HANOI – Everybody and his brother is on a motorbike. His sister, too, you realize, once you look beyond the masked faces, elbow-length gloves and shrouded bodies – the better to keep the sun away and remain pale in that urbane, I don’t-work-in-the-fields way.
Me, I’m stupidly tan-happy, bareheaded and bare-legged as I zip along side-saddle behind Long, the motorbike taxi-man of the morning. We’re on our way to see Ho.
Ho is Ho Chi Minh, the father of Communist Vietnam. He looks much as when I last visited him here, in 1994. Waxen and pale, the revered peasant leader forever under glass. Dead, but not gone, never forgotten.
But Ho may be just about the only thing in Vietnam that looks the same. A decade ago, the U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam, following that government’s decision to admit Western visitors. Former Congressman Pete Peterson – a former prisoner of war here – became the first U.S. ambassador in the post-war era. Vietnam vaulted into modern capitalism with a vengeance.
These days, scenes from “Apocalypse Now” and “Good Morning Vietnam” seem surreal. Visiting the New Vietnam, you may find yourself wondering if the bloody campaign that ended in America’s defeat with the 1975 fall of Saigon was merely a drug-induced nightmare, a cruel trick of collective memory.
Unless, of course, you – or someone you loved – spent time here between 1964 and 1975, when more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and an estimated 1.1 million-plus Vietnamese died.
“Why was the U.S. military here?” you may find yourself asking, as you stare into shops filled with sleek silk gowns, beaded sandals and Prada-esque eyeglass frames; hip cafes and pubs and cappuccino bars; day spas and travel agencies offering backpacker trips to just about every corner of this serpentine country. And, who really won the war?
In the time it takes to sip a Saigon Beer, Vietnam’s past seems to fade. Yes, you can still see water buffalo pulling plows in the countryside. But in cities, cyclists and vendors lugging baskets of fruit on shoulder yokes are giving way to literally millions of motorbikes.
Conical grass hats are being replaced by baseball caps, and even the “Hanoi Hilton” – nickname for the prison where American POWs were held, including now-Sen. John McCain – has been largely vanquished to make room for a glass office-and-retail tower.
The new Hanoi Hilton is a sleek tower near the Opera where you can sip a $2 soda, smoke a Havana cigar or buy a Montblanc pen while awaiting your room.
A decade ago, none of this was here. Not the made-to-order tailors, the chic housewares shops, the 400 dragon-prowed tourist boats on Halong Bay, the five-star Ana Mandara Resort on Nha Trang Beach. Not the art galleries stacked to the rafters with canvases of air-brushed Buddhas and bucolic farming scenes. Not the air-conditioned tourist buses that roll along the Vietnamese backbone, Hanoi to Saigon for $31, with stops at Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Dalat.
Roughly 1.4 million foreign tourists came here in the first five months of 2005, reports the country’s tourism administration – up 19.4 percent over the year before. American tourists rank third in numbers, behind China and Japan, with 272,000 American visitors in 2004.
Credit curiosity about a fresh, rapidly changing destination and a wide variety of experiences in a single country, says Chris Skilling, vice president of worldwide operations for Boston-based Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel. The two companies are taking 58 percent more Americans to Vietnam this year than last.
Don’t forget value: custom tailored suits for $60-$80; an elegant gourmet dinner for $25 per person; simple-but-clean hotel rooms with air-conditioning, international phone and satellite TV for $20.
And yes, it’s all priced in dollars – U.S. dollars, as common here as the local currency of dong.
But for Americans, one of the biggest lures may be the way Vietnamese respond to them.
The day I visited Ho, several Vietnamese stopped to chat, ask where I had come from, practice the English that is widely spoken here. One family – grandmother, parents, two young girls – shyly asked to have their photo taken with me: the oddity, the solo woman traveler, the American.
“I felt really welcomed by everyday people we met,” said Shari Drubin of Miami, who visited in February. “I talked with motorbike drivers, museum people, professors, and it was pervasive. The way in which the Vietnamese dealt with the American War, the way they felt about Americans – it surprised me.”
Some visitors and experts point to Vietnam’s youthfulness. The average age is just under 26; 60-plus percent of the people are under 30. For most Vietnamese, the “American War” exists only in books, a dusty historical artifact.
That was the experience for John Loucks, who served in the U.S. military here in 1968 and returned with his son in May.
“Time has … left the Vietnam War to history and the memories of my generation,” he said. “You talk to (Vietnamese) people now, tell them you were here in 1978, and it doesn’t mean anything to them. Most of them don’t really think about the American War.”
The country, he found, was “still exotic and beautiful. … My trip back triggered a wealth of memories I didn’t even know that I had. But they are my memories, my experiences. The next generation has and will have their own.”
A few remnants of the war remain, primarily in museums in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – most everyone still calls it Saigon – and at the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 155-mile-warren of narrow underground passages outside Saigon where the Viet Cong hid and planned their campaign during the war. Older Vietnamese – especially in Hanoi – may be a bit reserved once they learn you are American.
But the manifestations of U.S. as Evil Empire have mostly vaporized. Photographs in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon have been relabeled in the past decade, shifting from emphasis on “American aggression” to colder, less-embellished fact. The museum itself has been renamed – from “War Crimes” to “War Remnants.”
Other historical recitations in museums and by guides tuck the American presence into its chronological place, after the Chinese and French, before the Khymer Rouge and Chinese again.
The north-south war buffer called the DMZ, the De-Militarized Zone, is now a tourist stop. My Lai, where American soldiers massacred hundreds of villagers in 1968, has morphed into a destination for motorbike taxis ferrying American customers from nearby Hoi An.
Once-barren napalm patches in the rich farmlands between Danang and Hoi An are no longer a source of guilt for an American visitor; they’re rapidly being converted to 21st century tract houses.
“Let bygones be bygones,” says my motorbike driver in the hill town of Dalat, where farmland is being transformed into country villas for Saigon’s elite.
Or, as 30-year-old tour guide Vuong Lien Duong of Hanoi puts it: “In Vietnam, we have had many invaders. We have learned to forgive, but not forget. It is best to be friends, not enemies – and easier to do that, when you were the victor.”
Still, if you listen carefully, you can hear the undercurrent.
Yes, locals tell you, their lives are vastly better than a decade ago. But in Hoi An, in a made-to-order tailor shop, the manager allows that she gets only a single day off each month.
Corruption is an issue – not perhaps as much as in some neighboring countries, but a hot topic nonetheless; just look at the staunch stucco house with the TV dish – owned by a government official – amid a row of rough thatched shacks.
As for the universal benefits of education and health care that you might expect from a Communist country, think again: Schools, you learn, must be paid for out of pocket, as must doctors and medicine and hospitals.
And though the economy is booming and the day spas are filled with locals, this is still a country where elections are predetermined.
“It doesn’t look much like a Communist country, does it?” one man asks me.
“But there’s a difference. You have a choice. We do not.”