Marvin Caughman befriends a little Vietnamese child during the Senior Lawyers Division of the South Carolina Bar tour of Vietnam. On February 20, 2018, travelers with the Senior Lawyers Division of the South Carolina Bar and their companions flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). For some, it was a return to a place they had been stationed with the U.S. Army or Marines more than 50 years ago.
The group found thundering motor bikes, six or seven abreast, that line the streets. Drivers are likely to load up all sorts of goods on their bikes. Traffic lights are almost non-existent and, when they do exist, they’re likely to be ignored. Sidewalks are taken up by parked Vespas or small shops displaying their wares.
The countryside is quiet. Traffic moves efficiently past the fields of rice in the rich Mekong delta. Six million tons of rice are expected to be exported from Vietnam in 2018.
John Barlow, Gene Rogers, Joe Long, Ed Sauvain, Martha Barlow, Rick Hepfer, Kitty Hepfer, Sam Finklea, Gale DuBose, (Charlotte McCreary’s head only next to Sam and behind Gale), Gale DuBose, Bill Smith, Elsie Stuart, Ellen Smith, Pete Roe, Nancy Layman, Yancey O’Kelley, George O’Kelley, Louise Gibson, Jim Gibson, Frances Roe, and “Kong,” (the group’s guide throughout Vietnam). Unpictured travelers included Gary Freeman, B.J. Cobb, Amy Layman, Ted Polansky, Marvin Caughman, and Rita Caughman. In the middle of most farms sit above-ground monuments to ancestors, large white structures, often of elaborate design. Trash is strewn along the roads— plastic bottles, bags, food containers—whatever can’t be burned easily. Oxen, pigs, cattle, and horses are visible everywhere on the farms.
The native dish is pho (pronounced “fuh”), a soup containing broth, meat, vegetables, and spices—very good. Also popular are dishes such as fried fish, crispy crepes, spring rolls, pancakes, and noodles.
Typical street market in Vietnam In Saigon, a city of over 8.6 million people, we visited Tian Hou Temple where people traditionally leave gifts to honor their ancestors. Then we continued to the former Presidential Palace, now Reunification Palace.
A few blocks from this site is where, in 1963, a Buddhist monk died by self-immolation in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. The Reunification Palace is where North Vietnamese tanks were seized the morning of April 30, 1975 as Saigon fell.
The following day we departed for Ben Tre province and cruised the Mekong River in a private junk. We had lunch at a local restaurant and ate Ca Tai Tuong Chien Xu (Elephant Ear Fish wrapped in spring roll style)—delicious! Northwest of Saigon are the famous Cu Chi tunnels, constructed by the Viet Cong during both the French and Vietnam Wars.
From Saigon we flew to Hue, the Imperial City and former capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty, 1802-1945. We began with a cruise along the Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda and to the tombs of former Emperor Minh Mang and Emperor Khai Dinh.
Next we visited the Citadel Complex with its temples, pavilions, shops and museums, Hue’s main attraction. A bumpy rickshaw ride through the “Old City” followed.
Just outside Hue is a tiny fishing village called the “City of Ghosts,” An Bang, the home of hundreds of beautifully decorated tombs. The belief is that having a meticulously cared for and decorated tomb will bring the family good fortune.
In Da Nang, our next stop, we visited “Nam O” Beach where the first U.S. combat troops, two battalions of Marines, landed 53 years ago. Da Nang Air Base, where U.S. Army and Air Force troops were stationed, was of strategic importance during the Vietnam War.
About 27 miles inland from Hoi An are the My Son ruins. Here the tower-temples were the seat of the Champa Kingdom between the fourth and 13th centuries. My Son was the most important intellectual and religious center of the kingdom.
In nearby Hoi An, once a major port, we visited a 400-year-old Japanese covered bridge and the Phuoc Kien Temple, dedicated to Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea who protected sailors.
Our second internal flight was to Hanoi, from which we traveled by bus to Ha Long Bay in northeast Vietnam on the gulf of Tonkin.
Our final full day was spent in Hanoi visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the private residence, where he lived from 1954 – 1969. The wooden ethnic minority-style house, built on stilts, is surrounded by gardens. Ho’s vintage cars are also preserved there.
We continued the visit with the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university, constructed in 1070.
Finally, we visited the Hoa Lo Prison, or as the American POW’s knew it, the “Hanoi Hilton.” Originally built by the French, the prison has been largely destroyed to make room for shops and houses. The remaining part contained what some visitors called “The Propaganda Room” with photos of American pilots imprisoned having a jolly time decorating a Christmas tree.
Overall, it was a good trip.The economy is growing rapidly and, for now, visiting Vietnam is a bargain. But the whole country is changing quickly, and visitors who don’t travel there soon will probably see a different kind of place.
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