A traveler to an architectural oddity in Tay Ninh, Vietnam, tunes in to the otherworldy call of a wacky bizarro cult
“What on my first two visits has seemed gay and bizarre (was) now like a game that had gone on too long.”
–Graham Greene, on Vietnam’s Caodai cult.
It really didn’t make sense. There in front of me, outside the smudged bus window, was “The Great Divine Temple” at Tay Ninh, Vietnam—a whacked-out EPCOTy architectural hallucination resembling Gaudi on opium—and I didn’t really want to go inside. The idea of occult cults creeped me out. Er, would they try to abduct and brainwash me?

I had come all the way to Vietnam to investigate a weird supernatural religion called Caodaism, an attempt to fuse the ideal faith, “a universal religion,” from a potboiled spiritual pho centered on Spritism (which swept the Americas in the 19th century with its occult séances, tarot cards and crystal balls) and just about every other religion on the planet. You name it. But what really attracted me was that their adherents whimsically and wisely worshipped Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The
Hunchback of Notre Dame, as a saint!

Also venerated are Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911; Trang Trinh, a Vietnamese poet and prophet; Shakespeare; Joan of Arc; Descartes; Lenin; and Pasteur. How cool is that? Talk about a “cult of personalities.”
Way wacko! But the cult sounded at least playful and rococo enough to intrigue me into traveling to a former enemy nation that I was not too keen on visiting. I still imaginatively associated Vietnam with The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now (also, alas, Hamburger Hill, one of the messiest war films ever made). I don’t think any of these films would go over well with the communist authorities; but a British traveler on my bus, bursting with laughter, swore he saw Rambo, dubbed into Vietnamese, on a long-haul bus between Dalat and Saigon.

Okay, the Caodais. So this is what I’ve got so far. Here’s the skinny. A bunch of crazy dong tu (mediums) contact the spirit world, querying, say, Charlie Chaplin in his “talkie phase,” via séances—utilizing the usual abracadabra bric-a-brac of Ouija boards (the popular game), table tapping (a table jiggled which taps out letters), and corbeilles a bec (long radiating sticks attached to pens). This is the Caodai Calling. Collect. They also use “pneumotographie,” where a blank card is sealed in an envelope and hung above an altar. When opened, the paper purportedly has a message on it: “Having a great time. Wish you were here. . . .” Postcards from the edge of the grave.

Tay Ninh, less than 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is an unlikely locus for the headquarters of a major religion, the third largest in Vietnam after Buddhism and Catholicism. Bordered by Cambodia on three sides, Tibet-like Tay Ninh is an almost island of upheaval in a commie country giving babysteps capitalism a go. Our bus passed a scowling teen wearing a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt peddling Pepsis on a roadside stand, as well as a “picturesque” old coot doffing one of the ubiquitous conical hats and plowing rice paddies with his water buffaloes. More serious, along this road was the site of the famous wartime photo of a young running girl scorched by napalm.

Caodai, which means “high palace,” refers to the supreme palace where the Supreme Being dwells (Heaven) and God Himself. But the “palace” rising before us seemed a daring departure from reality. As we got off the autobus and whistled at the Great Divine Temple, the scene became real “Indochine,” with a sea of lithe bicyclists draped in white ao dais on their way to attend one of four daily religious ceremonies. We had come to join them.

Featured in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” the temple, built between 1933 to 1955, is a favorite stopping point for Saigon’s Sinh Café bus tours. Mostly yellow on the outside, with red roofs, the temple is built on nine levels representing a Stairway to Heaven. It is 140 meters long and 40 meters high, with four towers. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it is a mix of “a French cathedral, a Chinese pagoda, the Tiger Balm Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.”

But I think Graham Greene described it best : “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.” But still: “This is it?” a Vietnam vet named Bill from Brooklyn groused.

“Yeah, I thought it would be more, I don’t know,” a Canadian girl with long black hair and a scent of patchouli dittoed.
“It is very yellow,” I stuck up weakly.

It wasn’t until we shucked off our shoes and stepped inside that the architecture revealed itself in its full glory. Immediately, I noticed a cool mural of Saint Victor Hugo and other luminaries writing out the psychic slogans “God and Humanity” and “Love and Justice.” Shuffling along a colonnaded hall and sanctuary, I felt like I was literally entering a delusion, since I was slightly buzzing from my antimalarial Larium. All of a sudden, my eyes were alit by an image like deranged kamikazee mosquitoes upon some windows with arabesques of intertwined flowers and vines bordering uncanny eyes in triangles. By the altar—dressed up with offerings of flowers, fruit, wine, tea, candles, and incense (plus a lamp symbolizing Eternal Light)—was a snaking spiral staircase which seemed to be hissing “Don’t tread on me!”

Most evocative, up above on the domed ceiling was painted a night sky, divided into nine parts, filled with Van Goghy stars and clouds. Beneath the dome was a blue globe, representing the Earth, with the supreme symbol of the Caodais painted on it: the “Divine Eye,” which bears a suspicious resemblance to the eye in a pyramid featured on the back of U.S. dollar bills. I stared at the Eye and waited for one of us to blink.

“You are welcome, Mr. America,” jokes one of the white-robed priests with a Shangri-la smile. He had the easy manner and confident smile of one used to dealing with tourists. The elaborately garbed priest, whom I dub “Les Miz,” is old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War, but didn’t seem the type to hold a grudge. Probably for good reasons.

The Caodais were never exactly neutral. In fact, despite their prohibition against harming people or animals, they had their own renegade armies, beginning in 1943 as a response to Japanese invaders. In the Franco-Viet Minh War, the Caodai Army, made up of some 25,000 troops, supported the French, and specialized in making mortar tubes out of auto exhaust pipes. During the Vietnam war they were staunch SVA, fighting on the side of the Americans. In 1975, when NVA troops overran the U.S.-backed South Vietnam, Caodaism was violently repressed and banned by the Viet Cong, who confiscated the church’s lands. There were the usual stageshow executions. But behind the scenes Caodaism continued, with its prayer meetings and séance rituals, surviving even a series of brutal cross-border raids by the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

I pulled out a dollar bill and showed Les Miz our own version of The Eye, possibly a Masonic symbol, itself maybe derived from eyes on Buddhist stupas. The Mizter examined the bill with great interest and nodded approvingly. His asterix eyes focused on the hidden footnotes inherent in the symbol itself. After an eternity, his concentrated prune pout relaxed into the palimpsest of a smile. “It was nice meeting you. Now I must go.” He wanders off, still smiling but looking a little shaken.
Founded in 1926 by the French-educated Vietnamese mystic Ngo Minh Chieu, the Caodais claim the “All-Seeing Eye” was first seen on the island of Phu Quoc in 1919. God, or Caodai, appeared and said, “The eye is the principal of the heart from which comes a source of light. Light is the spirit. The spirit itself is God.” Then on Christmas Eve, 1925, Caodai reintroduced himself rather grandiloquently (and cryptically) as “Jade Emporer, alias Caodai, Immortal, His Honor to the eldest Boddhisattva, the Venerable Saint, Religious Master of the Southern Quarter.” The starry-eyed Le Van Trung (the first Caodai pope) and his posse presented their “declaration” to the French governor of Cochinchina in 1926, and Caodaism was officially born. By the 1950s, one in eight South Vietnamese were Caodais, carving a sort of feudal state in Tay Ninh Province and the Mekong Delta, filled with thanh that (holy houses). Today there are over 8 million Caodais in Vietnam (roughly the population of Sweden), plus some 30,000 members scattered across the world like chess pieces, usually in places inhabited by Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese).

Positioning ourselves on the balcony to view the ceremony, we watched the red, yellow, and white robed faithful wearing conical floppy hats pile in. Men came in from the right, women from the left, making their way in a mincing Mozart-like minuet to kneel before the altar. In the back a group of musicians played atonal tunes and chanted hypnotically. It sounded a little like a group of approvingly purring Siamese cats cuddling, then rutting. What what? I almost fell asleep. Oddly, the faithful are not permitted to be photographed, except during ceremonies. After the ceremony we walked to the autobus under a sky with a ghastly pewter pall and a vague threat of rain.

“So what do you think?” I asked Bill from Brooklyn. “I think it’s a crock,” he responded. But I wasn’t so sure. As the bus departed, I stared out through the streaming strands of rain at all the Vietnamese faithful getting on their bicycles. Then, too good to be true, I saw a Vietnamese guy with thick Elvis sideburns and a bomber jacket kickstarting his moped and showing off popping wheelies.

Way out here in otherworldly Tay Ninh, we were a long way away from Graceland (certainly as showy as the Caodai Temple), but with all these cuckoo cultists capering around like Psychic Friends Network stars, maybe it is not quite as far as we might think. Stuck in the psychic grooves of my gray matter were the words of the Bard, William Shakespeare, “There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Apropros of nothing at all, I resolved to never ever return to Vietnam.

Descending the steep, narrow plank, inch by inch, hand over hand along the long pole, I thought: “This better be one hell of a cave!” Exploring the other-worldly interior of Hang Trong Cave was to be one of many surreal experiences I was to have traveling along Ha Long Bay in northeast Vietnam. In the 1992 movie Indochine, credited with putting Ha Long Bay on the map, Catherine Deneuve describes it as “the most remote outpost of Indochina.” Today, the bay still retains that end-of-the-Earth, Lord-of-the-Rings-on-water quality.

The very few guesthouses at that time have now flourished into almost 300 accommodations of every comfort level and the few Chinese junks plying their trade have metamorphosized into more than 400 tourist boats. I visited as part of a Myths and Mountains Tour, which also included several days in Hanoi and Sapa in northwest Vietnam, an area home to several minority villages. But more on that later. The almost 600 square miles comprised of thousands of karst (limestone) islands, caves and inlets create a solitary natural environment that belies description and inspires awe. I kept thinking how many times can I use the word surreal in one travel article?
The basic boat we called home, replicating an old Chinese Junk, was…well basic but we dined well and huddled about the crew as they studied tidal charts to determine our daily itinerary. Inflatable canoes, powered by guides, were our vehicle of choice for purposes of exploration. Cave opening too small to navigate? No problem — just let some air out of the canoe. Very versatile.
Some caves were so dark we donned headlamps to maneuver through. Others so small, the entire trip was negotiated on our backs. But those that enthralled the most were comprised of tortured, grotesque shapes hanging from the ceiling and reflected in the water below. I felt stuck in a huge open mouth badly in need of dental work; I was Jonah inside the whale, the cave itself its gaping jaw, and the jagged stalactites above and below giant misshapen teeth. Some days we paddled into the caves. Others we trekked through them. One-hundred-forty steps up a sheer cliff brought us to Hang Sung Sot — the over-100-foot-high, multi-chambered Surprises Cave — which indeed it was full of.
Some chambers were back lit by sun-filled gaps in the limestone, others artificially lit for dramatic effect. I was told the name referred to the enormity of the cave — a mile and a half walk from end to end; for me it was the huge highlighted outcropping protruding at a suggestive 45-degree angle as you rounded one of the bends, clearly a pornographic symbol that elicits giggles — if not outright guffaws – from all who come across it.

I could envision a small civilization existing here in a former lifetime, and was not surprised to hear that many Vietnamese hid in the caves during the bombings of Hanoi during the Vietnam War — or, as they see it, the American War. What did surprise me was some historic insight we received from our Myths and Mountains guide, arguably the best in Vietnam, Le Van Cuong. When I asked why the people of Vietnam were so welcoming to Americans after we destroyed so much of their country, he patiently explained that on their historic timeline, the Americans were just a blip: “The main reason is that historically my country has been invaded by so many countries over centuries that the Americans were responsible for just a small part of their suffering. And it is just the very nature of Vietnamese people to forgive and forget.”

Very candid about the good and bad in his country and the pros and cons of the government, his perspective on the current political climate in Vietnam was also interesting. Although the government is Communist — what Cuong describes as “flexible communism” — the burgeoning economy reflects capitalism. “Perhaps you can smell democracy in the air but it’s going to be a while before it settles to the ground,” he observed.

But back to paddling through Ha Long Bay. Exiting the caves often brings you into a still lagoon, mirroring the multiple majesty of the soaring peaks. Jagged and ragged, alternately solid and porous, the gauzy spires seem lost in the horizon while alternately sinking below the surface of the water. Being of a certain age — and eyesight — I thought perhaps the surroundings appeared that way because of my cataracts — all filmy and out-of-focus. But it is more valid vista than vision — and therein lay their beauty.

Defying convention, one delighted paddler exclaimed as his canoe re-entered the world: “Oh my God, it’s Shangra-La.” Expanding on his initial reaction, Charles Guinn from Kansas City, Missouri, continued: “This is the most unique place I’ve ever seen in all my travels. I suspect there’s no other place like it in the world.”
Back aboard our floating home, we traveled past a complement of water-borne vehicles that challenged the imagination: multi-colored fishing boats sporting multi-faceted protrusions; floating houses on wooden platforms with shrimp, crab and fish farms caged underneath; bamboo basket boats, and rowboats and kayaks manned by kids playing hide-and-seek behind the small islands in the Bay. A young woman in a basket boat pulled up alongside ours selling chocolate, crackers, cookies, nuts, wine and cigarettes. Somehow all that junk food seemed appropriate considering the nature of our boat (Need I remind you we were on a Chinese Junk…?).
Relaxing on deck, we play the ancient game of what do you see in the strange formations in our midst. Or, more appropriately on Ha Long Bay …mist. “Hey, that looks like George Washington,” “Nah, a fisherman,” “No, I think it’s a goat’s head” until the boat moves on to the next imaginary challenge. Ruth Lerner of Venice, California, reflected on the surroundings: “Such quiet, endless beauty, so breath-taking with no two formations alike.” Her favorite part? “Floating in the kayak through pitch dark, absolutely quiet caves and emerging into lagoons as still as glass.”

Such are the wonders of Ha Long Bay, which were only a part of the memorable Myths and Mountains itinerary (or Mist and Mountains, as one of my companions deadpanned…) which also included Hanoi’s vibrant, colorful Old Quarter where streets are still named for the products they sell to the city’s modern sections on the verge of globalization to the mountains of Sapa where several minorities, practicing their own language, customs and clothing, still live in primitive villages as they have for centuries.
Vietnam — a country torn between then and now, what was juxtaposed with what will be, poised in economic boom and political transition. Go now before luxury high-rise hotels flood the landscape and Westernization erodes the culture. For more information, contact Myths and Mountains at 800/670-6984

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Vietnam… this is the place to visit, many have told us. Being from the generation raised during the Vietnam War four decades ago, we hadn’t really thought of this as a tourist destination. But reports, regarding how interesting the country is and how friendly the people are, perked our interest. Thus, when we read about Crystal Cruise’s 11-day Exotic Asia Cruise in late April, we signed up-the itinerary included four days in Vietnam.

Statistics show that over the past 10 years Vietnam has seen an extraordinary growth in tourist numbers-almost 300 percent since 1998. Of course, with the current economic downturn, tourism is off. This may be a good time to sign up, with travel bargains in the offing.

On the cruise, we embarked from Hong Kong, and crossed the South China Sea. First port-call was Chan May, not far from Hue. A guided tour of the ancient capital was the first of several excursions we would take while on the cruise.

Our first stop was at The Royal Citadel, a walled imperial city from the 18th Century. On a hill, it impressively rises above the city. We were struck immediately by its resemblance to Beijing’s Forbidden City, on which it was modeled.
The complex is like a series of boxes within boxes. Surrounded by a wide, zigzag moat, the first structure consists of the defensive wall fort with 12 gates. Within, there are two other monarchal areas, the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City, reserved for the private life of the royal family. We were particularly impressed by the beauty of this section with its red, purple and gold columns and lavish furnishings.

Following this visit, we boarded a “dragon boat,” colorfully painted, with the bow, a fearsome dragon head and the stern, a long dragon tail. Our group then settled in for a leisurely sail up the Perfume River, observing the river life on houseboats and sampans.
After a half hour, the towering 17th century seven-story pagoda, Thien Mu, perched above the shore, came into view. Ironically, it was the site of violent protests in the early sixties against the U.S.-backed Diem regime. Today the temple is a serene place where monks deliver incantations.

Next, we went to a local hotel for lunch. Prominent on the buffet table were shrimp, prepared in various ways. Farm-raised shrimp and seafood are among Vietnam’s staples and one of its fastest growing exports.

After lunch, we entered the vast Dong Ba Market, one of the must-see sites for its size and variety of commodities. The intense colors and mix of smells is almost an assault on the senses. All manner of food-vegetables, meat, fish, seafood-as well as clothing, crafts and jewelry is on display. Everything appears fresh, but in the stifling 90-degree heat and high humidity, the sight of un-refrigerated pork next to writhing crabs didn’t seem appetizing.
Back on the bus, there was one more stop-the magnificent tomb of Minh Mang, considered the most brilliant of the Nguyen Dynasty which reigned in the 19th – 20th centuries.

This turned out to be one of the highlights of that day’s tour. The tomb is located eight miles outside of Hue in a beautiful country setting. It overlooks the Perfume River, on one side, and a lake, on the other. Cool and tranquil. Statues of horses and elephants guard the entry to a series of temples and pagodas, leading up to a massive burial mound. The tomb’s lovely green and yellow tiles glisten in the sun.
Because of road-repair work, our return journey on the two-lane highway that connects north and south was particularly tedious. During the war’s aftermath, the population has exploded, and the country’s infrastructure has yet to catch up. Our driver also had to be wary of the trucks which were often stopped by officers along the roadside. He said that the cops were “shaking down” the drivers. “The police are getting rich this way,” he said, cynically.

Our next day at sea took us farther south toward Ho Chinh Minh City, Saigon, as it was known before 1975.

A sea day gave us another chance to appreciate our ship, Crystal Symphony. Not only beautiful, she is well-planned with numerous comfortable lounges in which to relax or listen to live music or enrichment lectures.

Those waking up in time could avail themselves of breakfast in the Crystal Dining Room or in the Lido Cafe, a buffet on the pool deck. Either spot presented attractive and delicious offerings such as light, crisp waffles, fluffy omelets or assorted hot and cold cereals.

Executive Chef Markus Nufer and staff presented the finest cuisine we have ever had on board a ship. From the Bon Voyage Dinner through the Farewell Dinner, each evening’s selections were attractively presented, delicious and just the right size. One of our table mates enjoyed duck prepared numerous ways over the course of our journey, while the rest were enthusiastic about the various steak, lamb and seafood offerings. Another at the table was on a gluten-free diet and was pampered with special breads by Mukesh, our efficient and friendly server.

Two other dining rooms-Silk Road for Asian fare and Prego for Italian-offered outstanding options, the latter renowned for its signature cream soup of selected Italian mushrooms. Twice on our 11-day journey the crew prepared a luncheon buffet poolside-one an Asian buffet and the other an All American barbecue with meats, chili, apple pie among the tasty selections.
The attention to details is what makes this ship so special. Whether it’s the decor in the dining rooms or the design and colors in the staterooms it is a gorgeous ship. Thick pile carpets in either blue, rose or lavender mark the cabin passageways. Once inside, cabins are light and airy and feature a large closet with sliding doors.

The cruise also had a golf theme. For golfers our stops in Chan May, HCM city and final destination, Bangkok, Thailand, provided opportunities to play. Crystal offers three golf-themed cruises a year in destinations throughout the world. As ours did, each has a PGA instructor on board to give special attention to players.

We had two days in Ho Chi Minh City which gave us many options for activities. A city tour was our first-day choice; the next we went on our own.
Going to town, we noticed the bus was in a thicket of motor bikes. Only an occasional car or truck was spotted amid shoulder-to-shoulder cyclists. Of the near seven million people in HCM City, we learned, one-half own a motorbike. With virtually no public transportation, all day seemed like rush hour.

Nearly every family member-husband, wife, teenagers-have a motor bike, our guide said. He also pointed out that there are an alarming number of accidents; careless driving and hazardous roads are a major problem.
Because Vietnam was a French colony-French Indo China from 1887 to 1947-there is a decided European influence on the city’s architecture. On the list of tour stops was the mammoth Central Post Office. This gothic building was designed in the early 20th Century by famous architect Gustave Eiffel. Its high ceiling brings to mind Parisian market halls; fans hum among ornamental pillars and sunlight streams from windows above.

Across from the post office, we visited Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1880. With white twin spires atop the red-brick building and beautiful stained glass windows inside, this is a stately companion to the lively Buddhist temple close by.

The exquisite 19th Century Thien Hau Temple is the country’s most popular religious site. The Vietnamese are largely Buddhist and, along with monks and tourists, there were many worshippers. As we entered, incense wafted amidst twirling metal mobiles hanging from the ceiling–the total effect was dizzying. Along the temple wall, were delicately carved scenes from epic battles and daily life. We could have spent a half-day here, but it was soon time to move on.
Next, we went to the impressive Reunification Hall. The seat of government for President Diem of South Vietnam at the beginning of the war, it became the site of the official handover of power to the Communists after the fall of Saigon in 1975. This is the location of the only large, park-like green area in the heart of the city. Young and old gather here to stroll or relax on benches.

While heading back to port, we noticed many small, narrow three-to four-story buildings. The guide said that numerous extended families, including his own, live in these type homes. Since government provides no social security, he said, the young have to support the old.

Typically, three generations live in one dwelling. In the guide’s family, his parents live on the first floor. He and siblings with their families live on the other floors. His sister-in-law does the cooking, and the household of 12 eat together every day. Since every family member from teenage on needs a bicycle, he said finding parking places for them could be a problem. In the city, we had seen as many as five on a bike, though.
The last day we first visited the controversial War Remnants Museum. Divided into five sections, the museum deals with the cause and origins of the war, according to Vietnam officials, that is.

The “Requiem” part is the most moving with photos taken by journalists worldwide; the most contentious portion is the “Vestiges of War Crimes and Aftermath,” showing photos of war victims, injured from such as bombings and “Agent Orange” attacks. The photographs of the debilitated and dead are both haunting and sickening. As guide books point out, this exhibit is not politically balanced, with much undocumented.
We later talked to Vietnam War veterans aboard ship who had visited the museum. Some were angry about the exhibits; others moved by them.

Regarding the Vietnam War, there were several ship excursions listed, most notably Memories of War. This included a stop at the Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located near the city. These are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country.

The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots during combat. They served as supply routes, hospitals, weapon caches and living quarters. The role of the tunnel systems in winning the war should not be underestimated, experts say. Among other things, the tunnels indicate the stubborn persistence of the North Vietnamese in prolonging the war, eventually persuading the weary Americans to get out.

For lunch, we wanted to go to eat pho at a place where the locals go. We had eaten pho a few times in Southern California’s Little Vietnam and loved this succulent noodle dish. We asked our guide about it the previous day. He recommended a couple places but stressed that we go to Pho 24. When we got there it was obvious that this was a cut above small eating places we had passed. With its decorator touches and clean cut furniture it looked more like a Corner Bakery in the U.S. It became obvious the guide thought we should go to a sleeker place.

We found later that this is one of a chain of several in Vietnam and Cambodia, geared for the better-off and tourists. As it was, the pho was great…the bill for two, plus drinks, only seven dollars.

Time to say goodbye to Vietnam. We sailed that night for Bangkok. For us, Vietnam and the cruise were everything we hoped for and more.

For information on Crystal Cruises, call (800) 711-4230 or www.crystalcruise.com.

Photos by Gail Taylor

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If sales are all about forming relationships, then the women of the Black Hmong tribe in northwestern Vietnam should write the marketing book. This discovery was made on a recent trip to visit Vietnam’s small ethnic minority tribes, many of them located in the mountains surrounding Sapa. These include the Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and Red Dao people.

Thanks to its cool weather in the long, hot summer months, Sapa was a hill station retreat for the French when they colonized Vietnam. It fell into disrepair until recently. As Vietnam has attracted more travelers and as more Vietnamese have been able to vacation, the area has grown into quite the resort, sporting over 100 hotels. This has been a financial blessing to the local tribes whose villages are near Sapa.

I was traveling with two girlfriends. Our plan was to trek through the valley with a guide and explore some local villages. As we walked out of Sapa, we were surprised to be joined by six women of the Black Hmong tribe dressed in their colorful headresses. They are named for the dark indigo dye used in their clothes. Two of them paired up with one of us. “Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from? How many children do you have?” At first, I was resistant to their questions, but they were so friendly and kind that I opened up and began to question them also. They had items to sell but there was no mention of that.
We meandered down into the valley, chatting and visiting. The path became very steep, muddy and slick as we turned off the main road. The women gently took our arms and steadied us as we descended to the river level. Our group paused at one of the women’s houses for her to briefly nurse her baby. At Lao Chi, we stopped at a restaurant where our guide was to cook us lunch. It was there, two hours after the start of the trek, that we finally looked at the women’s goods. They had invested much of their time getting to know us (and we them,) hoping we would buy something. Obviously, we did. It helped that they had some nice selections of the embroidered purses, pillow covers, and wall hangings that we had seen in Sapa stores. But we would have bought something anyway, simply because we were now on a first name basis and had shared so much personal information. After hugs, Yen, Coo, Zoa, Lillie, My and Zaa left, and we had lunch seated in an open air restaurant overlooking the river and dormant rice fields.

After lunch we discovered that this marketing system was not limited to one walk. As we continued on, twelve new Hmong women joined us. “Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from? How many children do you have?” I don’t know if the word got out that we were generous buyers, but more women continued to join us. When we finally stopped at our destination, 22 women were walking with us. We couldn’t buy from all of them and actually we bought very little from the second group. But they candidly said that was okay, “there would be other visitors.”
From our walks with the women (there were more walks), we learned that the men are too shy to sell. Because the women are now selling, the men have assumed extra chores, including minding the children. The villages have even brought in English teachers to help them with the vocabulary they need. There is a system among those selling in the villages. Only one sale per person is allowed until all in the group have made a sale. They share goods among themselves to be sure everyone gets a sale.

During the next couple of days, we would see some of our new friends in the marketplace or on the streets of Sapa. They always smiled and said hello but did not ask us again to buy. Not all of the Hmong women were so disciplined as we were often approached on the Sapa streets to buy. It is certainly a risk that this new found industry could seem like begging. But we were impressed with the self-imposed rules that the village women used to protect both us and them.

The business schools in our universities could learn some lessons from the Hmong women. After all of the business, marketing, and financial plans, the decision to buy is an individual one. And being on a first name basis can tip the scale.

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Vietnam has no room left for walking around.  It is a nation on a motorcycle, or sometimes a bicycle or pedicab.  Yes, there are sidewalks.  But in the Vietnamese view, a sidewalk is for parking your motorcycle on, eating on while sitting on a low plastic stool, and selling wares – almost anything except walking, at least judging from the stench that arises after a few days without rain.

A whole family can ride on a motorcycle, daddy drives while in the back mommy carries junior, who is somehow able to sleep soundly despite the roar and honking of rush hour traffic.  No one wears a helmet and few are without the scars of an accident.

Motorbikes are not just for getting from one place to another either.  You wouldn’t want to leave your bike unattended, because then it might get stolen.  Most Vietnamese pay someone to watch their motorcycle when they park it, but others save money by sitting on it all day long.  There are groups of motorcycle taxi drivers who even eat and sleep on their vehicles while waiting for fares.

On Saturday evening in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, men drive their dates to the waterfront and park.  In open areas of the city, you can see rows of couples sitting on their bikes while talking or necking.   This is a perhaps as much privacy as these couples ever get as it is common for a one bedroom apartment to have twelve residents.

There is no real reason to walk around in Ho Chi Minh.  The car taxi fare for a short distance is about a dollar and no tip is expected.   I was once charged a mere $18 for a ride out to the suburbs, yet managed to feel outraged and ripped off.   But as a former New Yorker, I like to walk around all the same.

This raises the ire of the motorcycle taxi drivers, who shout “Motorbike! Motorbike!”  or  “Motorbike you!” at me every few minutes.  Meanwhile, I struggle for the nearest Vietnamese equivalent to, “No, I prefer not to ride in your deathmobile today.”  Actually, to call these people “motorcycle taxi drivers” is to glorify this behavior since it is often just a guy with a motorcycle who happens to be driving by.

One driver got pretty steamed at me, came up and said, “Every day, I see you walk around.  You just want to save money!  It’s not good! Not good!”

So when I was planning my trip to the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong, it was with some trepidation that I realized that getting there would require a lengthy bike ride. Of course, I could have rented a car, but I figured that would attract unwanted attention.

Thanh Phong gained considerable notoriety in April 2001 when former Senator Bob Kerrey (D.-Neb.) confessed to having committed “an atrocity” when he led a commando raid on the village during the Vietnam War.  I wanted to find out what effect this ruckus had on today’s residents.

Kerrey’s U.S. Navy SEAL team killed up to twenty-seven villagers in the raid, which occurred on February 25, 1969.  One victim was an old man and the rest were women and children.  Kerrey claims that his team fired only in response to enemy fire, but this claim is disputed by a member his own team as well as by Pham Tri Lanh and Bui Thi Luom, both survivors of the massacre.   Kerrey received the Bronze Star for his conduct that night.  He is now president of the New School University in New York.

Just so that I don’t keep you in suspense any longer, I will now address the common questions people ask about Vietnam.  No, I don’t encounter much anti-Americanism.  My students at Vietnam National University talk about former North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh as if he is a god, but they don’t express much in the way of political opinion beyond that.   When I asked why she liked Ho, one student responded, “He could speak six languages and drove out the French.” (Apparently, this is a version of Ho’s life redacted to avoid offending the American teacher.)

As far as current government policy goes, everyone seems to be a happy camper.  They may not have a choice, however.   Several people I talked to seemed frightened when I asked them political questions and told me that the police arrested people who discussed such issues.

Yes, Vietnamese still wear pajamas in public, even in the cities.  Nowadays, it is almost always women who wear them and most have abandoned traditional black in favor of brighter colors.  In addition, conical straw hats are still common, especially in the countryside.  The hats prevent tanning, which Vietnamese associate with manual labor.

Finally, the traditional dress, called an ao dai, really is gorgeous.  The high school girls wear a blindingly white, gossamer ao dai as a uniform. (To keep it clean, they have to wash it by hand every day.)  Shop clerks and bank tellers wear less revealing ao dais of various colors.  Otherwise, you don’t see the dress all that often nowadays.

Thanh Phong is only 75 miles from Ho Chi Minh, but the village is far from major roads and in a remote part the undeveloped Mekong Delta region.  To get there, I first took a two-hour bus ride to the city of Mytho, which is located on the edge of the delta.   I had heard horror stories about Vietnamese buses and was pleasantly surprised to find that the national bus company now has used buses recently purchased from South Korea.

Mytho offers a wide selection of boat rides to tourists seeking views of delta.   Did I mention the boat rides?  There are as many people selling boat rides in Mytho as there are real estate salesmen in Orlando.

I went to the several travel agencies and finally found one that connected me with Sang, a driver who spoke some English.  The trip from Mytho to Thanh Phong takes three hours and requires using three ferries.

We took an off road through banana and coconut groves, lush forests, and villages that time forgot.  Children guided farm animals by the side of the dirt road, which later narrowed to single lane bicycle and motorcycle path.  Huts made of bamboo, board, and thatch lined the path.

Those villages won’t be forgotten for long.   The whole of southern Bentre Province, which includes Thanh Phong, is a hive of construction work.  Brand-new buildings dot the landscape while workers with heavy equipment build new bridges.

Getting back to the main road confirmed my suspicion of Vietnamese motorcycles.  A bike in the oncoming lane veered into our lane, attempting an impossible pass.   With a family of four bearing down on us, I flinched in a futile attempt to use Sang as a steering device and – WHAM  — the foot rest of the oncoming vehicle whacked my foot as it passed.  Sang moved over to the right and stopped while the other driver continued his grand prix racing practice.

“He is really crazy,” Sang said as I got off and hobbled around.  I checked my foot and it looked OK, although by that evening my middle toe had turned blue.  After a minute or two I got back on and we continued toward Thanh Phong.

After the third ferry, the road turns to dirt with deep ruts.  The forest disappears and there are paddies and thatch huts on both sides of the road.  A sign marks the border of Thanh Phong commune.

This commune was formed by merging the original of village of Thanh Phong with five nearby villages, creating a town of two to four thousand residents.

The first family we met in Thanh Phong commune invited us into their house and served us tea.  Eleven villagers gathered around, laughing and smiling as Sang translated my questions.  Nguyen Van Ri, the head of the household, explained that he had, “only seven children.”

Ri, 45, was once a woodcutter, but now earns his living by raising shrimp and fish.  A year earlier, the family had moved into a newly built modern house, which cost them about $13,000.   Before they moved to the new home, they had only a battery-powered radio.  Now they have a television.  But unlike every television I saw in Ho Chi Minh and Mytho, this one was turned off.

One older woman said she had been burned by napalm as a child during the war.  The others said they were too young to remember anything from that time.

However, they did remember the reporters who came to Thanh Phong at the time of the revelations concerning Kerrey.

“A lot of foreign reporters came to Thanh Phong,” Ri said.  “Most of them were African.”

No one in the family knew who Kerrey was or even who Lanh was, although she is a celebrity in Vietnam and I wrote out her name for them.

The villagers are certainly very friendly people and without grudges.  When I showed interest in one of the daughters, her mother laughed and said, “No, take this one” and offered me her eldest daughter.  I declined the offer.

After taking our leave, we proceeded passed some graves, more paddies, and the commune’s volleyball court to arrive at the center of town.  This is was Thanh Phong village proper, judging from an old U.S. Army map I consulted later.  (Modern maps for sale in Vietnam have very little detail – can’t give away military secrets.)

In 1969, the village had about one hundred residents who lived in four or five communal huts strung out along the shoreline.  Behind that, there was only forest.  On my visit, I saw family huts, several storefronts, a restaurant, a police station, a primary school, and a post office, all of which looked like they were built years ago.  Only a few patches of forest remained near the shore.

At the time Kerrey made his confession, Thanh Phong’s residents were described in press reports as the poorest of the poor.  The village is now in the grip of feverish development, with earth moving tractors and new houses all over town.   There is even a brand new church and freshly built monuments to commemorate the commune’s role in the war.

These monuments do not relate to Kerrey’s raid, but rather to Thanh Phong’s status as a center for seaborne gun running.  A plaque describes the commune as the southern terminus of a “Ho Chi Minh Seaway” by which the Vietcong rebels in South Vietnam received weapons from North Vietnam.  I find no suggestion in historical literature that the commune played a major role in weapons smuggling.

We finally stopped at a café, or perhaps I should say a counter with some plastic stools on the dirt in front of it.  Villagers began to gather around as soon as we sat down.  These still lived in thatch huts.  They raised shrimp and did manual labor, earning about $1 a day, they said.

“People move here, but they are rich people,” said one.  “They come here to do business.  The villagers here are still poor.”

Those who fought with the Vietcong have either died or retired and gone to Ho Chi Minh, they told me.  They themselves are too poor to move, they said.

The villagers who were at the café when I first arrived had no memories of the war and knew nothing about the controversy surrounding the village.   But later a woman came by and showed me an old scar.

“In 1972, I was burned by napalm,” she said.  “Five people died and two were injured.”

At this point, the interview was cut short when several policemen arrived and directed us to follow them to the station, which turned out to be across the road and just behind some trees.  The police chief told me he didn’t want me talking to people or taking pictures.

Although the monuments and the write-up about Thanh Phong in literature put out by the provincial tourist office suggest that the commune is being prepared for tourism, the local police do not seem to be on board as of yet.

“Tell him I talked to the Bentre tourist office before I came,” I said to Sang.  “I told them I would come here and talk to people.  No one told me that there would be any problem.”

The chief was unimpressed.  “He says that if you want to talk to people, you need to get permission from the police before you come,” Sang told me.

After about an hour, the police gave me back my passport.  I figured it was time to leave, got up and walked out.  But then the police took Sang’s identity card and told us we had to wait for an officer from Bentre City to come and interview me.

In the meantime, I teased the children who stood outside the office, gawking at the exotic beast that had suddenly arrived in their village.  I also entertained Thanh Phong’s finest with the wonders of digital photography.

When the officer from Bentre arrived, he began by talking to me in Vietnamese, apparently trying to trick me into answering in Vietnamese in the manner of an interrogator in a spy thriller.  However, as I have cleverly neglected to learn the language, I managed to remain one step ahead.

From the officer’s questions, I gathered that his primary concern was that I might have been talking about politics with the villagers.  I told him I that I was interested in writing only about the daily life of the local people and he seemed satisfied.  He then asked to see my pictures and listen to the tape I made.

“You should always travel with a guide,” the officer warned.  “It is not safe.  Many people hate Americans.”

After spending a total of six hours at the station, I was finally released.  The delay meant I would have to do something I worried about a lot more then meeting people who hated Americans: biking across the delta after sunset.

The now invisible ruts tossed me around like I was on a roller coaster ride. When we got to the paved road, the ride became even less comfortable.  The private homes we passed were unlit, presumably not wired for electricity.  Rural stretches were as dark as caves and I worried irrationally about whether Sang could see the traffic.

As we approached a turn, flames leaped up from a spot straight ahead of us, creating a spectacular fiery show.  It was a motorcycle wreck by the side of the road.  The driver was attempting to put out the fire with a small bowel of water.  He had apparently taken the turn at too high a speed.   By the time I got the Bentre and checked into a hotel, I was exhausted from worry.  Bentre, the provincial capital, played a cameo role in the Tet offensive as the town the U.S. Army had to “destroy in order to save.”

The next day I went to the tourist office, but now they wouldn’t tell me anything and just referred all my questions to the “people’s committee” (provincial government).   When I arrived at the people’s committee building, I noticed that it is also police headquarters.  Since I really didn’t want to deal with the police anymore, I took the bus back to Ho Chi Minh.

For Kerrey, Thanh Phong is a memory that haunts him. But I will remember the beautiful countryside and the hospitality of warm and inquisitive villagers.  It is still a poor place where most residents live in thatch huts without electricity, yet people seem happy to be with their families and in their hometown.  It is also a town in a hurry to join to the twenty-first century, where modern buildings and conveniences sprout like mushrooms.