By April 1975, the war in Vietnam was over but the country lay in tatters. After twenty years of fighting the basic infrastructure had been shattered and it took another seventeen years to bring the country back to a state that could welcome visitors into a peaceful and united Vietnam. I well remember the fall of Saigon which was broadcast by Good Morning Asia but now the country was looking forward again.
Since history and geography had always been my strongest subjects at High School I could now realise a long held wish and plan to explore this little known country and since 2006 I have returned almost every year.
I well remember my first visit when something strange bothered me; at first I could not think what it was but suddenly I became aware that there were no birds and when I asked the people why – nobody seemed to have a satisfactory answer. I did not believe that all the birds had been used in the local speciality on the many menus – Birds Nest Soup. The true reason was the indiscriminate torching of the woodlands and the heavy bombing that had been sustained in the area. The burnt earth policies had scorched the land and, as we know, re-growth takes time. Now some years later Mother Nature has reasserted herself and the trees and vegetation are back again – the woodlands now are full of bird song.
This is an area that is often lashed by monsoon rains when the water falls with such force that you feel almost personally attacked by the deluge as the angry sky relentlessly empties itself upon you. These storms are often accompanied by wild flashes of lightening and by roaring thunder; the echoes reverberating around the outlaying islands and mountains situated on the Gulf of Siam. Then the sun returns and the air quickly heats up and a kind of lush peace covers the land.
It is a land of contrasts where the religions of the Mahayana Buddhists, Confucianism, Taoism sit side by side with the Roman Catholic faith brought there by the French. Churches, pagodas and temples crowd together as here there is freedom to worship for all people.
The capital Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is full of well preserved French Colonial buildings including a beautiful Town Hall and the large Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame. The former post office looks more like a well kept railway station and the streets are now displaying the garish advertisements for the consumer world of Uncle Sam.
By contrast the new departmental store had an oversized banner of David Beckham modelling designer underwear opposite a poster showing Ho Chi Min, the Father of the new Vietnam, not I must say, modelling underwear, but shown looking down on his subjects in a most benevolent way. A few blocks further down the main thoroughfare is the newly refurbished Continental Hotel where, in 1955, Graham Green wrote his novel The Quiet American. History and modernity sit side by side in a sometimes uncomfortable juxtaposition. This is a country that is trying to emerge from the dark ages into a twenty first century that, at times, seems an anathema to its people. It has all happened so quickly that many have not had the time to adjust to the fast pace of living that comes with the new millennium.
When evening falls in the city the river becomes the focus of entertainment where the restaurant boats, with their coloured lights, are all vying for business but I always avoid these and try to discover an authentic restaurant in one the converted colonial villas which will serve the perfect blend of French/Vietnamese food.
This is a country with a complex history and often folk tales and reality are very closely linked. I remember reading the story of Tu Duc one of the revered Emperors of Vietnam in the 17th century. He was very short, around 151 cm, but he had over one hundred wives and many beautiful concubines but he was infertile and unable to produce an heir. He would retire to a small temple that he had built on a manmade island to write poetry and contemplate the beauty of the water lilies and lotus blossoms which floated on the lake. Eventually he made the decision to appoint his nephew as his heir and expressed the wish to be buried in a secret place. The nephew was poisoned by his servants after a short rule, but he did manage to fulfil his uncle’s wish, but on completion of the project the 200 labourers who worked on the temple were all beheaded after the burial so until today, the site has never been discovered. This is a land that holds many secrets.
On the Perfume River there are countless temples, monuments and pagodas built around the 17th and 18th centuries which are all shrouded in myth and these are well worth a visit. You are surrounded by history and a culture that is beginning to emerge from the past but a land that still holds is treasures close.
There is so much to see and one thing I know - I shall return to that place as long as I can because it has so much to offer the traveller who goes with an open and enquiring mind.