Monday, October 31, 2011


I consider myself a lover of fast-paced cities and a pretty savvy urban dweller. New York is my home; I love Tokyo's futuristic complexity; even the vastness of London can be exciting when the weather isn't totally gross. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could prepare me for the totally frenetic, youthful viberance of Saigon. There is a throbbing energy, packed night markets, throngs of teenagers everywhere, and insane traffic weaving through it all. I had heard that compared to the exotic crumbling charm of Hanoi, Saigon seemed more flashy but with less character and culture. I did not find that to be the case at all and hope that on my next trip to Vietnam I get to spend more time in this fascinating city.

One of the highlights was the food. My husband was sick and sadly missed all 36 hours we had in Saigon trying to recover and gear up for treking temples in the heat of Cambodia (more on that soon). This meant I was on my own, with the (absolutely necessary) help of my sassy and fun guide Chau, to discover Saigon's food scene. She and I ate at two ends of the spectrum: a trendy, organic, locally sourced neo-Vietnamese eatery as well as a hot, smelly packed night market bazaar stand. Both were outstanding. I don't even know all of what I ate, but here are some pictures of it!

Besides the food, the War Remnants Museum was an emotionally difficult but totally required highlight. My other favorite was the former Presidential Palace, now known as the Reunification Palace. This weird 1960's relic was designed by Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu for the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. It stands where the original French colonial Norodom Palace once stood. That residence was home to the French colonial governors of Indochina and then the South Vietnamese president until it was bombed by Diem's own airforce in a US backed assassination attempt in 1962. The US had of course propped up Diem's corrupt regime during the Vietnam war until he became a liability and we decided to throw our hat in the ring to help get rid of him. The assassination attempt did not work (a later one did) and Diem ordered the construction of this new modern residence in place of the Norodom Palace.

When South Vietnam fell in 1975, the image of the Northern Vietnamese tanks crashing through the gates of the compound signaled to the world that the US had lost the war and Vietnam would be one communist country, hence the new name, Reunification Palace.

Inexplicably, the new govenment left nearly everything in its place as a museum (of victory, I suppose?). All the furniture, draperies, wall treatments, etc. are still there, and the building is a strange relic of swinging 60's meets Vietnamese design. There is actually no air conditioning, but the structure remains cool from open windows and cross ventilation worked throughout the spaces.

My favorite room was the "signatory room," covered in lacquered panels and featuring these bizzare but fantastic James Mont style seating pieces and case pieces.

Love the curtain rods/valances as well. Those are the lacquered wall panels.

The entertainment room. Here is where the president gambled, smoked and partied while the war raged. Those good times would come to an end soon...

The private theatre. Diem was a huge movie fanatic.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Three hours drive south of Hue is the old port city of Hoi An. This architectural gem of a town was an important sea trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Chinese, Japanese, Portugese, Indian, Javanese, British and American ships all stopped in Hoi An, or Faifoo as it was called, and many merchants stayed permenently. Because of these many outside influences, and because Hoi An remained a "non-strategic" location for most of the 20th century, the town is still filled with wonderful old multi-cultural residential and commercial buildings. Since UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in the 1990's, cars are banned from its streets and the center of town has taken on a very tourist-centric edge. All the visitors and fusion restaurants don't take away from the beauty, especially on an early morning stroll before the Venice-in-summer-like hoardes descend.

Several of the old houses still belong to their original families. Most have been turned into museums to benefit from the tourist trade, such as the Tan Ky house, above. The house exhibits elements of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese architectural influences... and a few funny modern touches like the "happy day" curtains below.

Even if it is for the benefit of tourists, it was great to see a house this old still used by its inhabitants. An ancient family temple mixed with 19th century mother-of-pearl Chinese-Victorian furniture mixed with a 1960's rotary phone... Hoi An may feel a bit like a Disneyland version of old Vietnam, but it is still a living, breathing city underneith the surface.

A glimpse into a barber shop off a small alley.

The food in Hoi An was interesting. In general central Vietnam is a spicer version of the cuisine in other parts of the country. This might be attributed to the fact that until the Viet people pushed southward from northern reaches of country starting in the 13th century, the area belonged to the Champa civilization. The Chams were Indianized through trade via Java and used Sanskrit as their language and Hindu as their religion. Their food was undoubtedly influenced by the spices of India and the East Indies as well.

A common theme was grilled meat wrapped with herbs, pickled vegetables and chilis in a rice paper spring roll like concoction. Salt, lime and peppers feature heavily as opposed to vinegar which is a more northern device for livening things up.

Seafood, of course, is also a staple. This crab was really good.

Even before Hoi An became a Vietnamese port-of-international-call, it was a center of trade for the Champa from the 3rd to the 10th centuries. In the mountains about an hour from town are the ruins of Cham religious center, My Son (pronounced mee-sun). Above, they are seen around 1900 when they had already been abandoned and their tower summits stripped of their layers of gold. The Cham people remain an official minority in Vietnam and most practice Islam since its arrival through the same trade routes that brought Hinduism centuries earlier.

My Son was the longest continually developed Hindu religious complex in Southeast Asia (from the 4th to the 13th century) and was used the Cham to make pilgramage from the lowlands twice a year. The architecture is reminiscent of the glories of Khmer design at Ankor, but of course much smaller and using slightly different techniques. It was a real surprise to see a culture like this in the middle of Vietnam, which I did not associate with Hindu or Indic culture at all. Sadly the already ruined ruins were further damaged by US bombing during the war.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


From Hanoi we flew to the central Vietnamese city of Hue (pronounced hway). Hue was made the capital of a united Vietnamese kingdom in 1802 when the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty defeated a county-wide rebellion and seized the city with the backing of the French. Hue has its own cusine, influenced by both the imperial court and the local environment.

For breakfast one morning, we enjoyed com hen: freshwater river snail, sliced star fruit, mint, peanut, chili, banana flower, fried pork skin and rice noodles. The river snail is the part that is very special to Hue and it was great.

The Perfume River, home of the delicious river snail.

Here we have one of the Nguyen emperors with his advisors. Many Nguyen emperors were deposed over the course of the 19th century by an overbearing French interference in local affairs. This intimidating diplomacy was the beginning of imperialism in Indochina that eventually led to the direct control by France of the country in the 1870's. The Nguyen Dynasty held on essentially as puppets until 1945 with the end of World War II when the last emperor abdicated and the country was launched into the first Indochina war with France for independence.

When the Nguyens took power at the beginning of the 19th century, ending years of civil strife, rebellion, and a battle for power with the Trinh lords based in Hanoi, they built an impressive imperial citadel in Hue to represent their new status. The design was influenced by the Forbidden City in Beijing as well as French military architecture and took years of work by local artisians and craftspeople to complete. Although the world was entering the modern era, Nguyen Vietnam (with influence from France and Qing China) was a grand and glorious court of splendor that harked back to earlier times.

Unfortunately Hue, like much of central Vietnam, was right at the epicenter of both the French Indochina war and the second Indochina war with the United States. The imperial city was mostly destroyed by Vietnamese mortor shells and US napalm when Hue was occupied by North Vietnamese forces during the Tet Offensive.

A model shows the layout and proportions of the imperial city. 80% of these buildings were destroyed during the war.

UNESCO is working with local authorities to restore the imperial enclosure, piece by painstaking piece. The result is a fascinating mix of ruins, partial ruins, empty parkland, and glitteringly restored or rebuilt structures spread over several square acres.

A Vietnamese period piece was being shot on the grounds as we walked around.

A hallway in our French colonial era-hotel near the imperial city.

Just outside town is the Thien Mu Pagoda. Originally founded in 1601 when Hue was merely a provincial town, the current pagoda and nearby temple were built in 1844 by the Nguyen emperor Theiu Tri. After the partition of Vietnam (post-French Indochina war) Thien Mu became a nexus of political opposition against the policies of anti-Buddhist, pro-Catholic, US-backed South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. It was from this temple in 1963 that a monk named Thich Quang Duc left for Saigon where he set himself on fire and burned himself to death in protest. Images of his self-immolation were spread around the world.

The ghosts and darkness of this country's wars are much more tangible in central Vietnam than in the north. We also visited a prison site where US and South Vietnamese forces held and tortured North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (the civilian guerrilla wariors fighting for the north) in the 1960's and 70's. The current heavy-handed propoganda at the site leaves nothing to the imagination, but of course fails to mention the postwar purges and "re-education" the victorious communists doled out to southern Vietnamese leaders and intellectuals after 1975. The bottom line is that the Vietnam War (like all war) was brutal and horrifying. Despite the optimism and positive changes in Vietnamese society in recent years, the wounds of humanitarian crimes carried out by all sides (not least of all the United States) are still very, very evident here.