Postcard from Vietnam – Part 3: Hoi An and Hué
This is my third and final postcard from Vietnam. Actually, to call them postcards is a bit of a fiction, because I waited until I was back in the UK before posting them. Discretion was the better part of valour – I had no idea about official attitudes towards foreign bloggers, and my beloved wouldn’t have forgiven me if our trip had been cut short because someone in authority didn’t like what I was writing.
The final leg took us to Hoi An, in the middle of a long country that stretches a thousand miles from the temperate north to the tropical south.
A millennium ago, Hoi An was a port city at the heart of the Champa Empire, a great maritime trading nation. The Cham dominated the South China Sea, and developed links as far as Japan. Eventually they were overcome in successive invasions by the Khmer, the Vietnamese and the Chinese. The remnants are to be seen in the Hindu temples of My Son, sadly much diminished after being carpet-bombed in the Vietnam War.
This National Geographic article tells more of the Cham and their lost empire.
On our way to Hoi An from Da Nang airport, we passed miles of white marble sculptures – the products of nearby Marble Mountain. Just as on the road to Ubud in Bali, where there are thousands of wood carvings for sale, and in the carpet souks of the Gulf, where there are many times more hand woven rugs than the owners will ever sell in a decade, you wonder how the creators make a living. The market for three-ton statues of the Buddha must be somewhat limited.
In a sense, the presence of this vast unsold inventory of stock symbolises a fault line between the old economies and the new. No business in the US or Europe would keep making stuff without a good idea of when they would be able to sell it. The concept of “just in time” – that first emerged in Japan – may be used in the Canon factory we passed near Hanoi, but not among the family businesses of Da Nang.
Other anachronisms abound. For example, when we stopped for a coffee on the journey between Ha Long Bay and Hanoi, it took one person to take the payment, another to receive the order and a third person to make the coffee. Our hotel room is cleaned not by one person, as would be the case in Thailand, but by four. Long working hours, or two jobs, are common. And few homes that open out on to the street – even in rural areas – don’t have some sort of business running out of their front yards. Young people often give their wages to their families, and do a second job “to earn something for me” as one hotel receptionist we met in Hoi An market told us.
So when Donald Trump tells America that US companies should stop outsourcing to countries like Vietnam, he should be aware that he would be further impoverishing the relatively poor. He will also drive up prices in the home market, because one American worker costs at least as much as four Vietnamese. Good luck with that, Mr President.
Strangely enough, Trump’s protectionist policies might end up helping the Vietnamese. If China jumps into the breach and takes America’s place in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the trade agreement that Trump has just rejected), the country’s proximity to China would be to its advantage. The political domino fell forty years ago. The economic one may be about to fall in China’s direction.
It would not necessarily be to the liking of many ordinary Vietnamese, who, even in Hanoi, seem to have an admiration for American culture and technology, if not for the policies of the US government – much the same as in large parts of the Middle East, where love of American music, movies, fashion and consumer goods coexists with contempt for the Great Satan itself.
For us, Hoi An was a place to relax and enjoy. The food is superb, and the city was gearing up for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Thousands of qumqat trees, yellow chrysanthemums, decorations and red lanterns lined the streets leading to the old city. Scooters improbably loaded with people, presents and qumqats weaved their way through the streets in a kind of motorised Tai Chi exercise. Inside the Ancient Town, seasonal markets were selling enough sweets to create a thousand diabetics. For the tourists, there were the usual offerings of leather goods, souvenirs and clothes.
There are many places worth visiting in Hoi An, but not on the scale of Hanoi. The Ancient Town is tiny by comparison, so half a day is more than enough to visit the Japanese Bridge – a relic of the trading relationship between Japan and the Champa – the Cultural Remnants Museum and a few of the older houses dotted around the streets.
To visit some of the attractions you need a book of entry tickets. Yet in contrast to the UK, where some stone-faced jobsworth would be standing by to block your path, when I forgot to bring my tickets, the sweet lady on the door of one of the museums smilingly waved me through.
Perhaps January was not the best time to visit. It was cool, and it rained most days. But no matter. Shorts and tee-shirts were infinitely preferable to minus 8C and four layers of clothing back home.
Our one trip out of Hoi An was to Hué, via the Hai Van Pass. Thirty-eight years ago, Hué was the scene of one of the most savage battles of the Vietnam war. The city was virtually destroyed in the Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army attempted to drive the South Vietnamese garrison out of the city. They failed, but at a massive cost. American firepower eventually turned the military tide, but the shock of the Tet Offensive also turned opinion in America against the war.
Hue was also the site of a brutal massacre by the northern forces. Several thousand residents, many of them administrators and teachers, were shot and bludgeoned to death. For obvious reasons you will see no reference to this event in the war museums. But fear of similar treatment is said to have greatly added to the panic in 1975 when the north finally invaded and took the south.
We were not looking for war relics – we’d seen enough of them in Saigon and Hanoi. Before the brutal events of 1968, Hué was the capital of the last imperial dynasty. It was that heritage that I wanted to explore.
Yet the war kept raising its ugly head. At Hai Van pass, overlooking a spectacular mountain range, we stopped for a coffee, along with just about every other tourist heading the same way. There was the usual collection of small shops selling cheap cigarettes, pearls and trinkets. Behind the shacks lurked the grey-black concrete of a gun emplacement – there presumably to control the pass in more troubled times.
And in the exquisite Linh Mu Pagoda, the spiritual heart of Hue, was an old blue car. As the placard explained, this was the car that Thich Quan Duc, a Buddhist monk, drove to Saigon, before he arranged himself in the lotus position and immolated himself in protest against the repressive policies of President Ngo Dinh Diem. I remember his gesture well. A gruesome addition to the grim stories coming out of South Vietnam on a daily basis as the war was ramping up.
After an hour or so at the temple, with its shrines, statues, bonsais and bells, we went on to the tomb of Kai Dinh, the second-last emperor of the last dynasty. This is a spectacular confection built in the 1920 using traditional architecture. The mausoleum itself is as lavish as Uncle Ho’s was functional. The empire at that time may have been a French protectorate with little political power, but no effort or expense was spared in giving Kai Dinh a good send-off. The tomb and its anterooms are quite stunning, with intricate inlaid panels of marble and polished stones.
Outside, you would have thought that the rows of stone soldiers who guarded the tomb were a tribute to the terracotta warriors of Xi’an, were it not that latter were discovered decades after Kai Dinh’s tomb was built.
At the centre of all the finery sat photographs of a rather sad-looking young man who must have realised that for all the ceremonial and the kow-towing, the time was nearly up for the emperors of Vietnam, if not for the absolute rulers who succeeded them.
And that concluded our short glimpse of Vietnam. One of the world’s few remaining one-party states, yet a people brimming with energy, industry and entrepreneurial spirit. The China model with a smile? Perhaps. It would be hard to find a people more welcoming to the hordes of visitors flocking to their country.
I spent three weeks in Saigon, Hanoi and Hoi An with half an eye on the antics of the angry narcissist in Washington. Wherever we went, we found people who have more right than any disgruntled citizen of the United States to feel anger at the events of the past, yet treat their foreign guests with kindness, grace and humility.
The years are slowly putting distance between the guns, the helicopters and the landmines, and the beautiful country that Vietnam is today. I fervently hope that when my generation has passed on, it will be known more for its diversity, its landscape, its culture and its people than for the cold war quagmire that still shapes the politics of superpowers past and present.