American tourists explore a kinder, gentler Vietnam aboard the M.S. Caledonian Star


September 20, 1992|By Susan Farlow | Susan Farlow,Contributing Writer

I raced up on deck and -- bam! -- I ran smack into a Vietnamese policeman.

He had just boarded our ship, the M. S. Caledonian Star, which moments earlier had docked at our first port of call, Nha Trang. But more than that, our ship was making the first-ever cruise of Vietnam, the newest frontier for American travelers.

He smiled. I got up the nerve to ask, "Can I take your picture?" He nodded. I clicked.

"Thank you a lot," he said.

A few minutes later, as my husband and I were disembarking, another young Vietnamese policeman beamed, "Have a good time."

Their words were a surprise. I, like many Americans, have always associated Vietnam with war. I didn't know much about Vietnam as a country, or about its people, or about how its people felt about Americans today.

Soon I would. Over the next two weeks, we would be stunned by one thing after another. We would rub our eyes in disbelief at the tumultuous street life in Saigon and Hanoi, then stand before heart-stopping landscapes. We would watch women in conical hats tending emerald rice paddies, then gawk at imperial treasures in the city of Hue.

But most of all, day after day, it was the people along the way who provided the real thrills. And I can't recall another place where I, an American, have felt more welcome.

Our voyage began in Ho Chi Minh City, a hustle-bustle place still called Saigon by the locals. By the next afternoon, we had docked at our first port of Nha Trang, met the friendly policemen and, before long, were on a bus on a bumpy road, with our guide saying, "In Vietnam, the roads are very bad."

But the English teachers must be very good. It seems many younger Vietnamese can speak at least some English. "In the last two years, 99 percent of the school children choose to learn English. Now, only 1 percent choose Russian. Russian is dead," explained our guide.

We were on our way to the Long Son Pagoda, but the second we got off the bus, we heard the shouts of children. We follow the squeals to a schoolyard filled with uniformed boys and girls. When they saw us, they ran over to practice their English.

Before he called it a day, our guide dropped us off at the bustling marketplace, brimming with luscious fruits and vegetables and mounds of unrefrigerated meats. Now and then, people would come up to talk. All asked the same questions: "What your age?" "You like Vietnam?" "Where you come from?"

"America," we said.

"America, No. 1," many replied.

One thing we were learning quickly: In Vietnam, where the hotel infrastructure isn't in the best shape, we enjoyed comfort in traveling by our expedition cruise ship, with its fine dining, pool, two lounges, bar, library, in-room VCR and team of lecturers.

Two days later, we docked in Danang, the place where American Marines first landed on March 8, 1965, and were handed over to 41-year-old Mr. Lieng, who turned out to be tour guide, movie critic and singer all rolled into one.

We set out for Hue, the old royal capital of Vietnam (from 1802 to 1945) and "the most cultured city in Vietnam." By the time the ride was over, we'd gotten a crash course in Vietnam 101, just by looking out the bus windows and listening to Mr. Lieng.

As we rolled past open-air barber shops, tin-roofed shops, rickshaws hauling pigs and a store selling compact disks, our guide said, "Most villages in this area were VC [Viet Cong]." From rice paddies along the road, people waved to us.

"I've seen many of the Vietnam films. 'Good Morning, Vietnam' -- that was very good acting," our guide said. Then he added that his father was in the South Vietnamese Army.

"Now, all Vietnamese people have a good feeling about American veterans. Then, he said, "The Vietnamese think America is a paradise."

Two hours later, we reached the old imperial city of Hue. Streets were dotted with grand French buildings, painted pink, lemon yellow and baby blue.

First stop was Thien Mu Pagoda, where I met a young monk. He was 18 and had been there seven years. Can I take your picture? I asked. He turned and hurried back into the building.

A minute later, he was out again, having put on his best robe for the camera.

On the ride back to our ship that night, lights were on in the houses and shops, so I could see inside: billiard tables galore. Leftover from the American GIs? As I wondered about this, Mr. Lieng belted out "Oh, Susannah."

The following day we headed 15 miles south of Danang to a once-fabled seaport called Hoi An, where we stepped back in time to 200-year-old homes along quiet streets that saw little damage during the war. The residents all wore smiles, none bigger than the elderly man in a black beret who proudly showed off his prize rooster to a group of Americans.

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