelming odds. One of the few nations still led by a communist government. A country that has much to offer the curious visitors from overseas.
Vietnam’s northern neighbour is China and the country endured Chinese rule for a thousand years. Other neighbours on the western front are Laos and Cambodia. The eastern neighbour is the South China Sea.
Hanoi, the capital, is located in the northern part of this S-shaped county. It lies on the Red River. Everyone goes around wearing a mask. The traffic is senseless and you have to be particularly ingenious not to get run over. Even the citizens of Indian metros like Mumbai and Kolkata will find the going tough. The old parts of the city are dusty, crowded and bustling with traders and tourists. The night markets present great opportunities for bargain-hunting shopaholics.
The Ho Chi Ming mausoleum is a sober structure that houses the embalmed body of Ho Chi Ming, the legendary communist leader who delivered Vietnam from the clutches of the French colonialists and later masterminded the prolonged resistance against the Americans, until he passed away in 1969. We only had a glimpse of the building from the outside. Our tour guide was unaware that our group had come from another commie-land and he didn’t expect us to enjoy queuing up to get a darshan of the departed leader. I would have liked very much to see the grand old man.
Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) temple is located on a tiny island in the Hoan Kiem Lake. An exotic red wooden bridge (Rising Sun bridge) connects Jade Island to the mainland. This Buddhist temple is dedicated to the Vietnamese general who defeated the formidable army of Kublai Khan in the 13th century.
HA LONG BAY
The Ha Long Bay cruise is the crowning glory of any Vietnamese expedition. The rock formations are stupendous, the waters are calm, the food delicious, and the experience delightful. A visit to one of the many caves revealed a strange world of stalactites and stalagmites. The floating fishing villages and the pearl culture enhanced the overall ambience. Our guide constantly reminded us that Ha Long meant ‘descending dragon.’ The drive from Hanoi took 3.5 hours.
HO CHI MING CITY
Ho Chi Ming City (formerly Saigon) is a teeming metropolis with French style architecture as well as traditional buildings. The Rue Catinat, the old Opera House, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office are reminiscent of the colonial past.
The Reunification Palace, formerly the abode of the South Vietnamese President, was stormed by tanks on April 30, 1975 signifying the end of the Vietnam war. It has remained unaltered and the original tanks are exhibited near the entrance gates, not to mention the helicopter on the terrace.
The War Remnants Museum is an immensely moving experience for anyone with a conscience. On the outside are the US war planes and on the inside you can view the weapons and ammunition used by the Americans. The history of the war is told in explicit detail and photographs and news reports make the horrific events come alive.
I bought the diary of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram titled “Last Night I Dreamed of Peace.” The diary surfaced decades after the petite woman doctor was gunned downed by American soldiers on 22nd June 1970.
The Emperor of Jade Pagoda is essentially a Buddhist temple. Red is the primary colour and you see plenty red candles, lanterns and festoons. There are quite a few turtles and pigeons in the enclosure.
CU CHI TUNNELS
Crawling into these tunnels is a mind-blowing experience. If you have even a few inches of extra fat, don’t try it. These teeny weeny tunnels are meant for teeny weeny folks – like the Vietnamese. No wonder the American soldiers failed to discover this 200 km network of shelters that formed a crucial base for the Vietcong. A 90 minute drive from Ho Chi Ming City.
The tunnels were hand dug and encompassed hospitals and command posts. Smartly camouflaged entrances, designer booby-traps and the spirited resilience of the population eventually helped the Vietcong to overcome the superior military advantage of the world’s mightiest power.
We took a day trip to Ben Tre in the Mekong delta. A boat cruise on the Ham Luong River (a branch of the Mekong) took us to a little village with lush jackfruit trees and coconut palms.
The more adventurous members of our travel group tasted snake wine and other concoctions garnished with creepy crawlies.
We also briefly travelled in a sampan rowed by a local woman, who made sure we all wore the traditional Vietnamese conical hat to protect our faces from the blazing sun.