War and Peace in Ho Chi Minh City
If Hanoi is Vietnam’s Washington, D.C., brash and flamboyant Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the nation’s L.A. In 1975, after Communist forces overran the onetime capital of South Vietnam, they renamed the city in honor of the former president, closed the nightclubs and boutiques, and instituted a 10-year period of draconian, and nearly ruinous, economic reform. Thirty years later, however, the old Saigon is back. The neighborhood around Dong Khoi Street is lined with shops selling silk couture and salons specializing in facials. Skyscrapers are replacing Communist-era housing blocks, and the year-old Park Hyatt Saigon (yes, Saigon) is one of the best new hotels in Asia.
The key for visiting families is finding ways to enjoy the city’s charms without becoming overwhelmed by its size, the crowds, and temperatures that regularly soar into the nineties year-round. We stayed at the Caravelle Hotel, which is so central that we could duck back in for a midday break. One morning, for example, we explored Cho Lon, the city’s Chinatown, and the children lit incense at the fantastically elaborate Quan Am Pagoda. But the heat and the smog made all of us crabby. The only "exploring" we did that afternoon was playing Marco Polo in the Caravelle’s pool.
We started our days with French toast and pho at the breakfast buffet—and then kept eating. During a cooking class that Trails of Indochina arranged for us with TV chef Nguyen Dzoan Cam Van, the Julia Child of Vietnam, the children made fresh spring rolls and banh xeo, a shrimp-, pork-, and beansprout-filled "sizzling cake." One night, we took a dinner cruise along the Saigon River, feasting on green-papaya salad and prawns while looking out at cityscapes dense with tall buildings and flashing neon. At the legendary Bo Tung Xeo, a barnlike restaurant, we grilled beef cubes on tabletop braziers. And at Nam Giao, tucked down an alleyway behind the famous Ben Thanh Market, we sampled noodle dishes from Central Vietnam. The restaurant’s dappled light, traditional blue-and-white dishware, and worn tile floor reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Saigon in the 1970’s. In those days, U.S. soldiers would gravitate to noodle shops like this one, which offered down-home food and a feeling of normalcy in a nation torn by war.
In Vietnam, you constantly come upon reminders of the war. We found them in Vinh Long at a restaurant built on an old U.S. military helipad. We found them in Hanoi’s Unification Park, one of our boys’ favorite hangouts, where the airplanes on the kiddie ride look like Russian-built MiG’s. We even found them at the Caravelle, where, in 1964, a bomb ripped through the fifth floor. Nothing about the renovated hotel hints at the incident, but guests get to read all about it in a special brochure.
One day, Ira slipped away to visit the War Remnants Museum. Housed in the former U.S. Information Service building, the museum has reconstructions of the torture chambers that the French colonial government used against Vietnamese patriots and, from another era, displays demonstrating the horrendous effects of the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange—definitely too disturbing for children under 10. Even with our young children, though, we ended up talking about the war quite often. Once, in Hanoi, Jesse tried on one of the green army helmets that middle-aged Vietnamese men still often use as hats. "Would this helmet have protected a soldier’s head if someone shot at him?" he asked. I had no precise answer. "Yes," I said. "No. Well, maybe."
Ha Long Bay: The Emerald Isands
From Ho Chi Minh City, we flew back to Hanoi for a couple of nights, then took off on the three-hour drive to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s great natural wonder, a series of 1,600 limestone islands spread across nearly 600 square miles of the Gulf of Tonkin. The islands, many nothing more than rocky outcroppings covered with emerald-green vegetation, jut dramatically from the turquoise water, creating a setting so eerily beautiful that Vietnamese writers and artists have memorialized it for centuries. As part of our tour, organized this time through Handspan Adventure Travel, we cruised on a wooden junk, indulging in a many-course lunch that included the never-fail fries and prawns so fresh they might have just been scooped from the water.