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A taste of Vietnam; The intriguing sights, the remnants of war, the friendly people and, oh yes, the wonderful food.

Byline: Stephen Morison Jr.

Say the word Vietnam and most Americans will think of conical bamboo hats, rice paddies and war. Yet as our countries have normalized relations, and as Vietnam has been swept up in the Asian economic miracle, the country is gaining ground as a cheap and beautiful tourist destination. There's nothing my family likes better than that.

My wife, Emily, my daughter, Tally, and I landed in Hanoi, the capital, just before Christmas. We were hoping for good weather, but in the winter months, the skies turn gray and rain is intermittent. Happily, the temperatures hovered around 65 degrees, so it was rarely necessary to don anything more than a light jacket.

We checked into the Thu Giang Guesthouse in the Old Quarter, where a clean and airy triple with cable TV and a minifridge was $15 a night. At midweek, we purchased three berths on an overnight train and headed to the central Vietnamese cities of Hue and Hoi An.

What we learned during our two-week stay was that Vietnam is full of war memorials, historical sites and beaches, but the true highlight was the unbelievable flavors swirling in the food.

Vietnamese food shares similarities with both Chinese (think noodle soup) and Thai (think lemongrass and chilies) fare, yet it uses less coconut milk and sugar than Thai cuisine and is fresher and zestier than Chinese food.

The morning after our arrival, my daughter and I had our first taste of the local breakfast treats. On the corner of Hang Non Street, a middle-aged, high-cheeked Vietnamese woman sat inside a nameless 6-by-12-foot shop behind a steaming aluminum pot. Tally and I watched as the woman swiped a spoonful of rice paste over the flat top of an aluminum steamer, then covered it with a battered lid. She waited a couple seconds, then lifted the lid and peeled off a white, paper-thin pancake, dropped a dollop of ground shrimp into its center, and rolled it up like a small, slippery burrito. The slick snacks, called banh cuon, are dunked in a salty-sweet-and-spicy sauce. Delicious! And only 50 cents.

Thirty-six years ago, American B-52s filled the skies over Hanoi and John McCain languished with other American prisoners in the "Hanoi Hilton," a short distance from where we were eating. Part of the Hanoi Hilton has been torn down to make way for an international luxury hotel, and the one wing that's been preserved is a museum dedicated to condemning the abuses of the French colonists who ruled the country for much of the 20th century. (The exhibits dedicated to McCain's era avoid any mention of Vietnamese-inflicted abuse or torture.) We visited the museum and also stopped to see the captured American war vehicles on display in the military museum.

Our days in Hanoi passed swiftly. During the daylight hours, we continued sightseeing, visiting the embalmed body of Vietnam's famous Ho Chi Minh in the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, and taking a tour bus out to Halong Bay, a gorgeous coastal region made striking by the limestone formations thrusting up from the water. By night, we continued to sample the culinary delights, feasting on fresh steamed crab at an open-air restaurant and enjoying the fresh, light lager beer called Bia Hoi in the small, sloppy cafes sprinkled throughout the Old Quarter.

Midweek, a train took us south to Hue. The countryside was a checkerboard of drizzling rice paddies and water buffalo. The Perfume River splits Hue in two, and just north of the river in the heart of the city are the walled remains of the old imperial compound: the Forbidden Purple City.

We took up lodging at the friendly Halo Guesthouse run by the incredibly welcoming Triue Thi Quy. As in Hanoi, our room was a mere $15, but now it came with a more spacious bathroom and a comfortable balcony. (For travelers seeking more luxurious accommodations, four- and five-star hotels are available in all the cities we visited.)

From here, we visited the Forbidden Purple City and took a longer tour of the imperial tombs that dot the tropical countryside around the city. More than just grandiose mausoleums, the tombs are walled estates that served as the summer residences of the monarchs in their golden years. As such they were once meticulously landscaped pastoral plots of orderly fishing ponds, arched and tiled halls, and lovely gardens that are still well worth a visit.

Like the capital, Hue contains its share of monuments to the War Against the Americans, including a line of captured tanks and artillery at the military history museum. Although we didn't visit it, many tourists take a tour of the nearby Demilitarized Zone, the area around the line splitting North Vietnam from South Vietnam during the war era that saw some of the worst of the fighting.

Also like Hanoi, the real highlight in Hue proved to be the food. We sampled a street fair, enjoying small rice dumplings called banh bot loc and the hearty soup called bun bo hue made with a variety of ingredients, including beef, wide rice noodles, lemongrass, shrimp paste and chilies.

We also enjoyed a six-course lunch at a refurbished courtyard home. Billed as a meal modeled after the exquisite feasts once prepared for the emperor, the first course utilized spring rolls, a pineapple split lengthwise and a head and fantail made of carrots to form the image of a peacock. Tally loved this.

Our next stop took us through the former American military city of Da Nang to the old port city of Hoi An. The waterfront district has been turned into a quaint tourist village filled with museums, trinket shops, tailors that will make you a suit in a day. We explored the centuries-old buildings, then rented scooters to ride out to the 1,000-year-old Cham ruins 40 miles west of the city. The Cham, originally a Hindu and then a Muslim civilization, were defeated by the Vietnamese in the 15th century and incorporated into the larger Vietnamese state.

Interesting to us was the way the brick stupas and temples of these ruins rose from the jungle. During the war, Viet Cong forces sheltered here and were eventually bombed by American planes. We enjoyed the beautiful brick remains dotted with Hindu sculptures, but also took pictures of the circular craters left by American bombs and the Vietnam War-era military jeeps the park rangers drove about in.

As evening arrived, we made our way back to Hoi An to sample the local delicacies. Our favorite was the dish called white rose, pork and shrimp filled dumplings with loose flaring edges that make them look like flowers.

Eventually, we boarded a plane back to Hanoi to wait for our flight out of the country. There, I stumbled across my favorite snack of the trip down an alley where a half-dozen restaurants all served the same simple dish of sausages and french fries. The sausages, called nem chua ran, are made from sour, fermented pork. After deep frying, they gain a rough, rust-colored exterior and an interior perforated by tiny holes. The restaurants serve them on a banana leaf (presumably to soak up the oil) atop a plastic plate with a side of fries and a little fork to facilitate dunking into accompanying sauces.

I was surprised by just how delicious the fries were until I noticed that there was a two-part process to their creation. After they were deep-fried in oil, the chef put them in a frying pan and brought them to a little burner at the back of her restaurant for additional treatment.

"What do you add when you put the fries in the frying pan," I asked the woman (with some assistance from a friendly English-speaking patron).

"Butter," the woman said. Double-fried fries: The Vietnamese are clearly geniuses.

The sites, the friendly people and the horrible history of the war certainly made an impression upon me during my family's trip to Vietnam, but it's the taste of Vietnam that will stay with me the longest. I can still taste those double-fried fries and my daughter Tally is still telling her friends about that appetizer shaped like a peacock. Warn your friends: these days the most dangerous thing about Vietnam is the cholesterol.

Stephen Morison Jr., a resident of Pomfret, Conn., is a teacher for School Year Abroad in Beijing, China.

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) In the old port city of Hoi An, the waterfront district has been turned into a quaint tourist village. Left, the 1,000-year-old Cham ruins are near Hoi An. (2) Spectacular limestone islands are scattered throughout Halong Bay. (3) Tourists pose in front of the Confucian Temple in Hanoi. (4) Motorcycle traffic on a busy Hanoi street. (5) A street vendor in Hanoi. (6) Dining at a seafood street restaurant.

PHOTOG: PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEPHEN MORISON JR.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 10, 2009
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