Vietnam has garnered praise for flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections and rebooting its economy early. We reminisce about our trip to the country last year and realise that even if you go riddled with haunting memories of its past, you’d come back pleasantly surprised. By Sushmita Srivastav

Vietnam
An aerial view of Hanoi city at dusk. Photo credit: LQUANG2410/GETTYIMAGES

I am sure Nick Ut wouldn’t have imagined back in 1972 that the photo he was capturing in a moment of utter distress in a suburb of Saigon would win him a Pulitzer Prize. But Napalm Girl did more than that. It went on to become the symbol of the agony of war victims and eventually changed the course of the Vietnam War. The image of a nine-year-old Kim Phuc, screaming in pain and walking unclothed towards the camera after an airstrike, shook the world. Whatever your age when you first saw it, chances are that the Napalm Girl remained etched in your mind. It certainly did in mine.

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Photographer Nick Ut’s iconic image, Napalm Girl, was clicked during the Vietnam War. Photo credit: ZUMA PRESS, INC./ALAMY

That’s probably why I struggled to focus on the light-hearted conversation between two of my fellow journalists in the airport lounge as they discussed everything from pho (chicken or meat broth with rice noodles) to Vietnamese ao dai (a long-sleeved tunic with ankle-length panels worn over trousers) and Saigon’s famous nightlife. Just like our VietJet Air flight that was taking off for the first time from New Delhi to Hanoi last December, I was on my maiden voyage to the ‘Land of the Ascending Dragon’—a moniker that takes inspiration from the country’s shape on the world map. And I wanted to visit the former war zones, the infamous tunnels, the landmarks of agony. A lot of people disapprove of ‘dark tourism’. But nothing else could educate me as much as the historic monuments of the Vietnam War. Or so I thought.

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The Temple of Literature is a Confucian temple, which was formerly a centre of learning, in Hanoi. Photo credit: JOHN S LANDER/GETTYIMAGES

A Circus Of Culture

Once you cross the bridge that squats over the heavily silt-laden waters of the Red River, to reach Hanoi’s main town from Noi Bai International Airport, you find yourself surrounded with swarms of two-wheelers. Vietnam has 45 million motorbikes, which the locals use to traverse its road network spanning 2,00,000 kilometres.

It was early morning when we arrived, but the city had already woken up—men and women donning non la, or conical hats, and running small businesses; fresh flowers on sale; stalls serving hot bowls of pho and banh mi (baguette sandwich); and elderly locals making small talk by the streets.

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A bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup, pho, makes for a hearty lunch. Photo credit: GODONG/GETTYIMAGES

Hanoi is chaos, but it’s the kind with which I can make peace. I’d have loved to lose myself in the tapestry of its narrow alleys, cute cafes, and decaying buildings. But our jam-packed itinerary had no space for aimless strolls. Instead, we arrived at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the grand marble edifice that houses the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, the former president of North Vietnam, since 1975. Our guide, a 50-something local named Thang, struggled to keep our pack of curious Indians together. My eyes wandered off to the huge facade gawking back at me and the lawns painted in varied shades of green surrounding it and a picket of stern-faced guards. We couldn’t witness the change of guard—the ceremony that is considered on par with its British equivalent at Buckingham Palace. Soon, the tiny flag in Thang’s hand—waving vigorously at a distance—caught my eye. It was time to go.

The next few hours were spent exploring the classics. Built as a university in 1070, in the memory of the philosopher Confucius, is the Temple of Literature. It is a well-preserved example of Vietnamese architecture, where 82 of the original 116 stelae, engraved with records of exceptional scholars who came here, still remain standing. The tour was followed by a lavish lunch of pho, goi cuon (rice paper rolls), nem ran (spring rolls), and chilled local beer to wash it all down at Quan An Ngon.

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In Vietnam, pedicabs have their passenger seats in the front. Photo credit: HADYNYAH/GETTYIMAGES

An hour-long cyclo ride around the Old Quarter (2,000 years old) in the evening was both thrilling and calming at the same time. Vietnam’s variant of pedicabs has its passenger seats in the front! One moment, you’re sitting cross-legged, mind at ease, looking at the cute cafes abuzz with people and the sun melting into the calm Hoan Kiem Lake; the next moment, you are swaying on sharp turns as gaggles of cyclos, motorbikes, buses, and what not brush past. I tried to put my mind to ease by making small talk with my humble driver, who delivered an introduction to the neighbourhood in broken English. At the end of the whirlwind tour, we landed at Cafe Giang that, like many others in the Old Quarter, was famous for serving ca phe trung, or the bizarre but super creamy and surprisingly delicious egg coffee.

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Cafe Giang serves a mean cup of egg coffee, known locally as ca phe trung. Photo credit: COURTESY OF CAFE GIANG

The day of classics in Hanoi ended with the Lang Toi–My Village show at Hanoi Vietnam Tuong Theatre. The show depicted daily life in Vietnamese villages. Acrobats threw themselves in the air, musical scholars performed live with 20 folk instruments at once, elegant barefoot ladies walked on top of bamboo sticks with no support, and artists juggled props with mind-bending ease.

By The Bay

“Ha Long Bay’s location first appeared on a French marine map in the 19th century with the rumour of a water dragon being spotted by a young marine. Turned out, it was a giant sea snake! Hence the name ‘Ha Long’, or the landing dragon,” Thang continued to fill our morning silences with anecdotes by Ho Chi Minh. We sped along the snaking highway to make up for the 15-minute delayed start in our three-hour journey to the Tuan Chau harbour. Thang, like any other local, despised poor time-management.

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Kayaking expeditions across Ha Long Bay take you to limestone islands and hidden creeks. Photo credit: WALTER BIBIKOW/GETTYIMAGES

We made it just in time to board Bai Tho Junk’s day cruise that would take us around the Gulf of Tonkin’s Ha Long Bay. A lunch of fresh salads, spring rolls, crab curry with sticky rice, braised chicken, and generous servings of fruits were laid out. As we stuffed our mouths, the scenery around us changed from that of a busy port to endless green water, interrupted only by islets and karsts.

With a total of 4,000 islands in Vietnam, Ha Long alone has over 1,900. We docked at the Bo Hon Island where cluttered serpentine ascents led to the Hang Sung Sot Cave or the ‘Cave of Surprises’. Stalactites hanging from the ceiling, phallic rock formations, and hundreds of fellow tourists crammed in the narrow passages did indeed take us by surprise. Later, I spent time kayaking through the calm waters and hidden creeks in the Luon Cave. Back at the boat, I excused myself from the crowd and picked a sunbed on the upper deck to soak up the moment, watching giant karsts cast shadows on my diminutive self, ships slowly drifting by, and the auburn dusk slowly melting into the violet night.

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Hang Sung Sot Cave, or the ‘Cave of Surpises’, at the Bo Hon Island. Photo credit: ULLSTEIN BILD/GETTYIMAGES

Requiem For Many Dreams

Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam at its dazzling best. Still ‘Saigon’ for many, the city throbs with a lively nightlife and, of course, remnants of the war. The day had turned into a balmy evening when we arrived. The ceiling of our bus wore neon strings that matched the city lights. By now, my obsession with war memorials had waned to some extent. Gleaming skyscrapers, impromptu concerts on the street, designer stores, glitzy bars—a night spent strolling through the lanes of downtown Saigon can do that to you.

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A Vietnamese soldier demonstrates how to slip into the narrow passage leading to the Cu Chi Tunnels camouflaged with leaves. Photo credit: ALAIN NOGUES/GETTYIMAGES

But I was in for a reality check, as we left early the next day to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. The well-defined extensive network of underground tunnels in the Cu Chi district is a grim reminder of the war. But it is also a testimony to a well-executed counter-attack against a better-equipped opponent. I walked in the woods, passing the preserved missiles and command centres, to arrive at the tunnels that were once dug out by the guerrilla troops. Camouflaged booby traps, underground bedrooms, and medical centres were created to protect thousands during the bombing by the US forces. I spent just 15 minutes crawling inside a long, dimly-lit tunnel for the first-hand experience and ended up panic-stricken and gasping for air.

Once back in the city, since we still had some time in hand before our return flight, I found myself standing before the War Remnants Museum. The haunting photos and memorabilia spoke of the resilience of the people and the gruesome consequences of the war. And there in the still-grieving four-storeyed building, it stood. The Napalm Girl. Even though I thought I knew her as a friend by now, her preserved agony left me stunned again.

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The Ho Chi Minh City Hall was built between 1902 and 1908. Photo credit: MONGKOL CHUEWONG/GETTYIMAGES

But then, I found solace in the fact that Kim Phuc was no longer just a child of war. Today, Phuc is a 57-year-old with a family, a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the culture of peace, an author, and winner of the Dresden Peace Prize 2019, among other accolades. And like Phuc, Vietnam, too, is much more than its bloody and battered past.

Getting There
In normal circumstances, VietJet Air operates direct flights from New Delhi and Mumbai to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City; last year, it became the first airline to connect the two countries directly. Expect nothing but the best of in-flight service, luxury airport lounges, and priority check-ins with VietJet Air’s Skyboss programme.

Stay
Super Hotel Candle offers comfortable accommodation and elaborate breakfast buffets in Hanoi (starts from INR5,548). Ha Long Marina Hotel is a luxury stay option in Ha Long (starts from INR7,000). Alagon Central Hotel & Spa in Ho Chi Minh City’s heart is known for its impeccable service (starts from INR4,400).

Related: #TnlSalutes: Here’s What This Vietnamese Conglomerate Is Doing To Fight COVID-19