Hectic, active, very different from how it’s depicted in movies and distant from war memories.Vietnam looks at the future but it holds firm roots in its culturally rich millennial past. Everyday life unfolds in an open air street theater made of colonial mementos and a strong and stubborn nature.
My flight is about to land in Hanoi. I look down impatiently, trying to grasp something beforehand.I don’t know anything about this country. My generation knows Vietnam only through movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, but Vietnam is not a war, it’s an ancient country, a sophisticated civilization almost as sophisticated as the civilization of China.
When I get to the city I am astonished and unbelieving. I immediately feel an overwhelming frenzy, a pulsating energy. Everybody is busy, millions of motor scooters generate an unbearable traffic. Men and women are driving them, carrying all sorts of things: flowers, bread, all kinds of vegetables, fishes, crabs, gas tanks, alive animals. Hanoi is a millennial city that survived American bombing and regime city planning.
French colonial style is almost intact: crumbling romantic buildings overlook the boulevards, and small parks and lakes make the city look gentler. Ngoc Son temple is at the center of one of these parks, a haven of rest away from the traffic of the city which shows the vitality of the new Asian economy.
Visiting Hanoi we found ourselves caught between the past and the present: the old and charming French houses, covered with yellow peeled plaster and suffocated by electric cables hanging from the pillars, are now shops with Nokia or Apple Store signs. Countrywomen cycle with their loads of bamboo alongside girls on high heels driving polished Piaggio Vespa motor scooters. The contradiction of Vietnam is beginning to emerge.
The war against the USA left indelible marks in this still suffering country, in the hearts of its people and on their skin, but Vietnamese people don’t want to think about it, they look ahead, they foresee a prosperous and peaceful future.
In Hanoi, the day starts with the oblique morning light at five o’clock. The silence and the peace are about to be broken by the deafening din of motor scooters and of the ever honking horns – maybe the only thing one cannot get used to – which will stop in the dead of night. Vietnamese people are hard workers. They can live selling just very few things: a basket of zucchinis, ten crabs, or some eggs. Everything takes place on the sidewalk. We use it just to walk, they work on it: they display their products, they weld, they sew, they copy keys, they make lanterns, they cut hair, they improvise restaurants using small chairs that look like they were borrowed from a kindergarten, and the kids play on the streets.
Vietnamese people are pacific, they are serene and smiling. Even in the cities you never feel
in danger. After some days we realized that women are the driving force of the local economy. It’s clear: they are everywhere, they are full of energy, they work uninterruptedly. Entrepreneurs are mainly foreigners and they try to work with them because they are more serious and reliable, says Tom, an Australian guy who runs the most classy fashion shop of the city together with his wife Huong.
There’s an old iron bridge, the Long Bien, connecting the western part of the city – more modern and active – with the more rural area. Only trains, at the center, and motor scooters pass through this bridge.
We woke up early in the morning to see what happens at five o’clock there. We lost ourselves in the hundreds of years old atmosphere that smelled good. It smelled like the simple things as they used to be, it smelled of roasted cobs. Hundreds of silent people were going to the city to face their day, carrying the products of the country on their bicycles and motor scooters loaded to the point of defying any law of physics and any traffic code rule. Other people were practicing tai chi with their faces slightly lightened by the sunrise and their gaze lost in the horizon. Below the bridge, the Red River was slowly flowing, carrying away some barges at such a low speed that I thought I would have seen them still there the following day.
As evening approached, Duc, the cultivated owner of the Tadioto, a literary café, offered us a glass of good wine and introduced us to some of his friends. In his café, one can hear many languages. We met an American movie director who has been living in Hanoi for 5 years, an Australian girl, a journalist, who has been postponing her return trip home for three years now, and a Dane with no money but with a lot dreams. Chatting with Duc and looking at the exhibition inside his beautiful café, which recalls a bit some New York venues, show us that Hanoi is a city reach of culture and artistic events.
Duc says: “Vietnam is changing in these fields as well, but the change is slower. Twenty years ago, the government opened the doors of the country to the external world transforming its economy in a free trade market, and allowing its people to get richer. But the government is very careful about the way ideas are expressed and it closely supervises bloggers, journalists, and artists”.
We have been in Hanoi for ten days. Now we have to move southward, but before living we visit
the famous Halong Bay. We have to deal with an advanced tourist mechanism, but the unusual geology of the bay is truly incredible and it deserves to be seen. The surreal maritime landscape is made of thousands of limestone pillars emerging from emerald water and topped by a thick vegetation softening their silhouettes. One may expect to see princess Neytiri from the movie Avatar passing by at any time,hanging from a liana. The bay houses floating villages where fishermen and pearl farmers live. There are floating schools too and the children, even at a very young age, sail around by boat alone.
Hoi An welcomes us warmly. The sun shines on this small city on the banks of Thu Bon river.
In the past, it was the city of the rich merchants from China, Portugal, Japan and The Netherlands. The city is well-kept, maybe even too much, but the atmosphere is authentic.
With ten dollars per night we get to sleep in a beautiful Chinese house completely made out of wood and almost 200 years old, close to the market and to its rhythms.
In the city motor vehicles are not allowed. Hanoi seems very distant: here the pace is slow, nobody hurries.
Very elegant girls wearing a pure white uniform made up of a pair of pants and a tunic with a deep rip on both sides come out of schools on their bicycles. It seems to be back to French colonialism in the ’20s.
Food, the strength of Vietnamese culture, expresses itself at its utmost in Hoi An.
A friendly Italian and his beautiful Belgian wife, whom he met here, make us discover the Cham Islands. In the middle of a jade sea, they are just one hour away by boat. These islands belong to the army, but our resourceful Italian friend manages to get the permits to organize a boat tour, dives, and overnight stays in tents on the white beach. We gladly discover that Vietnam also has a beautiful clear sea and, for a few days, we feel like we are on holiday.
But the Mekong keeps calling us. We get to the south with the Reunification Express, a shabby train running on an old line dating back to the ’30s, and covering the 1,700 km between Hanoi and Saigon – nobody calls it Ho Chy Minh City anymore – at an average speed of 50 Km/h.
The train was inaugurated soon after the end of the war and it symbolizes the reunification of the country. The passing of time and the kilometers left their marks on it. In the near future, the government will have the necessary funds to take care of infrastructures, but for now this is the only line for most of the Vietnamese people – upper classes and tourists take the plane. However, traveling on this train is a memorable experience because we get to discover the rural part of the country and to socialize with the locals.
I see the Mekong for the first time: I had been waiting for this moment for quite some time. I can’t help it.
Apocalypse Now, the massacres, napalm bombings and the craziness of mankind which left their marks in history come back to my mind.
The Mekong ends here after covering 4,900 kilometers. Its delta is magnificent. Here the river seems tired, it flows without making any noise and it splits into nine different branches before surrendering to the
South China Sea. But while cruising on a small boat in the thick vegetation, we realize that the river was not only shaped by nature but also by the humble work of man who embroidered this area with thousands of channels to irrigate the crops, making it extremely fertile. Before reaching the sea, the Mekong floods the rice fields which are a great source of life for those who live here. Small groups of houses surrounded by palms and crops rise among the plants. The colors around us – of the plants, the river, the houses, the boats – match perfectly as if an experienced painter chose them. Everything is so incredibly peaceful that we lose ourselves in this atmosphere. The misty sun touches the horizon and the Mekong turns into golden tones as if it was lit from underwater.
The biggest villages are on the river banks. This is where markets are held and fresh fish is sold on huge aluminum plates. It’s here, among ancient colonial palaces, that an old lady tells us that The Lover was filmed. It’s a beautiful movie inspired by the novel by Marguerite Duras which perfectly reconstructs the atmosphere of the end of colonialism at the beginning of the ’30s through its extraordinary photography and poetry. This is the movie that the Mekong and Vietnam will recall from now on.