THE “NEW” VIETNAM
When I had a chance to join World Airways Operation Babylift - Homeward Bound Celebration, I knew I was in for an emotional journey. Twenty one adopted Vietnamese orphans were being united with their birth land for the first time in 30 years They had been evacuated in cargo planes as babies ( along with close to 3,000 other orphans) during the month of April 1975, strapped three in a seat, and today World Airways was flying them back first class. Now in their 30’s and 40’s, they would have a brief day and a half in Saigon (officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City) to fulfill their dreams and begin the process of tracing their roots.
Our private World Airways plane lands in Ho Chi Minh City with 120 special invited guests on board. After a warm welcome from government dignitaries and local press, the group is transported to the new Sheraton Saigon. The hotel caters to business and leisure travelers; its small spa and large swimming pool a welcome treat after a long flight. That night, the Sheraton celebrates our arrival with a traditional Vietnamese feast.
The next day, human dramas play out and emotions run deep as attempts are made to find answers and clues that will lead to birth parents. A visit to the Phu My Orphanage is heart wrenching. Two of the adoptees on our trip spent their early months here. It remains home to 370 abandoned children, all with birth defects. They have no future, only companionship and shelter. I give a young girl, wearing a blue padded hat, a stuffed monkey with long arms and show her how to hug him; she does not speak; her eyes glazed from medication.
An afternoon of sightseeing and a party boat cruise on the Saigon River lifts our spirits and prepares us for an official farewell dinner in the Unification Palace.
My visit to Anan Mandara translates into a complete Vietnamese Experience of traditional food, rituals and lifestyle.
As the group heads back to the states, I board the first of several domestic flights to explore the "new Vietnam". Nha Trang, a supply site for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, has a tiny airport that housed American military planes. Today, the luxurious Ana Mandara Resort & Spa graces the beach of this once war torn city. It's Vietnamese architecture and furnishings are serene and nurturing; its staff gracious and welcoming. A cycle rickshaw driver pedals me around town; I watch street food being cooked on makeshift burners. Back at the hotel, Chef David Thai introduces me to Vietnamese cooking, and I learn to prepare three dishes using the basics of Vietnamese cuisine: garlic, shallots, sesame oil and fish or chicken stock. Vietnamese cuisine is very complex; there are nearly 500 traditional dishes. One of the most popular is Pho (steaming noodle soup thick with pungent ingredients).
My spa rituals include: an herbal foot soak, a traditional massage on the beach . . . and a hair treatment with boiled locust leaves, grapefruit rind and fresh lemon juice.
Only accessible by boat, there is a feeling of exclusiveness and privacy.
A launch takes me to Ninh Van Bay for a night at the new Evason Hideaway, a laid back modern day Robinson Crusoe ecological resort that neither imposes on the environment or one’s privacy. I even have a personal Ms Friday at my beckon call. Fifty, two story beach and hillside villas, each with a private swimming pool, are simply furnished but truly unique. My outdoor bathroom, with its thatched roof, oval wooden tub, and copper wash basins set in rough hewn vanities, is protected from view by a stone wall; a path of stepping stones leads to twin waterfall showers.
Let the Sounds of the Water and Birds Be Your Music The resort’s Six Senses Spa winds its way into the hills, alongside a flowing river . . . a strong element for grounding and getting back to nature. The focus is on the principles of balancing a holistic connection between mind, body and spirit. Spa Director Barry Warrington’s philosophy: of “low tech - high touch” works its magic as green tea, blended with almond oil and salt, is applied to my body in circular motions. At night, meats and seafood are grilled and served in the organic herbal garden. Here at Evason Hideaway, food starts from the warmth given by the sun, the water from the heavens and the nutrients from the land. Joy, fun, passion and wine enhance the culinary skills of Erik Bremmer, Chef de Cuisine.
The Furama Hotel in Danang, with its tile-roofed luxury suites, was built on the site of the world famous Non Nuoc China Beach Army Base, headquarters for strategic military planning. The sands are incredibly white; the waters crystal clear. This private sector corporation also own and manage La Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, sharing profits to improve the country. Paul Stoll, the hotel's general manager, came as a foreigner with a trail blazing spirit. Good vision, plus extensive experience in opening luxury hotels in other countries has turned the Furama into a major success story. For him: “Life is like a maze leading in many directions until one day you discover what you want to do, and where. Finding my way to Asia has been a dream come true.”
From the terrace of my spacious hotel room, I watch swarms of people invade the beach. When I focus more clearly, I see hundreds of Vietnamese exercising on the sand, playing volleyball and badminton, practicing martial arts, bobbing in the China Sea. I join this early morning daily ritual, swimming in the gentle surf as the sun rises on the horizon. By seven, everyone heads off to work or school, leaving the beach deserted.
The Furama shuttles guests to the Cham Museum and the ancient town of Hoi An, once an International trading center. Its narrow cobbled streets are lined with eighteenth century wooden shop houses that make clothes, shoes and boots to order in 24 hours or less. The owner takes my measurements; I pick a style from a book, and a bolt of fabric from a shelf. Much to my surprise, a well fitting cashmere suit that cost $ 50 arrives at the hotel the next day.
My last stop is Hanoi, an architecturally beautiful city, smaller and more interesting than Saigon. Magnificent French Colonial villas, built during French occupation, now house foreign embassies and government agencies.
The new lakeside Sheraton Hanoi is conveniently located outside the noise of the city. This beautifully landscaped property has a huge outdoor swimming pool, a promenade around the lake, and one of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurants.
Taxi fares are really cheap; $ 3 for the 30-minute ride from the airport to the hotel; the same to the center of town. My taxi bullies its way through the maze of Honda scooters…honking…honking…honking. Everyone who lives in Hanoi drives a motorbike. To protect their skin from the sun, women and children wear patterned surgical masks or scarves on their faces, long sleeves and high gloves, (even in 98 degree heat), exposing only their eyes. One could easily mistake Vietnam for a Muslim country. There are few traffic lights; one must learn the rules of the road … cross the streets slowly without hesitating, and the traffic will swerve around you. It takes courage, but it works
At the dungeons of "Hanoi Hilton", fetters used to shackle are reminders of prison torture. Following the liberation of the north in 1954, it was used to detain American pilots whose aircrafts had been shot down over Hanoi. I follow the crowd into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, past the embalmed body of the most beloved leader of Vietnam's working class. Once a year his body is sent to Russia to be re- embalmed at a cost of $10,000,000. I wander the 36 streets of 36 wares in the old quarter, have lunch in the kitchen of the famous Sofitel Metropole Hotel with Chef Didier Corlou and catch a legendary folkloric Water Puppet performance.
The next day, I explore the city on the back of a Honda, paying $ 3 for a two hour tour . . . stopping .at lakeside coffee cafés, outdoor markets and trendy boutiques. Once conservative Hanoi now has a growing number of flamboyant edgy shops like Ipa –Nima. Owner/designer Christina Yu, a former Hong Kong lawyer turned “bag lady “is helping to put Vietnam on the fashion map. Her new traffic stopping collection, “tainted love” (inspired by the memory of her mother); can be found in New York at Antroplogie, and Henri Bendel.
Hanoi is a happening city, thanks to the talents and passions of many ex pats. The underground art scene of artists and art lovers come together at the house-on-stilts home of husband and wife painters, Nguyen Manh Duc and Tran Luong. American born Suzanne Lecht’s Art Vietnam Gallery represents award winning artists; Dr. Mark Rapoport (a pediatrician from Long Island) recently opened a museum to house his personal collection of 5,000 Vietnamese artifacts, from every period of Vietnamese history. Handicrafts, furniture and musical instruments being turned out in rural villages are fast finding their way into the hands of International collectors.
My flight from Hanoi to Bangkok connects to Thai Airways' new nonstop to New York. Relaxed in my reclining business class seat, I reflect on the courage of so many people I met on this journey who overcame the obstacles of war to tenderly care for another country's children.
Looking To the Future
Vietnam has come a long way since 1975. Close to 80% of the population are thirty or under. The youth of this brave country have incredible energy; the war is the past; they harbor no animosity for America. As Vietnam gears up for global integration, regular citizens are seeing their standard of living improve. Eco tourism and domestic travel are on the rise with the completion of the World Heritage Road. The government is beginning to welcome foreign investors. Everyone is lining up to watch the dragon emerge as a "cash cow" and a "red hot" destination. This is a great time to visit Vietnam. Hotels, domestic airfares, food and local transportation are cheap compared to other Asian countries . . . And Vietnamese people are as warm and welcoming as the sun and the sea.