The first time I came to Vietnam, back in 1976, the newly victorious regime decreed that all visitors had to spend a minimum of US$100 a day.
Alas, I was then a starving Canadian exchange student in Beijing. My monthly scholarship, courtesy of Ottawa, paid $300 Canadian a month, which meant I could barely afford to stay three days in Hanoi.
But I went partly because the train ticket was a bargain. A soft-berth ticket on the weekly Friendship Train that ran the 2,400-kilometres from Beijing to Hanoi cost a very friendly $10.
I also went to see what Vietnam was like a year after it had defeated the most powerful nation on earth. The metaphor for the United States’ failure was a photo of the last Americans in Saigon frantically scaling a ladder to a rooftop helicopter.
On my second trip, 38 years later, I’m still spending US$100 a day. But this time it buys me a package tour with car and driver, an English-speaking guide, a couple of domestic flights, a two-day scenic cruise of Ha Long Bay and air-conditioned hotels with all-you-can eat breakfast buffets.
Last time, I had barely enough time to visit the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh and view the wreckage of an American B-52 bomber half-submerged in a lake in the middle of Hanoi. My only souvenir from that trip was a bracelet fashioned from scrap metal from one of the 18,000 planes the Viet Cong shot down.
On this trip, I’m with my American draft dodger husband, Norman, and our younger son, Sam. We’re edgy because who knows how an American will be received all these years later? For that matter, who knows how an ethnic Chinese will be received?
Anti-Chinese feeling exploded a few weeks ago after Beijing moved a drilling rig into disputed territory in the South China Sea. After several Chinese workers were killed near Saigon, mainland Chinese tourists cancelled in droves, as did tour groups from Malaysia and Singapore.
Then a middle-aged Vietnamese woman burned herself to death in protest. Next, China sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near the oil rig. (The fishermen were rescued.)
The tour agent assured me all was fine. And happily, as I have long suspected, we all look alike. The locals frequently mistake me for a Vietnamese. When I say I’m Canadian, they aren’t satisfied until I reveal my grandparents came from China.
On this family trip, I visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum for old times’ sake. His embalmed remains look as waxy as before, thanks to annual touch-ups by experts in Russia each fall.
Unlike in 1976, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” is now open for tourists (admission: $1US). Originally built in the 19th century by the French colonialists, it later housed American POWs. Now a museum, it describes how the French guillotined Vietnamese patriots and displayed their heads in baskets at the local farmers market.
It also claims the Viet Cong took tender care of U.S. prisoners. Displays include a battered guitar, photos of happy POWs playing soccer and the flight suit of John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate. He spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton, a stint that included torture and solitary confinement. Remarkably, he returned in 2000 for a visit.
Like an estimated 40,000 American draft dodgers, my husband became a Canadian. He’s happy he came north. Our son, Sam, 20, picked up an unshelled almond from the grounds of the prison yard. It’s jewel-like, a bright jade green, with a filigree of gold. Sam suggested cracking it open and eating it. My husband decided to keep it.
WONG: Vietnam shows softer side after 38 years