December 21, 2014

Welcome to Vietnam

Before our trip, when my wife and I would tell people we were heading to Vietnam, the reaction was typically a startled look and then a baffled, "Why would you want to go there?"

Looking back on it now, I would tell them: "Because the scenery is gorgeous, the food is awesome, it's cheap beyond belief, and the people are some of the nicest I've met anywhere."

But war lingers long in a nation's psyche, and for too many Americans, Vietnam will forever be a place ravaged by napalm and victimized by decades of bad judgment. Not anyone's idea of a vacation spot. For them, I would suggest arriving just as we did, on a cruise ship out of Hong Kong that plowed across the South China Sea at night and arrived in Vietnam's Halong Bay just before sunrise. I was up early and stepped out onto our balcony to observe the haunting scene: mist merging with sea and sky to create a silver-blue phantom world, bejeweled with hundreds of pointy-headed islands that look like the spikes of a giant dragon's tail, which is what Vietnamese lore holds them to be.

Yes, Halong Bay is pretty darn gorgeous. But then, so is the golden strand at China Beach, where fishermen bob about in curious little round palm-thatch boats, like rub-a-dub-dub, those three dudes in a tub; and the town of Hoi An, with its incense-rich temples and covered bridges and folk-art galleries; and even the mad, mad streets of the city Formerly Known as Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), which is punctuated by broad green parks and stately plazas and cannot shake its lusty Gallic presence-Paris gone tropo.

As far as I could tell, the only real danger in visiting Vietnam comes when crossing a busy city street. There are not a lot of private cars, but there are 80 million people in Vietnam; and every single one of them must own a motor scooter. They zip about at least 15 or 20 abreast on streets where stoplights are few and far between. It takes a complete act of faith to venture forth, but we took our cues from the locals and set out from the curb, looking straight ahead and trusting the drivers to dodge us. All I know is that if NASCAR is looking to expand its international presence, then I would definitely suggest it build a track in Vietnam, because the country produces some remarkably talented and intuitive drivers.

It's difficult to spend a lot of money in Vietnam. We tried-we tried hard-but we just couldn't do it. You can take a taxi ride from one side of HCMC to the other and it won't cost two bucks. Take $100 to one of the markets to buy clothes or handicrafts and you'll need help lugging all your booty away.

One afternoon my wife and I visited the spa at the legendary Rex Hotel, in the heart of HCMC. She got a manicure and pedicure. It cost $1. I indulged myself with an hour-long massage, and it came to $5. With tip. Afterwards we visited a great seafood restaurant with another couple and had a lunch of fish, shrimp and crab, along with a couple bottles of wine. The bill was $20.

Outside of Danang, in China Beach, the former R&R hangout for U.S. troops, we visited a seaside restaurant overlooking the broad golden strand. The restaurant had tanks filled with all kinds of live critters, from crabs to grouper to things I couldn't even name. We bought four pounds of big blue tiger shrimp and watched as they were grilled near our table. The cost: five bucks.

But the most memorable off-the-ship meal was breakfast in HCMC at a place called Pho Hoa Pasteur. "Pho hoa" means breakfast soup in Vietnamese, and the three-level restaurant was packed when we got there at 7 a.m.

There were three of us, and we each ordered a big bowl of pho bo, a soup with slices of lean beef in a rich broth that we jazzed up with the typical accompaniments of bean sprouts, lemongrass, fresh basil and coriander leaves. There were platters of the chewy bread called gio chao quay and small plates of banh patechanda, a meat pie. And there was rich, almost narcotic Vietnamese coffee, made even headier with several dollops of sweet condensed milk.

The tab for all three of us came to 62,000 Vietnamese dong. Funny, but it sure sounds like a lot more than four dollars.

And the people we met in Vietnam? Sweet beyond belief. On a morning boat excursion that wove through Halong Bay, my wife and I were joined by a young Vietnamese woman who asked if she could sit with us and practice her English. A student at a university in Hanoi, her name was Plum; and she was every bit as pretty as that sounds-the whole porcelain skin and silky black hair thing. We sat and chatted and watched those lovely tail-of-the-dragon islands go by, and when the excursion was nearing its end, Plum turned to us and asked, "May I sing for you?"

Of course we said yes. I mean, how often does someone actually ask you something like that? And even if they do, how often is the singing any good?

In a delicate, haunting soprano, Plum sang a folk song about a girl who misses her home on the shore of Halong Bay. And, well, I've never said this about anything before, but it was enchanting. That's the only way to describe it. Simply enchanting. We applauded and asked her to sing it again; and, I swear, it was the kind of song that, even if you didn't understand a single word it, could make you cry. We said our goodbyes and gave Plum hugs. We were sorry to see her go.

Later that afternoon, I took a tender from the ship into the town of Hung Gai and walked for a couple of miles until I was well out of the tourist zone and the only Westerner on the streets. It started to rain, and I ducked into a café and sat down and ordered a beer. It was a Halong beer brewed in nearby Haiphong-bitter, cold and good.

It kept raining. I ordered another beer and a bowl of peanuts, took out my notebook and began to write in it.

Three men sat watching me from a nearby table. They nodded and smiled. I nodded and smiled back at them. They waved for the waitress and bought more beers, including one for me. They offered me some of what they were eating-crispy pieces of flatbread the size of Frisbees, studded with caraway seeds, dried shrimp and red peppers. It went great with Halong beer, so we ordered more of it.

And we got to talking-in that way you talk when no one speaks the same language, but you manage anyway. I told them I was an American. Happy nods, then handshakes.

One of the men asked if he could see my notebook. He flipped through the pages, studied it a long while and asked if he could borrow my pencil. I watched for several minutes as he laboriously scrawled something on the back page. When he handed me the notebook, he offered a slight bow and a smile. I read what he wrote. It said: "Welcome to Vietnam."

So now when people ask me why would I want to go there, I tell them exactly why. I tell them it's for moments like those, for beautiful songs from young women on boats and unbidden welcomes from kind strangers in cafés.