In the summer of 1995 my older son Nick and I went to Vietnam to see some of the places where I had been stationed as an American soldier thirty years before. Nick was 24 in 1995, and he wanted to see where I had been at the same age. Since he was working as a travel agent, he arranged the whole trip for us, including a flight by Singapore Airlines from Frankfurt to Singapore, and by Air Vietnam from Singapore to Saigon.
After re-visiting Saigon, Tân Ba and Phước Vĩnh, we set out to see some new places, “new” in the sense that I hadn’t been able to go there in the 1960s. The first of these was the city of Đà Lạt (photo above), a former French hill station or resort station in the southern part of the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
To get there we traveled by mini-bus from Biên Hòa to Tam Hiep, which is hardly more than a junction on highway 1, and changed there for what was billed as a “fast” Toyota mini-bus. We paid for four seats, for the two of us, and sat in front, just behind the driver. The vehicle had one flat tire along the way, which we later learned was not unusual.
When we finally arrived in Đà Lạt we got a room at the Mimosa Hotel, 170 Phan Dihn Phung, which as I noted at the time was “a disaster: damp, loud, dirty and at $10 for a double room decidedly overpriced.”
Otherwise Đà Lạt was cool and pleasant, which is why the French originally built it there at an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level. We stayed there for two days, and spent a lot of time walking around the outskirts.
Actually we wanted to get some photos of Vietnamese children riding on water buffalo, but they don’t seem to do that as much as they used to, or we just weren’t in the right place at the right time.
Water buffalo are domesticated animals in Vietnam and are often used to pull plows and such. In general seem to be peaceful animals, but in the 1960s and 70s there were rumors among the American troops that Viet-Cong-sympathizing farmers were training their water buffalo to attack American soldiers.
I never saw any such thing (and don’t believe it), but some Americans who were in Vietnam in the late 1960s claim to have been attacked by these animals.
Since I always like to document bicycle use in places I visit, Nick was kind enough to take this photo of some boys trying to transport some sort of plastic strips on a bicycle near Đà Lạt.
In the 1960’s & 70’s Vietnam’s bicycles were famous for their use on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This treacherous 1000-kilometer jungle path was used to transport war goods from the north to National Liberation Front fighters in the south. To carry heavy loads, the North Vietnamese army developed a particularly indestructible tubeless bike with reinforced spokes that could carry up to 300 kilograms. (I assume they used to walk these bikes through the jungle when they were loaded so heavily.)
After two nights in Đà Lạt we left on a tourist bus bound for Nha Trang, and on the way we stopped at Pô Klaung Gerai, near Phan Rang, to look at some examples of 13th century architecture from the then-powerful Kingdom of Champa.
The Cham people once controlled large areas of what is now central Vietnam, but they were gradually pushed out of these territories by the Vietnamese. Today the Chams are one of over fifty ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. We were told that there are now about 100,000 Chams living in Vietnam.
Nha Trang is famous for its beaches, so Nick decided to stay there for a few days while I went further north. We agreed to meet a week later in Hué.
I took an overnight train up the coast from Nha Trang to Da Nang, a journey which took about nine and a half hours. In Da Nang I stayed at the Hotel Minh Tam II at 63 Haung Dieu Street. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was much better than the hotel in Đà Lạt a few days before.
What I do remember about Da Nang is that I went to the Cham Museum, which was interesting since I had just seen the Cham architecture site at Pô Klaung Gerai the day before.
In Da Nang there is also a museum devoted to the Vietnamese revolutionary leader and president Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969). They offered daily guided tours through the Ho Chi Minh Museum. One morning in 1995 it happened that I was the only person who showed up for the tour. The guide was a lovely young Vietnamese woman who spoke several languages and was obviously very knowledgeable about Vietnamese history in general and Ho Chi Minh in particular.
I forget what language she started out in, but as soon as she learned I was living in Germany she immediately switched to German and started asking me dozens of astute questions about German unification, which had happened only five years before. It turned out she had studied in the German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany, in the 1980s and was very interested in the German unification process.
She didn’t completely neglect her duty as a guide, however. As we entered each new room of the museum she said one or two quick sentences about Ho Chi Minh and then went on asking about Germany. As it happened, I had been doing quite a bit of traveling in the eastern part of Germany, giving presentations for my textbook publisher, so I could actually answer most of her questions. Among other things I told her about my first visit to Rostock just five days after the opening of the Berlin Wall and four days after the opening of the heavily fortified death-strip that had separated East and West Germany for the previous 28 years.
Thanks to my son Nick for the photos from 1995. I revised the text in 2017.
Next: Hoi An, 1995