Wednesday, June 26, 2013


A boat dweller ferries supplies in Haiphong

Two undersized crabs shuffle towards me, in that strange, sideways walk that only crabs do. I've found these freshwater shellfish on the shore of a Vietnamese river. The dark current flows fast today; it’s banks nearly overflow from the rain. The crabs turn and head for muddy water, while I turn down Tam Bac street, a road named after this river. Downstream a bridge view reveals the Tam Bac is merely a tributary; it empties into the much deeper Cam River. This whole section of northern Vietnam is full of meandering rivers, all part of the immense Red River Delta.

Finding a pier where the rivers meet, I look across the waters to see a fleet of commercial boats and ships. Dozens are docked or at anchor, while another six freighters cross in front of me in the channel. And that’s just what’s in my immediate view. I hear a ship’s horn sound off in the distance, and down river I can make out massive yellow cranes on the docks, ready to unload cargo ships
Vessels docked in Haiphong Harbor
arriving from the South China Sea.

I’ve come down the highway from Hanoi this morning into the Red River Delta, to check out one of Vietnam’s largest, longest and busiest ports. This is Haiphong Harbor. As the closest major port to Hanoi, Haiphong gained the attention of Americans in 1972.  In those days of war, President Nixon ordered this harbor mined, and resumed the bombing of Haiphong. Nixon hoped to stop the USSR from bringing weapons into Vietnam by ship, and mining the port sparked major demonstrations from anti-war protestors who saw this as an escalation.

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed the next year, part of the agreement meant that the sea mines that had been dropped into this harbor would have to be removed. In an odd twist of the agreement, US Navy minesweepers cleared this very harbor, even though the war continued between North and South Vietnam. 

Old French colonial buildings, in need of a fresh coat of paint

As I walk around Haiphong, I feel alone and unique. I'm finding one of Vietnam’s largest cities is almost empty of westerners. As a commercial shipping port there are foreign sailors, but most are Asian. Western tourists don’t bother with this commercial port. If they want to go to the coast, they head for scenic Halong Bay, or for Nha Trang’s beaches.

This lack of westerners does give Haiphong a degree of charm that Saigon lacks. With fewer tourists, the city has a more Vietnamese vibe. Exceptions to this, are the influences left behind by the French. Around the downtown’s commercial district, there are plenty of cafés, and many old French colonial shophouses still survive. Most are well beyond their prime though, and could use a fresh coat of paint.

Closer to the port, yellow government offices with familiar French colonial architecture are in better condition. As I walk by and look more closely, these appear far too new for the colonial era. These are French in style, but they weren’t built by the French, since the old original structures were destroyed by American bombing. 

 “They admire French architecture,” explains my Vietnamese friend Bich later. When the communist government constructed new buildings after the war, they built their replacements in the same French style. Given that the Vietnamese hated the French colonials, that seems very odd to me.
Maxim's Cafe in downtown Haiphong
Originally from Haiphong, I met Bich through a friend in Saigon. She works in tourism, and I arranged to meet her at Maxim’s Café in downtown Haiphong. She’s happy to tell me all about her city over dinner.

“Haiphong people (are) known as strong of character, strong of mind, and strong of body,” she says self-assuredly. Bich is petite, but those first two characteristics describe her perfectly.

Haiphong is known as, ‘The City of Red Flowers', and she says that it’s beautiful here in late spring when flowers bloom. Too bad I’m here on a gloomy rainy day, so I’ll miss the scenery.

Bich’s favorite subject is the city’s people. “Haiphong has the most handsome men, and the most beautiful women,” she boasts. She adds that it’s also known as, ‘The City of Miss Vietnam’, since a number of beauty queens are from here. Bich obviously has a lot of pride in her hometown.

I chuckle when she says, “People here known for very hard work or laziness.”

Then Bich changes the subject, and turns serious. She says that as a large port city, it has a mafia, and may have the worst violence and drug addiction problems in Vietnam. But it’s all very relative really. The crime and drug problems of Haiphong are miniscule, compared to US port cities like New York or Los Angeles.
Wreckage of US warplanes shot down over Haiphong during the war
Despite her city’s rough reputation, she still loves Haiphong. “I like the craziness,” she says. She would stay here, but since better work opportunities are elsewhere, she’s leaving for China.

I ask Bich about Haiphong in wartime, but since she was born afterwards, she didn't have much to say. “We never remember about the war,” Bich says, “unless people ask.” 

Her mother remembers plenty though, since she survived numerous bombing raids then. She remembers the devastation well, especially the aftermath of a raid that hit a commercial center. ”She see 100 bodies,” Bich said, “all lined up together, laying by the market.”

Fortunately her relatives survived the attack, and her mother left Haiphong soon afterwards. Due to air raids, she moved out to the countryside for the rest of the war, where life was safer.

These days, city utility workers are regularly exposed to war’s old dangers. Bich says when city workers tear up roads to install sewers, they find heaps of unexploded bombs. Under one recent construction site, instead of bombs, diggers found many skeletons.

“What were the bodies from?” I ask her. “Who killed them?"

On display in Haiphong is an old Russian made Mig-17, next to old navy boat
“Maybe Japanese,” Bich guesses, but no one knows for sure. Since they were buried in unmarked graves, they couldn’t blame Americans, as US troops never occupied Haiphong. They were likely killed by the French, who occupied Haiphong far longer than the Japanese.

Bidding goodbye to Bich, I head back to my hotel. As I pass a museum, through the fence I spot an old Russian made Mig-17 under an enclosure. Nearby is a pile of wreckage from various US aircraft that were shot down over Haiphong.

Entering for a closer look, I approach, and two dogs lunge at me from the shadows barking savagely. I jump back out of reach. Fortunately, they're tethered underneath the old obsolete jet. With these canine guardians, I won’t be able to get a closer look at the Russian made Mig.

As it’s growing darker, I depart for my old French hotel. Settling in for the night, I flip on the TV. Finding the History Channel, I'm surprised it's airing a program on aerial dogfights over North Vietnam during the war! As I watch the episode, an animated re-enactment shows two US Navy Skyraiders shoot down a Mig-17, just like the one I saw rusting on the street.

I’m amazed. Somehow, this show wasn’t blocked by Vietnamese censors!

No comments:

Post a Comment