HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – I started to worry when my wife said we were packing toilet paper for our trip to Vietnam.
Were we about to venture into a Third World nation, leaving behind all the comforts we have always taken for granted? There were times during our two-week visit that we really did feel like we had journeyed back in time as we saw brahma bulls pulling heavy carts and people working rice paddies in the hot sun. But we also experienced teeming cities with good hotels and gaped at a beautiful green countryside of rolling hills that descend to pristine beaches hugging the South China Sea for hundreds of miles.
We called it our National Geographic vacation because everywhere we looked was a revelation of another culture. And a memorable picture waiting to be taken.
After a 14-hour flight from Newark to Tokyo and another seven-hour leg to Vietnam, we arrived at Tan Son Naht Airport at 11 p.m. on a December night. The place was jammed with people eager to meet arriving passengers, all dressed in summer clothes. It was 80 degrees and humid. Welcome to Vietnam.
Officially, we were in Ho Chi Minh City, a sprawling metropolis of eight million people. During our two-week stay in the country, we never heard it referred to by anything other than its old name, Saigon.
It is a hectic place, the center of a booming, export-driven economy. There are jam-packed markets where people are expected to barter for their dinner, clothes and anything else; there are restaurants on side streets and back alleys where many say the city’s best food can be found; and there are businesses in virtually every building, spilling out onto the street.
If this is a communist country, they forgot to tell the thousands of entrepreneurs who are busy making a buck from dawn to dusk.
And, most shocking of all, there is traffic, almost all of it of the two-wheeled variety. The streets are a sea of motor scooters, ridden by men in suits and women in heels on their way to work; kids tripling up on their way to school; families of a father, mother and two or three children; and tradesmen carrying whatever their vehicle can support. Traffic swarmed everywhere, as if 500 scooters were entering and exiting Gates Circle at the same time.
We were, quite honestly, terrified to cross the street until we got a lesson in road etiquette, Vietnam style. The scooter drivers are responsible for making sure they don’t hit anything in front of them and those behind are responsible for those in front. That includes pedestrians.
We ventured into the street, holding on to each other for dear life, and, magically, the traffic slowed or veered and we made it across to safety. We never saw an accident, had only a couple of close calls and never even saw drivers exchange angry words. Everyone just goes with the flow, even though the flow may be a torrent.
Our introduction to Saigon was the Ben Thanh Market, the biggest and most famous in the city. Think Broadway Market times 10, with colorful Asian clothes, fruits and vegetables we had never seen before and fresh-caught seafood.
A good place to get your bearings is the 68-story Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon’s tallest building. Designed by Carlos Zapata and finished in 2010, it is the only one in the city on any lists of interesting modern architecture. It has been described as a CD rack with a tambourine sticking out– its helipad. Its Saigon Skydeck affords a 360-degree look at the vast, flat, low city with its meandering river and busy shipping.
Just as much, we enjoyed the view from the rooftop restaurant of the Rex Hotel, which became famous as the location for the daily briefings for journalists during the war. It overlooks Lam Son Park, with its famous statue of Ho Chi Minh. Nearby is most of the city’s beautiful architecture, remnants of the period when the French held sway – the Continental Hotel of 1880, the Opera House of 1897 and Notre Dame Cathedral, finished in 1883. Other key sites are Reunification Palace, the new name for what was the opulent home of Nguyen Van Thieu, the president of South Vietnam, and the War Remnants Museum.
One other note on all those scooters on the streets: There are probably even more parked all over the city, particularly on the sidewalks, which makes walking a challenge. Often, you end up in the street, but not to worry. The scooter drivers have your back.
Our tour included stops in two cities on the South China Sea – Quy Nhon and Nha Trang – and the small village of Chi Thanh in Phu Yen Province. That part of the trip started with a quick one-hour flight to the small city of Tuy Hoa and then an introduction to another shocking aspect of travel in Vietnam: Riding on the main highway can be more frightening than battling the scooters.
The main highway from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north is a rugged two-lane roadway in desperate need of being rebuilt and expanded to four or six lanes. Every truck in the country seems to be on the road, along with every bus and all the scooters that aren’t in the cities.
Every truck wants to pass every bus and the scooters have to fend for themselves at the side of the road. Horns blare constantly as vehicles pull out to pass. We were in a van with a daring young driver who was completely comfortable in the lane meant for oncoming traffic. On several hills and curves, he just managed to get back into our lane ahead of a truck headed right at us as we shielded our eyes – and as our fellow passengers laughed at our reaction.
Quy Nhon was the most relaxing stop on our trip. It is a city of about 275,000 with a beautiful crescent-shaped beach bordered by lovely parks. And the restaurants we sampled were spectacular.
Nha Trang is larger at 375,000 people but feels much bigger than that. The setting is breathtaking, with mountains going down almost to the sea and the city built into what flat land there is. It reminded us of Vancouver. It has become a favorite vacation spot for Russians in winter and there are even direct flights from Moscow. Its beautiful beaches were filled with beefy Russian tourists wearing Speedos.
Nha Trang offers a great deal in the way of high-end hotels and tourist attractions, like an amusement park, day trips for scuba diving. It also has the dramatic Po Nagar Cham Towers, built by Buddhists from the seventh to the 12th centuries, and a beautiful French Gothic cathedral, finished in 1933.
In both cities, the beachfronts are bustling, with locals playing soccer and volleyball but never sunning themselves since the Vietnamese see darker skin as a sign of being a peasant. And, in both cities, one street behind, there is old Vietnam, with the bustle of cooking and commerce. Wandering those streets is far more interesting than strolling the beach.
Tourists to Vietnam are not likely to go to Chi Thanh or any other place like it. But that is where we learned the most about the country. It is a village about the size of Fredonia, right on the busy highway. Virtually every home has some kind of business in the front, with the family living in a few rooms in back and on the second floor. Venture off in any direction and you are in the country, where rice paddies stretch into the distance and families keep pigs and chickens in their side yards.
Within a short walk or quick ride on a scooter, here are some of the things we were able to see:
• A beautiful Buddhist temple where we met the nun in charge and a 2-year-old boy whose struggling family in Saigon had asked to have him raised as a monk.
• The Gothic-style Mang Lang Catholic Church, built in 1892 in the middle of the jungle.
• A cluster of homes along the river where round basket boats are made of spliced bamboo shaped in a hole in the ground and then shellacked to be made seaworthy. The next day we saw boats just like those being used by fishermen in the South China Sea.
• And at the sea, we visited Da Dia, a spectacular formation of black columned rocks formed by volcanos.
All within minutes in an area where tourists rarely venture.
It is hard to believe that this is the country where 58,000 U.S. soldiers died in an effort to stem the spread of communism. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the cities. And in the countryside many people are living exactly the way their ancestors did for many generations.
The Vietnamese people certainly hold no grudges against Americans. It is a young country, so most of the population was not alive at the time of the war.
The people we encountered were invariably friendly and the children were eager to try out their limited English on us. One of our favorite moments was standing on the street in Quy Nhon as two classes from an elementary school passed on their way to a museum: almost every child smiled and called out, “Hello. How are you today?”
We fell into a comfortable routine. Each morning started with strong Vietnamese coffee, percolated in individual drip containers, made less bitter by sweet and condensed milk and a bit weaker by adding hot water. The Vietnamese add ice cubes to produce iced coffee. Breakfast seemed to always be beef pho, though we were able to get eggs and the universal French bread, known as banh mi.
For lunch and dinner, the choices were endless – and incredibly cheap. We enjoyed Vietnamese pancakes in an outdoor restaurant in a Saigon back alley, pho in a restaurant famous because Bill Clinton ate there on a visit to Saigon, and some of the best seafood you could imagine in Quy Nhon and Nha Trang, for the equivalent of six or seven U.S. dollars.
It is easy to fill the days with sightseeing, especially since the sights were so fascinating to Western eyes. But our favorite thing turned out to be watching the world that is Vietnam go by as we sipped coffee in the morning or lemonade in the afternoon.
Children dressed in blue pants and white tops riding to school, sometimes two on a bicycle, both pedaling. People from the country on scooters on the way to the market. People dressed professionally on their way to office buildings. Often we just sat and marveled at the flow of humanity.
By the way, Vietnam has plenty of toilet paper. When it came time to pack for home, we decided to leave the rolls we brought in our hotel to make more room in our luggage for souvenirs.