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Prime Time for Vietnam? Yes

By Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 10, 1999; Page E01


For travelers who seek a well-marked but not well-trod path, it is probably the time to book that trip to Vietnam.

Now, before Bill Clinton announces his trip marking the 25th anniversary of the hasty American departure from the roof of the old embassy in Saigon (that's a prediction, folks, not a scoop).

Now, while Asia's economic crisis offers some of the world's best travel bargains on attentive airlines and first-class hotels that still boast the kind of friendly service you never knew existed.

Now, before industrialization finally takes hold and brings traffic jams and foul air to Ho Chi Minh City as it did to Bangkok and gobbles up the verdant rice paddies that still line either side of the highway connecting Hanoi to its airport.

And, yes, now, before the big hotel chains discover the splendid beaches south of Da Nang, the dramatic scenery of Hai Long Bay and the enchanting mountainsides around Dalat and Dien Bien Phu.

As a bonus, you'll discover you can eat like a minor prince for $20 a day and for a reasonable price find people willing to take you anywhere you want to go. You can also become the favorite relative in your family next holiday season with the inexpensive and fabulous silk robes, lacquer trays and embroidered tablecloths you carry back.

And, in case you're wondering, it seems everyone in Vietnam really seems to like Americans, all those B-52 sorties notwithstanding. In three weeks of chatting up everyone I could last summer, the only negative vibes that came my way were from boys in the countryside who, when told that I was from the United States, would take great delight in pointing out that, World Cup-wise, Americans played "no good football."

But--and you knew there would be a but--it must be said that Vietnam is not for everyone. The list of cautions will be familiar to anyone who has experience with Third World travel.

The first thing that any Western visitor notices is the poverty--no surprise, really, in a country where the average cash income still hovers at a dollar a day. The poverty assaults you visually as you ride in air-conditioned comfort along the road from Saigon (officially, Ho Chi Minh City) to the Mekong, looking at an endless series of metal and wooden shacks where barefoot children play in the dirt and women haul around incredible loads balanced on bamboo poles and shirtless young men pass the morning playing billiards.

And it confronts you more directly, in the form of persistent postcard and candy hawkers and begging children when you emerge from your hotel or arrive at the scenic lookout in the Marble Mountains and amble around in Hanoi and elsewhere.

Just getting around Vietnam can also be difficult. Airplane service around the country is expensive and, between secondary cities, infrequent. Trains are old, slow, hot and dirty. For tourists, that usually means getting from place to place by hired car in a country where roads are narrow and badly paved and must be shared with a wide assortment of carts, tractors, trucks, motorcycles, children on bicycles, pedestrians, farm animals and ingeniously overpacked minivans. For the moment, tourists are still not allowed to drive their own cars, but no matter--you'd be crazy even to try. Every trip is a white-knuckler.

A trip to Vietnam would also not be ideal for those looking for great art or architecture, high culture or a large number of awe-inspiring historical landmarks. Because the country was, over the centuries, divided into constantly warring kingdoms or being colonized by a foreign power, there never really was a "golden age" of the sort that produced the great capitals of Rome, Athens, Agra, Istanbul, Cairo or Beijing. And because of the decentralized nature of the Buddhist religion--and, for a religion based on ancestor worship, its curious disinterest in historic preservation--there are not the kind of magnificent temples or shrines common in more hierarchical religions.

And yet, for all its shortcomings, I came away from a three-week stay thinking it satisfying and worthwhile. Today's Vietnam remains a physically beautiful country of friendly and energetic people who are in the midst of a transition from communism to democratic capitalism. From dawn until well past sunset, they seem always to be on the move and open for business, even when it's not clear exactly where they are going or what sustainable business they're in. Modern and traditional, Eastern and Western, capitalist and communist . . . all are thrown together in a wonderfully entertaining daily drama. And if you're an American of a certain age, it is never far from your consciousness that the history of this country and yours have been tragically intertwined.

Ho Chi Minh City is the best place to begin a Vietnam tour, not only because it is the largest city but also the least Vietnamese. Even in the midst of the Asian economic crisis, it remains a city bustling with capitalist possibility. The streets are full of serious young men and stylish young women going off on their new Honda motorbikes by day to shiny new office buildings, by night to Western discos and coffee bars or simply cruising around the city.

Everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City there are shops, overflowing with goods if not customers. Restaurants are abuzz with the beeping of cell phones and joint-venture deals being negotiated--or, more likely, renegotiated. And every sidewalk is an opportunity for someone to set up a badminton court, a barber chair, a vegetable stand, a taxi service or a small cafe.

That said, there isn't really that much to see to sustain a long visit in Ho Chi Minh City.

You'll do well to spend an hour at the Palace of Reunification, the seat of government of the South Vietnamese government before the surrender in 1975. You'll also want to take in a Buddhist temple or two, and the Ben Thanh Market in the center of the city, a lively covered bazaar.

Mostly, though, Ho Chi Minh City is about soaking up the atmosphere--and eating. What Ho Chi Minh City lacks in key attractions it makes up for in good restaurants. The national meal of Vietnam is a clear beef soup with egg noodles, meat and spices known as pho, most often eaten for breakfast and lunch at sidewalk cafes. A heaping bowl with a beer will set you back about $2.

Don't leave Ho Chi Minh City without a meal or drink at the rooftop of the Rex Hotel, where the American military command once lived--it's kitschy and fun and the food is very good if a little overpriced. Among other favorites was the Marina, which knocked my sandals off with its tamarind soup, its fried oyster cakes and "drunken shrimp"--live shrimp brought to the table, doused with liquor and then flamed. For upscale service and live Vietnamese music, the Mandarin is now the hot restaurant among the expatriates in town. And no trip to Ho Chi Minh City would be complete without lunch at Madame Di's, where the former speaker of the South Vietnamese legislature holds court in her home amid antiques, wonderful spring rolls and her remembrances of Paris in the '20s.

To get from around in Ho Chi Minh City, there are meter taxis and bicycle rickshaws, known as cyclos, but the best mode of transportation is the Honda motorbikes that station themselves at every street corner, ready for hire. These cost less than a dollar for a 10-minute trip--you negotiate the price before you get on. If you find a driver you like, he'll be more than happy to become your private chauffeur. Ho Chi Minh City has lots of good hotels, most of them nearly empty these days and willing to offer deep discounts if you walk in off the street (but probably not if you book in advance through U.S. travel agents). My own preference is for the three beautifully renovated hotels along Dong Khoi Street in the heart of the city that still retain the flavor of French colonial Saigon--the Majestic, the Grand and the Continental, where Graham Greene is said to have written "The Quiet American." All three are operated by Saigon Tourist, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the local People's Committee, which seems to have made a remarkable conversion to entrepreneurial capitalism: It also runs the largest fleet of taxis and private hire cars.

Beyond Ho Chi Minh City, your top priority should be getting a car to take you west for a tour of the Mekong Delta. You'll have to be pushy because all tours are supposed to be booked through the provincial tourist organization run by the People's Committee, which will insist on shuttling you around in noisy boats to see candy-making, fruit-growing and craft shops you could easily pass up. Instead, insist on a tour by private car and boat of the most productive and beautiful rice paddies anywhere in Asia, where plows are still pulled by oxen, irrigation water is transferred from big canal to little by ingenious basket contraptions and harvesting is done by hand by armies of women in conical hats. This is work that is as inspiring to watch as it is hard to do.

Another day trip will take you north of Ho Chi Minh City to two must-see sites: the tunnels of Cu Chi and the Caodai Temple.

The tunnels are part of an elaborate, three-story underground network that the Viet Cong used as home base and launching pad in their campaigns against French and American troops. Spend even a few minutes in the tunnels, which have been fortified and enlarged for tourists, and you'll come away with an enhanced admiration for the determination and cleverness of the fighters.

Another hour's drive to the northeast from Cu Chi, close to the Cambodian border, is the Vatican of the Caodai religion, which combines elements of Catholicism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism in a set of beliefs that proved particularly appealing to the Vietnamese middle class during the early 20th century. At noon every day, dozens of toga-clad monks file in--men on one side, women on the other--to chant their daily prayers inside a fantastically colorful temple.

By the end of the day, these drives can leave you mentally exhausted, not only because they take so long but also because you get to experience, visually, so many of the country's contradictions. Along with the grim reality of life along the roadway comes the impression that most of the children look healthy and adequately fed, nearly every house has a television and even the most modest shack is likely to have a lush bougainvillea bush growing up the side and a motorbike parked in the yard. In Catholic areas, well-maintained churches are filled to overflowing on weekends with families turned out in their Sunday best. The kids walking home from school in their uniforms look as happy as kids anywhere. Life looks hard here, but not hopeless.

When the heat and hubbub of Ho Chi Minh City finally get to you, it's time to fly to Dalat, a delightfully cool and laid-back mountain retreat. You can skip the pretentious Palace Hotel, which, in its day, was indeed the mountain retreat of the Vietnamese emperor. Instead, check in next door at the beautifully restored Novotel. Have lunch by the lake in the center of town, then hire a car and explore the waterfalls and terraced farmlands where vegetables for much of the South are grown. You'll want to get back to town by late afternoon when the Dalat market is bursting with live chickens and fish jumping out of tubs and piles of vegetables that put Fresh Fields to shame. Most notable are the butchers--all women--who prefer to cut their meat while sitting barefoot on their chopping blocks.

Dalat also boasts the best golf course in Vietnam, one that rivals any public course in Washington for difficulty and beauty--lots of water, huge bunkers and greens the size of Manhattan. Happily, caddies are the rule in Vietnam, although you may be surprised to find that most are women. (In case you missed the point, the women do all the hard work in Vietnam.) My Sunday tee-off was at 8 a.m.

Sometime during your stay you should take in one of Vietnam's beach resorts--Vung Tau an hour south of Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang on the south-central coast and China Beach near Da Nang. We found a wonderful respite at the new Furama Resort at China Beach, once favored by American Marines on R&R. The water of the South China Sea there is as clear and warm, and the beach as long and white as the best places in the Caribbean.

Da Nang is a sleepy town with not much to recommend it other than a nice museum devoted to artwork from the Cham civilization, dating back a thousand years. But for Cham relics, it's probably a better bet to hire a car and visit the ruins of the ancient Cham city of My Son, which served as the civilization's intellectual and religious center and probably the burial place of a number of Cham kings.

Leaving Da Nang is a real treat--not because it's so bad, but because the three-hour drive over the Truong Son Mountains to Hue is one of the most scenic in Vietnam. Ask your driver to pull off the winding road frequently to enjoy the vistas down the green mountainside to the beaches and blue-green water below. On no account, however, should you stop at the top of Hai Van Pass with the other tour buses and minivans--the hawkers are as persistent as black flies in May.

The old imperial capital of Hue might have been the country's top tourist spot if its numerous historical sites had not been so thoroughly damaged in the French and American wars and neglected since by the communist government. The city was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty that was the first to consolidate the country under a single ruler, Gia Long, in 1802. In its day, the moated imperial citadel, modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, must have been quite a sight, complete with two lakes, an imperial palace, several temples, tea houses and accommodations for hundreds of court mandarins. Outside of town, the 19th-century emperors constructed tombs for themselves that were so elaborate and extensive that public protest over their expense nearly brought down the Nguyen dynasty. Sadly, what remains can be surveyed easily in a day. Avoid the standard half-day boat tours--despite its name, the Perfume River isn't really all that scenic, and once you've seen the Tomb of Tu Duc and Minh Mang, you will have satisfied your appetite for burial sites. Catch a cycle back to the old city and spring for the couple of bucks charged for a private tour guide to take you around the imperial compound. A small Imperial Museum outside the gates is worth a quick visit to see items of the royal household. Then retire to the Son Huoan Floating Restaurant on the banks of the Perfume for a drink at sunset.

Finally there is Hanoi, the pleasant and charming French-Asian city most people fantasize about when they think of Vietnam. Just driving in from the airport along a smooth, divided highway, you realize how far you are from the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City. As you cross the Red River into the city proper, you proceed down broad, tree-lined avenues, past ochre, colonial-style government buildings, around the city's peaceful lakes and spacious parks and through the old commercial district. As the capital of French Indochina and later the centrally planned economy of Vietnam, this is a city that clearly prides itself on history, decorum and control.

The heart of the old city is Hoan Kiem Lake, the setting for the legend known to every Vietnamese schoolchild about the turtle and the magic sword used by the Emperor Le Loi to drive the Chinese invaders from Vietnam. From early morning, when the seniors come out for their morning exercise, to late-night strolls by young couples looking for a little privacy outside the family dwelling, the paths around the lake are the best place to observe everyday life.

Every major city in Vietnam has a Ho Chi Minh museum, but the only one worth visiting is here, part of a complex that includes his modest stilt house and fruit orchard and a Lenin-like mausoleum where Ho's body is preserved (against his wishes) in a glass coffin. It is clear that, whatever the Vietnamese may think about the government, or whatever they may know about his sometimes harsh regime, Ho is widely revered. For an American, the various exhibits are as interesting for what they don't say as what they do.

If it's not too hot (and in the summer, it can be unbearably so), Hanoi is the kind of city that's fun just to walk around, taking in the buildings and the flow of daily life, browsing through silk and lacquerware shops in the old quarter or stopping for coffee or ice cream. Picture-postcard restorations have been done on the French governor's mansion, which is now the government's official guest house, and the Opera House, copied from the one in Paris. On the west side of the city is a charming diplomatic quarter and Thu Le Park, with a swimming pond and zoo.

No doubt returning veterans will have their own, more meaningful itineraries to satisfy in Vietnam. And backpackers rave about the scenery of their treks through the mountain villages of ethnic hill tribes. You could put together a great sailing vacation from Ha Long Bay down the coast to Nha Tran, taking in the largely deserted sand-and-dune beaches and unvisited offshore islands.

The point is simply that now is the time to snatch this vacation diamond in the rough. There's the opportunity to put together a private tour tailored to your own tastes and interests, at reasonable prices, in a country that offers most of the elements of a good vacation--but hasn't quite figured out how to put them all together.

Steven Pearlstein taught English and economics in Vietnam last summer. He is now The Post's correspondent in Toronto.

DETAILS: Vietnam

GETTING THERE: No U.S. airlines fly directly to Vietnam. Air France, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways are among the airlines that offer service to Ho Chi Minh City, via connections in either Europe or Asia. Singapore Airlines, for instance, is quoting a round-trip fare from New York's JFK airport to Ho Chi Minh City, via Singapore, for $1,420, including add-on fare from Washington.

I used the services of Nguyen Van Nghe of Phuon Nam Dong Duong Travel Co., Saigon, 011-84-8-862-5777, fax 011-84-8-862-5975. Nghe speaks English, is knowledgeable and can negotiate all kinds of travel arrangements.

MONEY: U.S. currency is far and away the easiest to negotiate--it is taken everywhere and preferred to the Vietnamese dong. Major hotels take credit cards but some only with a 3 percent charge. Cash machines are available at the Ho Chi Minh City airport. A fee of 1 percent is charged on travelers checks, which are not easy to exchange.

CLOTHING: Dress casually for warm weather nearly everywhere in every season, but not too casually--shorts for either men or women are frowned on by the Vietnamese, and T-shirts are not part of the standard local wardrobe. On the other hand, leave suits and ties and fancy dresses behind. Good walking sandals and a brimmed hat are a must.

TRAVEL DOCUMENTS: A visa is required and can be obtained from the Vietnamese Embassy. Be sure to arrive in the country not only with passport and visa but also a copy of your original visa application and photo. And take care to save the entry cards you receive from immigration and customs when you arrive--you won't be able to leave without them.

HEALTH: A range of updated vaccinations are required including for rabies, hepatitis, typhoid, polio, tetanus and diphtheria. Many doctors also recommend a regime of malaria pills. In addition to off-the-shelf diarrhea medicine, get your doctor to give you an antibiotic prescription in case you get serious stomach trouble.

WHERE TO STAY: Hotel rates listed are for rooms with double occupany and including breakfast. (It is strongly suggested that travelers fax requests to hotels.) In Ho Chi Minh City, Continental Hotel, 132 Dong Khoi St., phone 011-84-8-829-9201, fax 011-84-8-824-1772, $75 to $100; Majestic Hotel, 1 Dong Khoi St., phone 011-84-8-829-5514, fax 011-84-8-829-5510, $80 to $120; Grand Hotel, 8 Dong Khoi St., phone 011-84-8-823-0163, fax 011-84-8-823-5781. In Dalat, Novotel, 7 Tran Phu St., phone 011-84-63-822-363, $50. In Danang, Furama Resort, 68 Ho Xuan Huong, Bac May An, phone 011-84-511-847-888, fax 011-84-511-847-666, $80 to $120. In Hue, Saigon Morin Hotel, 30 Le Loi, phone 011-84-54-823-526, fax 011-84-54-825-155, $70 to $90. In Hanoi: Sofitel Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen St., phone 011-84-4-826-6919, fax 011-84-4-826-6920, $150 to $175.

WHERE TO EAT: In Ho Chi Minh City, restaurant suggestions include Pho Hoa, 260 C. Pasteur; Restaurant Tib, 187 Hai Ba Trung St.; Quan 3 Mien, 122B Tran Quoc Thao; Ngoc Suong Marina, 19C Le Quy Don; Rex Hotel, Khach San Ben Thanh; Quan Thuy Duong (Restaurant 13), 13 Ngo Duc Ke; Mandarin Restaurant, 11A Ngo Van Nam; Vietnam House, 93-95 Dong Khoi St. In Dalat, Maison Long Hoa, 6 Duong 3 Thang 2. In Hue, Thien Dan Restaurant, 17 Le Loi. In Hanoi, Cha Ca La Vong, 14 Cha Ca; Press Club, 59A Ly Thai To; Fanny (for ice cream), 48 Le Thai To.

INFORMATION: Vietnamtourism, a government-run travel agency, has a U.S. office (703-641-7738) that can handle visas, in-country reservations and information requests. Vietnam Online provides basic information at

--Steven Pearlstein

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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