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Vietnam Thirty Years Later

The Union StaffBusy outdoor markets, such as this one, are prevalent in Vietnam.
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Already, on the ride from the airport into Hanoi, we are taken with Vietnam. It is late afternoon and soft yellow light filters down through the leafy trees that line the streets.

Above and around us, everything is in motion: people, scooters, bikes. Energy and purposefulness fill the air.

Inside the taxi, Miss Thuy (twee) begins our education. First: how to get around. There are few stop signs or signals in Hanoi – or anywhere else in Vietnam.



And so no one actually stops. They weave.

When a pedestrian crosses the street, he or she must choose a path and a pace and proceed without hesitation. Drivers will adjust their course.




Trusting this system can be terrifying, but it seems to work – most of the time.

In the event of a mishap, the larger vehicle is always at fault, which is probably cold comfort to the smaller guy. We came to value our drivers.

Early the next morning, we took our first cyclo ride. A cyclo is a three-wheeled bicycle with a seat in front of the peddler. Initially, we all felt a little decadent, a little latter-day colonialist to be traveling in such a way.

But it soon became apparent that our peddlers were not exerting themselves too much -they were smoking while peddling – and that a cyclo ride is a wonderful way to get a close-up, ground-level view of city life. In the old quarter, as in villages all up and down the country, there is a kind of public intimacy that is completely alien to westerners.

People do almost everything on the street in full view of their neighbors and passers-by: eat breakfast, shine shoes, get a haircut, wash their scooter, read the paper. This private life goes on simultaneously and side by side with commerce.

Next to the breakfasting family, a stonecutter may be finishing up a gravestone or lining up his finished wares. Moving along the curb, women with shoulder poles transport all manner of goods – fruits, chickens, plastics, fabrics – their gait light and quick to maintain balance.

The air is good in Hanoi. There is traffic – trucks and buses and zillions of motor scooters – but few cars. There are lots of open spaces, lakes, parks and plazas.

From Hanoi, we traveled south by minibus through mountainous country into the spectacular Mai Chau Valley and then spent a night in a traditional Vietnamese-style hotel – a hotel on stilts with mat walls.

By the time we got there, we had a pretty good idea of what the rest of the trip might hold in store – the good, the bad, and the unfathomable.

The good

The countryside is beautiful, passing outside our windows in changing colors, patterns and textures. There would be whole sagas in a snapshot moment: a man struggling with his water buffalo, plowing a muddy field; a bare-chested fisherman weighing fresh-caught fish with a hand-held scale, bargaining; boys waving butterfly nets over rice fields, catching grasshoppers to feed the fish; grinning little children calling hello, hello, hello.

We were welcomed everywhere with ease and warmth, and there would be a constant exchange of information, insights and opinions between us, our guides and our fellow travelers.

There was a variety of experiences – from temple tours to classroom visits to river boat rides.

There was delicious, wholesome food served in a variety of situations – in homes, at picnics and in restaurants of every description – hot, sour, salty, sweet.

The bad

The roads. In general, they are in disrepair or under construction. Highway travel is bumpy, lurchy, hard on people with bad necks or backs, and very slow. It was often as slow as 10 kilometers per hour, slow to the point of tedium, especially after dark. There were those rare occasions when, for one reason or another, it was impossible to get from point A to point B in the allotted time.

Also bad were the in-your-face souvenir sellers. Unfortunately, more and better pavement will allow more tourism and commerce into the back country. Innocence will be lost and traditional patterns of life compromised. It’s already happening.

The unfathomable

The language, of course. It has five tones. They use a Roman alphabet (thanks to a 16th Century French priest), and though there are lots of peculiar marks, it’s possible to learn to read a few words.

Understanding the spoken language or forming the appropriate sounds, however, is another matter altogether. Fortunately, many people – younger people, especially – speak some English.

It was also unpleasant to learn about some of the degradations of the past. I never knew, for example, that 2 million Vietnamese died after World War II because the French and Japanese had decided that rubber would be a more profitable crop than rice.

Highlights

We traveled north to south and visited UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as Halong Bay and the Imperial City at Hue.

We saw colorful (but heavily visited by tourists) Hoi An, the lovely honeymoon city of Dalat, a number of beaches and some fascinating roadside attractions – some on the itinerary, some not.

Whether observing the distillation of rice wine, the making of incense sticks, or a children’s game played with chalk and small stones, we were always entranced.

We booked through ElderTreks, out of Canada; Eldertreks subcontracts with Green Holidays, headed up by Miss Thuy.


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