Three weeks in Vietnam

I’ve been home for a few days now, and would like to tell a story about my time in Vietnam. I know it’s bound to be an incomplete story, but I’ll do my best to paint a verbal picture. I encourage you to have another look at the photos in my previous post, and I’ve also included some more photos here, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

As our guide, Tung, said, “Vietnam is a country where the 19th and 21st centuries live side by side”. It’s a country both ancient and youthful, where rice is planted and harvested using centuries-old techniques, while iPhones and iPads seem to be everywhere. With evidence of human habitation dating to 20,000 years ago, and a rich history beginning in the Bronze Age, Vietnam has one of the older civilizations of the world. Although I didn’t visit many ancient sites, I saw evidence of this history in the 3 km-long tile mosaic wall built in Hanoi in 2010, to celebrate its millennial anniversary as the capital of Vietnam. I learned that 65% of the country’s population was born after 1975, and modern Vietnam seems to be a country of energy, youth and looking toward the future, while still honoring many traditions of the past. Although the 20th century brought three major wars, a devastating famine and 20 years of struggling under economic sanctions, the people seem to possess a grace and resilience, and a willingness to move on. In the U.S., the Vietnam War was a turbulent period that left no physical scars on the American landscape, but left deep psychic scars on many individuals. In Vietnam, there are still numerous physical scars on the land, but most of the people I met seemed to view that war as only one part of their long history.

When I first arrived in Hanoi, I hit the streets, and learned the locals’ street-crossing technique fairly quickly. I was looking for the sedate Tai-Chi practitioners in the park next to Hoan Kiem Lake, but found, instead, a group dancing to Gangnam Style! Women, men, young, old, there were about 40 people whooping it up, apparently having a blast on that chilly, wet morning. I found the market street, and learned that it’s okay to take photos, just don’t block a potential customer’s view of the wares. I missed my chance to buy a beautiful fresh baguette from an elderly Vietnamese woman, because I hadn’t yet learned to say “how much?” and I was shy. Small shore crabs, kohlrabi, fresh tripe being sliced, these were a few of my morning surprises. After wandering a few blocks, I returned to the hotel, for a pit stop, before going out again. This time, I hesitated on the curb just long enough to be a target for a local tout selling books. I spent $5 on a bootleg copy of The Quiet American, since I had been looking for that book at the Auckland Library anyway. It was a very poignant read, as I learned the country’s history and saw more of the landscape.

While staying at The Metropole Hotel, I took a brief tour, referred to as “The Bunker Tour”. It turned out to be a fascinating history lesson. The Metropole is the oldest hotel in Hanoi, and dates from the French colonial era. During an expansion of the Bamboo Bar eight months ago, they discovered the hotel’s old bomb shelter, used for guests during The American (Vietnam) War. Our guide wove a great story of the history of the hotel and the city, the French Colonial period and the terror people felt during the Christmas Bombing of 1972. It was a humbling experience for sure.

In Hanoi I also visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum complex. While the mausoleum building is imposing and the rules for entry a bit harsh, the popular adulation that surrounds the man himself is impressive. Described as a well-educated Nationalist, Ho Chi Minh seems to have wanted little more than freedom for his country. There seemed to be a number of nuances that we don’t really hear about in the West… I also visited Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, established in 1070AD, and dedicated to Confucian principles and Vietnam’s scholars. In fact, on my second visit to the Temple, there was a group of young people from a nearby medical technology college, all dressed up and celebrating their graduation. You’ll see a few photos of this in the slide show.

As a sailor and cruiser, Halong Bay was of huge interest to me. I’d read about its 2000+ limestone islands and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was also one of the filming sites for a movie I watched many years ago, and I remembered the images of craggy pinnacles draped in mist, and wanted to see for myself. The modern reality was less romantic, as the Bay has been developed as a coal port, and definitely discovered by tourism; however, I was able to see its beauty once out on the water, and into some of the quieter reaches of the bay. Many of the photos in my previous slideshow are from the floating village of Cua Van, which we visited by sampan. I was so eager to capture the reflections of the colorful boats and houses on the still water, and the varied faces and expressions of the villagers. While aboard the Halong Ginger, I especially loved waking before dawn and sitting on deck, listening to the birds as the sun came up.

The entire Ancient Town of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and offered a million more photo opportunities. Recognized as an exceptional example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to 19th centuries, I imagined that I’d mostly be photographing Hoi An’s architecture. However, it was the vibrant market and river life that drew my attention. One of our outings was a guided walk through the fruits, vegetables, fish, noodles and meats in the market, where we learned about many of the ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking. We then took a local boat on the river to the Red Bridge Cooking School, for a few hours of cooking lessons, and dining on our creations. I brought all of the recipes home, and have already tried a few in Cheers’ galley. Although I had to substitute a few herbs, and the dishes didn’t look quite as elegant as they did in Vietnam, the results were still pretty tasty.

In Hue, I was struck by the sense of tradition that seems to pervade everything. We toured the impressive Imperial Citadel, admiring the many reconstructed buildings while mourning the loss of the originals to wartime bombing. On my first visit, I had quite a few enthusiastic photographers in the group, and we took full advantage of the late afternoon light – those photos are in the slideshow of my previous post. My best experiences in Hue were visits to two restored mandarins’ homes, each unique and beautiful. Tha Om Garden House was largely destroyed during the war, and has been lovingly rebuilt by one of the youngest sons of the family. Mr. Vinh is an architect who applied his incredible talent to the intricate carving and elegant design of his grandfather’s house. We also had lunch here, filled with traditional dishes such as banana blossom salad, and beef cooked on a clay tile. The second home belonged to the family of Mr. Thanh Thuan An, and we were able to pay a special visit here on my first trip. Mr. An walked us around his lovely garden and explained the feng shui, or purposeful placement of each element (pond, sculptures, types of flowers, etc.). Knowing that we were a group from Lindblad / National Geographic, Mr. An seemed particularly pleased to show us issues of National Geographic magazine dating from 1931 & 1935, in which his family and family home were featured. He was also very proud to show off his new grandson…

Unfortunately, I didn’t really see much of Ho Chi Minh City, other than the tour to the Reunification Palace and out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I spent the bulk of my 3½ days there parked in the lobby of the Park Hyatt Saigon, tending to the questions and needs of the nearly 100 Lindblad guests who were either just beginning, or just ending their trip on the Mekong River aboard the Jahan. I was able to slip away for a half-hour “fast food” lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant Wrap & Roll across the street. If American fast food were anything like this, I’d eat it every day!!

I took nearly 1500 photos during these 3 weeks, and have only shared a fraction of them here. For me, the abundance of water meant reflections everywhere I looked. I came to think of these reflections as a metaphor, and found myself turning inward often. In these personal moments I felt sadness for the waste of war, for the inequities of poverty and wealth, and it was hard not to be overwhelmed on occasion. Then I’d focus outward again, listen to another of Tung’s stories and feel grateful for the opportunity to be there.

Enjoy the photos! Michelle

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Posted on March 18, 2013, in Vietnam and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Your words are beautiful and they leave me speechless. What a breathtaking country! I love the basketboats and the photos of all the motorcycles and their “cargo”. I am so glad you enjoyed your work there. National Geographic needs to put you on the payroll as a photographer!

  2. The pictures took me to Vietnam with you, especially after hearing the stories when we spoke. Thank you for sharing your journey in such a beautiful and eloquent way. I love you.

  3. Your gorgeous pictures took me back to Viet Nam immediately, the water puppets and motor scooters especially! Thank you so much for sharing your travels. Tom

  4. Mikayla Corbus

    There is a lot of water, and everything is so beautiful. I thought it was really neat because I took a picture of a blue herrin ( sorry about spelling) in Patagonia very similar to the one you took of the white throated kingfisher.

  5. sharon grainger

    Oh Missy you have fallen love with yet another humane expression…and a beautiful culture to see, experience and photograph! Drawing out the hidden meaning and the way people can move forward; keeping culture and their personal humanity alive. Congrats, love, your Sharona

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