At the end of November 1998 I completed my second tour of Thailand leading a group of handicapped travelers. As December seventh was to find me in the Thai capital of Bangkok for a seminar of archery judges during the Asian games I had nine days in between. I decided to use them to travel to a long-sought destination -a country that had been in the headlines for decades both because of its war of independence from French colonialism and then for its war against the Americans: Vietnam.
Many of us remember the years of that terrible war in South East Asia, which took 57,000 American lives and the lives of 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers. Only a few are aware that during those years, the North Vietnamese army lost about a million soldiers. A half-million civilians also paid with their lives.
In spite of its brevity my trip was intended to help me learn, even if only superficially this time, something about this people.
I chose to focus on three of the many places there are to visit in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) , Hue (the ancient capital of Vietnam) and Ha-Noi, the capital of North Vietnam and of the united Vietnam.
I started my trip in Ho Chi Minh City, about
one hour's flight from Bangkok. I was glad to see that the airport had
a modern adapted high-rise vehicle (although no aisle chair for the airplane),
making deplaning relatively easy. A short delay while my visa was being
stamped (I had arranged it ahead of time by fax), and soon I found myself
outside the terminal trying to locate the guide that was to meet me. The
terminal and the square outside seemed quite run-down, and the crowds that
jammed all available space made it difficult for me to maneuver with my
wheelchair. Soon my guide found me, and we made our way to the waiting
car, a Toyota Corolla of local manufacture from an older assembly line
brought here from Japan.
My reservation was at the Rex hotel, which has five steps in front. The room was very spacious, with the bathroom roomy enough for the wheelchair to maneuver. The hotel is decorated in Chinese style, and awakened memories of films I had seen of war-torn Saigon.
My tour of the city took me first to the History Museum, a good place to begin learning about the origins of the Vietnamese people. Entrance to the museum is via a number of steps, a chance to teach my guide and driver how to lift the wheelchair up steps. In the coming days they would have plenty of steps to deal with, in addition to all kinds of other obstacles. Afterwards we visited some shrines, temples, and pagodas that were of interest to me, as Vietnamese Buddhism is different from that of Thailand and takes somewhat after the Chinese Buddhism. We also visited the Great Market-in retrospect this is one site I do not recommend for wheelchair users not only because of the crowds, but especially because of the dirt and sewage that sticks to wheels and hands. We toured Chinatown, which bears no resemblance to such neighborhoods in the west but rather to cities that I saw in China. We also visited a factory for the manufacture of lacquered wood products. These are beautiful pieces of work which are said to be of the best quality anywhere. This stop shouldn't be missed, even if only to see how much effort is invested in each tiny detail.
The next day was spent in the Ku Chi province north of Ho Chi Minh city. This area was once notorious-it's where tunnel systems dug by the populations of entire villages allowed them to live underground as protection from aerial bombing. From their underground hideouts, the villagers would come out at night to work their rice fields, while the Viet Cong would use the tunnels in their continuous battle against their adversaries, attacking and disappearing, and attacking again, via camouflaged openings. Of course with the wheelchair I couldn't get down into the tunnels (in any case my size would have prevented it, the tunnels being suited to the compact dimensions of the Vietnamese people). But the trip through the jungle, my own attempts to discover tunnel openings, and the peek into them left me amazed at the power of these people to survive. To fill out the picture, my hosts showed me models of traps that had been in use here. The very thought of being caught in one of these traps was chilling-if I were a soldier, I'd have been anxious to be out of there as fast as I could.
Over the next few days I visited the War Museum and other sites in Saigon that to my taste were of secondary significance. Ho Chi Minh city is an inhibited and inhibiting place, I thought. I sensed that its inhabitants still live in the shadow of the war, perhaps also still paying the price for being on "the wrong side".
On the third day we went to visit the Mekong River Delta. In the city of My Tho we boarded a boat that took us along the river. This huge river is the main artery for countless boat-dwellers who live on it, conducting any business that will put food on the table, be it fishing, transporting cargo or people, the last now including tourists. On Orchid Island we disembarked to visit a farmer's house. I was lowered off the boat onto a small rowboat on which we traversed the canals that crisscrossed the island. There were no orchids there that I saw, but the fruit plantations were wonderfully cared for and I even saw a new kind of coconut palm that grows in water. Getting out of the rowboat and onto the island brought back memories of basic training-in the mud. The farmers who sang and played for us were "amateurs", or so our guides insisted. That didn't stop me from enjoying the music but still, I was glad to get to a restaurant where I could wash the mud from my wheels and hands.
From Ho Chi Minh City I flew to the city of Da Nang. There I visited only one site, the museum dedicated to the culture of the Cham people. The Cham are the indigenous people of Vietnam conquered by the Vietnamese who invaded their territory about two thousand years ago from the north. Today there are only a few villages of Cham people that still speak their original language, mostly in the area of Hue and Da Nang, and a few in the Mekong River delta in south Vietnam.
We visited the ancient city of Hoi An, in the past a prosperous port through which numerous Chinese immigrants arrived. To this day Hoi An boasts exquisite Chinese temples. A small ethnic Chinese community still lives in the city. A Japanese community also prospered here until World War Two.
From Hoi An we traveled through the Hai Van
mountain pass to the city of Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnamese royalty,
who ruled there until Vietnam was conquered by the French. It was at this
point in my journey that the strain I felt during my stay in Saigon dissipated,
thanks to Luc Tran, my local guide, open and friendly, who had been to
the US. The people in the area were also warm, anxious to start up conversations
with any passing tourist. That evening I stepped out for a stroll along
the Huong River that traverses Hue. Every step I took I was stopped, either
by friendly questions or to sell me something, whether it be a package-deal
for a river trip or a little statue. I enjoyed the attention I got from
the women, whose questions were almost always the same:
The hotel where I stayed, the Saigon Morin, was built by the French in 1934 and was recently restored. It was beautiful, and although it doesn't have handicapped rooms it is very spacious and located right on the river. There are five steps at the entrance but with comfortable ramps leading from the outside to its interior garden, so that I could come and go as I pleased without help.
Hue, being the ancient capital, is home to the imperial citadel, the palace complex of the kings of Vietnam, built in the style of the Forbidden city of Beijing. The Thien Mu pagoda is on a cliff overlooking the Huong River. But we found an unpaved side-track which brought us up with no obstacles on the way, bypassing the main steps in front. The mausoleum of King Tu Dok has many steps, but the guide and driver pulled me faithfully everywhere and we didn't miss one site. Enlisting help when necessary from other guides and tourists, we were able to "conquer" the place totally.
From Hue I flew to Ha-Noi. I was ensconced at a pleasant hotel called the Guoman. Once again, no special handicapped rooms, but quite roomy, and with very satisfactory service. A chance meeting with the hotel manager resulted in a request that I supply them information about the needs of handicapped guests, and I believe that in the near future they will make handicapped accessible rooms available.
Ha-Noi, the capital of Vietnam since the days of the French, is a classic colonial-style city, combining interesting temples with European architecture. Among the European-style structures are Ho Chi Minh's home as well as government offices. In front of the mausoleum containing the remains of their much admired leader, Ho Chi Minh, an honor guard is always present, and opposite is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I was actually more interested in the temples and the way of life of ordinary people and so I tried to find the time to wander the streets, check out the stores and see what was for sale there, and eat at the restaurants that catered to local tastes.
My hosts had arranged lunch for me at the local Hard Rock Cafe, where the local fare was good but the synthetic western decor made for a disappointing experience. But the tour of the West lake section, the temples, and the folk music concert at the Temple of Literature made it a fine day. In the evening I attended the Water Puppet Show-a unique Vietnamese entertainment form (up one flight of stairs) which I very much enjoyed.
From Ha-Noi we went on to what I see as Vietnam's main natural attraction, Halong Bay. This is the country's northeastern bay, containing 3000 islands. The trip to Halong Bay via Hai Phong (with an interesting temple as well as a good lunch) is a long one because of the poor road conditions. We crossed the two rivers we encountered on the way aboard ferries whose sailing schedule was flexible, and so a 150 kilometer trip took five hours. But the trip itself was an experience as it gave me time to get a closer look at people and their life-style, even if only in passing.
The day after my arrival at Halong Bay we took a half-day cruise between its fascinating islands. The view reminded me of the mountains in the Guilin region of China. Like there, this region too has its story of a dragon (the mountains being the spikes on its back), who sleeps in the deep and who must not be awakened, because his every movement causes an earthquake. The sea was smooth and the islands mysterious in the mist that enveloped them. The experience was even more perfect because of the delicious meal cooked on deck.
Sadly, my visit ended too soon, long before
I had satisfied my curiosity. I hadn't visited the mountains or met the
tribal people, and there are some recreation sites on the coast that I'd
like to see. So there's no doubt in my mind that I'll be back again.