Ho Chi Minh City is a crowded place, with more than 8 million people and almost as many motorbikes. Everybody drives wildly and getting across streets can be something of an adventure. Hanoi was much the same, though marginally less congested than HCMC. There are still not many private cars in Vietnam. Not only are most people unable to afford cars, the government keeps duties on imported cars very high to prevent, by design one assumes, widespread car ownership. This is probably not a bad thing. One can only imagine what a traffic nightmare HMHC would be if most of the people on motorbikes in this photo were driving cars instead. Think Beijing or Bangkok. It will be interesting to see how Vietnam deals with car ownership as the country develops and its population becomes more affluent over time. In general I know I believe that, with a global population of around 7 billion these days, more than half of whom live in urban areas, we need to be rethinking our commitment to private cars as a way to get around cities.
Hoi An, about 20 km south of Danang, has become a major tourist attraction for its UNESCO World Heritage site Ancient City and its beautiful beaches. Curious, I took a public bus from Danang to take a look. I had intended to make it a day trip, though I actually stayed for no more than a couple of hours. The part of Hoi An I found myself in was mobbed with tourists and everything I saw there, from the shops selling tee shirts, (allegedly) local handicrafts, and artwork to the cafes and restaurants, to the ubiquitous men with motorbikes pitching rides, was designed to part tourists from their money. Yes, the architecture was interesting and the old town was certainly quaint, maybe authentically so, but the atmosphere proclaimed very loudly, “Tourist trap.” If I had given myself a couple of days to explore, I suspect I could have found parts of Hoi An that were worth visiting. But that is not how I had organized my trip and, as it was, I quickly became fed up with the crowds and the feeling that the whole place was about money. I took a couple of dozen photos, one of which is posted here, walked back to the bus station, and two hours after arriving took another public bus back to Danang. At least I can say I have been to Hoi An.
Hue, today a small city in central Vietnam, served as the capital of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 until the end of WWII in 1945 when the last emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated and the communist Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh established a government in Hanoi. As you may recall, Ho and the communists had some trouble making independence a reality. It was not until 30 years later that the North Vietnamese had managed to toss out the French and the Americans, defeat their rivals in the south of Vietnam, and establish a unified state. In any case, the Southern Gate (Ngọ Môn) pictured here was the principal ceremonial entrance to the Imperial Enclosure of the old Imperial City. Although restoration work is ongoing, the grounds and buildings inside are for the most part rather rundown, ironically giving the entire place a quietly muted grandeur. I was reminded of my first visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in 1987, before all of the buildings had been restored and brightly painted, making the place look more like a movie set than the location used by Chinese emperors for imperial ceremonies. The Southern Gate has already been restored and its look and feel suggest that the Vietnamese may (thankfully) be a bit less “enthusiastic” than the Chinese in their approach to restoration.
The Hanoi Opera House was literally glowing in late afternoon sunlight when I came upon it. Completed by the French in 1911, the building is a reminder of Vietnam’s past as a colony of France. The Vietnamese flag flying a top the building, however, leaves no doubt about who is in charge today.