After our stays in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and our visit to the Mekong Delta, Dottie and I visited Hue and Hanoi. The latter included an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay.
Hue, the former capital of Vietnam until the early 20th century, was where several generations of the country’s royalty lived in the “Forbidden Purple City” inside the walled fortress known as the Citadel. This was also the scene of some of the most brutal fighting during the Tet offensive in 1968.
Compared to the traffic jams and frenetic atmosphere of Saigon, Hue appeared relaxed. Its residents seem content sharing their historical legacy with visitors who make this stop halfway between Saigon and Hanoi. Much of what was damaged during the war has been restored and a tour of the once forbidden city palace included some recounts of what happened there in 1968.
Hanoi, on the other hand, was nearly a mirror image of Ho Chi Minh City, showing no signs of the tons of bombs we dropped on it during the war. There is building going on everywhere. Commerce is booming and there are thousands of people on scooters in the streets and thousands more shopping along the narrow, old-city blocks, made even narrower by market stall after market stall.
While Hanoi’s famous street markets were crammed, crazy and chaotic, there were also many new high-rise business buildings, high-end retail stores, beautiful parks and signs of gentrification, including luxury hotels for the country’s growing tourism industry. We visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where his embalmed body can be viewed on certain days of the week (but not on the day we visited). And we saw the modest home from which he directed the decades-long successful effort, first against the French and lastly against the Americans, to win independence for his country.
Like apparently every one of the thousands of visitors to Hanoi, we made the two-hour drive east to Ha Long Bay for an overnight cruise among nearly 2,000 limestone islets of every shape and size imaginable and overgrown by tropical vegetation. The bay is beautiful and the islets make for a very dramatic scene. Our Orchid Cruise boat, with nice hotel-style rooms, followed many dozens of others in a virtual conga-line of ships, jamming this UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and making it somewhat unnatural by its overwhelming popularity.
I did get to fish for squid off the stern of the boat after dinner. Unfortunately, the squid weren’t biting.
On the way to the airport, we stopped at the Trung Tam Giao Luu Van Ho Dan Gian Folklore Center, a village dedicated to preservation and continuation of an ancient Vietnamese form of block painting. There, we met Nguyen Dang Che, an artist in his 80s who is the 20th generation of his family to create the Dong Ho folk block art. Next to his studio is a school in which village youngsters are taught this art form. As we were talking to Che, the school day ended and dozens of beautiful children, ages 8 to 10, gathered around us to shake our hands, say hello and practice their English.
In their bright, welcoming smiles and gestures I was reminded once again of why I was so beguiled by the Vietnamese people more than a half-century ago.