Both Sides Of Vietnam

Exquisite beauty and crass commercialism exist side by side in a place that is just beginning to understand its tourism potential.

Southeast Asia

Cover Story

September 15, 2002|By Patricia Rodriguez | Patricia Rodriguez,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

After sleeping fitfully on the night train from Hanoi (Note to self: Drink fewer liquids before a 10-hour journey on a train where the bathroom is a hole in the floor two cars down), we are herded onto a waiting minibus for the drive to Sa Pa.

The highlands village of Sa Pa, a 90-minute ride from Lao Cai, a trade center on the Vietnam-China border, has been billed as a bucolic paradise, green, peaceful and mostly unspoiled by modern commerce. But the morning is hazy and foggy and still a bit dark, and as our van struggles through traffic-choked streets, I can't see much of anything.

We drive past long stretches of small, faded buildings with their metal security doors rolled shut, advertising pho com (soup restaurant), bia hoi (fresh beer) and karaoke (no translation necessary).

Kids in Nike warm-up jackets and baseball caps drive scooters loaded with trays of cut-up chickens or boxes bursting with vegetables; mopeds carry entire families: two adults and two or three kids. It looks like bustling Ho Chi Minh City, except on a smaller, dingier scale.

Then, suddenly, the bus turns a corner and begins to struggle uphill, and the sun burns through, the fog lifting like a film being peeled from a piece of glass. Revealed is the lush landscape we had been promised. Low, mist-covered mountains, their sides precisely terraced with rice paddies. Rises covered with fir trees and endless beds of lavender-flowering indigo plants. A clear, rocky stream, crossed by a rudimentary wooden bridge. It's beautiful -- worth every second of last night's discomfort.

And that, for me, is Vietnam: Just when I'm about to give up on this place, something happens that makes me fall just a little bit in love with it.

Ho Chi Minh City

At times, Vietnam can be an easy place to love: When you're walking undisturbed through thousand-year-old palace ruins in the imperial city of Hue. When you're eating a huge bowl of pho -- beef noodle soup scented with cilantro, mint and lemon grass -- that costs less than 50 cents from a sidewalk vendor in Hanoi. When you're being fussed over in a tailor's shop in the ancient fishing port of Hoi An, being fitted for custom-made silk clothing that will be delivered to your hotel within 24 hours.

But at other times, it feels like trying to travel with a toddler, one who's loud, messy, frantic, constantly changing his mind and demanding all your attention, right this minute.

My husband and I had hit bottom in Ho Chi Minh City only a few hours after arriving in Vietnam and finding our way to a $15-a-night hotel in the area that caters to backpackers. Trying to walk to the nearby public market, we couldn't take two steps without being asked to buy something. Postcards? Cyclo ride? Taxi? Chewing gum? Spring rolls? Cigarettes? Beer? Hotel room? Guidebook?

Hot and frustrated, we retreated to a touristy cafe -- crowded with dreadlocked and tattooed Western backpackers, smoking and drinking Viet-namese-brewed 333 beer -- and wondered whether coming to Vietnam had been a good idea.

Less than 10 years ago, this trip would have been practically impossible for Americans. Vietnam is one of the few remaining communist countries in the world, and for years after the reunification of the country in 1975, Western tourists were largely kept out.

But after the government adopted an economic restructuring policy called doi moi in the mid-1980s that essentially allowed a capitalist economy to take root, and especially after the U.S. trade embargo was lifted in 1994, Vietnam has been busily rebuilding itself.

Tourists -- more from Europe, Australia and elsewhere in Asia than the United States -- have flooded in, now up to as many as 2 million a year. Shops, hotels, restaurants and tourist offices have multiplied. Everyone offers a smile, a "hello" and something to sell; everyone wants a piece of this economic boom. Today's Vietnam has the air of a place just about to explode.

This makes it an exciting place to visit, but at times a tiring one. Nowhere is the activity more intense than in Ho Chi Minh City.

Formerly known as Saigon, the country's largest city is its commercial and industrial hub, and a fascinating mix of Eastern and Western cultures. This is a place where, outside strings of shops selling electronics, jewelry, clothes, mopeds and washers and dryers, noodle vendors squat on the sidewalk, serving meals all day from their portable kitchens.

This is a place where the streets are crowded with taxis, small trucks and, especially, motorbikes -- 2 million in Ho Chi Minh City alone, one taxi driver informs us -- but where many vendors still travel by foot, carrying their goods in two wicker baskets, one on each end of a long bamboo pole slung over a shoulder, stopping whenever they see a potential sale.

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