By Jeremy Miles
Vietnam is a beautiful country but more nearly 40 years after American troops finally fled its shores it still bears the scars of terrible times. They are both physical and psychological. During a tip-to-toe tour of this country the first landmark that was pointed out to me was the Hanoi Hilton - the brutal jail that housed US prisoners of war. The last was the diplomatically renamed War Remnants Museum ( it used to be The War Crimes Museum) in Saigon. Inside, its exhibits are devoted to spelling out the horror of the crazy Asian war in graphic but measured manner, cataloguing all manner of terrible deeds, the bombings, the napalm, the beheadings, the torture, the madness and the horror. Outside I was greeted by beggars born horribly deformed as a direct result of chemical warfare. Yet while it is clear that what they call The American War is far from forgotten, this is clearly a young, vibrant country looking to the future. Sure ageing hippies can still find The Doors and Jimi Hendrix on countless juke boxes and you can buy “battle scarred” Zippo lighters, scuffed and battered and bearing such legends as “When I die bury me face down so the whole world can kiss my ass.” It’s tourism though, not history.Flying into Vietnam via Bangkok, our journey started in Hanoi, a bustling city with quite literally a million mopeds. Having learnt to cross the road - an art that requires courage, blind-faith and and the acquisition of a deep sense of fatalism, we spent a couple of happy days exploring street markets and stalls, temples and tourist sites.
We then drove briefly north towards the Chinese border for a sailing trip among the towering limestone pillars, rocky outcrops and caves of Halong Bay. After an overnight stay we flew down to Da Nang - base for a huge US military presence during the war and still a magnet for veterans revisiting their past. We spent a couple of days in the idyllic and ancient riverside town of Hoi An where tailoring is a speciality - they’ll knock you up a perfect suit, shirt, dress, you name it in next to no time - we also ate perhaps the best croissants of our lives - an indication of the culinary impact left by years of French rule. We drove from Hoi An to the ancient capital of Hue. Packed with history and war damage, it delivered some haunting images, not least the shattered remains of its astonishing 16th century Citadel most of which was smashed to dust and rubble by American troops during the Tet offensive in 1968. “What a pity!” said our guide. Ironically this had been the exact phrase used by a previous guide back in Hanoi when informing us that Uncle Ho was not receiving visitors in his mausoleum because his mummified body was undergoing “technical maintenance”. It all seemed a rather undignified for fate for a man who specifically asked that he should be cremated.
We did however get the chance to visit the Presidential Palace and the “simple house” in its grounds where Ho Chi Minh, president from 1954 to 1969 and leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through the height of the war, chose to live. He claimed that it proved he was truly a man of the people. I’m not so sure . While based on a traditional peasant stilt house, it is relatively spacious and very attractive with lots of highly polished wood and a pleasing open-plan design. If it hadn’t been for the special shelf for Ho’s tin hat and hotline telephone and the padded door next to his bed leading to the bomb bunker it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Homes and Gardens.
Finally we flew to the vibrant and buzzing melting-pot that bears his name. Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still insist on calling it, is a brilliant, bustling metropolis full of sights, sounds and sensations. To reach them required more death-defying road crossing. It really is difficult to get your head around the concept of stepping in front of 70 or 80 motorcycles which you know are not going to stop. The instruction was “Just walk slowly and they’ll go round you” Astonishingly they do.
In 10 days in Vietnam we saw a beautiful country, wonderful street-life, pagodas and palaces. We enjoyed river trips and the hospitality of gentle friendly people, wonderful food and of course many reminders of a war-ravaged past. In Ho Chi Minh City we spent an afternoon at the aforementioned War Remnants Museum. After viewing, among other horrors, exhibits and first hand accounts relating to the My Lai massacre there was something particularly chilling about returning to a very comfortable four star hotel switching on CNN and seeing footage of that American Marine casually blowing away a wounded and unarmed insurgent in Falluja. Nothing, it would seem, changes. Just the names and the places.