April's Notes from the Road: Vietnam + NE Thailand (2000)

This travelogue documents my return through the north-eastern regions of Thailand (collectively known as Isaan – I worked my way through Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the like earlier and that travel tome remains to be posted) and then up the length of Vietnam…Merhaba! Xin chao!Another great travel phase – post-Malaysia and pre-Philippines. More unexpecteds, more surprises, and more confirmation that the best strategy when traveling is to let a country reveal itself to you. It is all too often counter-productive to arrive with too many preconceptions, and far better to allow yourself to absorb new surroundings slowly, quietly, gently.What a time. What places, what culture, what feelings... and of course, what history. An exciting, rewarding opportunity to put names with places with events, to relegate the history books to the shelf and discover, experience, and come to “know” these areas first-hand and of my own accord. Especially in Vietnam, to scratch varied and deeper levels of society, to get to know the people and understand the pulse, rhythm, energy and spirit of the country at quite an intimate level.But first, backtrack to Thailand and what seems now like a world away. I returned from Laos via the less-touristed, more off-the-beaten-track route through northeastern Thailand. My goal of flinging myself as far as possible into the more remote and lesser known regions was successful, and I was reminded once again that (and why) I prefer small provincial capitals to bigger cities and other “hot spots”. Though the markets were among the dirtiest and smelliest of any in existence (I saw enough swarms of flies to last a lifetime) and the total lack of English script was genuinely problematic at times, nevertheless the lessons in body language communication and what it feels like to be uncomfortably foreign were entirely worth it.Just across the Mekong River border from Vientiane (the capital of Laos) is the small, quiet, pleasant town of Nong Khai, Thailand. A college friend of mine had spent three years in the Peace Corps in this province, so after sending and receiving many postcards and letters with this destination I had to visit – if nothing else out of simple curiosity. What I found far exceeded my expectations. The site for which Nong Khai is best known is the Sala Kaew Ku, a park of gigantic concrete (!) sculptures. Constructed by the eccentric Lao artist-monk Boun Leua Sourirat in the aftermath of 1975 events (when he fled his home country), the park is an amalgam of 10-20 meter high Hindu and Buddhist deities, nine-armed medusas with five-cobra heads, elephants and packs of wild concrete dogs, and the collection's centerpiece, The Wheel of Life. This series leads you figuratively through a “cycle of life in concrete” by entering the garden in an embryonic form and circling clockwise through sculptural representations of the other phases of life. I can't say that my life perspective was changed by the visit, though it did provide ample reason to pause for thought... My visit to the Village Weaver Handicrafts Self-Help Project was also thought-provoking. I went here with the hope of purchasing a hand-woven and hand-dyed indigo sarong and in left with a great deal of inspiration and hope as well. This grass-roots project was spearheaded by a group of Good Shepherd Sisters in 1981 and (without getting into a debate about the Sisters themselves – a topic for another time) with the goal of encouraging young rural women to remain locally and to resist the temptation to head to bigger cities, where the vast majority quickly end up in dead-end, dangerous prostitution. By teaching them valuable skills and a solid work ethic, the project has made significant contributions both to artisanal craft traditions and to the maintenance of local social harmony. The program itself can proudly boast a 95% artist-participant retention rate.From Nong Khai I headed to the province of Chaiyaphum, precisely because it was touted as “the least visited province in all of Thailand” and the Lonely Planet guidebook gave very little information about it. Sounds perfect to me! Besides taking a personal morning tour with the owner of the guesthouse where I stayed (she took me under her wing, shocked that I was travelling alone – once again, what others saw as strange and potentially dangerous I considered to be a great advantage) to some small silk villages in the area, there was not much to do. The silk-making process is fascinating and we were able to see it in its entirety, from feeding the worms all the way to loading the spools of thread on the loom. Did you know that they boil the worms to extract the soft filaments? That is quite a sight to observe. Far more memorable for me however was being grabbed suddenly by the arm and having a tiny, grey-haired woman shout loudly in my face, "You! You! #1! Beautiful! You!" and then just as suddenly letting me go. Or the process of ordering food from non-English speakers at the open-air night market. The four gestures to know are: (1) point to the ingredients that you would like to have cooked, (2) hold up one index finger (to indicate one serving), (3) smile in hopes that they will then begin to cook it and (4) the favorite thumbs-up motion to indicate "it is delicious – thank you!"Ah, the simple things in life.The next travel segment was not so simple, however. Even though I opted not to visit Cambodia (and hence bypass Angkor Wat) on this trip, I still wanted to see some Khmer ruins. The best ones in Thailand are at Phanom Rung, which is located about six hours from Chaiyaphum and one hour from the Cambodian border. I am glad I made the effort to get out there, but the day nearly did me in. There is no public transport, so I had to rent a clackety derelict moped for the day. Nor are there any public facilities such as cafés or the like en route, so once the searing heat of midday set in I was toast. It did feel distinctly adventurous and the setting was spookily spectacular. All I could think of was The Killing Fields movie, and indeed the landscape was barren, shrubby, dry, and dotted intermittently with small, smoky fires. A wasteland. The ruins were singularly incredible, to be sure, and I never realized the artistic elements and style unique to the Khmer Empire (roughly from the 11th to the 13th century) until that day. Lots of birds, snakes, lotus leaves, phallic pillars and prangs (towers) to worship, that now are pervaded by a crumbly, rosy, weedy, decadent ambience.Finally I made it back to Bangkok and was ready for my flight to Saigon. 'The land of smiles' was still smiling at me – and I at it – upon departure, just as it had when I arrived. However (Phanom Rung aside) it was not a particularly challenging country to visit, nor did it engage my senses or force me to stretch to the degree that I like (don’t ask my why I crave that!). In retrospect I would say that my two biggest challenges were the humidity and the fiery-hot chillies – so not exactly tops on my list of all-time travel ardors, but nonetheless plenty of fond memories of Thailand shall remain.And so... on to Viet Nam. Arrival in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), and within 10 minutes I could sense a new, different energy and dynamism in the air and knew already that I would like the place. 'Like' is an understatement! My quickest-on-record easy transit through the airport was an omen of good things to come. Oh where to begin? Saigon is an ideal place to start any journey in Viet Nam, as its sites, people and atmosphere enable visitors to get a sense of overall history and contemporary society, and especially to put the past 50 years in clearer perspective. The first significant difference I noticed was that of the Orient. Gone were forks and out came chopsticks. Alongside the Latin-script-based Quoc Ngu (literally 'national writing system,' created in the 17th century by the French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes) were Chinese 'nom' characters. And many people were preoccupied with feng shui. This last fact I learned when I went into a shop, tried on a shirt, but was informed that no mirror was available for me to look at because the shop's door was facing the wrong direction. I can't help but think that approach is not always good for business!Further observations on Viet Nam and its history were made and insight gained by visits to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The former is where North Vietnamese troops tanks stormed and raised their flag on 30 April 1975, and the latter is where Viet Nam-at-large tells its version of the wars with France and the United States, on its own turf and in its own words. Not surprisingly it was not an easy visit; the pictures are graphic (as are the severely deformed – thanks to agent orange and chemical warfare – fetuses kept in jars of formaldehyde) and the captions blatantly anti-West and openly hostile. However, I would not have missed it and think it is absolutely critical that such an exhibit exist and that the Vietnamese may consider it fully 'theirs.' Furthermore, not once during my visit did I detect or was I the recipient of any sort of animosity towards this end. In fact, the people were SO friendly, pleasantly 'in-your-face' and seemingly almost 'forgetful' of the recent past that I found it almost disconcerting. (More on this below…)The single greatest shock to my system was that of Vietnamese transport and traffic. I thought that Delhi was dirty and Bangkok chaotic, but Saigon wins the prize hands-down for both. That said however, I LOVED being a part of the mayhem! Forms of transport include the following:

  • Bicycles. I am convinced that Viet Nam is second only to China in terms of the sheer number of foot-powered two-wheeled vehicles. Have you ever seen 10 rows of bikes going at warp speed down a 2-lane street with close intersections and no stop signs or lights? I have now! I also came to the definitive conclusion that there is no relation between bike size and rider size in Viet Nam; never have I seen so many small people riding bikes far too large for them, nor the corresponding opposite. Yet very few accidents... hmmm.
  • Boring metered taxicabs and cars. There are almost as many motorcycles as bikes, including the occasional vintage model and the well-known 'Honda Om' (which in fact can be of any make-- the only difference is that it's available for hire). You simply walk up to any man loafing about near a motorcycle on the street, state your destination, negotiate a price, climb on the back, hold on for dear life, and they whisk you off.
  • And finally, my favorite... the cyclo. This last mode is virtually an institution in itself, and certainly may be considered a national symbol. Basically it is a high bicycle with a large padded seat protruding from the front. The difference is that the passenger sits in -front- of the driver, and hence sees and experiences all the action-chaos-and-near-collisions first! I thought that the cyclos were great and the drivers most cordial (interestingly, many of them are former doctors, businessmen and intellectuals who fell out of favor when the North was victorious and hence lost their jobs post-1975). However, I quickly had to develop a stomach and nerves of steel.

Bicycles, bicycles everywhere. Everyone rides them – men going to work, kids going to school, women going all sorts of places. While I found the Vietnamese people collectively to be very elegant, handsome, and exceptionally cultured compared to some other places in Southeast Asia, the expressions of female beauty were all too often simply astounding. In contrast to the 'bowl'-style haircut favored by 99% of Thai women, in Viet Nam hair is worn long, straight, and neatly pulled back. But physique is only one factor contributing to such grace and beauty; in my opinion, equally important is fashion. The traditional Vietnamese 'ao dai' dress is stunning; usually made of fine silk, it consists of a long, flowing, collared tunic that splits just above the waist on the sides and is worn over long, loose, wide-legged silk trousers. Although initially discouraged by the government in Hanoi, they are now making a comeback and are by far the most common form of attire for women. Another fact I found neat (to say nothing of satisfying on a personal level, given how much SPF 80 I’ve had to account for in life) is that fair skin is considered to be a mark of great beauty by Vietnamese women, who will go to great lengths to stay pale. Their efforts include always wearing a hat (the conical bamboo ones being the most photogenic), walking under an umbrella and – my favorite – sporting arm-length silk gloves around town. The gloves reminded me exactly of 'the olden days' in the US, except that in Viet Nam they are wearing jeans and riding a motorcycle at the same time! Needless to say, they found my uber-fair skin to be remarkable, and unlike the villagers in Laos were not taken aback by my freckles. Perhaps my complexion has found a sister home halfway around the world?From Ho Chi Minh City I began my gradual trek northward. My first stop was 6 hours inland and northeast, in the mountain hamlet and former French hill station of Dalat. Still with much of its French provincial architecture in tact, and blessed by a cooler climate, it is also known variously as the Disneyland of Viet Nam, the Capital of Kitsch, and the best place to honeymoon in the country. All of these hold true, I suppose, plus more... I really enjoyed my time there.The landscape around Dalat has a marked affinity to Tuscany and especially the Chianti region, so I felt quite at home. The only difference was that the patchwork quilt of Italian vineyards had been replaced by coffee and tea plants and banana trees! I hired a bike (yet again) for a day of some seriously hilly cycling. Put in a good day's work, though, and covered a lot of territory. From Bao Dai's summer palace in all its 1930s Asian-Bauhaus glory, to the Chinese Thien Vuong Pagoda (where I was basically accosted by several young men dressed up as cowboys and young women in fuzzy bear suits, who wanted to take me on a pony ride up a hill to visit a giant Buddha and then to take their picture with me – this is where the kitsch part comes in I guess), to the unexpectedly vast, ramshackle, picturesque cemeteries on the foothilled outskirts of town… it was exhilarating.By the time I finished riding, I was exhausted and famished. Dalat is the perfect place to be hungry because its climate supports more types of produce than anywhere else in the country; it was here that I initiated my half-pineapple-per-day afternoon snack tradition, and tasted my first sautéed pumpkin and pho (rice noodles). My best culinary memory from the highlands is undoubtedly that of the outdoor market at sunset, the vendors displaying their fruits and veggies with great fanfare and animated conversation around the traffic circle below, and me sitting on the big concrete staircase which just overlooks it, jabbing happily at small bowls of freshly steamed snails and char-grilled oysters, which are then dipped generously into a chutney of fresh ginger, lemongrass and red chilli and washed down with the quizzical smile of the woman who has just served them to me. Another great day.It was in Dalat that I met the most interesting 'local' person so far on this trip: Viet Duy. I'd heard about an eclectic café-cum-art gallery called The Stop N Go up in the hills. I arrived to find an over-loved house, full of walls over-hung with paintings and sketches, surrounded by an over-grown and deliciously fragrant garden… and no one at home. That is, until Mr. Viet's tiny bereted head peeked around the corner and he invited me in. He asked me to sit down and quickly began a friendly interrogation of my life story. What I had expected to be an hour of peaceful coffee-drinking and journal-writing turned into 3 hours of fascinating conversation, a new appreciation for the capacity of the human spirit, and a hand-painted poem on a page of my journal. Viet Duy has owned, managed, and lived at The Stop N Go for some 22 years now (it is truly a one-man show). But prior to that he was a journalist in Saigon (during the wars), a botanist and orchid grower, and a trained linguist. I could probably write novels about his experiences and insights, but don't want to over-burden you with it here (in what is likely to be my longest-ever travelogue already!). Perhaps it can suffice for now simply to say that this man, for all he has experienced, witnessed, been subjected to and lost, still sees no point in harboring bitterness towards anyone, nor of bemoaning the past. For as he said, "What has passed we cannot change. It is over. And far better to focus one's energies on looking ahead."Mr. Viet: a sort of Vietnamese Renaissance man of the 21st century. Or something like that.The next change of scenery was rather drastic – from the mountains of Dalat to the South China Sea (and what must be one of the best sunrise spots in the world just south of China Beach). The town is Nha Trang, and though its non-R&R claims to fame are few, it was an enjoyable place to stop over en route northward and to reflect upon some uniquely Vietnamese themes and characteristics that I'd begun to notice. One such observation is that the Vietnamese are absolute masters of imitations and one-off goods. Fake (and cheap) anything-and-everything is made there; not just watches and baseball caps, but North Face backpacks, classic novels and Lonely Planet guidebooks (photocopy barons do quick business there). Even fake 7-Eleven stores! And because people buy the items and the government does not (in reality) regulate, no one seems to care. Rampant reproductions, 'instant antiques' and scams abound. I didn't mind it – even picked up a “brand new” copy of Hemingway for pennies – but will be interested to see how the scene evolves in the years to come.Then there is the Vietnamese language. What fun, what bafflement, what appreciation that I don't have to learn to speak it! In a way Vietnamese can be likened to Greek cuisine: from a very limited selection of ingredients (mono-syllables) and 6 standard spices (tonalities) is produced a vast selection of different dishes. The same syllable pronounced 6 different ways means 6 very different things in Vietnamese. There seems to be a plethora of minh's, binh's, dinh's, than's, trang's and khong's. Further, there is a penchant to spell out each syllable separately; hence Viet Nam, and my name is “Ap Ril Rin Ne”. I still haven't figured it out, and doubt if I ever will… But one related thing that I was able to grasp, and found really interesting, is the Vietnamese naming system. Last (family) names of any kind were introduced only under the French. Even now there are only ~300 last names in existence, with roughly half of the population named Nguyen! One final anecdote: the conundrum of the Vietnamese daily schedule. The day invariably starts early (by 4am, and the morning 'rush hour' of cyclos and Honda oms is roughly 5:30-7am) and ends late (there are always groups of people eating their final bowl of pho at midnight or later). Stores do not close during the day, and the concept of Sunday (or for that matter, any dedicated day of rest) does not exist, thanks in no small part to the snuffing out of the relationship between religion and politics.The problem is, I still cannot figure out when the Vietnamese people sleep. They are always awake, always working, always active – a far cry from so many of the other places visited on this Asian odyssey! Schoolchildren appear to have 2 breaks, at 11:30am and 5pm, judging by when the streets are flooded with navy blue uniforms and bicycles. As for everyone else I have no idea, though I am pleased at how it has forced me to adjust my schedule to accommodate theirs. I've always loved the early morning hours, but never this much – by 6am I'm bright-eyed and ready to go, and somehow can easily stay awake until midnight too.From Nha Trang we passed by the famed Marble Mountains and saw China Beach proper before arriving in Hoi An, a true gem and absolutely my favorite small town in all of Viet Nam (Hanoi takes the prize for the big city category – more on that below). Hoi An is quaint, charming, colorful, entirely walk-able and steeped in history. It was one of the very few places left virtually untouched by the war, which made me wonder time and time again what the whole country must have once been like. I couldn't help but feel infuriated by the injustice of it all, without placing blame or reading any deeper into it; just a fundamental, gut-level "war is horrible, no matter who or where or why or how or how many players" feeling.Hoi An is full of tranquil, ornate family chapels (ancestor worship is quite big in Viet Nam and might as well be considered a national religion of sorts), multi-storied pagodas and various Chinese Assembly Halls (the Chinese presence and participation in maritime trade has been significant over history, with regionally-based Chinese enclaves enduring to the present). The architecture of historic buildings is usually a mixture of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese elements; it was fascinating to note the subtle differences. Hoi An is also renowned for its silk cloth and tailors, and (I was told) no visit is complete without custom-ordering some garments. Could I resist? (What do you think?!? Of course not!) The 3 Nguyen sisters to whom I was referred were amazing in terms of speed, precision and professionalism, and there is nothing like 3 hours of being measured and asked to try on different patterns to make a girl feel pampered. They were all beside themselves with laughter, however, as none of the Western (i.e. bigger) samples fit me ("you can’t be American," they said, "you're too small!") and even some of the Vietnamese ones were falling off. I certainly didn't mind – not least because the price of each piece is determined by the number of meters of fabric used!I found pagodas in Viet Nam to be aesthetic letdowns in comparison to Thailand and Laos overall, for obvious reasons as the best of everything was destroyed by war. The topic of religion in Viet Nam more generally, however, is fascinating and poses several unique problems and obstacles. It was nice to be back in a country with wide religious diversity, though depressing that many sects have been relegated to at-best secondary, at-worst illegal status by the government. In no particular order Viet Nam is home to the active practice of Buddhism (both Mahayana and Theravada – an important distinction to make), Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, an indigenous movement known as Caodaism, vestiges of animism and the ancestor worship referred to above. One can read and hears about 'The Triple Gem,' which is a convenient way to explain the religious multiplicity that governs many people's lives. The 3 pillars of the Gem are Confucianism (for family, social and political matters), Mahayana Buddhism (when speaking of how one lives his/her life, relating to others, alms-giving and the afterlife), and Taoism (for the more abstract principles and topics not already mentioned, such as Yin and Yang, the simultaneously complementary and conflicting forces present at all levels in nature). Though I have developed a personal affinity to Buddhism, I found it wonderfully refreshing and thought-provoking to visit a country in which 'religion' is neither an absolute nor a mutually exclusive term. In fact most Vietnamese 'adhere' to 3 (if not more) widely different religions on a daily basis. And it appears to go over remarkably well. Why aren't there more places like that?I took one day trip while based in Hoi An and waiting for my clothes to be ready – to the Cham ruins at My Son. I don't know which was better, the journey or the destination. In the hour it took to get there, there was never a point at which a lush green rice paddy, conical bamboo hat-donning worker, or water buffalo (usually with a youngster seated on top and waving joyfully to all that passed) was not in view. Quintessential rural Viet Nam straight out of a postcard. The My Son ruins were also beautiful but in a tragic sort of way. The Kingdom of Champa (Cham culture) lasted from the 2nd to the 15th century CE, and the My Son complex is its most important architectural legacy (considered on a par with the Khmer's Angkor Wat). The temples, towers, libraries, halls and gates were built between the 8th and 13th centuries CE but were completely destroyed by the Americans in the war (My Son was used as a Viet Cong (VC) guerrilla base). Infuriating once again, but try to be nonjudgmental right? Sometimes that’s hard… None of the 68 structures that once stood remains in tact today, though (in the spirit of "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade") a certain picturesqueness can be found in the rubble, with wispy weeds growing in cracks and random niches, backdropped by misty forested mountains in a region quite literally unpopulated. Plus this forces visitors today to use their imaginations more.Hoi An, then My Son, and then on to Hué... it was the perfect way to commence and continue my 'transition to war territory.' (Little did I know what all awaited me at the time, though!) Similar to the role of Chiang Mai in Thailand, Hué is an historical capital of Viet Nam, and despite its most prestigious monuments being totally obliterated in the 1968 Tet Offensive (ironically, the city's name is derived from the word for 'peace') many people still consider it the country's cultural capital. The city as a whole is of little interest today, but the ruins of the 3-layered Imperial City (the Citadel, Imperial Enclosure, and Purple Forbidden City at the center of it all) are eerily revealing. To imagine its grandeur, to view the exceptional engraved bronze urns of the Nguyen Dynasty (ruled 1802-1945)... and then to see 1/4 of these formerly royal grounds now actively dedicated to agriculture! It is quite an odd experience to pay the hefty $5 entrance fee, walk inside and see a person harvesting rice. The same scene a thousand times over is available free throughout the country!The next day saw the unexpected culmination of time, lessons, ideas and opinions that I had developed since entering the Viet Nam weeks before. I spent 14 hours in the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), on and about and around the 17th parallel that was so unfortunately made famous by war. I had not planned on going to the zone but am infinitely thankful that I did, and learned more than on any other day in the country. I went with a small group of people as required by the government. Our appointed guide, Hoang, was born in the DMZ and had lived in an underground tunnel complex between the ages of 4 and 11. His perspective, stories and gentility were priceless. We covered some 360 km of bumpy roads in a minibus that day – not exactly comfortable, but completely worth it. We went to Khe Sanh, The Rockpile, the Ben Hai River, the Vinh Moc Tunnels (where we descended 25 meters underground with flashlights) and drove along several segments of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The group was composed of a various nationalities (I was the only U.S. American), and conversations were lively and stimulating but inevitably guarded. I kept waiting for someone (or something – parts of the area have still not been cleared of mines) to explode, but it never happened. Everyone, including me, seemed to be overcome by the immensity and intensity of it all.The landscape of the DMZ is utterly barren and lifeless; vegetation refuses to grow in areas heavily exposed to chemical warfare, so the soil is literally dead. The over-35 population is invariably more somber, stone-faced and reclusive. Yet the children appear every bit as happy as anywhere else and just as gleefully shout "hello" to you. The poverty is unmistakably more severe and distressing in the area. And everywhere, everywhere are cemeteries. The DMZ has seen and known devastation in every sense of the word.Having been born after the Viet Nam War, it has always been difficult for me to put it into proper perspective. Going to the DMZ certainly helped, but even so the fundamental nature of warfare, foreign involvement and the strategic post-WWII significance of Viet Nam still eludes me somewhat. It is easy to say in hindsight that the U.S. should never have gotten involved, that the matters at hand had to be resolved from within, and that the Communist threat was overblown. Understandably at the time 30+ years ago and under very different circumstances, such things were far from clear or guaranteed. Sure, Viet Nam had problems, several of which would likely have involved a war of some sort regardless. But the degree to which Southeast Asia became a geopolitical pawn, and Viet Nam the checkmate, now strikes me as more ludicrous and infuriating than ever before. Going into the DMZ I was concerned about admitting that I was American, and thankfully only had to do so once. At times I sensed an agitation on the part of those who lived there now. But I can’t say if that was more due to an active search to identify Americans, a certain home-grown frustration that the area had gone from being a sad war zone to a sad place that tourists can visit, or simply a despair vis-à-vis the current state of the economy and affairs in the marginalized region. What I did come away knowing, however, is that the Viet Nam War involved many players, all of whom may be held at fault in some way or another, and that more time needs to be devoted to this difficult / embarrassing / (fill in the blank as you wish) era in world and American history classes across the U.S. Having returned from the DMZ, my final day in Hué was spent on a boat, in the post office and on a bus. During the day I went on a cruise of the Perfume River and visited the various Royal Tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty. Enormous temples of tranquility containing stone pillars on which the life accomplishments of emperors are grandiosely recorded, stone mandarins and elephants to keep the deceased company, fabled burial treasures and all encircled by placid ponds. It was a great group of travelers, and it was here that I met José and Teresa from Barcelona. In their 60s, they were in typical Catalan fashion super-hip, energetic, and ready for anything... the personification of “age is relative”! We spoke only Spanish and ended up spending the next couple of evenings together, as our itineraries were complimentary. Such fun – and inspirational for me!I had to rush to the Hué post office to mail a letter before catching my bus out of town. Another amusing stamp tale to recount, though not quite as extreme as in Laos... The cost to mail the letter was 17,000 dong (or approx. $1.25 – not unreasonable by Western standards, but very steep when it is considered that the average Vietnamese earns $50 a month). No problem; stamps are available, right? Well, yes... except that the largest denomination is 1,000 dong and those are enormous. It would mean stamp wallpaper – and elimination of every word on the card, even the address! I debated it briefly, looked at my watch, saw I was too-late-for-comfort to catch the bus, and bolted. The correspondence would have to wait (and when I actually did send it, it cost only 12,000 dong). I wonder what the Vietnamese postmaster general would have said?The 17 hour bus ride from Hué to Hanoi was a once-in-a-lifetime event; I did it once and will never do it again. It was one of those nightmarish, knees-cramped, teeth-clattering, brutal, bumpy-road-with-no-shock-system rides. A bonding experience for the passengers – lots of high-fives and shouts of joy upon arrival. The geographic transition en route was along the lines of the DMZ but multiplied tenfold. The further north you travel, the more depressingly ugly and desperately poor the terrain becomes. Dirty, dusty, grey and sparse. Life has been and continues to be tough in north Viet Nam.Until you reach central Hanoi, that is. Capital of unified Viet Nam, a very relaxed, urban, and in some ways even progressive town. A wonderful family-run guesthouse in the old quarter, down an alleyway lined with fruit vendors, women whipping up soft rice dumplings stuffed with pork and cracked pepper, and the incessant shrieks and laughter of children. Hanoi is the one place in the country with an historic Old Town district that is sill devoted to specific crafts. A walking tour is most delightful. Proceeding from block to block one encounters marble masons and gravestone carvers, silversmiths, tin box makers, shoe makers, flower vendors, medicinal herb masters, jewelers, clothiers, Buddhist image-makers and sculptors, wooden knob carpenters, and all sorts of dry-goods shops and cafes. Alongside these older traditions is modern Hanoi, which in many ways epitomizes a fusion of Oriental and Continental with a good dose of Ho Chi Minh and the city's water puppetry thrown in for good measure. What fun a performance of the latter was – the aqua-marionettes literally splash about in and on the water's surface (and not surprisingly have an average life span of only 3 months).Ah, yes. Time for a few words about Ho Chi Minh himself. Good old Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately called. The man, the movement, the legend, the cult. Travelling in Viet Nam it is impossible not to notice his legacy at every turn, but it was not until Hanoi that I realized just how much he means to the Vietnamese people and how much they love and revere him. I went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, both of which were excellent. The former has an ironic story behind it. Ho's wish was to be cremated, but upon his death in 1969 the people would have nothing of it. So instead he rests in peace very much in Lenin-esque style surrounded by modernist granite pillars and oodles of security guards. You wait sometimes for hours in an interminably long line and are shuffled past his pale (and frighteningly alive-looking) body along with endless groups of schoolkids, and before you know it the visit is over. Then if you’d like, you can continue your long-line-shuffle over to the Museum (the most modern edifice in all of Viet Nam and filled with a bunch of propaganda along with some poignant lessons in history, political symbolism and quotations), the Presidential Palace, Ho's Stilt House and the One Pillar Pagoda. Just be sure you're not visiting during the 3 months every year when Ho's body is taken to Moscow for ‘maintenance’!So much for Ho Chi Minh… what about the current state of politics in Viet Nam? Still a Communist country; the Vietnamese Communist Party was founded by Ho in 1930. Still talk of "the people's revolution.” Still the Politburo and Central Committee, a lack of emphasis on the individual, government-authorized-only places that foreigners may visit and types of transport they may use (read: no tourists on local busses allowed!), the hammer and sickle symbol seen regularly, an inconvertible currency (the dong), photographic films checked with all 'sensitive' photos 'kindly' removed, no Western music or television programs (including McDonald’s – hurrah!). And still the funny requirement that any sign in English must be accompanied by a larger one in Vietnamese. True, all of these things exist. And right alongside them one finds an extraordinarily solid work ethic, non-stop schedules as referred to above, general honesty (e.g. when bargaining), virtually NO beggars (I kid you not – not once was I asked for money without at the very least being offered a service. The most common one of these was to shine my shoes, which I found particularly endearing when I was wearing beach flip-flops!) and people who have very few complaints when questioned about the government.Ho Chi Minh was the person principally responsible for bringing not only social changes but also peace to Viet Nam, and that is what most people want to focus on now and in the future. After my visit I have absolutely no reservations in saying that Viet Nam, like Laos, is heading in the right direction and is poised to thrive in the 21st century. True, it needs to allow and encourage more foreign investment, for which a more pro-West official attitude certainly would help. And the government would do well to revise or reform certain elements of its brand of communism (such as those that require citizens to pay for medical treatment and education – ?!?) But the country is plugging along remarkably well for now, and I think it’s likely that changes such as those mentioned will come about, especially with the continued 'changing of the (old) political guard.'Finally, any tales about Hanoi-- or any of my travelogues, for that matter!-- would be incomplete without talking about the food. Vietnamese cooking, regional specialties, Hanoi's famed 'fusion cuisine' and the variety of dishes available thanks to the country's diverse climate and foreign invaders – each of which left its mark (chopsticks were only the beginning) – all contribute to making the process of eating in Viet Nam an absolute delight. Once I mastered the difference between pho and com and mi (all types of noodles) and learned that anything resembling a beef kebab cooking on an open grill is likely dog meat, I was fine. The French left not only a fabulous pastry and patisserie tradition (fresh baguettes with paté or cheese and cilantro, and tarte aux pommes, and even brioche), but also an eye towards combining unexpected ingredients and flavors. Such as salads of beef and green papaya, or chicken and baby lotus leaves, or pork and banana flowers. Seafood and fruit play large roles, not surprisingly, and were delicious across-the-board. My favorite dishes would have to be the following: chao hai san (a thick rice porridge with sautéed prawns, squid, cilantro, parsley and pepper); cao lau (a Hoi An specialty of wide rice noodles in a light broth, served chilled with thinly sliced pork, bean sprouts, mixed greens and garnished with tiny fried wonton squares); banh dau xanh (what can only be described as delicate, melt-in-your-mouth sweet nibbles made from mung beans); ca tim noi dat (braised eggplant, pork, and chunks of fresh ginger baked in a clay pot); and nem lui (from Hué, this is do-it-yourself cuisine at its finest. You are brought 3 small plates, of paper-thin rice 'tortillas,' spicy meat, and miscellaneous garden greens. Then, with chopsticks, you carefully maneuver the ingredients into Vietnamese spring rolls). Anyone's mouth watering yet?And to top it off, Viet Nam even produces some very drinkable wines. All in all, a delicious experience! There was one final excursion to be made before wrapping up my first visit to Viet Nam: to Halong Bay, a natural wonder and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Gulf of Tonkin approximately 130 km from Hanoi. Halong Bay (which means 'where the dragon descends into the sea') is an archipelago of 3000+ rocky limestone islands and disorienting monochrome grey outcroppings speckled with caves, grottoes, and basket-shaped fishing trawlers. We (again I was with a small group) spent 2 days cruising the emerald waters and appreciating the one-of-a-kind scenery.The boat was ours for the duration, and a highlight was sleeping on deck under the open sky with only the outcroppings' charcoal silhouettes and hazy stars to keep us company. We awoke the next morning and headed to Cat Ba Island, Halong's principal town (which, to give you an idea of its remoteness, was connected to the national power grid only in 1998). Here we were treated to quite a spectacle – that day marked the 41st anniversary of Ho's visit to Cat Ba in 1959 (like I said, these people love the guy!) hence it was festival time. The port was cleared, colorful dragon-boat races took place, and balloons, ice cream and parading abounded. The only downside was that our ferry to return to Hanoi was delayed by 5 hours (ugh), but it was worth the opportunity to observe and be part of such a special event.And the next day I flew from Hanoi back to Saigon, and the day after to Manila, the Philippines, and began the next phase of my Southeast Asian travels…To summarize Viet Nam and my experiences there is not easy. It was quite different that anything I'd imagined, and it was much more. It was invaluable to be able to make a gradual, physical, land-based transition through the country from south to north, especially the segment from Hoi An to Hanoi. Though the country is poor, the poverty is not shocking – indeed it is rarely even disconcerting, at least relative to many other ‘wealthier’ countries – and the people lack little, are working hard, and happy to be living in peace. The nature of tourism took some adjustment on my part, and after a brief initial period of agitation ("but why is it controlled and restricted? Why can't I stay with locals? Why do I have to pay 3 times the price?" etc.) I came to the basic realization that I am fortunate just to be able to visit. The country has allowed foreigners in only since 1996, and in fact the 'official' tourist services are available, efficient and for the most part much more comfortable than elsewhere. A few hotels can rival the best in the world – aside from Saigon's Rex Hotel (a monument to kitsch), the Dalat Palace, Nha Trang's Ana Mandara Resort, and Hanoi's old-world Metropole allowed me to continue my luxury hotel odyssey (at least to gawk, if not to stay).The Vietnamese people are the memory that will remain most indelibly in my mind. The people and their difficult history, phenomenal spirit and ability to look forward. They allowed (some even invited) me to get to know them, and 'American' is not the dirty word I feared it might be. True, there are tragic, unfortunate and embarrassing facts that both countries must live with, and there still exists an orthodox old guard in Viet Nam. But times, attitudes and realities are changing, and for the most part I see very exciting potential ahead for the Vietnamese, the region of Southeast Asia, and the global community at large. We shall see – and on that note, I'll end by saying that I definitely hope to return to Viet Nam – my introductory trip, even though several weeks long, was not nearly enough!