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THE WANDER YEAR

A Visit to Vietnam Brings an Attitude Adjustment

WEEK 16: VIETNAM / The Wander Year, A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

May 28, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Like many Americans, I've always regarded Vietnam as a symbol more than a place.

I grew up during the Vietnam War watching Walter Cronkite report body counts on the nightly news. The grim specter of Vietnam took form in my mind through such films as "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now" and "Platoon." The image was fixed with my move in the 1980s to Washington, D.C., where I occasionally visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, that granite gash in the ground that evokes an open wound on the nation.

The word "Vietnam" conjures tragedy, shame and folly. So when our journey brings us to this Southeast Asian country, I expect to flip through the pages of a sad chapter from U.S. history. No surprise, reminders of the war are abundant and strong. The shocker is that I also find a pleasant and user-friendly tourist destination.

After brief visits to Thailand and Cambodia, Andrea and I fly to this city formerly known as Saigon, where my preconceptions are challenged the moment we land at Tan Son Nhat airport. Because Vietnam is a Communist nation, I brace for a tangle with bureaucracy. We instead breeze through the easiest immigration process of our trip.

Within 10 minutes, we've traded dollars for dong and are riding toward the city center in a new air-conditioned taxi. Outside our window zoom some of the city's 1.4 million motorcycles. Many are straddled by women wearing ao dai (pronounced ow-ZYE), the graceful traditional garb.

At the Hanh Hoa Hotel, in the tourist area of Pham Ngu Lao, we are greeted by a young staff that's all smiles and eager to please. We can't pass through the lobby without at least one worker leaping to his feet to offer assistance. Every time we retrieve our room key, the receptionist escorts us to the elevator.

Our room is the cleanest we've had since New Zealand. The bathroom contains shower sandals and new toothbrushes. The mini-bar is stocked with Coke and Pringles. Satellite TV and ample lighting--rare amenities on this journey--are welcome additions. You're supposed to bargain for everything here, but when the first room rate tossed out is $15, I can't find the nerve to dicker.

Vietnam's leaders run a quasi-capitalist economy, allowing some citizens to own small businesses. The neighborhood around our hotel is thick with Internet shops, travel agencies and cheap cafes that give diners chilled washcloths before meals. We eat at the inevitably named Good Morning Vietnam Restaurant, where they serve up tasty pizza and pasta.

This city retains some vestiges of its French colonial past, such as broad, tree-lined boulevards. We glide by elegant buildings on hired cyclos, pedicabs with the passenger seat in front of the bike. In the fashionable Dong Khoi area, we pop into a bistro for croissants and espresso, and for a minute we're in Paris.

Still, Vietnam won't be confused with the West any time soon. This remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Street hawkers are polite but persistent, exuding an air of desperation. The sidewalks teem with beggars, many of them crippled by land mines left over from the war.

On a drive south to the Mekong Delta, we are dazzled by the sublime landscape, counting no fewer than six shades of green. Peasants tend rice paddies by hand, fending off the sun with conical straw hats.

At the Mekong River, we board a boat that cruises by floating markets, where weathered wooden vessels sit half-submerged under loads of produce, their bows emblazoned with painted red dragon eyes to scare whatever evil lurks in the water.

As our boat motors down one of the countless canals, children race along the bank, waving and shouting, "Hello! Hello!" We pull ashore to test our balance on a few of the region's 300,000 single-log footbridges, our awkward efforts drawing giggles from the kids. I spot two boys in a ramshackle stilted house playing with a pink plastic sword. I show them how to fake a deep stab by sliding the sword between my arm and body. When I leave, the boys are writhing on the plank floor in mock death throes.

Back in Ho Chi Minh City, we enter the most popular tourist attraction dedicated to what is known here as the American War. The War Remnants Museum is heavy on propaganda, presenting only one side of the conflict. Even so, some of the pictures and exhibits are so ghastly that I wince and look away. Also jarring is the sight of captured American tanks and aircraft on display in a foreign land. Souvenir stands sell Zippo lighters and dog tags that allegedly once belonged to U.S. soldiers.

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