Vietnam, Feb 4 � 18, 2006
This was a trip of a lifetime. For Towney, it was going back to places that caused him to grow up, maybe too fast. For Wendy, it was a return to a part of the world that she loves, and one that hasn�t become too jet setting, and is still kind of honest.
Background � Towney spent a lot of time in Vietnam in 1969-1970 in not too great situation. There was a war going on. He was flying helicopters, Hueys, in the Central Highlands of what was then South Vietnam, close to the town of Pleiku, a rural settlement with no more than 30,000 residents. The area was surrounded by ride paddies, hills and almost mountains, and a lot of the population around was Montegnard villagers, hill tribes with their own culture, language and way of life. The area is not far from the borders of Laos and Cambodia.
At a reunion of the 189th Assault Helicopter Company near Washington DC last fall, we met a man named George who was not only a member of the 189th, but a travel organizer. He had a dream to go back to Vietnam. We signed on right away. The price was right, and it was an opportunity that happens only once in a blue moon.
So, with passports, traveler�s checks and a travel diary in hand, we left Burlington on February 4 for a flight to Los Angeles via Chicago. We spent the night at the Hacienda Hotel, close to the airport. Not much to sightsee around there, but we were there for Superbowl Sunday, and the local watering hole was fine for that.
We flew Cathay Pacific across the big pond (aka Pacific Ocean). The flight was just after midnight, but the check in was very confusing and time consuming, but we did make it onto the plane, a 747, and settled into our seats at the back of coach (window seats, but just the two of us, and the Bunnies!), watched the movie, ate amazingly good airplane food (two meals!), drank their wine � and landed in Hong Kong. This is the new airport north of the city. Kai Tak is gone, and the landing is much less exciting than before. There are mountains close by, and water, but it is far from the city. We were there for a couple of hours, so did some shopping and relaxing before getting the next flight to Ho Chi Minh City (but still called Saigon by everyone but those who are official � so that�s what I will call it from now on!)
We arrived in Saigon just before noon. We made it through immigration (lots of returning Vietnamese), got our luggage, then through customs � finally the group managed to get together and we got onto a very big bus and headed into the city.
First impressions? Lots of people waiting outside the terminal meeting travelers, quonset
huts by the runways, some with old Hueys without rotors, lots and lots of motorbikes, and the sounds and smells of an Asian city. That�s not a bad thing! Hot, of course. The airport is very 60s Russian style, but the new one that is being built � wow! It will be the kind of airport that we see in Bangkok, Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong. What kind of future is this country anticipating?
Driving through the city, more and more motorbikes, shophouses, power lines, people,
people, people �
We were staying at the Asian Hotel, a tourist hotel, but not at all fancy. Good location, though. We had our welcoming dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. This could have been the first and last time that the entire group would be together. There was one subgroup that was going up to Danang to give a donation to the landmine group (this group, from Long Island, was centered around a man who had lost both of his legs there). The food was good! We had gone there after sitting at the rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel for some libations.
GEORGE DESERRES, GERRY SANDLIN and TOWNEY SAUSVILLE
The Rex was where a lot of the foreign news correspondents had spent time during the war.
We also had done some preliminary shopping. There is lots to buy, and the prices are amazingly cheap. Our first scores were some laquerware and postcards.
We tried very hard to adapt to the local time, going to bed at bedtime. And then, waking up at wake up time! Then breakfast for a kind of western breakfast � One thing that we noticed, and this was confirmed throughout the entire trip everywhere � the French left one great legacy � the bread! They call it panne, and they are awesome little French loaves! The butter is canned, mostly from Europe.
The next day (Wednesday) the group split up. One part went on a trip to the Delta (some of the vets on the tour had been stationed there, and others were curious). The other, including us, decided to stay in the city and see the sights there. We started at the market at Cholan, the Chinese section of Saigon. I had known a lot of people from that part of the city in Edmonton (including Wendy Chau!), so I was interested in seeing it. And yes, it was very much a very Chinese section, and the market, which is a wholesale market, had just about everything that you would every want, and more!
From there we visited three religious sites, a Chinese temple (with the joss sticks and other offerings, lots of incense), a Buddhist temple, and then a Daoist temple.
The latter was the busiest by a long shot. And, one of the most interesting things was the turtles. I gather that people bring offerings of turtles (other places have birds, for example). There are lots of turtles in the ponds by the entrance.
Lunch was our first introduction to Pho, the Vietnamese national dish, I think, and certainly their signature breakfast! It is basically a very nice beef noodle soup with herbs and vegetables. Yum!