Immersed in the diverse culture of Vietnam

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by Lee Daley, Sausalito, CA

On a month-long trip in Southeast Asia, we spent two weeks of December ’04 in Vietnam, a time of warm and balmy weather. Our trip culminated in a festive Christmas Eve celebration in Ho Chi Minh City, still colloquially called Saigon by visitors and residents.

For my traveling companion, it was a return to memories of a people and country that, in the early ’70s as an Army soldier, had charmed and captivated him with its natural beauty. For me, it was a chance to visit a place I had experienced only from a distance when, as a young woman, I watched scenes of devastation on the evening news from the security of my home in America.

Exotic names like Saigon, Da Nang, the Mekong Delta, Ha Long Bay, Hanoi and the infamous Hanoi Hilton that had become part of the landscape of my subconscious came to life in ways I’d never imagined as we traveled southward through the country from Hanoi to Saigon.

Best of both worlds

Other than two nights in Hoi An, we used Hanoi and Saigon as our base, fanning out into the countryside for side trips. This juxtaposition of city and country vastly enriched our cultural immersion. No sooner had our spirits overdosed on a city’s vibrant and vivacious street life than the laconic landscape of the countryside provided a calming counterpoint.

From Hanoi’s very modern Noi Bai Airport, we took a 45-minute taxi ride to our accommodations in the heart of the city. (We had booked accommodations with Idyll Untours, who later pulled operations out of Vietnam due to the SARS epidemic. They have not, as yet, reestablished services there.) Because we were within walking distance of Hoan Kiem Lake, we made several early morning photography forays to the lake, where local residents gather in droves.

Willow-shaded benches lined the walkway along the lake’s curved shore, and groups of Vietnamese, old and young, vigorously exercised in the soft morning light while the lone t’ai chi practitioner could be seen here and there. Men and women seemed to form separate friendship groups, sitting and chatting on benches as the city slowly warmed with the rising sun.

Navigating Hanoi’s streets

For a Westerner, stepping into the streets of Hanoi is an act of bravery. Mopeds, bicycles and cyclos careen madly past. Pedestrians pulling handcarts, and even the sporadic pony cart, all vie for position. No one stops. Doing so is tantamount to suicide.

I quickly learned that by stepping into this maelstrom I became a player in a street ballet. My role required that I keep moving until I reached the other side, having, I hoped, conducted myself admirably in one of the world’s most chaotic examples of improvised choreography.

Seeming worlds away from the serenity of the lake but located just across Cau Go Street is the tumultuous jigsaw of narrow lanes that make up Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Dating back to medieval times, the 36 byways of the quarter still bear names reflecting the artisanal trades that flourished there more than six centuries ago.

We loved wandering the quarter’s sinuous side alleys, stopping to sip fresh-roasted coffee at a sidewalk café and buying prayer flags to bring home.

In the French Quarter, wide boulevards lined with tamarind trees evoked a timelessness that seemed untouched by the tide of vehicles zipping by. We found that traversing the city by foot did the most justice to our sightseeing jaunts, only succumbing to the occasional cyclo ride when we felt brave enough. The front cab of a cyclo (a bicycle-drawn rickshaw) normally holds two passengers, but we often saw drivers straining to pedal a cab stuffed with three or four.

From dawn to dusk, the pavements are full. Each morning, one can observe young women carrying baskets of warm bread while soup vendors squat over steaming pots of pho, a rice noodle soup with chicken or beef. Entrepreneurs everywhere sell flowers, shoe shines, fruit and vegetables while horn honks and beeps create syncopated background music. All of this activity encourages walking, and photographic opportunities abound.

Ha Long Bay

Kim Café (31 Ta Hien; www. kimcafetravel.com), a combination Internet café/travel agency, was recommended to us for booking side trips, and our most memorable one, an overnight trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, was booked through them. Our all-inclusive package (under $25) included transport, lodging, exploration of island caves and a boat cruise of Ha Long Bay.

The fully occupied bus containing a mix of Canadian, American, European, Asian and Australian travelers left Hanoi very early for the 4-hour drive through the countryside, where we observed lots of new homes under construction along the main road. Village scenes were interspersed with miles of rice farms, where barefoot farmers worked the fields alongside water buffalo.

Overnighting in Cat Ba at the very clean and pleasant Sunflower Hotel, we awoke early the next morning, throwing open the windows to a scenic view of the boat-filled harbor.

Our 5-hour cruise along Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was unrushed and peaceful. Thousands of limestone outcroppings rise up out of the sea like dragon’s teeth. Some appear barren, rocky and weatherworn while others, heavily cloaked in vegetation, hide their stone surfaces in greenery. It felt as though we had fallen into an Asian brush painting.

Shortly before lunchtime a fishing family of four pulled a small vessel alongside our huge wooden boat, offering up buckets full of freshly caught lobster and crab. We purchased huge portions, enough for a feast, and before long that’s exactly what we enjoyed, compliments of the fine cooking of our onboard chef.

Handicrafts for sale

Upon returning to Hanoi, we visited the Craft Link organization (43 Van Mieu). This is a not-for-profit outlet for marginalized handicraft workers throughout the country. Their shop sells wonderfully original products such as hand-carved wooden objects, furniture, silk scarves, lacquerware and other handicrafts made by ethnic minorities.

Vietnam has more ethnic minority groups than almost any other Asian country, and many live in the outer remote mountainous regions. Craft Link’s sales benefit these craftspeople by providing them with an outlet and teaching them good business skills to market their wares.

We found the items on sale to be very distinctive and of exceptional quality. The beautiful black silk Hmong jacket with embroidered collar I found there now hangs in my closet as an elegant reminder of classic handcrafted workmanship not found anywhere near my hometown.

Memorable meeting

Six days into our trip we flew into Da Nang and were transported by car to the beguiling city of Hoi An, about 18 miles from the airport. Our 2-night stay at the romantic Hoi An Riverside Resort (Cua Dai Rd.; phone 84 510 864800 or visit www.hoianriverresort.com) proved to be a restorative retreat. Our river-view room, set amidst lush gardens, was part of a 2-unit villa ($100 per night). Staff and service were superb.

After an early morning exploration of the countryside along the Do River, we enjoyed breakfast alfresco in the covered outdoor patio dining area where local fishermen paddled past and schoolchildren could be seen skipping along the path of the opposite bank.

While walking along the river near our hotel, we sighted a lovely bridge and detoured into the fields for a closer view. Here we met a farmer and his wife. The man asked if he could look at our cameras, then asked if we were Americans.

“Gunfire killed my father,” he told us, “in the American War.”

Stunned, we offered condolences.

“You are not to blame. You are welcome in my country,” he said, before offering to take our photo together as a memento of our meeting.

This was one of several encounters where we felt deep forgiveness, where we felt treated with the utmost humanity by survivors of Vietnam’s tragic history.

Traditions of Hoi An

Hoi An is known for its wealth of antique homes built by prosperous Chinese merchants, whose descendants now number about one-quarter of the residents. It is also popular as a textile and art center.

We were approached several times by women who asked us to visit their tailoring shops for a “fitting.” We did end up getting several outfits made at one shop and, in the process, found the subtle charms of Hoi An most exemplified in the friendliness and warmth of its people.

By the time we had been back for several fittings, we knew each of the young salesgirls at the Thu Thuy Shop (60 Le Loi St.). Although prices there were a tad higher than at other places we had checked, we found the quality of the workmanship to be superior.

We happened upon an electric performance of traditional music and dance befitting Hoi An’s reputation as a center of performing arts early one evening at the Traditional Arts Theater. Upon a cramped stage, a male dancer, fighting an imaginary foe, leapt and pounced before a rapt group of tourists and locals.

Saigon

Heading south once again, we flew via Vietnam Airlines into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport. While Hanoi had impressed us with its heritage and history, Saigon’s dynamism blew us away. For sheer energy, this city can hold its own against Manhattan, Hong Kong and any other metropolis on the planet. And yet the sweetness of the Vietnamese people still shone through. We still found sidewalk vendors selling fresh noodle soup. We still found the simple decency that had accompanied us throughout our journey.

One evening, exhausted after a day of museum visiting, we gave our cyclo driver $10 and asked him to pick up a takeout of roast duck from a recommended restaurant. Not knowing his name and not sure if he would return, we wondered if we had been too trusting. Within the half hour he returned, bearing a freshly roasted duck and wishing us a good evening.

As in Hanoi, café culture thrives in Saigon. Each morning we’d make our way to the Highland Café, a few blocks down Dong Khoi. Chic surroundings and fabulous coffee along with the complimentary house copy of the Herald Tribune made this our favorite joint for a hit of java. In the evening, scores of young people could be seen converging here with ice cream sundaes added to the menu.

Local tours

Again we used the services of an Internet café/travel office, this time the Sinh Café (head office, 30 Hàng Bè St.; fax 84 4 756 7862 or visit www.sinhcafe.com). Sinh runs a number of these cafés around Saigon, and we chose one near our apartment to book a 2-night trip into the Mekong Delta (under $25 including accommodations).

These tours are an incredible value, and we counted on the hotels in the delta to match the quality and cleanliness of our previous lodging in Ha Long Bay. While they were adequate, one cannot say any more than that. One was so basic that we could not even find the name of the hotel anywhere — a first in my experience.

Our guide, provided by Sinh Café, proved to be very knowledgeable. En route, we stopped in Can Tho. The largest city in the delta area, it’s located on the second arm of the river. To reach it we crossed the Mekong on an old ferryboat. Boatwomen ply the coffee-colored waters of the river, shielding their eyes from the searing sun with conical grass hats. Many of them are traveling to Can Tho’s colorful floating market, which we visited the next day.

Each leg of the trip found us stopping along the river to visit a different village before changing water vessels — a flat-bottomed boat, a barge, a ferry and, for the major part of our journey, a large riverboat.

The “Mighty Mekong,” as it’s called, teems with river traffic. All manner of vessels, from fragile little rowboats to massive sampans, ply its waters. Up and down the river, youngsters, like children everywhere, ran to the banks to wave as our riverboat passed.

Dining in Vietnam

Vietnamese cuisine ranks among the finest in the world. Boasting enviable natural resources, the Vietnamese diet also draws from the foreign influences of its colonial history and of its neighbors. Dating back to the 10th century, the national dish, a rice noodle soup called pho, can arguably be attributed to Mongol herdsmen from China. Costing less than $1, it is a bargain in a bowl — not only filling but delicious and satisfying.

Several large markets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and in central Saigon give the flavor of shopping Vietnamese style, so be sure to roam through one of these in each city. In both cities it’s easy to put together complete meals to take away from local vendors or from gourmet delis and bakeries.

Hanoi restaurants

Nam Phuong (19 Phan Chu Trinh) — in a lovely downtown villa setting and serving fine Vietnamese food. Live performances of traditional Vietnamese music are available on some evenings.

Au Lac (57 Ly Thai To) — behind the Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Western and Vietnamese food is served in addition to drinks and snacks. Outdoor seating is available.

Spices Garden Restaurant, in the Sofitel Metropole Hotel (15 Ngo Quyen St.), serves upmarket Vietnamese fare.

Rendez-Vous Café Bistro (136 Hang Trong) — with wonderful coffee and service.

San ho (58 Ly Thuong Kiet Street) — serving seafood and traditional Vietnamese cuisine at very reasonable prices.

Saigon restaurants

Nha Hang Hoang Long (Dragon Court, 11-13 Cong Truong Lam Son) — has scrumptious roast duck. Excellent prices.

Givral (169 Dong Khoi) — facing the Continental Hotel on Lam Son Square. This restaurant and patisserie boasts a Western and Asian menu.

Paloma Café (26 Dong Khoi) — seems to be open all the time. Offering live music nightly and romantic evening ambiance, it is also a great ice cream stop.

Highland Café (The Metropolitan Building, 235 Dong Khoi) — a stylish café and bar with a garden setting.

A farewell celebration

After our tranquil interlude on the delta, we returned once again to Saigon, diving into the city’s myriad activities, browsing bookstores and visiting art galleries and other major sights.

We spent our last night in Saigon celebrating Christmas Eve at the Sofitel Plaza Hotel (17 Le Duan Blvd., District 1; www.sofitel.com) with a lavish buffet dinner and wonderful Vietnamese entertainment. Saigon’s festive holiday spirit rivaled any New Year’s Eve celebration in the States. The markets and the upscale shops of Saigon’s huge shopping centers pulsed with activity as throngs of shoppers turned out.

Leaving the Sofitel later in the evening, close to midnight, we found the city alive with confetti-tossing revelers. By the time we reached the sanctuary of our apartment, we had become part of the throbbing throng of celebrants, covered in confetti and cocooned in the great bond of a people who were celebrating their own brand of freedom.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Lee Daley, Sausalito, CA

On a month-long trip in Southeast Asia, we spent two weeks of December ’04 in Vietnam, a time of warm and balmy weather. Our trip culminated in a festive Christmas Eve celebration in Ho Chi Minh City, still colloquially called Saigon by visitors and residents.

For my traveling companion, it was a return to memories of a people and country that, in the early ’70s as an Army soldier, had charmed and captivated him with its natural beauty. For me, it was a chance to visit a place I had experienced only from a distance when, as a young woman, I watched scenes of devastation on the evening news from the security of my home in America.

Exotic names like Saigon, Da Nang, the Mekong Delta, Ha Long Bay, Hanoi and the infamous Hanoi Hilton that had become part of the landscape of my subconscious came to life in ways I’d never imagined as we traveled southward through the country from Hanoi to Saigon.

Best of both worlds

Other than two nights in Hoi An, we used Hanoi and Saigon as our base, fanning out into the countryside for side trips. This juxtaposition of city and country vastly enriched our cultural immersion. No sooner had our spirits overdosed on a city’s vibrant and vivacious street life than the laconic landscape of the countryside provided a calming counterpoint.

From Hanoi’s very modern Noi Bai Airport, we took a 45-minute taxi ride to our accommodations in the heart of the city. (We had booked accommodations with Idyll Untours, who later pulled operations out of Vietnam due to the SARS epidemic. They have not, as yet, reestablished services there.) Because we were within walking distance of Hoan Kiem Lake, we made several early morning photography forays to the lake, where local residents gather in droves.

Willow-shaded benches lined the walkway along the lake’s curved shore, and groups of Vietnamese, old and young, vigorously exercised in the soft morning light while the lone t’ai chi practitioner could be seen here and there. Men and women seemed to form separate friendship groups, sitting and chatting on benches as the city slowly warmed with the rising sun.

Navigating Hanoi’s streets

For a Westerner, stepping into the streets of Hanoi is an act of bravery. Mopeds, bicycles and cyclos careen madly past. Pedestrians pulling handcarts, and even the sporadic pony cart, all vie for position. No one stops. Doing so is tantamount to suicide.

I quickly learned that by stepping into this maelstrom I became a player in a street ballet. My role required that I keep moving until I reached the other side, having, I hoped, conducted myself admirably in one of the world’s most chaotic examples of improvised choreography.

Seeming worlds away from the serenity of the lake but located just across Cau Go Street is the tumultuous jigsaw of narrow lanes that make up Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Dating back to medieval times, the 36 byways of the quarter still bear names reflecting the artisanal trades that flourished there more than six centuries ago.

We loved wandering the quarter’s sinuous side alleys, stopping to sip fresh-roasted coffee at a sidewalk café and buying prayer flags to bring home.

In the French Quarter, wide boulevards lined with tamarind trees evoked a timelessness that seemed untouched by the tide of vehicles zipping by. We found that traversing the city by foot did the most justice to our sightseeing jaunts, only succumbing to the occasional cyclo ride when we felt brave enough. The front cab of a cyclo (a bicycle-drawn rickshaw) normally holds two passengers, but we often saw drivers straining to pedal a cab stuffed with three or four.

From dawn to dusk, the pavements are full. Each morning, one can observe young women carrying baskets of warm bread while soup vendors squat over steaming pots of pho, a rice noodle soup with chicken or beef. Entrepreneurs everywhere sell flowers, shoe shines, fruit and vegetables while horn honks and beeps create syncopated background music. All of this activity encourages walking, and photographic opportunities abound.

Ha Long Bay

Kim Café (31 Ta Hien; www. kimcafetravel.com), a combination Internet café/travel agency, was recommended to us for booking side trips, and our most memorable one, an overnight trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, was booked through them. Our all-inclusive package (under $25) included transport, lodging, exploration of island caves and a boat cruise of Ha Long Bay.

The fully occupied bus containing a mix of Canadian, American, European, Asian and Australian travelers left Hanoi very early for the 4-hour drive through the countryside, where we observed lots of new homes under construction along the main road. Village scenes were interspersed with miles of rice farms, where barefoot farmers worked the fields alongside water buffalo.

Overnighting in Cat Ba at the very clean and pleasant Sunflower Hotel, we awoke early the next morning, throwing open the windows to a scenic view of the boat-filled harbor.

Our 5-hour cruise along Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was unrushed and peaceful. Thousands of limestone outcroppings rise up out of the sea like dragon’s teeth. Some appear barren, rocky and weatherworn while others, heavily cloaked in vegetation, hide their stone surfaces in greenery. It felt as though we had fallen into an Asian brush painting.

Shortly before lunchtime a fishing family of four pulled a small vessel alongside our huge wooden boat, offering up buckets full of freshly caught lobster and crab. We purchased huge portions, enough for a feast, and before long that’s exactly what we enjoyed, compliments of the fine cooking of our onboard chef.

Handicrafts for sale

Upon returning to Hanoi, we visited the Craft Link organization (43 Van Mieu). This is a not-for-profit outlet for marginalized handicraft workers throughout the country. Their shop sells wonderfully original products such as hand-carved wooden objects, furniture, silk scarves, lacquerware and other handicrafts made by ethnic minorities.

Vietnam has more ethnic minority groups than almost any other Asian country, and many live in the outer remote mountainous regions. Craft Link’s sales benefit these craftspeople by providing them with an outlet and teaching them good business skills to market their wares.

We found the items on sale to be very distinctive and of exceptional quality. The beautiful black silk Hmong jacket with embroidered collar I found there now hangs in my closet as an elegant reminder of classic handcrafted workmanship not found anywhere near my hometown.

Memorable meeting

Six days into our trip we flew into Da Nang and were transported by car to the beguiling city of Hoi An, about 18 miles from the airport. Our 2-night stay at the romantic Hoi An Riverside Resort (Cua Dai Rd.; phone 84 510 864800 or visit www.hoianriverresort.com) proved to be a restorative retreat. Our river-view room, set amidst lush gardens, was part of a 2-unit villa ($100 per night). Staff and service were superb.

After an early morning exploration of the countryside along the Do River, we enjoyed breakfast alfresco in the covered outdoor patio dining area where local fishermen paddled past and schoolchildren could be seen skipping along the path of the opposite bank.

While walking along the river near our hotel, we sighted a lovely bridge and detoured into the fields for a closer view. Here we met a farmer and his wife. The man asked if he could look at our cameras, then asked if we were Americans.

“Gunfire killed my father,” he told us, “in the American War.”

Stunned, we offered condolences.

“You are not to blame. You are welcome in my country,” he said, before offering to take our photo together as a memento of our meeting.

This was one of several encounters where we felt deep forgiveness, where we felt treated with the utmost humanity by survivors of Vietnam’s tragic history.

Traditions of Hoi An

Hoi An is known for its wealth of antique homes built by prosperous Chinese merchants, whose descendants now number about one-quarter of the residents. It is also popular as a textile and art center.

We were approached several times by women who asked us to visit their tailoring shops for a “fitting.” We did end up getting several outfits made at one shop and, in the process, found the subtle charms of Hoi An most exemplified in the friendliness and warmth of its people.

By the time we had been back for several fittings, we knew each of the young salesgirls at the Thu Thuy Shop (60 Le Loi St.). Although prices there were a tad higher than at other places we had checked, we found the quality of the workmanship to be superior.

We happened upon an electric performance of traditional music and dance befitting Hoi An’s reputation as a center of performing arts early one evening at the Traditional Arts Theater. Upon a cramped stage, a male dancer, fighting an imaginary foe, leapt and pounced before a rapt group of tourists and locals.

Saigon

Heading south once again, we flew via Vietnam Airlines into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport. While Hanoi had impressed us with its heritage and history, Saigon’s dynamism blew us away. For sheer energy, this city can hold its own against Manhattan, Hong Kong and any other metropolis on the planet. And yet the sweetness of the Vietnamese people still shone through. We still found sidewalk vendors selling fresh noodle soup. We still found the simple decency that had accompanied us throughout our journey.

One evening, exhausted after a day of museum visiting, we gave our cyclo driver $10 and asked him to pick up a takeout of roast duck from a recommended restaurant. Not knowing his name and not sure if he would return, we wondered if we had been too trusting. Within the half hour he returned, bearing a freshly roasted duck and wishing us a good evening.

As in Hanoi, café culture thrives in Saigon. Each morning we’d make our way to the Highland Café, a few blocks down Dong Khoi. Chic surroundings and fabulous coffee along with the complimentary house copy of the Herald Tribune made this our favorite joint for a hit of java. In the evening, scores of young people could be seen converging here with ice cream sundaes added to the menu.

Local tours

Again we used the services of an Internet café/travel office, this time the Sinh Café (head office, 30 Hàng Bè St.; fax 84 4 756 7862 or visit www.sinhcafe.com). Sinh runs a number of these cafés around Saigon, and we chose one near our apartment to book a 2-night trip into the Mekong Delta (under $25 including accommodations).

These tours are an incredible value, and we counted on the hotels in the delta to match the quality and cleanliness of our previous lodging in Ha Long Bay. While they were adequate, one cannot say any more than that. One was so basic that we could not even find the name of the hotel anywhere — a first in my experience.

Our guide, provided by Sinh Café, proved to be very knowledgeable. En route, we stopped in Can Tho. The largest city in the delta area, it’s located on the second arm of the river. To reach it we crossed the Mekong on an old ferryboat. Boatwomen ply the coffee-colored waters of the river, shielding their eyes from the searing sun with conical grass hats. Many of them are traveling to Can Tho’s colorful floating market, which we visited the next day.

Each leg of the trip found us stopping along the river to visit a different village before changing water vessels — a flat-bottomed boat, a barge, a ferry and, for the major part of our journey, a large riverboat.

The “Mighty Mekong,” as it’s called, teems with river traffic. All manner of vessels, from fragile little rowboats to massive sampans, ply its waters. Up and down the river, youngsters, like children everywhere, ran to the banks to wave as our riverboat passed.

Dining in Vietnam

Vietnamese cuisine ranks among the finest in the world. Boasting enviable natural resources, the Vietnamese diet also draws from the foreign influences of its colonial history and of its neighbors. Dating back to the 10th century, the national dish, a rice noodle soup called pho, can arguably be attributed to Mongol herdsmen from China. Costing less than $1, it is a bargain in a bowl — not only filling but delicious and satisfying.

Several large markets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and in central Saigon give the flavor of shopping Vietnamese style, so be sure to roam through one of these in each city. In both cities it’s easy to put together complete meals to take away from local vendors or from gourmet delis and bakeries.

Hanoi restaurants

Nam Phuong (19 Phan Chu Trinh) — in a lovely downtown villa setting and serving fine Vietnamese food. Live performances of traditional Vietnamese music are available on some evenings.

Au Lac (57 Ly Thai To) — behind the Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Western and Vietnamese food is served in addition to drinks and snacks. Outdoor seating is available.

Spices Garden Restaurant, in the Sofitel Metropole Hotel (15 Ngo Quyen St.), serves upmarket Vietnamese fare.

Rendez-Vous Café Bistro (136 Hang Trong) — with wonderful coffee and service.

San ho (58 Ly Thuong Kiet Street) — serving seafood and traditional Vietnamese cuisine at very reasonable prices.

Saigon restaurants

Nha Hang Hoang Long (Dragon Court, 11-13 Cong Truong Lam Son) — has scrumptious roast duck. Excellent prices.

Givral (169 Dong Khoi) — facing the Continental Hotel on Lam Son Square. This restaurant and patisserie boasts a Western and Asian menu.

Paloma Café (26 Dong Khoi) — seems to be open all the time. Offering live music nightly and romantic evening ambiance, it is also a great ice cream stop.

Highland Café (The Metropolitan Building, 235 Dong Khoi) — a stylish café and bar with a garden setting.

A farewell celebration

After our tranquil interlude on the delta, we returned once again to Saigon, diving into the city’s myriad activities, browsing bookstores and visiting art galleries and other major sights.

We spent our last night in Saigon celebrating Christmas Eve at the Sofitel Plaza Hotel (17 Le Duan Blvd., District 1; www.sofitel.com) with a lavish buffet dinner and wonderful Vietnamese entertainment. Saigon’s festive holiday spirit rivaled any New Year’s Eve celebration in the States. The markets and the upscale shops of Saigon’s huge shopping centers pulsed with activity as throngs of shoppers turned out.

Leaving the Sofitel later in the evening, close to midnight, we found the city alive with confetti-tossing revelers. By the time we reached the sanctuary of our apartment, we had become part of the throbbing throng of celebrants, covered in confetti and cocooned in the great bond of a people who were celebrating their own brand of freedom.