My previous 'visits'. I spent my first year (1963-'64) in the Republic of South Vietnam as an advisor to the Army of Viet Nam Signal Directorate (Special Ops). I was a US Army Captain and full of 'piss and vinegar' so didn't mind all the forays around the country. My second tour was at the end of the war (1972-'73) when, as a Lieutenant Colonel, I commanded two Signal battalions (the 69th Sig Bn, which stood down, followed by the last US Army battalion in 'Nam, the 39th Sig Bn).
Memory lane. Imagine my surprise
when I visited the "War Crimes Museum" in Saigon this time
and saw a photo on the wall of my former unit boarding the plane, titled
"Last US Army unit leaves Vietnam"!! (They also display a copy of McNamara's
book "In Retrospect", which we purchased before leaving Saigon ...
it is 'recommended reading!) Got another surprise while visiting
the command center at the old Presidential Palace in Saigon (which
is preserved as the 'Reunification Palace' Museum) where I had spent
many hours helping them sort out the communications problems in '72/'73.
They have kept a lot of the old equipment still in place (no crypto gear
tho' ... wonder why?) and the situation maps still on the wall with info
as it was the day in '75 that the North Vietnamese Army tanks came
crashing through the gate.
Not much there to remind me of the earlier days ... most of the folks we met hadn't been born in '63! I did get to meet a former Viet Cong (VC) General Ngo Toai that helped plan the Tet offensive in '68. He owns a noodle shop (Pho Binh) on the edge of Saigon and had one there in the late '60's ... probably visited by quite a few Americans who were unaware that the VC were meeting there in a back room at night. We exchanged pleasantries and autographed calling cards, and Sandy took a picture of us (above, right) ... beaming as though we had never been enemies.
IMPRESSIONS of Vietnam after 26 years ....
People. They are content. They welcome foreigners to visit and see the reunified country, and are especially interested in talking with returning Americans (the enemy they defeated). In Hanoi we saw an outdoor photo display at a roundabout with blowups of the time during the B-52 bombing ... mutilated people, damaged buildings, bomb shelters in the sewers, etc. That was about the only 'negative' thing we saw .. and it seemed to be viewed more by the tourists than the local people. In the Mekong Delta we found the happiest people .. smiling, waving and saying 'hello' without any prompting.
Politics. They had an election while we were there ... lower members of the People's Committee and when Sandy asked a lady who she would be voting for she confessed that she didn't know who was running and that she would vote the way her husband would (sounds like the USA!).
Commerce. Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of rice (after Thailand) and it is grown everywhere from the terraces in the north to the paddies in the south. Capitalism is alive and well. Tourism is booming .. and the sites from the 'American War', such as bunkers, tunnels, headquarters, and the like are major attractions. Major construction is underway everywhere. Two currencies are used throughout the country ... Vietnamese 'dong' and US dollars. Credit cards are accepted at most restaurants and hotels. Not much 'black market' was visible. Street vendors are EVERYWHERE selling EVERYTHING.
Vietnam Airlines is modern and efficient. The railroad got wiped out in
the central region by the worse floods they have had in 100 years. Bus
service includes air conditioned 'Greyhounds', overcrowded rattletraps
and mini-vans. Competing for road space are multitudes of motorcycles,
mopeds, bicycles, cyclos, animal-drawn carts and the many products being
dried on the road ... rice, wood, orange peels, laundry, etc. A four-day
trip we did on a rented motorcycle ($6 per day) was adrenalin-filled at
times but one of the best things we did.
Communications. Excellent. Internet Cafes in the major cities (free 2 hours per day included with our hotel room in Saigon for $12/night), otherwise $1.30 per hour. Satellite TV everywhere. Telephone service seemed efficient ... especially when they made the call for you.
Food. We loved it ... but kept
adding chillis! Noodle soup (Pho) almost every day and both Indian and
Thai restaurants helped the spicy threshold. Breakfast was a delight with
two legacies from the French .. terrific coffee (we brought back 2.5KG
of beans) and bread (though the bread in the north was the best with less
air in it). We stayed active with hiking and walking to counteract the
effects of the food.
Tam Coc: Known as the "Halong Bay in the Rice Fields" and famous now as the site where the movie "Indochine" was filmed. We will have to rent that video one of these days!
We hired motorbikes and drivers the next day and visited the Kenh Ga Floating Village. Took a boat ride to get a closer look at the houseboats floating along the canal (not too unlike our own lifestyle)!! Afterward we rode to the Cuc Phuong National Park which has an Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. All animals in the centre were either rescued from illegal traders or bred in captivity (currently 13 different species of gibbon and langur monkeys are on site).
A town located in the central highlands at 1475m elevation, 308km northeast of Saigon. The area escaped the ravages of war and is now famous for flower, vegetable and coffee plantations. We did an 18km hike with a couple of local guides (Action Dalat). We commenced our trek at the Tiger Cave Waterfall then walked up and down trails, waded through streams, crossed two suspension bridges and visited a minority hill tribe village (they are selling coffee beans at a much higher profit than can be had from rice!).
A seaside town located 128km southeast of Saigon. It was a favorite R&R spot for Terry on his last tour ! Now very commercialised and a booming vacation resort. We were relieved we planned our visit "out of season"! Hired a motorbike and rode around the peninsula taking in the beaches, lighthouse, Ben Da Fishing Village (the racks of drying fish were "hard on the nose" at first), and would you believe an enormous "Rio de Janeiro style" figure of Jesus gazing out across the South China Sea!!
Definitely the highlight of the South. As we missed out on the central regions, we were able to maximise our time here. Initially joined a tour group for the first few days and found it very interesting and comprehensive. Points of interest were:
Cao Lanh - visited the Rung Tram Forest/Xeo Quyt Viet Cong Base. Top brass VC Generals lived in underground bunkers and directed the war from here (a mere 2km from a US Military Base). Small boats rowed us along narrow canals through the forest of grasses, tram trees and vines. Area probably would have been turned into a rice paddy by now, however, its historical significance has preserved it as the last natural forest in the Delta.
Chau Doc - Dozens of temples and pagodas are built on the slopes and in the caves of Sam Mountain - we climbed to the peak in time to see tthe sun setting over the Cambodian border. Another interesting feature of this area is the floating houses. The floats of these houses are actually metal drums. Beneath the houses fish are raised in suspended metal nets. The family feed the fish through an opening in the floor boards and when the fish reach a size of 2kg they are marketed. The fish food consists of a combination of vegetable leaves, powdered rice husks and fish bits - looked like a pile of shit!! We also went to a Cham Muslim village where we saw the local women weaving and were surprised to see a Mosque and be allowed to enter it. The children study Arabic and the Koran at the school next door.
Tuc Dup Hill - A hill studded
with enormous boulders, successfully sheltered a VC headquarters from $2M
(??) US Army shelling! Quite an amazing natural fortress. Bullet
holes and bomb cracked boulders visible.
Long Xuyen - Here we watched
incense sticks being made. Quite a colorful sight with thousands
of them drying out on the pavement. A monotonous task for sure, these
girls labor 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and their pay isn't much!
This girl looks happy, and pretty too!
The political, economic, cultural and transportation centre of the Delta. We did a 3 hr boat trip through numerous canals visiting a rice husking mill and two floating markets. We bailed out of the tour here and hired a motorbike for a few days. We enjoyed getting off the beaten track and travelling at our own pace. Our adventures took us to: Soc Trang (62km southeast of Can Tho) to see the stunning Cambodian Kh'leng Pagoda; through Vinh Long to Sa Dec (58km northwest of Can Tho) to see the flower nurseries and surrounding wetlands; Tra Vinh (68km southeast of Vinh Long) to see beautiful rice paddys and rural scenes. Back in Can Tho we visited a family-run noodle factory. They were quite happy to show us around and even though they did not speak English we were able to see some parts of the manufacturing process. Just happened to be a full moon while there, so that night we took a slow row boat ride to enjoy the "moon river"!
Back to Saigon to take in once again the incredible sights, sounds and "smells" of this very cosmopolitan city. We walked for miles around the different districts, but it was always fun to take a cyclo too. The Government is currently trying to phase them out of Saigon altogether and there are already many streets where they are prohibited to travel. We found this sad both for the drivers whose livelihood depends on them and for the thrill they can give you as you merge through the melee of traffic going in every direction possible! Walking across the street can get hairy at times. We found a quote in the Lonely Planet Guide that really helped: "Move slowly and deliberately, never be indecisive or hesitant, unless you see a bus coming, then the above does not apply .. RUN!".