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Sizzling Saigon

Experience the Changes in Post-War Vietnam

by Mary Ann Anderson

Vietnam 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.

Vietnam

From 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 policies.

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 to produce.

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 much propaganda-like.

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 the Himalayas.

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 soul.

IF YOU GO

There 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 Embassy.

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.

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