The subtle charms of Hanoi and the frenzied riot of Saigon pull Ian Watkinson in two directions, both irresistible
Saigon is a riotous assault on the senses, the noisy hustle of busy streets tempered by an almost sedentary traffic flow, where scooters and cars actually obey traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Conical hats and brightly patterned pyjamas set the oriental scene, worn by purveyors of street food who scurry with carry heavy pots and charcoal stoves suspended on bamboo poles. Bowls of noodle soup, seafood and strange parts of animals are expertly dispensed with steaming stock from large woks.
The spectacular coffee brewed here is a necessary kick in the synapses before visiting the War Remnants Museum. The grim tragedy of the Vietnam War is boldly presented without censorship. Photographers’ work of the conflict is graphically displayed alongside tales of the chemical atrocities inflicted by the US on this land. Many of the photographers died. Wearied American fighter planes and tanks sit on the grounds, amid cruel steel bombs standing taller than a man.
No one leaves the museum without a greater understanding of the conflict, and it is here that the embryonic growth of the modern Republic of Vietnam is crystallised. Saigon seems comfortable with its evolution from the vacuum left at the end of World War II, and its growth as the puppet regime capital of the French and the US. The loud bars, brothels and brash commercialism that exist today bear witness to this, and a spirit of endeavour and capitalism thrives in the fibre of the Saigon people — friendly, businesslike and beguiling. Daily life in the great central market of Ben Thanh focuses all of the energy and determination of this dynamic city like a giant lens.
The 36-hour train trip to the Northern city of Hanoi is the best way to experience the scale of this elongated, narrow land. The carriages themselves appear almost military — horizontal corrugated panels painted dull khaki green. Along the verdant coastal route, the train is besieged by shrill-voiced fisherwomen, selling bundles of dried squid which have the appearance of shoe soles with flapping laces. The compressed cephalopods then languish atop the wicker baskets of the contented passenger clientele; travelling to their new homes far away from the ocean.
Half way to Hanoi lies the former Demilitarised Zone, here perched high on the cliffs overlooking the tranquil bays of the Sea of Tonkin. Peppered with creeper-riddled bunkers and concrete gun turrets, the jungle seems impassable, like a thick green felt devouring everything in its wake. The American GIs first landed here by boat, and the jungle became the battle zone between the American-dominated south and the Viet Cong. War in such terrain seems inconceivable — visibility on the ground is zero and creepers and vines cover everything between the tall teak and creaking bamboo. Now the bays are peaceful, but the watchful eyes of the bunkers serve as a reminder of horrors past; when terrified young GIs with acne and M16s hacked through the jungle with machetes and tinned rations, when the Viet Cong hid silently in tunnels in the jungle and lived on cunning, grubs and wild roots. The jungle has reclaimed all but the engrained memories of war.
In the middle of the zone lies the city of Hue, the former majestic Imperial capital built on the wide Perfume River. In 1968 the city suffered almost total destruction, destroyed by both US bombardment and Viet Cong massacre. For years the Imperial Palace lay broken within its robust moats, but now it is being traditionally restored, shining again as a vibrant example of culture to counteract the brutality of war. Hues’ citizens have a high regard for art, poetry and the preservation of peace. Here, cerebral beauty reigns above the chaos of war.
The atmosphere in Hanoi is one of reserved, cautious tranquillity. Tree-lined avenues host balconies with splashes of brilliant bougainvillea. Wreaths of incense smoke, red banners and dragons proclaim Mahayana Buddhist temples. Mute broken shutters hang from old colonial villas, evening lovers meet around the central Hoan Kiem Lake and pictures of Ho Chi Minh observe from restaurant walls. Vietnam’s capital for over a thousand years, Hanoi exudes a subtle charm, an elegance somehow missing in its frenzied cousin Saigon, a thousand miles to the south. In this unified country of 90 million people, there is still ‘a tale of two cities’ being written. But now it is not in blood.