Treasures of the Far East

An old Korean proverb says, “A turtle travels only when it sticks its neck out.” Don and I felt a little like that going to Viet Nam as tourists with mixed feelings about all the United States history there.

First stop the capital city, Hanoi, which proved to be prettier and smaller than Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). First impressions were millions of motor scooters. At a red light it looked like the beginning of the Boston Marathon. When the light turned green, the “race” was on. Our instructions for crossing the street were “walk slowly, but never stop. They will go around you, but if you stop they don’t know what to do.” Pedestrians have no right of way.

It was amazing to see how much the Vietnamese could carry on their scooters, from a bunch of live piggies going to market to dozens of baskets or even a refrigerator. Our eyes burned when we joined the fray and took a ride in the cyclos (sort of a bicycle rickshaw). Natives like to own an apartment on the street so they can rent the ground floor out for a motor scooter garage and they can live on the second floor.

Cone-shaped hats were everywhere. Young women want to have white skin so to protect their faces from the sun and pollution they wear masks or scarves across their faces and long gloves on their arms even in the heat and humidity.

This is a noodle crazy population morning, noon and night especially Pho noodles – in a broth with bits of chicken, onion and soy sauce. My folks were making that back in the ’50s in their restaurant when they didn’t know anything about oriental food. It was in a tiny town in Washington State. They just called them Chinese noodles and added a sliced hard-boiled egg.

Being something of a fashionista, I fell in love with the Vietnamese national dress as soon as I saw the flight attendants on our plane in their long tunics with mandarin collars and slits up to the waist worn over white flowing pants. That was my one purchase made to order in six hours.

Money was like playing Monopoly, with an exchange rate of 15,000 dong to $1. There was 66-cent beer, $14 a bottle wine in restaurants, $5 shampoo and blow-dry, massages of all kinds from $10 up (foot massages in the airports), pedicures for $8, not to mention silks and tailoring for “pennies.”

Any religion is OK in Viet Nam – Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Confucianism – or a combination and many practice nothing. The oldest pagoda is here but nearly every family has an altar at home to worship ancestors with photos of mom and dad and incense whose smoke sends wishes to heaven. You can take it with you! Relatives sometimes burn paper cars or fake money on the altar so the objects can go up to the dead person. Some folks have spirit houses in their yards or dog statues on their gate to keep out evil spirits.

The Hoa Lo Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”) was only a block from our hotel; it’s a sobering site to say the least, one of only two places we ran into propaganda. It showed the atrocities by the French who were in the country from 1896 to 1954 and displayed photos of how well the American pilots were treated – playing guitar, cooking. They had Senator John McCain’s (imprisoned there from 1967 to 1973) flight gear and photos of him. McCain returned and met the man who pulled him out of the nearby lake after his plane was shot down during the war. Two thirds of the prison was demolished in 1993 to build Hanoi Towers. The rest has been preserved as a memorial to the revolutionaries who died for their country.

As we rode along we saw that many of the smaller buildings had sandbags on their tin roofs. There are no earthquakes but a typhoon had struck a month before and another was expected. It missed us and headed out to sea.

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Viet Nam is the Cu Chi Tunnel, which began construction in 1948 outside Saigon. It was the underground village of the Cu Chi guerilla fighters that is part of a 124 mile-long Vietcong network connecting post offices, hospitals, shelters and weapons factories. There were several levels much like a giant spider web where many people could live and hide at one time. At ground level were grim booby traps for soldiers to fall into. In the old grainy film the guides showed tourists the propaganda that pictured the bad Americans. Some in our group were brave enough to go into a short part of the tunnel squeezing into the trap door and crawling on their hands and knees to the other “door.” I watched.

In our small world, the Montecito connection was Jane and Jim Burkemper and their friends Jan and Don Copeland, who we kept running into throughout our trip. As Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) said, “One of the gladdest moments of human life is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands…”