From entrepreneurs looking for deals to veterans seeking closure to travelers discovering the next new paradise, everyone’s heading back to ‘Nam these days.
With its mountain tribes and misty bays, its pristine beaches, its verdant countryside, its rivers and deltas teeming with commerce and romance, and its cities and towns alive with culture and electricity, Vietnam is colonial France wrapped around an American flag atop an Asian dragon inside the pages of a Graham Greene novel.
Contributor John Wood served in the Army there during the Vietnam conflict. He returned recently to answer this question for us: How can a visitor best get the full Vietnam experience? “It’s not in a cramped bus, a rickety train, or a wheezing Russian plane,” he says. “Get around the way the locals do: by cyclo, boat, raft, bike, and foot.”
One of the best ways to mingle with the people — among the most gregarious in the world — is to hop on a cyclo (pronounced “seek-low”), a three-wheeled rickshaw attached to the front of a bicycle. Because the vehicles move slowly, you can observe the people and street life in much greater detail than if whizzing by in a taxi. In addition, many cyclo drivers are former South Vietnamese soldiers who speak English, so you’ll be deluged with questions about America.
To visit Hanoi and not take the obligatory side trip to explore the eighth wonder of the world, Halong Bay, would be like going to Las Vegas and not setting foot inside a casino. The crystal-clear gulf contains literally thousands of skyscraper-sized limestone caves, islands, and karst sculptures that look like they were carved by Wes Craven.
Or you can hire a boat and tour the pagodas and Royal Mausoleums along the Perfume River in Hue. While you’re inspecting one of the temples, your boatman will buy chicken, fish, and vegetables in town, cook them on your boat, and serve them as you re-board. At night, don’t forget to return to the waterfront for a moonlight cruise where beautiful Vietnamese girls will serenade you with ancient love ballads.
In Saigon, rise at dawn, take a cyclo to Kim Café, down a hearty breakfast of strawberry French toast, bacon, and hot chocolate, and sign up for a two-day floating tour of the Mekong Delta.
When you reach the bustling river hub of Can Tho, board a long boat for a glide into its exotic world of floating markets and stunning vistas. One moment you’re in Tahiti; the next, Africa; the next, the Amazon.
And everyone on or along the river will wave and smile. “Many people, upon seeing us, would scramble around shouting and rush down underneath to the hull of their boats, bring up an infant, and wave one of the baby’s hands at us,” John said. “Along the river banks, children would scream ‘Hellooo!’ and run after us until they could not run another step, waving all the time. And they wouldn’t stop waving until we were out of sight. We stopped a couple of times to visit people’s homes, and tiny tots would just come up, take our hands, and walk with us. And people wonder why I live Vietnam so.”
Two vivid rafting memories: About 70 miles south of Hanoi near the town of Hoa Lu, beetlenut-chewing mama-sans will scissor-oar you in tiny skiffs down Hoang Long River, one of the most jaw-dropping waterways in the world because you meander through neon-green rice paddies and caves among the same limestone outcrops that distinguish Halong Bay.
And in Can Tho one evening, John and a German foursome were walking along the waterfront when a swarm of female sampan owners beckoned them for a river ride. They didn’t see the point since the night was pitch black. But they eventually agreed on a half-hour trip (75 cents each).
“It was one of those marvelous moments you least expect,” John said. “We lay back against the side of the boat, lost in our own thoughts, and swayed to the strokes of the oars. A cool breeze wafted over us. It was so dark and quiet that every star and sound was amplified. Dogs barked at one another from opposite sides of the river. A karaoke tune echoed from some distant bar. Kids did cannonballs into the river somewhere far back in the jungle. Fishermen floated by silently laying their nets. And the Big Dipper popped out the of sky as brightly as if someone had switched it on.”
“Excuse me, sir.”
John braked his bike and turned around. Poised on a bicycle on the dirt road a few feet away was a silhouette so stunning, he didn’t believe it at first: a lovely young woman in jeans, T-shirt, and long hair below her waist that snapped in the breeze like a horse’s tail.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Oh joy! I was wondering, could I ride with you? I would enjoy an opportunity to practice my English.”
John had heard that the women of Hue are the prettiest and friendliest in Vietnam, but he didn’t think it would take less than an hour after arriving to confirm it.
Another ideal place to bike is Hanoi because of its many lakes and shady, tree-lined boulevards. The social heart of the city is Hoan Kiem Lake, where residents practice tai chi in the foggy mornings and play badminton in the cool afternoons.
But the best spot in Vietnam to bike is through the historic waterfront of Hoi An, a composite of Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, French, and Portuguese influence that will have you gaping at every pastel-colored building, funky art gallery, and postcard-framed alleyway.
Saigon is a walker’s dream. If you want to relive history, head down fabled Dong Khoi Street. Known as Rue Catinat during the French colonial period, it was the Champs Élysées of its day, sporting the latest French fashions. In the ’60s it was renamed Tu Do street and became one of the most infamous red light districts in Asia. Today it’s a great place to window shop and eat.
Another great stroll is along the harbor. John ambled along the waterfront one afternoon and came upon two women adorned in ao dais, the traditional Vietnamese dress. They posed for a picture, a conversation ensued, and within moments, a crowd had formed. One young boy offered to translate, cyclo drivers rushed over from their pedicabs to ask questions, and elderly couples looked on in amusement. Eventually the entire throng moved across the street to take over a restaurant for an afternoon of animated conversation.
His most memorable saunter, however, took place inside the mammoth Ben Thanh Market. The main action is in the market’s rear, or “wet” portion, where every imaginable food is offered — especially if you like it live and wriggling.
“As I passed through, I noticed a gaggle of women having a rip-roaring time chopping off fish heads,” John said. “I’d never associated chopping off fish heads with a rip-roaring time before, but these women were having one.”
He said hello in Vietnamese, and that was all it took to make him the subject of a howling tug-of-war that soon encompassed the entire fish market.
“I vaguely remember somebody dragging a middle-aged woman from the crowd and introducing her to me at some point,” John recalled. “But I was having such a grand time, nodding yes to whatever they were saying and causing cries of delight each time, that I didn’t realize until it was too late that the conversation had become more urgent and strident. And that all of a sudden they were really, really trying to communicate something very, very important to me.”
Two women finally got up, linked each other’s arms, and pointed to John and the middle-aged woman. When John finally realized what was happening, he bowed gracefully, mimicked taking a ring out of his pocket, took the woman’s left hand in his, and pretended to place the ring on her finger. The place erupted.
“I blew her a kiss, waved them all goodbye,” John said, “then hightailed it down the nearest labyrinth of stalls to a hail of laughter.”
Lesson: Always wear a wedding ring while shopping at Ben Thanh lest you be lassoed into an arranged marriage.
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Rudy Maxa’s Traveler (February 2001)