has almost always been at war with some other country, including
the Chinese, the French, lots of others, so the "American
War," as it was called, was wedged in among all the others,
just another blip on a radar screen, even considering the tremendous
loss of American and Vietnamese lives.
the American forces military pullout in 1973 and the
fall of Saigon in 1975 until the early 1990s, when
the trade embargo and restrictions on travel to Vietnam
were lifted, Vietnam was stuck in a holding pattern
of little progress because of its postwar diplomatic
Now growth in Vietnam is exploding and a new country
is emerging, the proverbial phoenix rising from the
ashes. And Vietnam is at war with no one. There is
only peace in this land of a thousand smiles.
My husband, a former Marine who hadn't been back to
Vietnam in forty years, and I journeyed to Saigon-since
the war known as Ho Chi Minh City-with day trips into
the Mekong Delta.
At first, we spent a couple of days walking and visiting
places of interest. And we did walk, because traffic
is frantic and definitely not for the fainthearted.
Everyone drives like a wildcat across all lanes of
traffic, down sidewalks, virtually anywhere there
is an opening. That's part of the reason rental cars
generally aren't available to foreign tourists.
These busy streets are mostly filled with motorcycles,
too many to count. "There are 8 million people
in Saigon," intones one local guide. "And
there are 8 million motorcycles to go along with them."
Melded into the motorbike mess are cars, human-powered
donkey carts, buses, bicycles, pedestrians, and the
"cyclo," a three-wheeled contraption similar
to a rickshaw used for hauling everything from tourists
At the top of my husband's list of places to see was
the War Remnants Museum, so we set out dodging traffic
to find it. This aptly named museum houses old military
equipment, prison replicas, even a guillotine used
by the French on Vietnamese agitators. But the main
attraction is the collection of photographs that clearly
defines the misery of war - some of the pictures very
Near Saigon is the legendary Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of underground
tunnels controlled by the Viet Cong that at one time stretched
to Cambodia. While it is now a popular tourist attraction, we
didn't visit there because Roy adamantly refused to go. As a
young Marine, he had been in enough of the tunnels to last a
lifetime and wanted no part of them now.
There are other places to see in Saigon: Chinatown. Notre Dame
Cathedral. The post office with its French colonial architecture.
Reunification Palace, the former headquarters of the South Vietnamese
government that remains preserved much as it was on the day
Saigon fell. There's also the American Embassy, made famous
when the last of the US Marines were lifted off its roof by
helicopter during the fall of the city.
For the most part, today's Saigon is not what you would expect
at all. It's all very new, because much of it was destroyed
during the years of war. And since about 80 percent of the population
of Vietnam is under age 30, few actually remember the war. Those
who do have essentially forgotten it.
The whole of Vietnam is cloaked with the air of ancient Asian
mysticism, yet it is very much vibrant and young, with positive
energy. And while Saigon is the pulsing heartbeat of Vietnam's
energy, we also wanted time out of the city.
We were guided to Exotissimo Travel, an excellent, relatively
inexpensive source for trips to the Mekong Delta and other places
throughout Vietnam. Our day-long trip was about $70 per person,
which included a local guide, a private boat tour, and an amazing
lunch of spicy Vietnamese soups, meats, and spring rolls.
This particular trip led to one of the most insanely bizarre
moments of our entire journey.
Our guide, Tan, is a wonderfully humorous South Vietnamese with
an excellent command of the English language. After learning
Roy was a Vietnam vet, Tan almost gleefully pointed out that
our driver, whose name was Mian, was a Viet Cong who had also
fought in the war.
Picture this, if you will: A tourist van crazily careening through
the streets of Saigon toward the Mekong Delta carrying a South
Vietnamese, a Viet Cong, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran,
and a quite blonde, slow-talkin' southern writer.
We couldn't help but laugh at the irony of it all. This scene
would have been impossible 15, 20, and certainly 30 years ago,
but there we were. Insanely bizarre, indeed.
"Nobody likes war," Tan said as we zoomed on toward
the Mekong. "We had war, and nobody likes it. We're past
the war. There is nothing to be afraid of here. We're very friendly."
We passed brilliant green rice fields, colorful Cao Dai temples
(I thought Tan kept saying "cow die"), lively outdoor
markets, and paddocks of sacred and spectacular lotus flowers.
We finally reached the Mekong, where if you turn southeasterly,
you'll come upon the South China Sea. Turn northeasterly, away
from the coast, and you'll eventually traverse Cambodia, Thailand,
Laos, and Myanmar before coming upon its headwaters in China.
The Mekong's golden, hyacinth-filled water is so warm that you
would never guess it originally streams from the snowmelt of
A trip down the Mekong is a great way to see the rural Vietnamese
culture. As the old boat noisily sputtered along, its engine
belching black smoke, we passed jungles so dense that they seem
impossible to penetrate, fishing villages, floating markets,
and stands of tropical coconut and mango. We saw Vietnamese
husking rice, making candy, and swimming for mollusks. We even
saw wine - no kidding - fermented from scorpions and cobras.
Yes, our guide explained, tourists really do drink it. No, I
replied very quickly, not this tourist.
Chugging farther up the Mekong toward Cambodia, images of "Apocalypse
Now" popped in my head. Shaking the movie's surrealistic
images out of my head, I realized that the Vietnam of today
is far removed from war, of either real or Hollywood versions.
Back in Saigon, the traffic had increased with rush hour and
the motorcycles still roared. But as fast, busy, and enormous
as Saigon is, it is still warm and friendly, and I was struck
at how respectful the Vietnamese are of one another and of other
cultures. It is hard to believe that we were once at war in
this peace-loving country.
For the well-seasoned traveler, Vietnam is a great alternative
to Europe, seemingly the new "hot" destination, not
only in the weather, which is almost always warm and humid,
but also because it's trendy and hip and the "in" place to be.
And for the veteran, it can definitely offer redemption of the
are no current travel warnings issued by the US State
Department or restrictions by the Vietnamese government
on former U.S. military personnel traveling to Vietnam.
Vietnam is a Communist country - its proper name is the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam -but it is probably the
most westernized of all Communist countries in the world.
English is not widely spoken, so communications can sometimes
be difficult. English-speaking guides are readily available
and inexpensive, however.
There is some concern about the bird flu in rural areas
but not in the cities. Just wash your hands often and
stay away from live chickens and poultry processing plants.
For general information, visit the website of Vietnam
National Administration of Tourism). Passports and
visas are required to enter Vietnam. For visa information,
contact the Vietnam
We flew to Saigon from Savannah, flying into New York's
JFK on Delta (1-800-221-1212), then connecting with Singapore
Airlines (1-800-742-3333). Asian
Affair Holidays (1-800-742-3133) teams with Singapore
Airlines for affordable packages to Saigon and Hanoi.
There are familiar-name hotels in Saigon, including the Sofitel
Plaza Saigon (1-800-SOFITEL). Sofitel is also located
in Hanoi, Nha Trang, and Dalat. Sheraton (1-800-625-5144) and Marriott (1-888-236-2427) have properties in Saigon and Hanoi.