Vietnam : a land of ghosts
By Nigel Richardson
In a country where street food is sold beside skyscrapers, sleepy hamlets sit next to shiny hotels and pavement barbers share the boulevards with Gucci, no wonder ancestors reassure the living, says Nigel Richardson.
Highway 1A runs the length of Vietnam, from the Chinese border in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south. It joins the dissonant cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and, about half way between the two, speeds past an altogether less worldly metropolis – the City of Ghosts. Miss this crazy place if you dare, for it tells you a great deal about modern Vietnam.
The turn-off to the City of Ghosts (a nickname given by foreigners) lies a few miles south of the old imperial city of Hue. As we drove east off 1A in the direction of the South China Sea my guide, Doan Thanh Phong, explained the precept behind what I was about to see. "It is believed, the better you care for the ancestors, the better they will look after you," he said.
We followed a raised road through rice paddies where villagers were gathering in the harvest in scenes of golden plenty that would have been familiar to Laurie Lee and his Rosie. Suddenly there were tombs in the fields, more and more of them, bigger and bigger, faced in coloured tiles, pinnacled and pagoda’d, as big as bungalows.
Presently the tombs and mausoleums intermingled with the houses, so it became difficult to distinguish between the homes of the living and those of the dead. And this is as it should be in a culture in which ancestors never die, they just move in next door and keep a beady eye on you.
The Vietnamese practise ancestor worship. Amid all the Chinese-style dragons on the mausoleums there were both Christian and Buddhist symbols but the real religion in Vietnam is the veneration of past generations. On this stretch of sandy coastal plain between Hue and Da Nang, near the farming community of Vinh An, it reaches a remarkable pitch of expression.
The vast and riotously kitsch mausoleums we presently came across, forming the heart of the City of Ghosts, were paid for largely by money sent by Vietnamese living abroad, many of whom were the "boat people" of the 1970s and 80s. It’s a peculiarly Vietnamese twist on the process of exiles bettering themselves in the West and helping out their families back in the mother country.
Caught up in a competitive spiral, the size and design of these mausoleums have become increasingly extravagant as families vie to outdo each other. One man we met said his family’s "endless home", as they are known, had cost $30,000 to build. The City of Ghosts captures something about Vietnam in the 21st century. It is a country anxious to leave behind the conflict and poverty of the last century and embrace material success, yet the past, like the ancestors, is always watching.
Back on Highway 1A, the city of Da Nang – once the site of a huge American garrison – has all but obliterated reminders of what Vietnamese refer to as the American War. "Here were many Viet Cong," said Phong, whose father worked for the Americans. "They could be ice-cream sellers, or shoeshine boys. They hit" – he made a chopping motion with his hand – "and run away."
Wide boulevards and shopping malls are edging out the lanes where the VC operated. Along the back of China Beach, where GIs chilled between combat missions, a ribbon of international-style beach resorts and apartments is being built. "Opening 2012" ; "Coming soon" ; "Luxury condominiums for sale", shouted the billboards.
The development resumes half an hour’s drive south, around the mouth of the Thu Bon River and the ancient trading port of Hoi An. Here a new resort has been built cheek-by-jowl with the fishing village of Phuoc Hai, where nets are still hauled ashore on creaky wooden bobbins.
An enterprising villager called Tran Van Khoa runs "eco-tours" to give tourists a taste of the old ways of fishing and of life. Taking a group out among the sea-coconut swamps in bamboo coracles, he explained that the construction of the resort had damaged the ecosystem of the river mouth.
The irony was that some of the people on his tour were staying in the resort in question. "I myself feel sad about this but what can we do ?" he said. "Tourists come. Money, Western life. It come, come, come. Things change very fast."
In Hoi An itself, the solution to this onslaught of modernity is to pretend nothing has changed. The city, in the words of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, "coulda been a contender". In the mid-18th century, it was one of the principal trading ports of south-east Asia. Silk, weapons and spices from East and West passed through its riverfront warehouses. But the river silted up and became unnavigable to trading vessels and Hoi An, instead of turning into a Hong Kong or Shanghai, faded to backwater status.
In 1991, Phong recalled, there was just one hotel. Even a decade ago, when he worked as an interpreter here on the film set of The Quiet American, it was relatively sleepy. Now, though it pretends to be a town untouched by progress, there are more than 500 hotels and every one of the old wooden traders’ houses lining the three streets of the original port sells made-to-measure silks or "Good Morning Vietnam" T-shirts or Cuba libres at happy hour prices.
If it’s not careful, this time-capsule of hanging baskets and artful dilapidation will wake up one day soon and find itself a theme park. But for now the illusion of stepping back in time is marvellously agreeable as you while away a couple of days strolling, shopping and eating in some fine restaurants.
A measure of how sanitised it has become is that motorcycles are banned from central Hoi An at certain times of day, which is a bit like taking the yellow cabs out of Manhattan. For the street itself is Vietnam.
In Hanoi I had taken a one-hour cyclo tour of the French Quarter and the old town. Seated up front on my chromium perch I was inched out into busy junctions with all the vim of a snail. Yet the motorbikes and limos flowed around us as if we weren’t there and I realised I had been hasty in my initial judgment. The traffic of Hanoi is not crazy. It shows Confucian respect for its most vulnerable brother, the push bike. After all, everyone was on bicycles once, and not so long ago.
It was a strange feeling, as if those tree-lined boulevards, like tropical echoes of towns in the Languedoc, and the frenetic streets of the old quarter, were rivers and streams, the buildings dry land. Past the custard-and-cream Opera House we bobbed, past the noodle-soup sellers and their fragrant wafts, past the pavement barbers, the Gucci store and the entrance to the Club de l’Oriental, in parallel reality to the metallic madness around us.
It was such a surprisingly pleasant experience that I had planned to take a cyclo tour of Ho Chi Minh City when I got there, but I was warned off the idea by someone in Hanoi – they rip you off there being the gist of it. This, in retrospect, was an amusing observation since practically the first thing my guide in Ho Chi Minh pointed out was how tricky they were up north.
"Hanoi people think southerners followed the enemy," she told me. "Four times I was overcharged when I was there. Four times ! People here are much more open."
Ho Chi Minh City is certainly a much more self-consciously international city. It has its obligatory alpha-male skyscraper and a glitzy city-within-a-city – private hospital, Porsche showroom and so on – for Western expats mainly. South of the city, toll roads, expressways and vast new bridges are promising to revolutionise the economy of the hitherto dirt-poor Mekong Delta, where peasants still live in illegally built tin and palm-thatch hovels. Whether they will benefit from a huge "entertainment complex" called Happyland that is due to open on their doorstep in the next year or two is doubtful.
Seeing such things, you feel the ancestors begin a slow roll in their extraordinary graves that can only gather momentum over the coming years. But their Vietnam, the Land of Ghosts, remains tangible in a thousand sensory experiences : rice paddies viewed from above, exquisite as the movement of a pocketwatch ; the mingled smell of durian and street food on a riverfront in the Mekong Delta, and the old lanes of Hoi An after 9pm, when the electric lights are switched off and the shadows turn to spirits for your final stumble to bed.