I spent three weeks traveling around the southern half of Vietnam in December 1991. At the time, the country was just opening up to tourism. Most visitors at the time elected to visit Hanoi and Halong Bay in the north, as the Vietnamese government, still cautious about the loyalty of subjects in the south, was promoting trips to the north. This is why we (three Americans and one Brit) elected to travel in the south.
We flew into Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone still called Saigon. The milling crowds at the exit gate were large and intimidating, as there were few Westerners among us. Initially we were hesitant to admit we were Americans. We were prepared to tell everyone we were Canadians. The first evening at our hotel in downtown Saigon, people would shout to us, “Lien Xo!” We assumed it meant “hello.”
The next day when we met our guide, Mr. Con, we asked him about the expression “Lien Xo.” He told us it means ‘Soviets’ or ‘Russians.’ The Russians came in large numbers after the American exit in 1975. Most of the foreigners we saw on the streets of Saigon were in fact Russians. We asked Mr. Con whether we should tell anyone we were Americans. He reassured us it was okay. In fact, he taught us to say “Kong Phai Lien Xo! Toi là Ngoi My!” Or, ‘I’m not Russian, I’m American.’ When we said this, we were usually greeted with smiles.
Saigon retains the French influence of wide, leafy boulevards and colonial architecture. Lê Loi the main boulevard in the city is fronted by a large French-built opera house. Cafés with great coffee and baguettes abound everywhere, and there is a thriving sidewalk café culture. Around Saigon the site-seeing mostly pertains to the war. We visited the American War Crimes Museum, located near the old American embassy, where helicopters ignominiously whisked off the last U.S. staff in April 1975. The embassy building still sat empty and weed-choked.
Outside Saigon in Tay Ninh province we visited the infamous Cu Chi tunnel complex, the scene of heavy fighting in the late 1960s. A destroyed US M-48 tank sat in a jungle clearing. We crawled in one tunnel for a hundred meters, and that was more than enough. We couldn’t imagine people living and fighting there for months at a time.
Mr. Con guided us on a ten-day car tour in a 1965 Ford Falcon. We traveled the length of American-built Highway 1 along the coastline to the old DMZ. The Vietnamese countryside is stunningly beautiful, with iridescent green rice paddies, the blue mountains of the Central Highlands to the west, and the aqua South China Sea to the east.
Halfway to the DMZ we visited a Cham temple from the 10th century. Champa was a was Hindi kingdom, and a rival to the Khmer Empire in neighboring Cambodia and the Burmese in Bagan. The bright red brick of the temple beautifully contrasted with the electric blue sky and the green countryside overlooking the South China Sea. The next day we traveled to My Son, an old, isolated Cham temple complex dating to over a thousand years. After a long trip over a bumpy dirt road we disembarked and set out on foot for several hours. At one point we hired a boat to take us across the river (see photos) and hike into a barren, hilly landscape dotted with the ruins.
Further north sits Hoi An, an old trading port that once hosted ships in the 16th-17th centuries from Holland, Portugal, Arabia, India, China, and Japan. Eventually the river silted over and ships quit coming, so it is as if the old port is frozen in time. Driving over Hai Van pass between Danang and Hue afforded us spectacular views over the countryside of the old DMZ.
Hue was Vietnam’s ancient capital in the days before the French arrived. It sits on the banks of the Perfume River, where the old walled Imperial City is situated. Unfortunately, Hue was the site of horrible fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive. It was destroyed but an effort to rebuild it was underway when we visited. The people and the city were charming, with a laid-back vibe.
One of the charms of driving around Vietnam was having villagers come out to watch us eat in each small town when we stopped for lunch. We called it, “watching television.” They were all friendly and curious. We had very few tense experiences that I remember, even with people that had been directly affected by the war.
Vietnam was a memorable experience. I wonder how much it has changed in the last thirty years. I do know this: I am glad we visited when we did, when it was still undeveloped and before the tourist hordes descended. But I am sure the Vietnamese prefer these groups to the many foreign invasions they have suffered over the centuries.