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Good Morning Vietnam Day 7

Now in Can Tho


Today is Wednesday, August 5, and we are in Can Tho in a hotel next to the Mekong River. This computer doesnít have a USB port, so I still canít send any photos.


Backing up to August 2, we flew out of Tan Son Nhat in Saigon to Dalat, a quick 50-minute flight, arriving late Sunday Afternoon.


I always wanted to go to Dalat. Back in the day, Dalat was synonymous with Shangri La. When I was here in the Army, I wanted to see everything, and I never missed a chance to hitch a ride somewhere or look for an excuse to go inspect something somewhere. Unfortunately, there was no military business in Dalat, and I never got to go there.


Dalat is up in the southern part of the Central Highlands, established by the French in the 19th Century as a resort to cool off from the Saigon heat. As far as I know, both the French and American wars passed it by. Today it has a special attraction for lovers and honeymooners.


It sort of reminds me of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a 19th Century resort town up in the Arkansas Ozarks with hills and pine trees. Dalat is full of kitsch, such as the Valley of Love and Lake of Sighs, both replete with hundreds of photo op backdrops for the romantically inclined. Itís so bad that itís good.


On an overcast and rainy Monday, we booked a tour of the local attractions. We were the only non-Vietnamese on our small tour bus, and we visited a Buddhist monastery, a Buddhist pagoda, a Catholic monastery, Bao Daiís Summer Palace, a waterfall-based amusement park where we rode an elephant, the Valley of Love and a cluster of shops for local art, especially silk embroidery.


Bao Dai was the last Vietnamese royalty who, according to the exhibits, was a figurehead during the French period who spent most of his time hunting and womanizing. After 1954, the palace was used as a summer retreat by Diem.


Eureka Springs has its giant Christ of the Ozarks and Dalat has its giant Buddha, both on mountaintops. Iím glad we went so I could finally check it off my list after 40 years, but Iím not sure I would add it to the A-ticket.


Monday night, it all caught up with us, and we slept 12 hours. I spent a lot of Tuesday morning composing my last email on a slow computer, and we walked around town and had some lunch before catching a shuttle bus the small airport, some 30 kilometers down the mountain.


The only non-Vietnamese we saw in Dalat were a few Australians and French that we could identify by language and some other westerners we couldnít.


Coming back in to Tan Son Nhat in the daylight, I noted that the only vestige of the war were rows of steel and concrete vaulted structures, similar to Quonset huts, once used to protect helicopters from rockets. Some were still being used for helicopter hangers, but most were empty or used fro storage. Luckily, our bodies were sufficiently cool to pass the fever scan.


Arriving back in Saigon about dark, we checked into the Hotel Continental, called the Continental Palace when I was last in Saigon. Graham Green had Room 210 a few years ago, and we had Room 237. The weather was as good as it gets, clear and warm with a slight breeze. Contrary to popular opinion, Saigon has some really nice weather. We ate in a place we found in Frommers, but it was too spiffy and overpriced for my taste. Iíll have to let Frommerís know. We hit the rooftop bar at the Caravelle, but it was cramped and the music too loud. I prefer the Rex.


This morning, we were picked up at 8:00 AM to begin our delta tour. I really didnít know what to expect, but it turned out that it was just a tour guide, a driver and us.


On the way south, we passed through Saigon South, which is a whole different world. Think Pleasanton or San Ramon, only bigger and better. More cars and fewer motorcycles. Everything is new and expensive, and it goes on for miles. This is where the new money is. Condos go for several hundred thousand dollars. Auto Row features dealerships for every make of car, including BMW and Mercedes, bigger and grander than anything even in the Bay Area. Unfortunately, the planners have spread everything out like the worst American planning, losing an opportunity to preserve the historically intimate streetscape of Vietnam and European cities.


We drove south on Highway 1 to Vinh Long, where we transferred to a boat on a branch of the Mekong. Forty years ago, what is now Highway 1 was a narrow two-lane bad road surrounded by agricultural fields and small villages. Now it is a continuous strip of industry, roadside stands and new development.


Our guide is about 30 years old, originally from Danang but now living in Saigon. His family were Viet Minh sympathizers during the French war, and when Diem came to power after the partition, the government had his uncle killed, despite a UN resolution that there was to be no political retribution. His father was killed in the American war by a mine when his Red Cross Vehicle was blown up.


Like other Vietnamese, he recalls the total disaster of the Communistsí first 15 years of ruling the southern part of Vietnam. They tried to institute classical socialism with collective farms and real estate appropriation, but it failed miserably. New leadership scrapped all that about 1989, and Vietnamese capitalism flourished with a vengeance Today, the country has one of the worldís hottest economies.


He is Catholic, as are many Vietnamese. In Dalat, 60 percent of the population is Catholic, a very high proportion.


The delta tour really got exciting when we boarded a boat and began to thread our way through the Mekong River waterways, ranging from the mile-wide main channels to narrow winding branches reminiscent of Louisiana bayous. This is the fictional setting of Apocalypse Now, and it looked the part.


Although these waterways are still essential for commerce and transportation, we passed hundreds of tour boats like ours, many of them much larger. Touring the delta via water is clearly very popular. Most of the westerners we ran into were Australians or Europeans. There were very few Americans.


We stopped at a candy factory, a fruit tree nursery and a restaurant for lunch, all accessible mainly by water.


We are now in our hotel in Can Tho with an early morning wakeup to get the local floating market while it is most active.


To be continuedÖ.