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A Country like Any Other...,
This review is from: Lonely Planet Vietnam (Travel Guide) (Paperback)
Well, maybe a bit more special. The subject phrase, to the best of my knowledge, was first used by the Zionists, in their aspirations to create a Jewish homeland, and thereby form a country "like any other." Certainly from the American perspective, "Vietnam" has for far too long been an adjective, in front of the noun, "war." Yet, if it is a bit special, it is because it is one of the loveliest countries on earth. And I think this updated, 2012 Lonely Planet guide hit that note perfectly. The "war" is still there, but has faded into the deep background, of interest to those "of a certain age."
As I have said in reviews of other "Lonely Planet" guides, it remains the essential guide for those seeking to understand and see the country "off the tour." It is outdoors orientated, and thus the hiking and biking possibilities are prominently featured. Likewise featured are the budget accommodations and restaurants. Overall, the guide is attractively designed, and color-coded, with the country divided into eight regions. Most wonderfully, there is an emphasis on the numerous, recently created national parks. Another key reason to go is for the food, and the guide has an attractive section, with pictures, so much so, that you wonder why you eat any other cuisine. In terms of updated information, the border crossing posts into Laos and Cambodia are detailed. Also, as most know, Angkor Wat is not in Vietnam, but rather in neighboring Cambodia. The editors assumed that a tour of Vietnam, rightly, must include this one of a kind world heritage site, so they included a valuable section on it.
My first trip to Vietnam was an "all-expenses" paid one, back in 1968, of a year's duration. The emphasis was most definitely the rural areas; I never saw any of the cities. I did become utterly intrigued by the changing colors of green in one particular mountain in the Annamite Cordillera. The green was different every day, and varied within the day. Only much latter did I learn that Cezanne developed his own obsession with Mont St. Victoire in Provence. Linger long enough in the national parks to "smell the roses" and you might have a similar experience.
I went back to Vietnam three times, once each in 1994, '95 and '96. The changes from 1968 were, of course, dramatic. And I had my much older copy of the Lonely Planet guide that helped me "get by." The changes just between '94 and '96 were equally dramatic. I estimated that 80% of the traffic in Hanoi in '94 was bicycles, by '96, it was 80% motorbikes. And the Hanoi War museum was completely transformed, with the notable removal of the subject of atrocities. And now, in 2012, it's possible, per the guide, to stay at a $500 a night resort in Nha Trang.
By the `70's I had read Alistair Horne's brilliant history A Savage War Of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York Review Books Classics), concerning the Algerian war, which is where the French military went after they lost in Indochina. He commenced the book with an epigraph by former British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who was a Roman classic scholar. In reference to Sétif , Macmillan had called it "A Town of No Great Interest." Horne chose this as an ironic introduction to the war, since it was in Sétif that the first serious revolt against French rule occurred in 1945. Likewise, please consider An Khe. It didn't rate a mention in my `90's Lonely Planet guide, and still doesn't make the cut for the 2012 update. It is on Highway 19, roughly half way between Qui Nhon and Pleiku. Most people who know anything about the French war in Indochina assume that it ended with the fall of Dien Bien Phu on May 07, 1954. It didn't. In terms of futile deaths, and being the last soldier to die for a mistake, it was the deaths of 2000 French soldiers, part of Groupement Mobile 100, which occurred on June 24, 1954, 13 km west of An Khe that was the "last hurrah." As though a baton had been passed, it was also An Khe, from which the US First Air Cavalry Division operated, and engaged the North Vietnamese Army in the first major battle of the American war, in the Ia Drang valley, some 40 km away, in 1965. As you might suspect, I had my own personal involvement there, spending the "summer of love," 1969, not in San Francisco, but on a small hillock 11 km west of An Khe (the distance being dictated by the maximum range of fire for 105 mm artillery pieces... "interlocking fields of fire," and all that.) Lonely Planet mentions the devastation caused by Agent Orange twice, both to the landscape and the Vietnamese people. No compensation has ever been paid for this. Roughly 25 km to the west of An Khe is the Mang Yang pass, site of a massive defoliation effort, still evident today. I've uploaded a couple pictures of the area that I took in 1994. Though not in the guide, it is worth the visit, to complement the good times of the food, beaches, national parks, and the people who will still smile at the latest, much more friendly, invaders of the country. 5-stars.