Monday, May 10, 2010

Vietnam: Great First Trip to Asia

Larchmont families considering a first trip to Asia might want to think about Vietnam. Given its small size, you can visit the main highlights easily over a 10-12 day spring vacation break. And the pricing is very attractive, even for the best hotels, private guides, and private transportation.

Given our history, Americans tend to think it’s still 1969 there, but 40 years have passed. Peace means that the beautiful landscapes, Buddhist temples, rice paddies, water buffaloes, and farmers with conical hats now dominate the images, along with the motorbikes.

Saigon carries echoes of the war of course, but you can focus on that as much or as little as you wish. The Cu Chi tunnels outside the city demonstrate the human cost of the war for both sides and there is a stark War Museum as well. But there are also the rooftop bars at the Caravelle Hotel and at the Rex. These favorite haunts for the US officers and journalists still bathe you in the tropical breezes that provide a welcome relief from the heat of the day. You can invoke Graham Greene as you gaze down at the Hotel Continental, cited in The Quiet American.

For a glimpse of traditional rural village life, take a daytrip to the remote island of Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta. Women sit under canvas awnings making coconut candies. Others manufacture rice paper, dipping the flat round iron in the batter and rolling it out to dry in the sun on bamboo mats. Perhaps a small musical trio will play while you sip honey tea in a simple pavilion.

Halong Bay Vietnam
A short flight will bring you to ancient Hue which served as the imperial capital for over 100 years. The citadel with its beautiful temples and court buildings evoke the luxury of life for the “haves”. After your visit, catch a boat ride along the Perfume River to absorb the slower pace of life here. You can stay at the French Governor’s digs, now converted into a beautiful boutique hotel. The infinity pool, lit by torches at dusk, offsets the shimmering river beyond for an ethereal atmosphere.

Next is Hoi An, reached by a gorgeous three hour drive over the mountain pass. Originally a trading post for Chinese and Japanese merchants, Hoi An nestles along the riverfront. A 2-3 night stay will let you enjoy a town full of excellent restaurants, myriad shops for all kinds of local handicrafts, and lovely resort hotels.

A short boat excursion brings you to a small village where the locals carve everything from knickknacks, to laughing Buddhas, to king-size beds. Nearby, another village is full of pottery makers, working their small kilns as they have for hundreds of years. Pots, whistles, wall fountains, plates, bowls and more take shape under the skilled hands of the villagers.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Americans is Danang, no longer an airbase but rather the site of an incredible explosion of luxury hotels and houses along a beautiful shoreline. You’ll see the marker showing the spot where the Marines came ashore in 1965, but you’ll probably goggle more as you pass hotel after hotel under construction. China Beach is now particularly “hot” for second homes, and as a result, there are golf courses, too.

Archaeology buffs will want to stop by the local museum to see the first-rate exhibit of ancient artifacts from the Cham people, some of which are currently on display at New York’s Asia Society.

Another easy flight will bring you to Hanoi, city of lakes. The center of this busy city offers a respite from the cacophony of the motorbike in a beautiful central park with its lakes, temples, and an ancient Turtle. Nearby, a unique water puppet show performs throughout the day. You might also catch an impromptu performance at the ethnic museum. The beautiful Temple of Literature with its topiary, pagodas, and reflecting pools harks back to the ancient respect for education and knowledge.

One last word about the motorbikes: This writer saw a man carrying 18 large porcelain jars strapped all over him as he drove a motorbike on a highway. She also saw a live pig strapped to the back of a motorbike passing by. I don’t know who was more surprised: the pig or me. Anything goes!

Source: Larchmont Gazette

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