A tale of two cities steeped in Vietnam's past

hether clients are ecotourists, history buffs, culture vultures, shopaholics or war veterans, they are likely to find something of interest in Vietnam.

During my two-week visit, we split our time largely between Hanoi, the capital city, and Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial hub of the nation.

No matter where I traveled, I found the Vietnamese people to be friendly and warm toward U.S. visitors, a bit surprising considering the history between the two countries.

I asked one tour guide in Ho Chi Minh City how they could be so welcoming.

He told me the sentiment is best expressed in a quote from the current leader of the Communist party in Vietnam. "He said, 'You cannot change the past. What you can change is the future.' We want to work with the United States. We want to be friends."

First stop, Hanoi

Hanoi, with about 4 million residents, has a thriving old quarter at its center, where motorbikes buzz past row upon row of shops selling everything from lacquerware to custom-made clothing, souvenirs and other items. The city's lakes provide calm areas inside the city limits, notably Hoan Kiem Lake, where the 18th-century Ngoc Son Temple sits on a tiny island reached by a wooden bridge.

One of the most pleasurable -- and unique -- ways to tour the city is aboard a cyclo, the bicycle-based, human-powered taxis that ply the streets (although they mostly just serve tourists now).

Other top attractions include the Temple of Literature, a beautiful example of traditional Vietnamese architecture built in 1070.

A more recent attraction is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex, where visitors can see the preserved body of the founder of modern-day Vietnam, who died in 1969.

Unfortunately it was closed during my visit for its annual two-month fall maintenance. Also closed was the nearby Ho Chi Minh Museum, although we were able to visit the stilt house where he lived. We walked past the stately Presidential Palace, which was constructed in 1906 as the Palace of the Governor General of Indochina -- one of many historical structures in Vietnam that have served more than one purpose during various governmental eras.

Another building in this category is the Fine Arts Museum housed in the former French Ministry of Information. The building today has an impressive array of paintings, sculptures and other works of art.

Clients interested in military history will want to visit the Army Museum (which once served as French barracks), where full-size tanks and jet fighters sit outside buildings with detailed exhibits about military campaigns through the years.

Most first-time visitors to Hanoi set aside an evening to attend the Water Puppet Theater, part of an ancient Vietnamese tradition that dates back some 1,000 years and still dazzles visitors with its carved puppets that glide over the water, accompanied by live music, depicting legends and local lore.

Halong Bay is one of the top destinations for overnight and day trips from Hanoi. Frequently featured in brochures and magazine articles, the bay is dotted with thousands of dramatic limestone islands and populated with houseboats.

Cruises aboard small wooden vessels can include lunch and take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of nights and include visits to huge caverns.

Ho Chi Minh City

Hanoi is best viewed from the slow-moving seat of a cyclo, but Ho Chi Minh City has moved beyond that. It simply has outgrown the relaxing vehicles in favor of thousands of motorbikes and a faster pace (although hotel guests are routinely approached by the few cyclo drivers who remain).

The largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City retains much of the allure it had when it was called Saigon. Many people still call it Saigon, in fact (and the airport code is still SGN), although officially the name only applies to District 1 -- there are 16 urban districts in all.

The capital of what was once South Vietnam, it is today the nation's economic powerhouse and is traversed by several broad, French-style boulevards. Much of the tourist activity takes place in District 1, near the major hotels.

One of the most popular sites is the War Remnants Museum, a sobering collection of exhibits, weapons and devices used during the war (which in Vietnam is called the American War). Few exhibits so graphically show the tragedy of war, regardless of the side on which one is fighting.

A Caodaist religious service at the Great Temple in Tay Ninh.The Ho Chi Minh City Museum offers exhibits about the city itself. The museum is housed in an 1886 neoclassical building once called Gia Long Palace.

Equally fascinating is Reunification Palace, which is much the same as it was when it was known as Independence Palace or the Presidential Palace.

In 1975, Communist tanks crushed the gates at the Palace and took control of South Vietnam. Once the south's version of the White House, its original mid-1960s furnishings have been preserved, right down to the rows of telephones and an underground communications center that South Vietnamese officials once used.

Earlier parts of Vietnam's history are evident throughout the city, including Notre Dame Cathedral, built during the French colonial era, and temples and pagodas dating back much further. More recent history can be celebrated at Pho 2000, a budget-priced restaurant that attracts tourists by the busload; this is where the Clintons had lunch during their visit nearly four years ago.

Day trips offer glimpses into other interesting aspects of the region. We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, where endless miles of underground corridors, barracks, meetings rooms and other facilities served the Viet Cong for years, keeping them well hidden from U.S. and South Vietnamese government troops. You can fire a gun in the firing range ($1 a bullet), learn how rice wine and rice paper are made and even crawl through a small segment of the underground system (although claustrophobia prevented me from doing so).

During the same day trip, we also visited the Caodai Great Temple, the Holy See of a religion founded in the early 20th century. Caodaism combines what its founder considered the best aspects of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Taoism and Vietnamese spiritualism.

Its colorful Great Temple -- site of a daily religious service -- is visited by many tour groups.

For more information, contact the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 1233 20th St. NW, Suite 400, Washington D.C. 20036; phone (202) 861-0737; fax (202) 861-0917; e-mail [email protected] or visit the Web at www.vietnamembassy-usa.org.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

Room key: Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon
Address: 8-15 Ton Duc Thang St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Phone: (84) 8 822 0033
Fax: (84) 8 235 666
Reservations: (800) HOTELS-1
E-mail:[email protected]
General Manager: Christiane Wasfy
Rates: Special rates start as low as $90, plus 5% service charge and 10% government tax.
Commission: 10%
Location: In the city center, across the street from the river.
Built: Opened in 1999
Review: Centrally located in District 1, the 349-room property has lovely river views, and a relaxed, upscale ambiance. It's easy walking distance to several tourist attractions, business addresses, and nightlife. In spite of the hotel's size, it has a classy, uncluttered lobby, with live classical music greeting guests every evening. On-site facilities include the Riverside Cafe, which serves a mix of Eastern and Western cuisine, the upscale Kabin Chinese restaurant, and a Lobby Lounge. The property also has a nicely sized rooftop pool, well-maintained health club with steam, sauna and spa services, a business center and meeting/event facilities including the Grand Me Linh Room, which seats up to 136 guests, banquet-style. Well worth the extra fee (which is only about $25 per night) is an upgrade to the Renaissance Club, which includes separate check-in/check-out, extra in-room amenities and access to a lounge with an extensive complimentary breakfast buffet, evening cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, snacks and beverages throughout the day, and complimentary Internet access for 20 minutes per day in the lounge.

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