Moving toward the future, keeping the past
Bicycling in Vietnam
By Jonathan Freedman
From a bicycle, one can sense the landscape in a complete and personal way. You can feel in the legs how the land rises and falls, smell the air, watch clouds move across the sky. It is the best way I know to experience a new place. In November and December 2007, Urania and I and eighteen other people from the Pacific Northwest joined a Cascade Bicycle Club-affiliated Vietnam tour run by PedalTours of Auckland, New Zealand. Our route kept mostly to small roads and tracks through rural Vietnam. We pedaled on remote coastline and open hill country. We passed through farms, villages, and market towns and see how the people work and inhabit the land.
Our cycling route went about 500 miles north from Siagon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Hue, at the thin waist of the country, about halfway up to Hanoi. We stayed near the coast for much of the trip but ventured west into the central highlands for several nights, passing through the cities of Da Lat and the very un-touristy capital of Dalak region, Buon Ma Thout.
Everywhere we went, people waved and children would run toward us, shouting “hello, hello”. Sometimes people on scooters would pull alongside and attempt conversation (“where you from?” “where you go?”). When we stopped for a roadside break, enthusiastic children would sometimes appear out of nowhere and want to talk or appear in photos. I often regretted my inability to communicate. With few exceptions, the Vietnamese were kind, respectful, and made an effort to leave a good impression on visitors.
During our two weeks of cycling (including days off getting to know places such as the beautiful highland city of Da Lat or the historical coastal town of Hoi An), we got a great initial sense of today’s Vietnam. It was a two-fold impression. Vietnam is both a rapidly developing modern nation with an industrious people who welcome visitors (and their currency); and a culture thousands of years old where many customs from the past still flourish. Families still struggle to maintain homes and put food on the table, and we could see that after basic necessities, many have little left over. But people in the street appear relaxed, and one gets a general sense they think things are moving in the right direction.
Among the enduring customs is the practice of Buddhism. People everywhere we went maintained shrines or altars from the Buddhist and Confusionist traditions in restaurants, hotels, and stores. Before the tour started, on our first day in Ho Chi Minh City, Urania and I hired two bicycle rickshaw drivers for a city tour. We saw two Buddhist pagodas (temples with distinct towers). The Vietnamese pagoda was in a large, open square, crowded with people placing lit incense at altars. The Chinese one was older and more architecturally distinctive, with the altars in a quiet interior garden.
Later, on a rest day in Da Lat, we went to a pagoda with our friend Berry as monks and nuns were beginning a prayer service. While they sang verses in a haunting melodic chant, the three of us sat among them, absorbing every moment.
Arts and crafts from the past also remain. In Ho Chi Minh city, we saw a presentation of the art of water puppetry. The government is encouraging traditional embroidery after decades of neglect. We visited a center for the arts in Da Lat where we saw hundreds of stunning, detailed pieces, and watched young women artists at work. In Hoi An, tailors were busy taking orders for western suits and traditional Vietnamese silken clothing.
In Ho Chi Minh City one evening we talked with a group of students. They were full of questions about America. Is America ready for a dark man or a woman to be President? If no one likes President Bush, how did he get elected twice? One young man had read in a textbook that people in Seattle are known for liking to read. Where did we buy books? I told him there are lots of bookstores and an excellent public library.
“How much do books cost there”, he asked.
“They’re free”, I said, “but you have to return them after a few weeks.”
As this got translated, people shook their heads in amazement.
Another student responded, “Our government … books belong to the people, but you can’t find very many.” He turned his head to the side, put his hand over his mouth and then whispered, “They are commu —.” He grinned. “I didn’t say anything”.
Our two rickshaw guides were less complimentary. As a teenager, one had fraternized with American soldiers, learned English, and ran errands for them. He had been imprisoned in a re-education camp after the war. He had no love for the government. Checking to make sure no one could hear he snarled, “f—ing communists” . He pointed out a government hospital and school as we passed, and said about them, “No money? Goodbye, go home.” Later, with pride he pointed out the American school and the French school as we passed saying, “very good people.”
The Vietnamese government has clearly embraced a market economy, but free speech still seems an unfulfilled dream. During our trip, the English language newspaper reported a demonstration in Hanoi at the Chinese embassy, concerning a dispute over some islands claimed by both countries. What was newsworthy was that the Vietnamese government actually allowed a public demonstration.
Another news report concerned a student group called PYNet, dedicated to protecting the environment. They have launched the Green Bike project, teaming up with other Vietnamese environmental organizations. Every Sunday at 7:30 am, they ride the streets of Hanoi to raise public awareness of bicycling as safe and environmentally clean transport. They also clean up trash as a way of walking their talk. They welcome email from interested parties at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We could see that motor scooters in Vietnam may threaten to marginalize bicycles, as happened in the U.S. with cars almost a century ago. Maybe it is not too late for them to avoid what we did.
The cycling landscape was spectacular: climbs through spectacular rock on the way to Da Lat and Hue (and several long, barreling descents); a surprising coastal desert with sand dunes complexes; and the days we spent deep in farm country.
As the end of our trip neared and we passed through the countryside, I still wondered what people in rural Vietnam really thought when they saw us. We went by on fancy bikes most rural Vietnamese never see and have no chance to buy. Compared to them we are big and well fed. We have funny-looking clothing. I asked our guide Binh, what they might be thinking of us as we pass through. He answer was simple, “they probably think, ‘why are the foreigners riding bikes when the vans following them are empty?’ ”
I was too young to be drafted, but I remember the Vietnam war years well and how politically they ripped our country apart. Near the end of our trip we visited the memorial and museum at the former village of My Lai where, in 1968, American soldiers killed 500 Vietnamese women and children. The displays said that at least one GI disobeyed orders and saved the lives of ten of them. A young Vietnamese guide described the events and aftermath to our group. Afterward, my wife Urania took her aside and I joined them. She told us her mother survived the killings but other family members did not. She has talked to former GIs who have returned to Vietnam. She and other Vietnamese are now aware that many American soldiers felt tremendous remorse and suffered after they returned home.
Throughout the trip, I wondered how the Vietnamese think of the war era now, 40 years later. My impression is that they have moved on. Their population is now young. Many people were born after the American war. They enjoy American visitors and the dollars we spend. They remember that the French and especially the Chinese spent much more time intervening than we did.
Vietnam’s mix of Buddhist and Confusionist principles contribute to how they view the past too. What matters is maintaining balance and harmony, honoring the past more than suffering from it, and paying homage to ancestors. In Hue, we visited a mausoleum of one of the Vietnamese kings installed in the last century under the French colonial rule. Our guide Nhan said now the Vietnamese accept that most of the kings did the best they could, and want to honor them as ancestors of the modern Vietnamese people.
As a final word, in accordance with the Vietnamese custom of respect for elders, I acknowledge the elders in our group, several of them octogenarians (or close). They showed the rest of us that many things remain possible as we get older and it is never too late for adventure.