Late afternoon, and the sun has burnished the lotus blossoms a deep, rich gold. I am alone except for a phalanx of stone warriors, forever guarding the emperor on his journey to the afterworld.
It was this serene, lovely place that the Emperor Minh Mang chose as the site for his tomb. But why waste the view on the dead — before he expired in 1840, the scholarly monarch often sat by the lake, writing poetry and, as a small plaque says, "beholding scenery.''
Beholding scenery — how perfect. Vietnam's natural beauty is beyond mere looking at or even admiring. This is a country that continually entices the eyes, from the karst islands of Ha Long Bay with their phantasmagorical shapes to the broad rivers flowing past lush tropical forests and rice fields of preternatural green.
Even as they slogged their way through an ultimately pointless war, American soldiers often marveled at the beauty around them. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, thousands are returning as tourists to a country so far removed yet so much a part of their own lives and of modern American history.
Then there are first-time visitors like me, a journalist come to chronicle Vietnam's transformation from a poor, isolated communist nation to one of the world's fastest-growing economies. During my 10-day stay in May, I quickly realized why this still-affordable country has become one of Asia's most popular destinations.
There is perhaps no better place to start a visit than in Hanoi, the capital and some-time home of Vietnam's revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. He was originally called Nguyen Sinh Cung but used dozens of names as he wandered from London to Paris to Moscow to Shanghai, searching for an ideological alternative to capitalism as practiced by corrupt colonial rulers. He eventually settled on communism, though at heart he only wanted independence for his people. "It is patriotism, not communism, that inspired me,'' he famously said.
Today, Hanoi is Uncle Ho's town. A must-see is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a striking edifice opened in 1990 that chronicles his life through photographs, newspaper clippings and a wealth of personal items, including his alarm clock, forever stopped at the exact time of his death in 1969 at age 79. The struggle between socialism and capitalism is symbolized by a 1958 Ford Edsel crashing through a wall.
Nearby is the mustard-yellow Presidential Palace, once the official residence of Indochina's French governors. When northern Vietnam won independence in 1954, Ho refused to move in, opting to stay in the gardener's quarters, then building a small stilt house overlooking a carp-filled lake. You can still see the Royal typewriter on which he purportedly pecked out Vietnam's declaration of independence.
And you can still see Uncle Ho himself. Most mornings at 10, hundreds of visitors line up single file outside the enormous gray mausoleum that its humble occupant undoubtedly would have hated. Vietnam being a fairly regimented country, anyone straying outside the line is politely but firmly nudged back into place by the ever-present guards. Then it's into the dimly lit tomb for a quick look at Ho's waxen corpse.
The mausoleum is in a section of Hanoi notable for its grandiose buildings and broad boulevards. Other areas are more intimate and walkable, assuming you can make it across the street without getting hit by one of Vietnam's 22-million motorbikes.
The city has many parks and lakes, including the one in which Lt. Cmdr. John McCain ended up in when he was shot down in 1967. His flight suit and parachute are on display at Hao Lo Prison, where the French once tortured Vietnamese revolutionaries and where the Vietnamese in turn tortured McCain and scores of other captive American pilots. There's a good bit of propagandizing at Hao Lo — from the photos on exhibit, you'd think the Americans spent their days happily playing cards and decorating Christmas trees.
During his imprisonment, McCain broke three teeth on rocks in his food; today in Hanoi, as elsewhere in Vietnam, you can eat very well for relatively little. Hotels like the elegant old Metropole feature French wines and Continental cuisine. At the other end of the spectrum are the sidewalk stands where you can buy a bowl of pho, the traditional rice noodle soup, for less than $1.
My guide and I generally opted for something in between — sit-down restaurants frequented by locals. For my first lunch I was introduced to water spinach and pumpkin vines stir-fried in oil and garlic. Then came meat and fish courses followed by a dessert of succulent logan nuts, for just $17 for two.
A different view
From Hanoi it was on to Hue, the imperial city once home to Vietnam's emperors. I stayed in the Saigon Morin, a splendid example of colonial architecture whose airy rooms have high ceilings and wrought-iron balconies. Below, the street in late May was decorated with thousands of pink paper lanterns for the upcoming Hue Festival, an annual celebration of Vietnamese culture.
It is easy to see why Hue is so popular with Vietnamese and foreigners alike. In the soft light of dawn, before motorbikes clog the streets and assault the eardrums, you can stroll along the Perfume River and watch early-risers doing their graceful tai chi exercises. As the sun rises, the river becomes a busy water highway plied by fishing vessels and colorful Dragon boats chugging past huge floating sculptures shaped like lotus blossoms.
Hue is a World Heritage site, so designated because of its magnificent royal tombs and the Citadel, a 19th century fortress where costumed actors now re-create the grandeur of the imperial past. In 1968, the city also was the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Communist Tet Offensive, a major turning point of the war. Thousands died — many of them civilians tortured to death — and large areas including the Citadel were heavily damaged before American forces recaptured Hue after nearly a month.
The past persists
It was in Hue — still being restored — that I had one of those subtle reminders that Vietnam is a single-party Communist state where one talks discreetly, if at all, about the war and politics.
My guide and I were visiting a traditional pagoda-style home once owned by a Vietnamese princess. Our host, a man in his 60s, pointed out the carefully positioned rocks and flowers that showed the house had been built in accord with the principles of feng shui — harmony between humans and their environment.
But the main reason for my visit was that I wanted to interview Vietnamese who lived through the war, and I had been told that our host had served in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army. "Oh, no,'' he said, "I'm a retired teacher.'' Only later did I learn that he indeed had been a high-ranking officer — he was afraid to say anything in the presence of a government guide.
Today, few reminders of what Vietnamese call "the American War'' are to be found outside museums. The biggest is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, where you'll find American tanks, aircraft and replicas of the dark, cramped cells in which Viet Cong prisoners were held.
But it is the photographs that are the most jarring — images of Vietnamese horribly disfigured by Agent Orange are not for the faint of heart. Less gruesome but equally poignant is an exhibit honoring the dozens of foreign and Vietnamese photojournalists who were killed covering the war. Several of the photos on display are among the last taken by photographers who died minutes later.
All in all, I was disappointed in Saigon, as almost everyone still calls it. Little remains of its romantically tawdry colonial atmosphere; it's just another big, crowded Asian city, though minus the striking skylines of Hong Kong and Shanghai. Fortunately, one of the survivors of times past is Ben Thanh, the giant indoor market that has been in operation since 1859. Sprawling over an area the size of a Wal-Mart, it's a fine place to buy inexpensive Vietnamese silks and lacquerware.
After frenetic Saigon, it was good to move south to the delta of the Mekong River, Vietnam's rice bowl. For just $20, we rented a sampan and spent the next few hours gliding past floating markets and through narrow tributaries where women and boys searched for scallops in neck-deep water. The maze of canals eventually led us to the mighty Mekong itself as thunderstorms built far off to west, signaling the start of yet another monsoon season.
Thousands of Vietnamese and Americans once fought in this delta, but it has long since settled back into the timeless rhythms of nature. War, like the clouds, seemed very far away.
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]