As my plane touched down in Ho Chi Minh City, I savored the irony that in 2015, Vietnam was probably one of the safest destinations an American could visit. As a tour guide put it, “We don’t have crazy
For this trip, I’d be going halfway around the world, and yet I’d never been to other foreign countries that were as personally important to me. Hong Kong was where I started my adult life many moons ago, working in the local press. I hadn’t been back because of a whiplash I sustained when a drunk publicist driving me to a movie studio crashed into a street pole. I ended up in a Queen Elizabeth Hospital ward, the only guaipo (“ghost woman” in Cantonese) there. After that, a long flight in coach was pretty much out of the question.
Then two things changed: Airlines introduced supercharged coach class (sometimes known as economy plus). It’s a semi-affordable way to fly with a few more perks than cattle class, enough at least to permit a trip without a physical therapist. And I was anticipating a February birthday that ended with a zero, a milestone I always insist on being witnessed by family.
When I lived in Hong Kong, globalization had not yet taken hold. Still a British colony, it was a witch’s brew of laissez-faire capitalism, authentic peasant life and nearly endless adventure. I wanted to see how much Hong Kong had changed after the handover to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 (even though everyone knew even then that if Beijing wanted to break the lease beforehand, it had only to knock on the governor’s door). Hong Kong was then and continues to be one of China’s top financial assets, a major port for foreign exchange.
I also wanted to visit Vietnam, which wasn’t a possibility during my time there — that fact had been printed on my passport. As with many boomers, the Vietnam War was a formative experience, so I wanted to see it for myself. And I wanted to find out why Vietnamese people were said to be so welcoming to Americans despite the war’s devastation.
I decided on a cruise, because it seemed the least complicated way to visit several towns and cities. And, as part of its fleet expansion, Windstar Cruises had just launched “Southeast Asia Unveiled,” a 10-day South China Sea cruise up the Vietnamese coast to Hong Kong, stopping in Nha Trang and Qui Nhon, near the ancient ruins of the Cham people; Da Nang, home to China Beach, where G.I.s went to destress; Hue, the site of the imperial palace; and Ha Long Bay, where spectacular caves are beautifully illuminated with colored lights. It’s also the starting point for the four-hour drive to Hanoi. Windstar was particularly appealing because its ships are quite small — I was on the Star Pride, which carries a maximum of 212 passengers — allowing them to dock in smaller ports too shallow for bigger boats. And the company’s “casual elegance” philosophy sounded perfect.
Since the cruise was scheduled to leave Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by many locals) the first day, my sister and I arrived there a couple of days in advance, so we could go exploring. With only a brief time window, we decided to hire tour guides. Didi didn’t want to travel with a pack and had heard good things about a site called ToursByLocals.com, which offers personal guides; we booked two tours — one around the city, the other to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a centerpiece of war tourism half an hour from Saigon. More on that later.
We lucked out with our first guide, the wonderful Mai Nguyen — her knowledge of Saigon was extensive (tour guides train at university), her English was fluent and clear (in fact, she was the only guide I didn’t struggle to understand) and she was always up for stimulating conversation. We started with a chat over Vietnamese coffee (served iced with sweetened condensed milk) at Cafe Soi Da, a charming traditional two-story building with a gurgling pond, extended eaves and no walls. Later, she would take us to Pho 2000, famous for its delicious Vietnamese noodle dishes and Bill Clinton’s visit in 2000, commemorated in numerous photos on the walls.
We’d arrived a couple of weeks before the new year, which coincides with the Chinese new year, but is called Tet (associated in the U.S. with Hanoi’s surprise holiday offensive during the Vietnam War). In honor of Tet, Saigon’s shops, streets and homes were adorned with lovely golden flowers called hoa mai (ochna integerrima). That was one of many differences that still linger between the south and the north, where peach flowers are the holiday blooms of choice.
Mai was the product of a politically mixed marriage — her mother was communist and her father fought alongside Americans in the Mekong Delta. But Hanoi has a long memory; because of her father’s past, three generations of her family have been unable to get promotions in government jobs. “It’s not written, but it’s there,” she said.
And yet, far from the communist bogeyman the U.S. tried so desperately to conquer, Vietnam has moved much closer to the West since the Fall of Saigon. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam may be one of only five countries with a single party espousing communism (the others are China, North Korea, Cuba and Laos), but its economy says otherwise. A few years ago, The Economist described its leadership as “ardently capitalist communists.” “There are a lot of differences since 1975,” Mai observed. “If not, we’d collapse like the Soviet Union.” And remember that mantra, “to each according to his need”? Not exactly. “We don’t have welfare,” Mai said. Even education and health care aren’t free. “Here you’ve got to do things for yourself. That’s our traditional mindset.”
We visited the fascinating Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, which has artifacts dating back to the Stone Age, and Thien Hau Temple in Chinatown, where worshippers burn incense coils in honor of the Chinese goddess of the sea. I was surprised by how interesting I found the Reunification Palace, the preserved headquarters of the defeated South Vietnamese government, where I imagined corrupt officials meeting in splendid rooms.
The next day, we got a big dose of war tourism at the Cu Chi Tunnels, once Hanoi’s base of operations for the 1968 Tet Offensive, now a theme park–like display of the Vietcongs’ hidden death traps and vast network of underground bunkers. I saw how they lived and moved undetected in the tunnels; the displays of underground spikes hidden by leaves, mannequins in military garb, a captured U.S. tank and munitions were compelling but disturbing. With the loud crack, crack of AK47s fired by tourists at the site’s shooting range assaulting my ears, I studied the shop of Cu Chi souvenirs, including branded liquor, and wondered about people who would buy them. But I couldn’t help thinking how clever the Vietnamese were, first to devise this complex combat system that confounded the U.S. military, and second, to get Americans to pay for the privilege of seeing how they did it.
The next day we boarded the 458-foot Star Pride and were delighted by how large our cabin was — at 277 square feet, it was quite comfortable, and far larger than the smallest cabins on many other cruise lines, which can start at a cramped 120 square feet. The food was sublime, the service snappy and warm, but it was only later that I’d find out how excellent the staff really was. I’d already heard that a lot of government officials expect to have their palms greased, and the cruise was no exception. Even though Windstar had done everything by the book, the ship’s otherwise jovial captain discovered that if they didn’t bribe officials or give them a bottle of liquor from the ship shop — even though it was closed — officials could impose obstacles to docking and leaving port. It was enough of a problem that it contributed to Windstar’s decision to pull Vietnam from its cruise menu after just two months. And yet the passengers knew nothing of the problem.
The ship lacked flashy evening activities, but that was just fine with me. Most nights, we’d feast on dinner in one of two restaurants with open seating — the formal Amphora and the more intimate Candles, on a windy deck — and the maitre d’s offer to seat us alone or with new people led to many lively discussions. Then it was earlyish to bed and early to rise for shore excursions we’d booked through Windstar. Staff did arrange one special event that reflected some sensitivity — Vietnam vets were invited to gather privately and share their military experiences. It was telling that of the dozen vets on the trip, just two had actually seen combat, and only one had been wounded. Wally Henkelman, now an online college professor in Las Vegas, was hit in the chest with shrapnel, arriving home with persistent PTSD. This was his first trip back to Vietnam since the war. “It’s very different, very progressive, very upbeat,” he said. “I had bad dreams and still occasionally do, but I think this was very healing. It may stop all of that.”
We set off for Da Nang, where we boarded a bus to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well-preserved trading port dating back to the 15th century. Soon after I started wandering in the delightful ancient city, untouched by the war, I came across a street vendor selling Tiger Balm, a Vicks VapoRub–like salve created by Hong Kong’s Aw family (who happened to publish my first newspaper, The Hongkong Standard). He looked middle-aged and beneath the brim of his hat, I saw skin had grown over his eyes, presumably the result of a war-related injury. I didn’t need Tiger Balm, and he didn’t ask for charity, but I bought it anyway, even though my attempt at reparations was pretty lame.
In addition to its considerable charm, Hoi An has taken Hong Kong’s place as the go-to Asian city for cheap custom tailoring, and the town is teeming with shops. Mai had recommended a place called Blue on Tran Hung Dao, so I headed there in the early afternoon and went to town: I ordered two silk ao dais (the Vietnamese national dress for women, consisting of a long tunic over pants), one in black and the other in a stunning blue and raspberry pattern; coordinating flowy silk pants; black silk-and-cashmere trousers; a casual long silk dress; a sleeveless black top with red frogs; two pairs of custom leather shoes… Okay, yes, and more, including flowy cotton pants perfect for L.A. from another tailor who took me on a scary scooter trip to an ATM. If I tell you that all this cost a little over $400, surely you’ll understand my horror at overhearing Americans trying to bargain at Blue.
My one regret is that I had only a few hours in Hanoi, but I made a point of visiting the infamous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison), another staple of war tourism, where North Vietnamese incarcerated, interrogated and tortured American P.O.W.s, including Sen. John McCain. The prison sits on prime Hanoi real estate, so the government tore most of it down in 1993 and built a condo skyscraper. (Sound familiar?) Plenty of grim cells are still preserved as a museum, only now the “prisoners” are mannequins; still, it’s horrifying to see rows of them languishing on long tables lining the walls, their ankles shackled.
With all that brutality behind us, how could Vietnamese people be so nice to Americans? Of course, not everybody is, and that’s still more likely to be the case in the north. But the two countries have developed what the U.S. State Department calls “an important emerging partnership” since relations were normalized in 1995. And more than 60 percent of Vietnamese were born after the war, including our guide, Mai. She offered a simple explanation. “We understand what happened — 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. Blood is all the same in red color.”
I distinctly remember stepping off the plane when I first arrived at Hong Kong’s cramped Kai Tak Airport and being walloped in the face with a pungent odor that’s hard to describe. Suffice to say, no one was likely to bottle it. As modern as the basic infrastructure was even then, there was plenty of room for improvement when it came to sanitation. Shopkeepers frequently tossed pans of dirty water into the street, and many locals spit on the ground. So imagine my surprise when I found post-handover Hong Kong to be just the opposite — the streets and subway were spotless, and public bathrooms and elevators had signs posted in Chinese and English declaring that the facility would be sanitized every hour or two. Clearly (and perhaps ironically), the People’s Republic had modeled Hong Kong after Singapore, Asia’s super-capitalist country (now the world’s fourth leading financial center), which has long been notorious for its harsh cleanliness laws: spitters and litterbugs are hit with fines, gum sales were banned after globs were found in the subway and police check public bathrooms to make sure toilets are flushed (and cane offenders if they catch them). Hong Kong’s soaring highway system and five-square-mile international airport on easily accessible Chek Lap Kok island put our crumbling infrastructure, and the Congress that won’t fund improvements, to shame.
What I found particularly interesting was the total lack of political signage anywhere, unlike Vietnam, which had the occasional billboard flaunting a hammer and sickle. In the touristy part of Kowloon known as Tsim Sha Tsui, where I stayed, the most prominent signs were over boutiques selling luxury goods — Prada, Bulgari, Miu Miu, Dolce & Gabbana and many more. Sayings emblazoned on subway walls came not from Chairman Mao, but from Paul Cézanne and Saint Augustine. The subway even has first-class cars, which even the snootiest New Yorkers can’t ride back home (okay, so they have drivers). Clearly, Karl Marx would be aghast at Hong Kong’s version of class consciousness.
In our day and a half there, we did manage to get a taste of the old Hong Kong. We took the train (which has video screens with a bit of news and a lot of commercials) to the New Territories to see the spectacular Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. We wandered the bustling Yau Ma Tei night market, where vendors hawked T-shirts, tchotchkes and, in another sign of the times, previously unmentionable sex aids. And we took a cab to Stanley, which used to be a sleepy fishing village on Hong Kong Island when I lived there in a humble squatter hut. I still remember the address: Irene Lacher, Far East Farm, Behind Tin Hau Temple, Stanley, Hong Kong.
Of course, the seaside town was catnip to developers, who utterly transformed it into a mecca of luxury condos, shops, restaurants and yes, a Starbucks. But squeezed in along the commercial strip was Tin Hau Temple, a small white building with a red door surrounded by calligraphy and flowers for the new year. Inside I found a temple tender, still there from the years when Chinese opera singers would celebrate the goddess’ birthday by regaling crowds from an outdoor stage deep into the night. Like me, he looked back fondly on the old Stanley. “Something is missing — the traditional way of life,” he said. “The quality of life is better, yes. But today is more commercial, more Western. In the old days there was a lot of freedom; now there are more restrictions. I still miss the past.”
For cruise information, visit windstar.com. • Contact Mai Nguyen by email at email@example.com or visit maiguide.com. For more on her background, visit tourguides.viator.com