Just prior to leading our May 2000 expeditions, which circumnavigated Japan's Honshu Island followed by a voyage northwards through the Kuril Islands, I completed a most amazing 16-day scouting trip to Vietnam. Zegrahm Expeditions is planning two Vietnam programs in 2001 and my goal was to define the best that a visit to this country could offer our clients. Before arriving in Hanoi City, I anticipated a country of tranquil rice fields, scenic coastline, and colorful people. Not surprisingly, I encountered all this, along with many unexpected and amusing experiences that I know will make for a fascinating exploration of Vietnam next year.
Upon arrival in Hanoi City Airport, my guide Paul drove me through the serene countryside where graceful women in straw conical hats tended emerald-colored, terraced rice fields. As we entered the city, however, this tranquil setting suddenly morphed into the frantic pace of bustling traffic. Bicycles, motorbikes, cyclos, tuc-tucs and a few buses, trucks, and cars weaved and zig-zagged down the road in harmonious chaos. To my Western mind, this mayhem of traffic could never work, as there were no stop signs, almost no traffic lights, and an inordinate number of bustling pedestrians. I tried to imagine briefing the passengers next year on "how to cross a Vietnamese street," especially following a long trans-Pacific flight.
It took me only a short while to realize that Vietnam is the perfect destination to be explored by ship. Traveling the long, curving coastline of spectacular scenery, our floating home aboard the Clipper Odyssey will provide the perfect base from which to experience the country's natural and cultural wonders.
The Vietnam coast is home to great beauty found in areas such as Halong Bay where towering limestone formations rise from the calm sea. Local legend claims that celestial dragons created the area and were so entranced by its beauty that they took up permanent residence, giving rise to the literal translation of the name - "dragon descending." Hue, Vietnam's cultural and historic center, is the site of some of the most impressive architecture in the country, including the Imperial City, Citadel, and the seven-tier Thien Mu Pagoda. I was particularly excited to discover that the beach at Nha Trang offers a tempting invitation for snorkelers and divers alike to explore the waters that lap at its fringes.
Culturally, Vietnam is equally intriguing and diverse. Whether it was watching a traditional water puppet performance, observing the delicate craft of incense-smoking, or marveling at the women of Hoi An who spin fibers directly from the cocoons of silk worms, Vietnam's centuries-old culture provided me with a remarkable selection of activities to offer for the expeditions. In contrast, modern Ho Chi Minh City provided the perfect place to "people watch" and experience modern-day Vietnamese life.
Most people, upon hearing the word "Vietnam," cannot help but immediately think of the war. My visit to the 17th parallel in the heart of the former Demilitarized Zone quickly brought the realities of "The American War," as the Vietnamese refer to it, to life. The Vinh Moc Tunnels (not to be confused with Chu Chi Tunnels) are open to visitors as a poignant reminder of the battles that took place. This two-kilometer long network of man-made tunnels served as an underground village to some 600 Vietnamese during the almost continuous bombardment by the West.
Although the war is not forgotten here, the healing power of time is evident in the warm, smiling faces that greeted me at every turn. Throughout my travels, I was met with open arms and made to feel most welcome by the locals. The Vietnamese are among the friendliest people I have ever encountered and I anxiously look forward to seeing them again in 2001 when I travel with Zegrahm passengers through this most fascinating country.