From Saigon to Hanoi

Tom McEnery recently returned from a visit to Vietnam. This is the third article in a three-part series.

Perhaps it was never expressed better than by Graham Greene’s fictional journalist Fowler (played by Michael Caine in the recent film, The Quiet American) when he notes of the naïve American: “ I never knew a man who had better motive for all the trouble he caused.” As I visited Hue I thought of Tet, and the victories that broke the American will to continue,  those pyrrhic victories and the carnage on both ends of that offensive and its aftermath.

This marked the end of our “better motives” era.  Is it so possible that the lessons of “ the best and the brightest,” a term now used as a positive, when even a cursory knowledge of David Halberstam’s book reveals it as a pejorative, a case of the allegedly “smartest” being unable to see the simple, obvious facts. The arrogance and incompetence of the Iraq War is a chilling reminder of the old bromide about those who forget history: Bush et al were sadly ignorant of anything to forget.

On to Hanoi, and a stark contrast with the Saigon of the South. It is a gray, colorless city, full of people, four-story narrow homes, and impassable, bumpy roads. Our guide was quite happy to point out the lake, smack in the center of the city, from which John McCain (“…you know,” he offered, “your Republican candidate for President…”) was fished out. We continued to the Hanoi Hilton, where McCain and the other downed pilots, including the first, a man from Santa Clara University named Everett Alvarez, were tortured and imprisoned.

In a bow to the future and something we have seen in so many American cities, only the front of he prison remains, the major portion was redeveloped and a tall building sits there now while only the facade remains, Go figure—it’s progress, I guess.

In the center of the city is the tomb of the revered Ho Chi Minh. His nearby office and sleeping quarters, toured by many,  were quite Spartan even for a man who lived in bohemian, squalid Paris and traveled the seven seas as a cook. This spot was where he ended his life in 1969,  a heady end to a mercurial and often impossibly incongruous life. American misjudgment of him was critical in the tragedies of the sixties and seventies.

Here in Hanoi, all seemed regimented; all in its place.  The contrasts were stark and the area unforgettable.  Although it was a short visit, I was not sorry to leave.


  1. Tom,

    Welcome back to Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz.

    Sorry to point out that Hanoi is more “civilized” than San Jose.  There are 39 Hanoi hostels listed at versus not a single urban hostel in San Jose or Santa Clara County.

    Young overseas budget travelers have a chance to stay and really explore Hanoi and the Vietnam countryside for very low cost.

    Like I mentioned numerous times, many budget travelers will not set foot in San Jose since there are no affordable places to stay.  Instead those travelers, as well as school groups, girl scouts, families drive over the hill and stay at our Santa Cruz Hostel or at Monterey, Pigeon Point or Montara Lighthouses.

    You ought to know that hostellers would never stay at your expensive Fairmont and DeAnza hotels, while the cheaper area motels are all occupied by service workers and foreclosed home owners who pay by the week or month.

    With your great connections it should be easy to open a 200+ bed San Jose Hostel which would greatly help the City’s tourist industry and bring in $$ to restaurants, entertainment, rental cars, museum admissions, shopping, etc.

    Please stop by the Santa Cruz Hostel the next time you come over and check the place out.  With millions square feet vacant in the San Jose area it should be easy to replicate our hostel but on a much larger scale.  The Hostel would be non-profit so it would also attract volunteers and students practicing foreign language skills.

    Reading some of the hostel reviews on the above site the Hanoi area is very interesting, some beautiful, the people are very friendly and it’s worth an extended stay.

    Perhaps you should have stayed longer!!


  2. A little off the subject.  I’ve been seeing advertisements for “Vietnam Airlines” over the past month in our local papers.  Will this airline serve SJC and San Jose’s large Vietnamese population?  Or will this internation carrier be another “feather in the hat” for SFO?  Anyone know?

  3. # 4.  republik…
    You sure do not know much about hostels, so I will enlighten you. Hostels all have kitchens and dining rooms called commons. The guests cook lots of their own meals and do not “eat out”. They just spent very little money in the cities that they are visiting…..GET OVER IT….

  4. #2, Napper,
    Sorry.  Can’t get over it.

    “Fat Cat” travelers spending money in San Jose?.
    Great idea, wishful thinking, but unrealistic!

    Most County high tech industry is located in Santa Clara, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Palo Alto, Milpitas, Fremont, usually all north of San Jose International Airport. 

    Why would business people want to go south of SJC to stay in San Jose?  What’s the attraction??  Besides the Fairmont and DeAnza Hotels there’s not much to choose relative to the many newer hotels located nearer their businesses.

    San Jose City is mostly lower and middle class residents.  Upper middle class likes Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Saratoga, Los Altos, Atherton,  Really rich people like to live in the hills and look down on everyone else.

    So where are you going to find travelers who actually want to stay in San Jose? Most likely they are travelers without rental cars who need good public transportation that San Jose offers.

    Hostellers do spend money.  Few of them stick around our Santa Cruz Hostel in the evening. They are Downtown, eating at restaurants, at pubs, shopping for souvenirs, at the Boardwalk, or seeing a movie.  Most of our hostel guests (especially during the summer)are young adults, either in college or staying at parent’s home and not used to spend $100/night or more for sleeping.  Most Europeans are familiar with budget hostels.  They prefer to spend their money to have a good time or to see things, not just for a place to sleep.


  5. # 5 Napper,

    Thanks for your reply.
    Sure, all true hostels have self-help kitchens for guests to us as long as they clean up after.
    Most hostels overseas have cafeterias serving inexpensive meals.  In Italy wine comes with the pasta.
    At our Santa Cruz Hostel we have a nice well equipped kitchen, but few actually cook there.  Those cooking usually buy groceries locally.  I pick up surplus food at the Grey Bears on Fridays so there’s something in the fridge since there are no grocery stores nearby.
    Less than third UCSC students live on campus. Many reside Downtown Santa Cruz so it’s busy even at night.  There are many non-chain restaurants, coffee houses, bars, night clubs, book stores, 4 movie houses, a variety of weird stores and plenty of street bums. People got to eat!  Since few hostellers cook they must be splurging at those restaurants.
    We do provide coffee or tea.  There are usually some eggs, cereal or sweet stuff for breakfast, the time when most social interaction occurs.
    You’re right.  Hostellers aren’t spending a lot of money in town.  We do have a few Aussie surfers waiting for their custom boards to be finished and some bicyclists buying equipment or getting a tuneup at the many area bike shops.  Many hostellers rent bicycles for a day, while others buy bus day passes. 
    If I had to pay over $100 for a hotel or motel, I’d never leave the room even for a minute.  Maybe have some pizza or Chinese delivered.

  6. Bye, Bye, Tom McE!!

    Will miss your future comments.

    Now that you have lot of free time, you might want to check out the Santa Cruz Hostel, Carmelita Cottages City Park, 319 Main St., up the hill between the Wharf and Boardwalk.
    Might be a good idea for San Jose tourism industry to replicate such hostel on a larger scale.  Your city has plenty of vacant buildings that could be home for a very successful hostel.

    Last Tuesday visited Kelley Park with its wonderful historic structures and the Light Tower (which badly needs some paint).  This park is another good reason to visit your city.  Next time I get to San Jose I’ll be sure to visit the Japanese Friendship Garden.


  7. Dear Tom,

    I hope you had a pleasant journey in Vietnam. From what I see, you truly see Vietnam for what it is.

    Your observation of Vietnam is quite accurate. The North and The South has always been the 2 extremes. You can almost see the same ressemblences in North and South Korea.

    Btw, the Communists always like to stage their “leaders” (Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho, etc…) as down to earth and devoted to their people. Where in truth, they live lavishly, often had many wives (even though they swear of a life of celibacy).
    I think you know it… but I just want to point it out to other readers.

    As always, I love reading your blogs.

    Take care.

    Vu Bui

  8. Please forgive a non-specific comment .. but there doesn’t seem to be a forum for general comments to the Insider. 

    I distrust the objectivity and fairmindedness of a news / watchdog organization that has zero female names listed among its 13 featured columnists.  While it is probably a neglected and “benign” oversight on the part of the editorial staff, the lack of feminine voice seriously indicts the objectivity and perceptiveness of this site.  Its staff members probably have no idea what elements are missing that could enrich the perceptiveness, readership, and usefulness of its content. 

    Please make a concerted effort to add talented, insightful female contributors to your columnist offerings.  Thank you.

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