It was an awkward moment.
But like others during my two-week stay in Vietnam, it passed quickly and agreeably, thanks to a universal cordiality toward foreign visitors that I have encountered nowhere else in my travels.
The lights had just come up in the small theater at the War Museum in Hanoi. I was the only American in the room and had just been treated to a 20-minute recorded presentation in English on the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, coordinated with flashing lights on a giant battlefield diorama that filled the stage. Think Battle of Gettysburg and you'll get the picture.
Green lights were the French, red lights the Vietnamese. The red lights eventually replaced all of the green lights and the battle for liberation from the French was won.
Behind me, a busload of elderly Vietnamese men had slipped into the theater to watch the battle unfold. Those who were not adults in 1954 surely were of fighting age during what the Vietnamese call the "American War," and if ever there was to be a confrontation between me and my Vietnamese hosts, I expected it come here.
But whatever hard feelings remained from a war in which 3 million Vietnamese died didn't surface here. Instead, some of the men walked up the aisle to where I was waiting to let them pass, nodded to me and offered to shake my hand. Even in a war museum, I thought, peace is possible.
Much of my trip was like that -- the war not only didn't come up, I was treated as though it never happened. Officially, the communists who run the country have a standoffish attitude toward the U.S. -- they trade goods with us but require Americans, unlike some other foreigners, to get visas even for vacation travel. But the young Vietnamese journalists I was there to train see America as an early adapter of all the hi-tech gadgets and Internet information that they have embraced -- even if the government does attempt to block access to Facebook (the journalists were quick to show me ways around it).
Because I spent most of my stay in classrooms in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, this won't be a comprehensive travel piece about Vietnam. (For more on the former, see "Wave of independent journalism rolling over Vietnam," Arizona Daily Sun, Aug. 28, 2011.) But I did get out and about in those two cities, thanks to my journalist hosts, and I also traveled to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is other-worldly in its scenery. For anyone traveling in Southeast Asia once in their lives, Vietnam is worth a stop of at least a few days, and here are places I'd recommend:
-- HALONG BAY. This is Vietnam's most developed and westernized tourist attraction, and thanks to a new bridge linking both sides of the bay, it will only keep growing. The bay is guarded by miles and miles of conical limestone karsts that rise to heights of up to 500 feet out of the ocean. Inside them are giant caves and, in some of the larger ones, lakes. Floating fishing villages cling to their shores, visited by double-decker tourist boats resembling Chinese barges.
Our group chartered a boat, but tourists can buy individual tickets at the main dock. Riding on the top deck exposed me to the only fresh breezes of my entire stay -- Vietnam cities in August are hot, sticky and polluted. The caves had chambers three and four stories high and were lit with colored spotlights. And sailing among the karsts and the fishing shacks is a feast for the senses that was almost overwhelming.
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-- FOOD. Eating well is a Vietnamese priority, and the food I ate in Vietnam was a rich and tasty potpourri of fresh meats, seafood, soups, noodles and salads, much of it served with fish sauce and Vietnamese coriander (similar to cilantro). Had I practiced ahead of time on chopsticks, I would have managed to eat more of it. At one floating seafood picnic restaurant, the fish, crustaceans and mollusks were swimming in a sunken cage right on the main deck, just waiting for us to pick them out for our waiter.
Vietnamese beer served over ice is the national drink, and toasts at group meals are frequent. The coffee is strong but drinkable in small doses. Bottled water is drunk by everyone.
-- MOTORBIKE TOURS. Traffic in the two major cities I visited was congested and loud -- there are no painted lane lines, and any driver passing another is obligated to honk his horn. The cacophony lasts well into the night and starts up again at dawn. And if you are thinking of crossing a city street in Vietnam on foot, best to wait for a native to go first, then join in behind -- there are no rules other than keep a steady pace and make sure you have supplemental foreign travel insurance.
But my journalism students in Ho Chi Minh City offered to take me around on their scooters one day at lunch, and it was a revelation. Riding on the back of a scooter piloted by my trusty translator, I absorbed first-hand the noise and bad air that my students encounter every day just to do their jobs. But as we weaved through the traffic jams, I also got a street-level view of nearly every tourist attraction, including the French provincial hotels and museums now occupied by government ministries, a stately Catholic church, the opera house and the park where early risers do their group aerobics to the sound of portable tape players. Red banners and statues of Ho Chi Minh are everywhere, but the view from the 47th floor of the city's tallest office building reveals a sprawling metropolis that, at its core, is growing relentlessly upward as foreign corporations build their skyscrapers.
-- HANOI: I found the capital city more appealing, mainly because I appreciate parks, trees and lakes amid the urban bustle. Central Hanoi has a large lake with a treed walking path much like New York City's Central Park, in the middle of which is a thousand-year old pagoda landscaped with bonsai trees equally as old. The oldest section is a maze of narrow streets with local shops and sidewalk cafes -- you pull up a plastic stool, order a lemonade and, if you are journalist, chat up the other patrons for the latest news tips. Electric tour carts piloted by guides weave up and down the streets, and the roofs help you stay dry when the afternoon monsoon catches you by surprise. The National University of Vietnam, constructed in 1076, is now a museum, and its ancient buildings, ponds and gardens are worth an extended stop.
-- NATIONAL WAR MUSEUM: I'll end where I began and say that any American with a chance to visit Vietnam should put this on their itinerary. I learned more in 90 minutes about the context of the "American War" in the long history of Vietnam's struggle for national sovereignty than I did when the war dominated the U.S. news for nearly a decade. Most of my students weren't even born when Saigon fell in 1975 and the north and south were reunited. They have grown up under censorship and one-party rule that restricts what we in the West think of as individual freedom.
But at they took me into a room full of photos of deformed children showing the continuing legacy of Agent Orange on rural families, their long faces told me clearly that the post-war generation in Vietnam grasps the limitations and responsibilities of freedom in a way that most Americans never have to confront.
"You are a teacher," one of them said to me in halting English as he handed me a short CD on Agent Orange from the gift shop. "Help others to understand."
That's a tall order for a mere journalist/trainer on a two-week visit. But if Vietnam comes up as a travel possibility, don't pass it by. I benefited from having a translator at my side for nearly the entire visit. But travel agencies can help you connect with guided tours, and numerous travel books for the backpacker set like Lonely Planet make self-guided travel in Vietnam a feasible alternative. I'm also happy to provide more specifics on my trip at the contact numbers below, and watch the Daily Sun calendar and my Between the Lines column for information on an upcoming slide show about my trip I'll be presenting for the community.
Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at email@example.com or (928) 556-2254.