Vietnam's miracles of balance

Vietnam's miracles of balanceOn the main road out of Hanoi, just across the Red River, a police motorcycle escort cut in front of us, then manouevered to surround an old red school bus. When the convoy U-turned, we saw that the bus was full of seated Vietnamese dignitaries. Standing up, all the better to gawk around, was Bill Gates, an American in the country to give money from his charitable foundation to support a program of childhood vaccination. His many millions were welcomed, as were individual travellers' handfuls anywhere in Vietnam. Hostility to the aggressor in the American War is confined to such sites as the War Remnants Museum in Saigon (although that was first called the American Atrocities Museum) or in the propaganda film shown before the tour of the Cu Chi tunnels which praises the 'Monthly American Hero Killer'.

We headed east after Bill’s departure, past a grim and as yet unoccupied new town, brick factories with fields of kilns around them, the ubiquitous coffin-makers. This is the chief coal-mining region of Vietnam, the bleakest part of the country that we had seen in the course of three weeks journeying from south to north, reversing the historical momentum of the war as we went. In Mao Khe dust thickened the air; settled grey on leaves and people, on the four live pigs strapped on a cyclo and on their way to market, on ducks in ditches. Then the landscape began to change. A mountain range emerged through the haze. We would approach them to the edge of, and then into the South China Sea at Ha Long Bay.

This is the sublime region popularised by the film Indochine, where it was a punishment post for the French officer who romanced Catherine Deneuve. Now the harbour was crowded with junks taking crowds of tourists down rickety gangplanks and aboard, stretching the capacity to survive intact Vietnam’s greatest visual asset. But once on, all became quiet.

Our junk cruised among miraculous karsts, 3000 islands of limestone that are the peaks of drowned mountains. Here were sea caves, narrow water alleys between islands, giant keyholes through cliffs, range upon range receding dimly into the distance. Deep inside one island was a vast grotto of stalactites and stalagmites. A low cave opening led us into a lagoon all enclosed by high cliffs on which brown monkeys capered. Sellers of food and drink and curios approached the junk in rowboats. On some of the islands were shrines and graves. Everywhere the silence was liquidly present, disorienting as well as serene after the tumult of the city streets of Vietnam.

And yet the city cyclo traffic could be negotiated because in Vietnam cramped spaces have generated considerate attitudes rather than rage. There were miracles of balance all around: the cyclo driver insouciantly carrying a huge pane of glass, children perched on the divider between the frenzied lanes of Highway One, ready to sprint across, the narrow raised walkways for women to negotiate paddy fields, fishermen standing in black coracles made of bamboo.

Vietnam's miracles of balanceThese physical accommodations to crowding and privation tempt the traveller into laudatory flights, but the people’s attitudes seem altogether too matter-of-fact for those. Incongruous, then, to find the homage to Ho’s embalmed corpse in Hanoi (especially when the legend of his humility has him asking for a simple cremation), or to see the large and garish museum honouring Ho Chi Minh ('Bringer of Light' in one of his fifty aliases). Here his life is told as the quest romance of a hero who endures perilous travel abroad before returning as saviour of his country.

Images of Ho are rare in the south. So too are cemeteries for those who fought for what the victors call ‘the Saigon regime’. Yet the nation seems more homogeneous than the terrible divisions of war (over only a generation ago) might have led one to expect. There are, after all, traces of much earlier habitations and ways of life: the economy of the Mekong, where we languidly cruised among islands and crossed at one of the widest reaches where the river rolls its miles-wide tide along, the spit-roasting of rats in a Nha Trang alley, playing cards strewn in every street, the ancient ruins of the Champa culture in central Vietnam, where the Hindu religion found its eastern extremity and eighth-century brick temples are bracketed by B-52 bomb craters, the French hill station of Sapa near the Chinese border, 1600m high, and home to the Black H’Mong and Red Dzao mountain people, as well as that tourist stream whose groups we would re-encounter along the length of Viet Nam. We were part of a paid-in-advance, carefully managed caravan, entranced by the juxtaposition of the ghastly and glorious, hardly visible to the pragmatic people among whom we pushed and shuffled.



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