When I visited Vietnam, I had never thought that I would write about it. Vietnam was a part of movies and books about the Vietnam War for most people like me. Much like it’s history, I discovered the place has a lingering effect.
The skyline of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam is a mix of newer constructions and old-style architecture. Built along the Red river, and blessed with many lakes, Hanoi is often called the ‘city of lakes’. A few years ago, the city celebrated 1,000 years of its establishment. The imprint of dynasties, colonisers and ideologies are to be seen all around the city.
For us, the day in Hanoi began with a visit to the Indira Gandhi Park. Located on the side of the Hoan Kiem Lake, it has a bust of our late Prime Minister that was unveiled in 1984. Lush green, the park was full of young people. Music played while a group of youngsters danced with abandon. In another corner some children were playing with a ball. Suddenly one realised that like India, Vietnam is a young nation. Pulsating with the energy and impatience of youth!
On a short visit, the Old quarter is a must see. Circling the Hoan Kiem Lake it offers shopping, French colonial architecture, trendy pubs, and beautiful lights reflecting in the lake. As we sat on a bench near the lake and watched the lights, the young of the city whizzed past on two-wheelers.
Some wearing helmets, the other the traditional conical Vietnamese hats. The young still use the ‘non-la’ or hat and the beautiful traditional dress ‘Ao Dai’.
In the centre of the lake is a small pagoda like structure that is called the ‘Tortoise Tower’ and towards the north is a temple. There are lots of temples, pagodas, memorials and museums to see if you have the time. On a short stopover, Hanoi touches you with its civilisational strength, sense of history and its yearning to become part of the global stage.
A two-hour flight and one lands in a city that though steeped in history, has made the leap to contemporary metropolitan life. Ho Chin Min City, the erstwhile legendary Saigon, is the commercial capital of this energetic country. Skyscrapers, big cars, buses and a pace that is familiar typify the city. The most striking buildings of Ho Chi Min City belong to the French colonial period. Just in front of our hotel was the Ho Chi Min City People’s Committee Head office. A grand and lyrical building, it adorns a square from where one can walk towards all the important milestones.
We stayed at the well-known Rex hotel. The American troops made it famous in the Vietnam War, especially its conference room where they hosted a daily press conference.The roof top bar and restaurant is still a very nice place to spend an evening. The other fascinating building is the Central Post Office. Built in the French time, it has a Gothic architectural style. It was designed and constructed by the famous architect Gustave Eiffel. Imposing inside, the place just doesn’t have the look or feel of a post office! One can also pick up souvenirs while enjoying the beautiful interiors.
Across the road is the grand twin towered Notre Dame Cathedral. A newly wed Vietnamese couple was busy getting themselves photographed with the Cathedral as a back drop. For those interested in history the War Remnants museum and the Reunification Palace are a must see. The former is a grim reminder of what conflict does to humanity.
For us, a trip to Ho Chi Minh City could not be complete without a glimpse of the legendary Saigon River. We drove to have coffee at a restaurant on the banks of the river. Today it flows between its widespread banks quietly as construction takes place along its way. In the city, markets overflow with lacquer ware that is a favourite buy, as also pottery. A traditional Vietnamese meal must also be tried and enjoyed.Much like Hanoi, a large part of the young in Hi Chi Minh City travels on two wheelers.
In the evening, as we walked back towards our hotel from the market it suddenly began to pour. We took shelter under a shop awning. Like a miracle all the two wheelers suddenly sprouted plastic sheets and raincoats. Without a pause, the endless stream of two wheelers whizzed past as the rain pelted down. It is this ‘never say die’ spirit that has made the nation what it is. One senses this zeal everywhere in the country.
Much like individuals, the past also defines the character of a nation. Vietnam is one place where this is most in evident.