Good Morning Vietnam!

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Asia » Vietnam
December 24th 2007
Published: February 4th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a single-party state. A new state constitution was approved in April 1992, replacing the 1975 version. The central role of the Communist Party was reasserted in all areas of government, politics and society. Although the state remains officially committed to socialism as its defining creed, the ideology's importance has substantially diminished since the 1990s. The President of Vietnam is the titular head of state and the nominal commander in chief of the military of Vietnam, chairing the Council on National Defense and Security.

The country is listed among the "Next Eleven" economies, according to government figures. The Vietnam War destroyed much of the economy of Vietnam. Upon taking power, the Government created a planned economy for the nation. Collectivization of farms, factories and economic capital was implemented, and millions of people were put to work in government programs. For many decades, Vietnam's economy was filled with inefficiency and corruption in state programs, poor quality and underproduction and restrictions on economic activities and trade. It also suffered from the trade embargo from the United States and most of Europe after the Vietnam War. Subsequently, the trade partners of the Communist blocs began to erode. In 1986, the Sixth Party Congress introduced significant economic reforms with market economy elements as part of a broad economic reform package. Private ownership was encouraged in industries, commerce and agriculture. Vietnam achieved around 8% annual GDP growth from 1990 to 1997 and continued at around 7% from 2000 to 2005, making it the world's second-fastest growing economy. As a result of several land reform measures, Vietnam is now the largest producer of cashew nuts with a one-third global share and second largest rice exporter in the world after Thailand. Given all this, and the fact that the unemployment rate in Vietnam is one of the lowest in the world at 2%, it still remains a relatively poor country.

For much of Vietnamese history, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism have strongly influenced the religious and cultural life of the people. About 85% of Vietnamese identify with Buddhism even though they do not practice on a regular basis. I was suprised to learn about 8% of the population are Christians, about 6 million Roman Catholics and less than 1 million Protestants. This was very obvious with all the Christmas decorations I spotted travelling througout the country.

This doesn't take away from all the beauty the country has to offer. Vietnam is one of 25 countries having a high level in biodiversity all over the world and is ranked 16th of biologically diverse level. Because Vietnam has such a wide range of habitats, its fauna is enormously diverse with its forests estimating to contain 12,000 plant species, only 7,000 of which have been identified. Vietnam is also home to more than 275 species of mammal, 800 species of bird, 180 species of reptile and 80 species of amphibian.

I decided to travel through Vietnam from south to north. The first city I hit was Vietnam's largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. At the conclusion of the American War/Vietnam War, on April 30, 1975, the city came under the control of the Vietnam People's Army. In the U.S. this event is commonly called the "Fall of Saigon," while the communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam call it the "Liberation of Saigon." In 1976, upon the establishment of the unified communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the city of Saigon, the province of Gia Ðịnh and 2 suburban districts of two other nearby provinces were combined to create Hồ Chí Minh City in honour of the late communist leader Hồ Chí Minh. However, many Vietnamese still refer to the city as Saigon. I gained a lot of painful knowledge by visiting the nearby War Remnants Museum. It primarily consists of exhibits relating to the American phase of the Vietnam War. Operated by the Vietnamese government, the museum was opened in 1975 as the Museum of American War Crimes. The museum comprises a series of eight themed rooms in several buildings, with period military equipment located within a walled yard. The military equipment includes a UH-1 "Huey" helicopter, an F-5A fighter, a BLU-82 "Daisy Cutter" bomb, M48 Patton tank, and an A-1 attack bomber. One building reproduces the so-called tiger cages in which the South Vietnamese government housed political prisoners. Other exhibits include graphic photographs and short stories covering the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and atrocities such as the My Lai massacre. As imagined, it was extremely difficult walking through this museum, especially being an American. Although the locals seem very forgiving and I never sensed any feelings of hosility when I spoke of my nationality. Next, I was off to the Reunification Palace. The Reunification Palace, formerly known as Independence Palace built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, is a historic landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. It was designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu as the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and the site of the official handover of power during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. On April 8, 1975, Nguyen Thanh Trung, a pilot of the South Vietnam Air Force (but in fact he was a communist spy) flew F5E aircraft, originated from Bien Hoa, bombed the Hall but caused no significant damages. At 10:45 am April 30, 1975, a tank of the North Vietnamese Army hit the main gate, ending the Vietnam War. In November 1975, after the negotiation convention between the communist North Vietnam and communist South Vietnam was successful, in memory of that event, the Provisional Government of the Republic of South Vietnam renamed the hall Reunification Hall from it's original name of Independence Hall. As a tourist, I was amazed at
the access that is granted to the public. It is no longer in use but everything was left exactly as found in 1975. There is even a phone that still remains slightly off it's hook in one of the administrative offices.

The next place I visited was the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels of Cu Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam's base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by NLF guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The role of the tunnel systems should not be underestimated in its importance to the NLF in resisting American operations and protracting the war, eventually persuading the weary Americans into withdrawal. Life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, spiders and mosquitoes. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria which accounted for the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Cu Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The NLF had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place, thus frustrating the Americans' overall military superiority. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Cu Chi allowed guerrilla fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive and help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972. The 75 mile long complex of tunnels at Cu Chi have been preserved by the government of Vietnam and turned into a war memorial park. The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of western tourists, while low-power lights have been installed in several of them to make traveling through them easier and booby traps have been clearly marked.

After a very intellectually stimulating trip through Saigon, I felt I needed some time to relax. I decided to make a detour to Pho Quoc Island for a few days. Phu Quoc is the largest island of Vietnam, just off of it's southern most time. Phu Quoc is famous for its two traditional products, fish sauce and black pepper. For the most part, you will find a bunch of deserted white-sanded beaches, surrounding crystal, clear, blue-green water. Tourism is not booming yet but pockets of major development prove that people are quickly catching on to how amazing this island.

Feeling fully relaxed, I headed back to the mainland to Mui Ne. Mui Ne is a coastal resort town located on the South China Sea. My time here was mostly spent visiting the popular natural sites, including Mui Ne's famous Red (Yellow) Sand Dune, the Red Canyon and the Fairy Spring. I also took some time to visit a small fishing village and a local market.

Next, I headed up the coast to Nha Trang, which is well known for its pristine beaches and excellent scuba diving. As a coastal city, Nha Trang's developed in marine science with Nha Trang Oceanography Institution. There's also the Hon Mun marine protected area, one of four first marine protected area in the world. It is surrounded on all three sides by mountains and a large island on the fourth side that blocks major storms from potentially damaging the city. I spent one day on a party boat touring a few of the many amazng islands surrounded the coast. The rest of my time was spent enjoying some of the best seafood in Vietnam that Nha Trang has to offer.

Hoi An was the next city to see. I really liked this quaint little town. You can still get a sense of traditional Vietnamese life here. This city is known best for it's vast amount of tailor shops. The clothes are top quaility, customed fit and extremely cheap. Being a backpacker, this is not and easy city to visit since it is difficult to leave without an entire new wardrobe. In between all the shopping, I made some time to head to Denang where China Beach is located. This beach is a historical site of the American evacuation hospital and relaxation grounds for American soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War. I'm sure most are familiar with the famous late eighties drama, "China Beach", that was based on this part of history. There weren't many tourists there but it was a great place to relax and have a nice lunch. There are many restaurants surrounding the beach, all serving fantastically fresh seafood.

Finally, I hit Hanoi. This is the capital of Vietnam and is located on the right bank of the Red River. The area around modern Hanoi has been inhabited since at least 3000 BC. Hanoi experiences the typical climate of northern Vietnam, where summers are hot and humid, and winters are relatively cool and dry. Hanoi is the largest centre of education in Vietnam. As the capital of French Indochina, it was home to the first western-style universities in Indochina. There are more cultural sites here than in any city in Vietnam, including over 600 pagodas and temples. Its banks are crowded with green rice paddies and farms to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Under French rule, as an administrative centre for the French colony of Indochina, the French colonial architecture style became dominant and many examples remain today. I made Hanoi my home base while making a few side trips to nearby places such as Sapa and Halong Bay.

Sapa sits 350 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border of China. The Hoang Lien Son range of mountains dominates the district, which is at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. This range includes Vietnams' highest mountain, Fan si pan, at a height of 3,142 meters above sea level. The town of Sapa lies at about 1,600 meters of altitude. Sapa is a quiet mountain town and home to a great diversity of ethnic minority people. The total population of 36,000 consists mostly of minority groups. The four main minority groups include the Hmong and Yao groups, as well as smaller numbers of Tày and Giay. Most of the ethnic minority people work their land on sloping terraces since the vast majority of the land is mountainous. Their staple foods are rice and corn. The geographical location of the area makes it a truly unique place for many interesting plants and animals, allowing it to support many inhabitants. The Hoang Lien Mountains are home to a rich variety of plants, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects, many only found in northwestern Vietnam. Many very rare or even endemic species have been recorded in the region. The scenary is amazing here with it's many paddy fields covering the rolling lower slopes of the Hoang Lien Mountains. The impressive physical landscape which underlies this has resulted from the work of the elements over thousands of years, wearing away the underlying rock. It was a refreshing retreat from the over-crowded streets of Hanoi.

Halong Bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes. Local legend says that long ago when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and
jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets in the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. The people kept their land safe and formed what later became the country of Vietnam. After that, dragons were interested in peaceful areas of the Earth so decided to live there. The place where Mother Dragon flew down was named Hạ Long. Of course this is merely speculation, but it is a very entertaining story. The Vietnam government has submitted Halong bay three times in Vietnam's Tentative list to UNESCO for its outstanding universal biodiversity value. The bay includes 2 ecosystem: tropical moist evergreen rainforest ecosystem and marine and coastal ecosystem with 7 endemic species. It is absolutely breathtaking and my pictures do not do it any justice. Although sad to leave, I couldn't have thought of a better place to end my time Vietnam.

Additional photos below
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13th March 2008

Vietnam memories
After reading your travelogue, and viewing your pictures, I think you could have been on my trip to Vietnam 10 years ago! The beauty of Halong Bay, the still-existing colonial buildings in Hanoi, the calmness of Danang), the frenetic pace of Saigon (no one called it by the official name Ho Chi Minh city) all make this country truly unique. Our shared history will mean Vietnam always has a special meaning for Americans. Donna Zabel
30th June 2008

Donna-I haven't been on my site for some time now so I just got to read your comment. It is nice to know that the country has not changed much in 10 years. I know tourism is picking up there so hopefully when I return someday it will be the same! =)

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