When Carlie asked me to join her TOFF
(Trips for Older Females & Fellows) group going to Vietnam in January/February
2015, I immediately said yes, for 2 reasons: to avoid the worst
of the winter here (how wrong I was!) and because my brother was
out there from 1963 to 1972: I didn't know how it might help me
understand that time of his life but obscurely thought it might.
And it did; a decade of war yet I saw how it was the time of his
life in a joyous way.
I did no homework on Vietnam before the trip other than to re-read
some of the books and papers gathered and absorbed in those days,
starting with ones used for this country's first teach-in on Vietnam,
in 1965, which I helped organise. I've a Cambodia library too from
that time, and looked at it; Carlie's plan was 10 days in Vietnam,
then 5 in Cambodia. Adam reported a bit from there too; then as
now there were knock-on or domino effects of outside intervention
in one country.
My image of Vietnam was a dated black and white one of desolate
rural poverty and a war-torn landscape, barefoot children fleeing,
peasants running from villages in flames, trees starkly shorn of
leaves and life by Agent Orange, dioxins, napalm and the other chemicals
used by Goliath (the US forces) to produce widespread deforestation
aimed at forcing the Vietcong into the open and surrender.
So almost everything was unexpected.
First, Vietnam's dynamic booming modern economy,
before our eyes. Japan was lauded everywhere as the great benefactor,
in huge banners and signs thanking its government and engineering
companies and named managers for Hanoi's new International Airport
terminal, its new bridge there and highway to the city, for new
motorways and Highway One running 2,400km along the coast from north
to south, for massive rebuilding and engineering projects and 4
or 5 bridges at bombed and blitzed Da Nang, now a glitzy modern
city with high-rise apartment blocks, a new internal airport, beach
resort compounds and casinos for Chinese tourists (gambling's illegal
for Vietnamese citizens who go to Macao or the Philippines for it).
Toyota, Hyundai, Yamaha, Canon factories line the highway; Samsung's
with 20,000 workers is the largest (making mobile phones; Samsung
TVs are made in Malaysia). Hanoi has 8 million people and 6 million
scooters: the streets of both Hanoi and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh
City) are jam-packed with them, hurtling chaotically all over; we
had to practice getting across the road on our first day. Saigon
is building a subway or metro thanks to Japanese engineering. Its
close density of skyscrapers, especially when we had cocktails from
the top of a hotel looking down at dusk to the lights and sounds
of a busy city that's never silent, reminded me of NY.
Hardly a scooter is without heaps of adults and children sitting
on top of each other and/or stacks of boxes, ceramic pots, plants,
refrigerators, and large furniture piled high (as I found when drawing
the scene). Few lorries or cars. You wonder how the helmeted driver
can control the tiny scooter under such a mountain of people, things,
even caged birds and live ducks and cherry blossom branches for
Tet, the ten-day New Year on when we were there.
Second, it was unexpected to find
more resentment of the American War, the Vietnamese name for it,
than about the French colonial heritage, of which they are tenacious
'The French gave us buildings and baguettes' they say.
Hanoi has golden-yellow painted French colonial houses with ornate
wrought-iron balconies, wooden shutters, tall first floor salon
windows, vines and climbing roses and deep-pink bougainvillea and
delicate trees growing in every corner or crevasse and drooping
gracefully to the ground like New Orleans, the same vintage. The
French Quarter is now the diplomatic and government one as Hanoi
is the capital (it not Saigon won the war!) but it merges into the
rest of the city where we saw tree lined boulevards, parks with
French bandstands, lakes and formal gardens; charming and unspoiled.
In Saigon we went to a performance in L'Opera, built 1898 and modelled
exactly on the Paris theatre of the same name. We saw the "AO" show
(Ahhh! Ohhh!), French Marcel Marceau mime plus Vietnamese acrobatic
dance and props (conical bamboo hats), traditional flutes and strings;
its Vietnamese Director was trained in Paris. Uncle Ho, as we were
reminded at the museum made of his house (preserved with his books
and furnishings intact) spent the formative years of his life in
Paris and was very much a French intellectual, loving all things
French except their colonial rule. Even his short time in England
was as a French pastry chef.
'Baguettes' in that phrase seemed to refer to Vietnam's French
style of cooking combined imaginatively with its own exotic ingredients,
especially tropical fruits and local fish - a fabulous fusion which
began to explain my brother's love of the life there. Every restaurant
and region does it differently, an endless adventure.
Literally too: banh mi, the popular street food of the whole
country, is a baguette with any local filling. In the morning we
saw fresh made baguettes carried on pavements and scooters, curious
for a rice country. On an evening walk in Hanoi 3 of us saw an all-night
dentists shop, open and busy like a barber's, and a small bakery
making daily baguettes which we were told was the norm, as in France.
The French legacy is evident in many ways. The education
system is French in structure, though Saigon may change to grades
(classes) organised on US lines. We glimpsed primary pupils wearing
French school uniform of an earlier era, with pinafores and neck
The Ethnography Museum, just like the one in Paris, celebrates
the country's ethnic minorities as if they were in aspic or a dead
butterfly collection not living people needing freedom to modernise,
as much as preservation. We spent time there: 50% of the Vietnamese
are Viet, the other 50% are 53 different ethnic groups still living
in their area, mountains or lowlands or marshes, still with their
own costumes, occupations, crafts, music, marriage and other traditions.
Their difference is preserved or pickled; integration isn't the
French way, though the basic education system treats people more
equally than ours. The museum park has some of these groups' distinctively
shaped long houses for a large extended family to live together
as one unit, like those in Papua New Guinea.
The only exception to the lack of negatives about colonial days
was on a visit to a "French Landlord's house and compound" full
of imported gilded Louis XIV style furniture and precious china.
We were told that they cheated the rice paddy workers of their proper
pay and that in colonial times only they learned French and had
some schooling. These hated rich landlords were Vietnamese. One
of Ho's first acts on getting independence was to set up adult literacy
classes for the people. We met the 5th generation landlord, still
owner of the grand house and estate; his family hadn't suffered
the fate of rich landowners in Cambodia.
By contrast, awareness of the powerful and omnipresent impact of
the American War was sharp; in 2015 Vietnam marked the 40th anniversary
of its end in 1975.
It felt like yesterday. Along Highway One we saw monuments commemorating
B52s shot down, pilots captured, villages or forests destroyed.
Giant cement Soviet Socialist Realist statues of a man and woman
carrying a gun and a sickle towered above the plaques, which said
things like '100 B52s with SAM missiles were shot down here, hitting
100,000 innocent people in error'.
We stopped at a huge factory workshop where 300 young women with
humpbacks and other disabilities were hunched over needlework making
things for tourists to buy - postwar generations are still being
born with deformities from the dioxins and chemical warfare, as
after Hiroshima. At another training workshop we saw young men and
women grimly making lacquer and metal craft tourist trinkets for
sale. Vietnam had 130,000 mixed-race war babies of whom only 30,000
went to the USA; the rest, rejected both by the veterans' wives
and by the Vietnamese, were put into large orphanages.
Passing the National Cancer Hospital we heard of the high cancer
rates due partly to the chemical defoliants that caused deforestation
and poured into rivers, polluting water supplies for years to come
- affecting adults and unborn children, of American ex-soldiers
At Saigon's war museum we saw remnants of shot down US tanks, helicopters,
planes, and ghastly torture chambers from Ngo Dinh Diem's time,
outside; and film, photos and news within (I asked about Adam's:
no luck). Hanoi's octagonal glass war museum near the Ho one covered
anti-colonial struggles as well as Guernica, Hiroshima, and current
international wars and peace efforts on nuclear, chemical and biological
warfare, in a vivid, stylish way.
Most eye-opening of all was the Cu Chi tunnel complex near Saigon,
now a park over the 250km underground world of tunnels dug out during
the war, with many rooms and levels for the Vietcong planning hq,
ammunition and weapon stores, hospital, library, school, sleeping
and eating areas for 100s of men, women and children, and ingenious
ways devised to hide all this from the forest above, disguising
entrances, exits, air-holes, cooking smells and smoke. And with
booby traps for US soldiers searching in vain for the invisible
enemy, who seemed to vanish into the woods. 'They underestimated
us! We outwitted them!'
I thought of London Underground sheltering people from the bombs,
1939-45; of the ancient "underground city" dug out of soft volcanic
limestone in Capadoccia to protect civilian populations from marauding
hordes over the Anatolian plain, used for centuries both as secret
shelters and to ambush the invaders; and of more recent tunnels
in the sand between Gaza and Israel. Cu Chi tunnels are too narrow
for most Westerners, but ok for the slim Vietnamese.
Third, everything about Vietnamese culture was unexpected and fascinating.
For example asking why a rice paddy we passed was full of white
ducks, we learned that when farmers start sowing rice, they buy
and raise a baby duck: it's 3 months for a rice crop, 3 months for
a 'rice duck'; then when the rice has been picked, by hand, ducks
are put out to finish off bits of rice left around; this fattens
the ducks, just in time for Peking Duck at the New Year.
More examples: the conical hat made of woven bamboo is so strong
it lasts a lifetime and shields you from both rain and sun.
Cai Be Floating Market which we visited by barge is an extensive
fishing and trading village in the wide Mekong River delta, with
houses, school, community centre, even Catholic Church, all in the
water on high stilts, reached by colourful fishing boats painted
with big eyes. (Why can't we revive stilts for England's flooding
The floating fishing villages in Halong Bay that
we saw when aboard an old Junk were worse off: the small one-room
wooden sheds that are their homes lack electricity and literally
float on the surface, without stilts and with little schooling for
the children who we saw all over the Bay raising net baskets from
the depths by pushing a wooden plank with their toes, lying on their
backs in tiny one-person boats.
The seafood is mainly for supermarkets. This fishing method,
the basket making and other skills and crafts there, are centuries
old - the way of life is preserved intact like the Bay's unique
flora and fauna. It's a Unesco world heritage site.
We saw an oyster and pearl workshop, marble carving,
a crocodile farm in a fenced off bit of river, traditional medicines
being made from plants and snakes in tanks; Hanoi's Temple of Literature,
a university built in 1070 with 5 courtyards like Oxbridge; a performance
of 'Water Puppet Theatre' a remarkable ancient art using life-size
wooden statues to tell moral tales, over a square pond; and the
mid-Vietnam town of Hoian, 400 years old, untouched by war, unspoiled,
with old Chinese temples, traders' houses, Japanese pagoda bridges,
ancient Roman shops, and traditional craftsmen at work on calligraphy
and silk lantern making,
Fourth, the contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia
was greater (Vietnam richer and Cambodia poorer) than I expected.
Cambodia was not a French colony, only a protectorate. It didn't
gain infrastructure or economic development then, and it's still
waiting. Tourists are surrounded by beggars and amputees, especially
child beggars holding out their hand and piteously pleading for
Only at the end did I see a Unicef sign saying don't give child beggars money, it perpetuates the problem and keeps them out of school, parents use them to get money. Begging is illegal in Vietnam, which is also stricter over drugs dealing (death penalty) even though both governments are Communist.
On Angkor Wat, S-21 Genocide Museum, and Choeung Ek Killing Fields Museum, I could ponder for pages but have run out of space.
Fifth and last, the relaxed and easy-going group
was unexpected. From them I learned patience at airports ("Take
it in your stride"), willingness to try everything ("You only live
once"), and tolerance of tummy upsets ("What doesn't kill you makes
you stronger"). I've been away with only one group before, Tim's;
am now convinced and will do it again. If it hadn't been for Carlie
and TOFF I'd never have dreamed of going to Vietnam
on my own. So thank you Carlie, I'm grateful!