Vietnam:A battered land waking up!
Travelling Vietnam : which has a culture dating back to thousands of years, but is only known because of the US involvement and final withdrawal of troops after a bitterly long war
We went to Vietnam because Angkor Wat, the famous 12th century temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia was included in the trip. After all what could be exciting about a country which had been ravaged by war, where the North Vietnamese (supported by Russia) fought against the South Vietnamese, (supported by the US)?But Vietnam surprised us and the first sight was pleasant enough to make us change our minds!
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (also referred to as HCMC) as it is officially called, turned out to be a fairly clean place with wide promenades, decent hotels and an interesting approach to tourism. The Vien Dong hotel was very clean and the service provided was adequate. Of course the Wi-Fi worked very well unlike most hotels in the other cities so yes, Vietnam is tech savvy too!
Vietnam has a culture that dates back to thousands of years and there is enough evidence of this through the many archaeological excavations done over a period of time. Yet, in the modern context the world has only heard of Vietnam because of the US involvement and final withdrawal of troops after a bitter war of nearly 20 years.
In 1975, North and South Vietnam were finally united and together renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnam was colonised by the French for nearly 300 plus years, mostly for trade and the establishment of a trading outpost. The earliest catholic emissaries came to Vietnam in the early 17th century. A lasting monument of French antecedents lies in the Notre Dame cathedral in Saigon. A poor imitation of the original in Paris, the inside of the basilica appears bare although service does take place here.
The nearby Central Post Office has celebrated 150 years of operations. It is a very well maintained building built in the French style, also spotted in Pondicherry, the erstwhile French colony on the East coast. The activity inside the post office makes it sound like a thrumming bee hive! A few shops sell curios, while the Postal department carries on its work and tourists like us, gape. On a chair sits this elderly gentleman who answers all your queries regarding Vietnam, its history Geography and anything else! Of course there is a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader who finally united the two warring zones and made them one.
As you drive around or walk around the streets, you can read the signboards which have English alphabets but with dots and dashes here and there—the words are definitely not English. The guide tells us that French Jesuit lexicographer Alexandre de Rhodes devised the Romanized Vietnamese language which was later developed further by several other Catholic missionaries. Vietnamese derives its pronunciation roots from Chinese but now has a Romanised script which makes Vietnamese the only language in the far eastern regions which is not calligraphic.
Of the hundreds of temples and pagodas, we visited the Ngoc Hoang pagoda, also known as Jade Emperor Temple or the Fuhai monastery. Built over a century ago, it saw the merger of Buddhism with Taoism, and it seems to be a great favorite of the local vendors and businessmen. Apparently the pagoda was built by a businessman from the same area, more than a hundred years ago.
A visit to the War Remnants Museum does not really surprise us – we, from the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army, love the vintage aircrafts and tanks etc. Inside, there are groups of kids performing gymnastics – it is a national holiday of some kind and the show is for the benefit of the visitors. On the many floors above are photographs of some of the horrors of the war.
As we drive away the well known Opera House and the ornate City Hall are pointed pout to us. The City Hall is now a luxury hotel but the Opera House still holds shows on many an evening. We reach our hotel, Vien Dong, located very close to the famous Ben Thanh market which is known for all the 'fake copies' of brands from across the world.
The next day is our trip to Tay Ninh where we visit the Cao Dei temple – a new religion which takes the best of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and other religious beliefs and blends them all. People flock here to witness the solemn ceremonies, accompanied by equally solemn music. Although everyone wears white, yet different rows of white robed people have different colored scarves around their necks to identify the seniority of the priests in the pecking order. On the roof of the large barn sized hall, there are three very distinct symbols—one of Christianity, one of Buddhism and one of Islam.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a marvel of the ingenious Eastern mind. It is hardly surprising that the Yanks could not cope with the things the locals did. The Americans thought nothing of carpet bombing the places with all kinds of chemicals etc. The Viet Cong picked up the scraps of the metal left behind, went underground and fashioned spikes and torture chambers out of the metal.
Try getting into one of the endless tunnels—there are apparently 200 kms of underground passages – dug out by hand, narrow enough for a slight man to move at a very rapid pace. The Viet Cong (VC)—the people of North Vietnam – are very slightly built and the tunnels were meant for them only. One can see how cleverly camouflaged the entrances and exits were. At the entrance point, one would have to pick up a tile covered with leaves, raise your hands straight up and kind of slide down! Legend has it that the Yanks did not discover this subterranean rabbit warren for all the 20 years they were in the region.
We stop to watch peanut, banana and coconut toffees being made – delightful while it is hot! Not so good when it is cold and gets stuck to the paper they wrap it in. We also get to taste tapioca chips, which were a part of the staple food of the VC during their many years in the jungles.
Hanoi appears to be a better planned and more open city with vast open spaces and more highrises, which appear to be taller rather than wider. Our hotel May de Ville follows a similar pattern. The highlight of our trip is our cruise to the picturesque Halong Bay with its outcrops of rocks with fancy names like Fighting Cock (Ga Choi) Incense Burner (Dinh Huong) etc.
Lots of photographs are clicked by everyone with cameras big and small. Wonderful memories to take back home! A traditional Vietnamese lunch is served on board and we make the most of the fare.
A very enterprising young lady has set up shop on board with a lot of traditional knick knacks made in Vietnam, and almost everyone buys some.
Indians in Vietnam and Cambodia
It was amazing to visit and sample Indian food at so many Indian restaurants in the country. Gopi of Namaste Hanoi was probably the first generation who had ventured into food in a distant land, after spending many years in Canada. Kaustubh Trivedi restarted Khazana 2000 after his grandfather, the pioneering foodie, had come from UP many decades ago to set up a desi khana outlet, passed away. Neeraj Malik has been working with a scooter company, turning out millions of scooters in the country while Navendu runs another restaurant and a small business side by side. In Siem Reap, Cambodia we had CurryWalla Amarjit Singh and his chain of four restaurants. Then there is young Raj who sells Cambodian and Indian artifacts out of this sprawling store which had originally been set up by his grandfather.
These are just a few names we connected with but that there is an Indian Chamber of Commerce (INCHAM) in Hanoi confirms that the Indian business community is united and flourishing. I am told that INCHAM celebrates all Indian festivals. As a last word I have to narrate the lasting impression of the Sen Tay Ho restaurant in Hanoi. It was a huge place with at least 30 live stations cooking up six different cuisines – Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Cambodian, Indonesian and Continental. Amazing place, amazing food choices!