The Consequences of History: Central Vietnam
Today was a confluence of sights, sounds and impressions.
The highlight of the day was a bicycle ride through a rural area in the settlement of Cam Thanh. It was a lovely, lush area and actually seemed pretty affluent. Preparations for the New Year were evident as we saw people cleaning their property, special signs and traditional chrysanthemum and kumquat plants everywhere.
Some of the paths were paved, some were dirt and many were quite bumpy, but the only part that was a bit scary was the constant appearance of fast-moving motor-scooters. When they had large, overlapping loads, or were leading something like a water buffalo, it was intimidating. I just wish I could’ve taken my hands off the handlebars with more confidence to take some photos. The scenery was just as I imagined – rice paddies, water buffalo, and small fishing boats along the river.
At one juncture along our path, there was commentary being loudly broadcast over a loudspeaker followed by music. When asked later, our guide explained this is how the government still communicates in many rural communities. For us, it was an eerily, MASH-like moment. On a less bizarre note, we stopped along our ride to visit a beautiful Buddhist Temple, complete with chanting monks.
All-in-all, the bike ride was a very memorable experience.
We also did a walking tour of historic Hoi An, another UNESCO site. Untouched during the war, Hoi An is 45 minutes from Da Nang, where the US had a large military presence during the war (we saw the air base). A trading crossroads for centuries, this mostly pedestrian-only zone has wonderful surviving elements of Chinese and Japanese cultures. I say mostly, because around 11AM, they let motor-scooters back in. Today, Hoi An continues its role as a trading crossroads – but basically to “trade” with tourists; taking both credit cards and US $. The city has been preserved well, with dozens of inviting restaurants and attractive shops featuring local artisans and handmade items. I loved all the colorful lanterns strung across the narrow streets.
The area is also known for silk, and is a huge center for custom-tailored goods. Because of the New Year, we saw the occasional shop-owner burning symbolic money for good luck. And OMG, the cooking smells emanating from the restaurants were incredibly good. We eventually did enjoy a wonderful Vietnamese lunch.
From the road, we could see the Marble Mountains in the distance, each named for the five elements-water, metal, wood, fire and earth, and we had a photo-op at the 20-mile Non Nuoc Beach, famous in the US as China Beach (where US servicemen went for R&R). Locals don’t like to call it China Beach, and although they say it’s because they don’t want to credit China, you have to wonder about the US/war affiliation.
Overall, I have to comment this part of Vietnam is being rapidly developed and construction is hi-end with obvious foreign investment. Four Seasons, Raffles, and Hyatt are there and several major resorts are currently under construction. It appears the entire beach-front has been optioned. There is even a casino for the Chinese visitors (locals are not allowed to gamble).
Someone needs to tell the Vietnamese guides they do not need to talk 100% of the time . . . .
Remembering Sacrifices of the War
This beach area in Vietnam (Nom O Beach) is where 3,500 US Marines landed on March 8, 1965, becoming the first American ground troops in Vietnam. And the rest is history. It was also in this area that the Tet Offensive in 1968 was launched by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, essentially marking the beginning of the end of US involvement in the war. It was called “Tet” because it was planned for the Lunar New Year celebration (which is this very week in Asia). The North Vietnamese correctly guessed the opposition soldiers would think the initial assault was just firecrackers from the celebration and be caught off-guard. My husband was luckier than others and did not have to serve here; but he has nevertheless been soberly reflective during this visit.
For my trivia buddies, one fact I never knew til preparing for this trip: It’s bad form to stick chop sticks into a rice bowl vertically – it’s the Buddhist sign of death.