By Victor Block
With a silent prayer on my lips, I stepped off a curb into an onslaught of rushing motorbikes and motorcycles, some with multiple people jammed onto the seat. Several days later the environment was very different in a remote mountain village where people raise rice and maize and live in houses elevated on stilts much as their ancestors did. These are among my memories of Vietnam's inviting combination of magnificent natural beauty and fascinating cultures. Another revelation was how friendly the people are to visitors from the United States decades after what they call "the American war." That was explained by Le Van Cuong, the outstanding guide who led the Myths and Mountains tour group with which I traveled. He listed conquerors who had come and gone over many centuries and said that the U.S. military involvement "was only a blip on our radar screen." Also, he added, "It's the nature of Vietnamese people to forgive and forget."
While memories of that "blip" may include images of war-torn cities and devastated countryside, the reality is very different. More than 1,000 miles of coastline are rimmed in places by inviting white sand beaches, and hillsides terraced by rice paddies rise up to steep mountain peaks.
My trip concentrated on northern Vietnam, including Hanoi, the surrounding countryside and the mystical scenery of Ha Long Bay. Must-see sights for visitors to Hanoi include the mausoleum where the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lies in state and the Temple of Literature, a university built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius.
Hanoi's vibrant and colorful Old Quarter is a tangle of thoroughfares that was laid out in the 15th century. Some are named for goods - paper, tin, mats, herbs - that were sold there in the past.
Traveling north from Hanoi is to exchange urban crowding and broad avenues choked with motor vehicles for rural serenity and awe-inspiring scenery. Hillsides terraced by rice paddies lead to jagged mountains, and isolated villages are inhabited by many of the 53 ethnic minority groups that comprise about 13 percent of the nation's population.
These groups adhere to ages-old traditions that extend to housing, clothing, food and customs. Some minorities have dwindled to only a few hundred members. The largest - the Tay, Tai, Hmong and Muong - each number an estimated 1 million people. My immersion in these colorful cultures came during walks along gently sloping paths and narrow dirt roads that connect settlements. The itinerary included primitive villages where few visitors venture, which provided opportunities to observe life largely untouched by tourism.
The settlement of Thai Giang Pho is inhabited by the Flower Hmong, one of the main subgroups descended from ancestors who fled from China. Their names come from the dazzling display of dyed and elaborately embroidered cotton from which the women's clothing is made, set off by heavy silver jewelry.
In the village of Red Dao people my traveling companions and I met Samay, a delightful young girl who totally charmed us. She patiently answered our questions about the hamlet and herself, and translated for the townspeople who spoke no English. We learned that the Dao cultivate rice and maize, build houses both on the ground and elevated on stilts and, like many minority groups, worship their ancestors. Women wear an elaborate turbanlike headdress that is embroidered and decorated with silver coins, beads and tassels.
Our most personal introduction to the minority people came during dinner with the Ta Cuong family in their Tay village. Several relatives descended upon the simple home made of mud and straw to observe the foreigners from a distant land. They watched us help prepare the meal then dine at a small table while balancing on rickety chairs. They joined us in observing Mr. Cuong as he prayed to his ancestors at the type of simple altar that is erected in many houses in the region.
We learned from the guide that our host family owns four horses, two pigs, a water buffalo, ducks and chickens. One of their proudest possessions is an electric-powered rice-husking machine, but because the electricity is turned off during the day to conserve energy, the hours they can use it are limited.
A high point of a visit to Vietnam's northern highlands was market day in the town of Bac Ha. What began as trading among members of the local hill tribes has evolved into a sprawling bazaar where colorfully dressed minority people gather to buy and sell goods.
Wandering through the warren of vendors' stalls, visitors observe spirited bargaining for items ranging from embroidery, silver jewelry and traditional musical instruments to farm implements, horses and water buffalo.
A very different experience awaits at Ha Long Bay, an otherworldy setting of limestone islands, caves and inlets encircled by 600 square miles of calm water. Jagged spires rise toward the sky, dwarfing boats that carry sightseers into this unique landscape.
The vessel that we called home for several days and nights replicated an old Chinese junk and shared the scenery with water-borne vehicles ranging from rowboats and kayaks to multicolored fishing craft and bamboo boats. Adding to the scene were floating houses on wooden platforms, some attached to create seaborne mini villages. The tranquility of Ha Long Bay contrasts sharply with the frenzy of life in Hanoi. Both are a far cry from the magnificent countryside. Together they provide memories of Vietnam that are sure to linger in the mind of visitors long after they return home.
WHEN YOU GO
Traveling with a tour company is a good way to visit Vietnam. For more information about Myths and Mountains call 800-670-6984 or visit www.mythsandmountains.com. The Vietnam Tourism Administration website is www.vietnamtourism.com.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.