Story and photos by Robert W. Bone
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The last time I visited Vietnam, somebody shot at me – and I was a tourist, for heaven's sake, not a combatant.
More on that in a moment.
Thankfully, lots of things are different today. For one, Saigon is now officially Ho Chi Minh City, except that almost everyone still calls it by its original name.
Once known as the "Paris of the Orient," Saigon might again lay claim to that title. The conflict that Vietnamese schoolchildren know as "the American War" has been over for over three decades. Saigon and its wide, tree-shaded avenues, sidewalk cafes, and smart shops have become an attractive destination for Americans.
Here in the former capital of the former South Vietnam, I checked in at the venerable Caravelle Hotel. It was the second time I had signed the register in 45 years.
In 1966, when my wife and I visited Saigon, the Caravelle was no taller than its 10th-floor rooftop bar. The only accommodation Sara and I could get was a modest room one flight up, overlooking a main intersection.
"No one wants that room," said Malcolm W. Browne. My friend and former newspaper colleague was a war correspondent headquartered in the city. "It's considered within grenade-lobbing distance from the street below," he explained.
My latest room at the Caravelle was a luxuriously appointed chamber on the 16th floor of the new 24-story wing, with a view of ferry boats bustling back and forth across the busy Saigon River.
In the 1960s, Mal believed in taking visitors out to show them the war. But because I had my bride with me, we toured several sites around the city. This included the intersection where Mal took the famous photo of the burning Buddhist monk, the tragic suicide that was published around the world.
Mal said he would like us to see the Mekong Delta, and so the four of us, including Sara and Mal's wife, Le Lieu, set off for a two-hour drive in his little white VW to the village of Mytho, where we lunched in a small open-air restaurant suspended over the edge of the Mekong River. It was painted pink.
At that point in time, American troops were just beginning to support South Vietnamese forces, although some of the fiercest battles in the war were yet to come.
That day in the Delta, Mal explained that it was tacitly understood that the opposite bank of the Mekong, which we could clearly see from our table, was considered Viet Cong territory 24/7. However, all the territory on this side of the river was controlled by the U.S.-supported government. Or at least it was during the daytime.
At night, it all belonged to the Viet Cong, Mal said.
On our afternoon drive back to Saigon, while passing some rice paddies, we suddenly heard a loud whizzing sound go by in front of the windshield.
"What the heck was that?" I asked. "You have just been sniped at!" said Mal, gritting his teeth. "Open the glove compartment."
There was a .45-caliber pistol for me to hold while Mal pressed down hard on the accelerator and our wives hunkered down in the back seat. But there was no further incident, and we arrived back in Saigon unharmed.
"I thought you told us this road belonged to the government during the day?" I asked later.
"Well, the VC is just like any other army," Mal replied. "There's always one guy who doesn't get the word!"
As it turned out, Mal did indeed show us the war. That night we dined in the open air at Paprika, an Algerian restaurant atop the Rex Hotel. The entertainment was a night artillery operation just outside the city.
We could see the muzzle flash in one neighborhood and the explosions where the rounds landed in another area. And the whole operation was directed by an F4 “Phantom” jet, with its distinctive spooky sound, as it circled over the city.
Sara and I left the following day as planned. But Mal stayed throughout the war, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage.
My recent Vietnam trip was just as interesting and much more pleasurable. Again, I traveled out of Saigon on an excursion to the Mekong Delta, this time as part of a group conducted by Exotissimo, a company with its headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City and specializing in tours throughout Indochina.
We spent the morning and afternoon cruising the Mekong River on a tourist "junk boat," named the Cai Be Princess. From it we could observe life in the villages and floating markets along the river. Friendly families and workers on boats and along the banks waved at us.
During our weeklong tour we progressed from the tropical south to the cooler north. From Saigon, we flew to Nha Trang, which features luxury beach resorts to rival any I have seen elsewhere, and then continued to Da Nang, landing on the runways of the former American air base there.
We explored China Beach, which once served as a large R&R facility for American servicemen. It was also the title and theme of a hit TV show in the 1980s and 90s. The jewel in this part of the country was the laid-back village of Hoi An, where we stayed at the attractive waterside Life Resort adjoining an outdoor market.
The slow pace of life in Hoi An was not matched by the ubiquitous hard-working tailors in the village. I got overnight delivery on a tailored silk suit from a shop called Thu Thuy full of smiling young women. The cost? $180 -- and that was after choosing one of the better-quality fabrics.
From Hoi An, we bused over the mountains to the ancient imperial capital of Hue. Hue has seen its share of fierce battles over the centuries, not the least of which was the famous "Tet Offensive" between American and Vietnamese forces in 1968.
Our headquarters in Hue was La Residence, the expanded premises of the 1930 art deco home of the former French governors of colonial Vietnam. We visited the tombs and palaces of several former emperors. Also included was a Dragon Boat ride on the Perfume River where we docked at the famous Thien Mu pagoda. A visit to the extensive ruins of the 1808 Imperial Citadel capped the visit to Hue.
From Hue, we flew to Hanoi, the busy capital of the country. A human-powered "cyclo" (pedicab) tour of the city provided a thrilling introduction to its chaotic traffic. Much more sedate were the city's several museums, including the house of Ho Chi Minh and even Hoa Lo Prison, commonly known as the "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War.
As it turns out, there is now a genuine Hilton in Hanoi. Named the Hilton Opera, it was built alongside the city's opera house, a scaled down replica of the famous l'Opera in Paris.
A pedestrian excursion from the Hilton to dinner at the Hanoi Press Club a block away was a successful experiment in keeping a steady, determined pace while legions of motorcycles zoomed by. The key to safety: Keep walking at a steady pace and NEVER step backward.
The crowning experience in my trip to Vietnam was an overnight excursion on Halong Bay aboard a boat named the Emeraude, a re-creation of a similar vessel owned by a French family in the early 20th century.
Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is peacefully populated by hundreds of steep-sided islands, many of which look like giant green gum drops floating on still waters. Deep within these islands, small groups of fishing families live and work on an informal collection of boats and rafts in a peaceful floating village.
Here there were no noisy scooters and motorcycles.
In fact there was also no evidence that anything as unpleasant as a war had ever disturbed this tranquil existence or ever could.
Robert W. Bone has written four travel guidebooks and hundreds of travel articles. He lives in Walnut Creek, Calif. His previous contribution to Watchboom was “A Return to Rio” (November 2010).
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