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GLOBE TREKKER VIETNAM

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Justine Shapiro
Director: Jez Higham
Audio: English
Subtitles: None
Video: Color, full-frame
Studio: Pilot Productions
Features: Motorbiking in Vietnam featurette, travel information, web-links
Length: 46 minutes
Release Date: January 11, 2005

"In the remote hills of Lao Cai, so far and so different from the place I call home, I found people who had never heard of America."

Episode ***

Over its long history, the small Indochina nation of Vietnam has endured centuries of Chinese rule or occupation and more recently in the twentieth century by the Japanese and French, too.  An unassuming Third World nation, Vietnam seems an unusual battleground for what was once a tumultuous struggle between eastern and western super-powers over the political ideologies of democracy versus communism.  After all the dust had settled finally, Vietnam emerged once more as an independent nation, quietly contented to fade away from the global arena and public scrutiny.  Today, Vietnam is a socialist republic slowly undergoing economic reforms and a transition to a free market society, yet much of the flavor of rural Vietnam has remained unfazed by the events and upheavals of the latter half of the twentieth century.  As a result, the country, having re-opened its doors in recent years to tourists and travelers alike, offers an alluring blend of the traditional and the modern.

The long-running television travelogue program Globe Trekker visits this Asian nation to see how the country has changed in the intervening years.  A co-production between Pilot Film and TV Productions with WETA in Washington D.C., this episode of Globe Trekker follows charismatic series host Justine Shapiro as she journeys through Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south to the northern highlands of Lo Cai.

Saigon, once the southern capital, was re-named in 1975 to Ho Chi Minh City after the re-unification of the country.  Today, the city remains the economic capital with a population over four million, most of whom still travel to and fro on mo-peds and bicycles.  While bicycles are slowly being replaced by motorbikes, together they still vastly out-number cars in the cities by 100 to 1.  For tourists, human-powered cyclos can offer a relaxing means of travel, too.

Vietnam has a population over 80 million, 80% of whom live in rural settings and work the land.  Still, three-quarters of the nation is mountainous and remains largely unexplored.  With an average national income equivalent to $250 a year, Vietnam is also one of the poorest nations on Earth, and agriculture remains the backbone of most Vietnamese villages and towns.  Among its major exports is rice, as Vietnam is the third-largest rice producer in the world, with the Red River delta being one of its major rice-growing regions.

Education is highly prized among the Vietnamese populace, which has a literacy rate of 80%.  While there are relatively few Vietnamese who can speak English, French speakers are fairly common.  Vietnamese culture has also been heavily influenced by Mahayana Buddhism and Confucian rituals, and Buddhist pagodas are abundant in Vietnam.  Confucian shrines, as well, are integral to Vietnamese society as a symbol of familial piety, harmony, and respect for one's elders and ancestors.

The staple diet in the predominately agricultural Vietnam remains fish and rice.  However, soups, especially the popular Pho (a hearty beef noodle soup with greens), are regular breakfast meals.  One of Justine's pit-stops along her travels is at Hue's Lac-Thien restaurant, renown for its exquisite Banh Khoai crepes filled with seafood and bean sprouts.  These dishes are absolutely delicious, and both can be found readily in Vietnamese restaurants in America, too!  Other exotic culinary treats less likely to be found in America include a popular snake blood and alcohol concoction that Justine samples in Hue; presumably, such beverages protect the drinker against disease.

Justine's journey through Vietnam begins in Ho Chi Minh City, where she arrives in time to enjoy the Tet Festival.  Held annually across Vietnam in late January to early February, the Tet Festival is a celebration of the end of lunar calendar.  From Ho Chi Minh City, Justine then travels northwest to the Cu Chi District, once home to a massive subterranean network of claustrophobic tunnels and man-made lairs.  After a tour of one of these eerie tunnels, Justine gets an opportunity to test-fire an old war relic, the AK-47 assault rifle (and practically gets knocked off her feet doing so, too).

Next is a trip to the South China Sea and the premier seaside resort at Nha Trang.  Once a military base, Nha Trang is now a popular site for vacationers, both domestic and foreign alike.  Travelers here can partake in the all-day boat cruise sponsored by the local Green Hat Restaurant.  Nha Trang represents merely one settlement along Vietnam's 2000-mile coastline.  Lang Co peninsula in particular, just south of Hu, also offers miles of unspoiled beaches and is one of the most tranquil spots in Vietnam.

Travel in Vietnam is most easily accomplished by the bus system that connects the country.  Internal air travel is infrequent, and foreigners are forbidden to drive in the country, which is probably for the best, as Justine notes: "The traffic system in Vietnam can best be described as lawless." When bicycling in the cities, it is safer at intersections to keep pedaling rather than braking!

Adventurous travelers can also hop on the Reunification Express, part of the simple rail network connecting Ho Chi Minh City to the north.  With an average speed of only 30 mph, the train isn't particularly fast but does offer a wonderful opportunity to see the Vietnamese landscape and to mingle with the local populace.  Just keep in mind that lodging facilities do become rather basic and sparse the further north one travels.  On her trek northwards, Justine encounters many other foreign travelers who are happy speak candidly about their personal experiences in the country, including a pair of crazy Frenchmen attempting to ride a cyclo the entire length of Vietnam.

Justine's next stop is in Hue.  Once the imperial city of Vietnam's emperors until the Second World War, today Hue is home to the many temples, palaces, and tombs constructed over the centuries by the twelve emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Four hundred miles north of Hue, Justine visits Hanoi, the political capital of Vietnam.  A conservative and modest city, more resistant to reform, Hanoi is infrequently visited by foreign tourists, although it holds the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, a popular local attraction.  The ancient town center is also the heart of Hanoi, where artisans and craftsmen still practice their traditional trade in a centuries-old, time-honored fashion.

One hundred miles from Hanoi is the spectacular Ha Long Bay, with its majestic and surreal limestone islands.  With over 3000 such islands, this seascape (prominently featured in the James Bond thriller The Man with the Golden Gun) offers some of the most dazzling natural monuments and limestone structures to be found along Vietnam's coastal waters.

Finally, Justine's journey concludes in Lao Cai, near the Chinese border.  The remote highlands of this region are home to hill tribes with some of the most diverse cultural and linguistic traditions in Vietnam.  Over fifty ethnic minorities with their own unique costumes and beliefs live in these highlands where outsiders, such as Justine, come only once a decade.

In a world increasingly absorbed by capitalism and free market enterprise, it is nice to know that there are still people who live contentedly in a simple manner undeterred by global politics.  Vietnam is not alone in possessing such remote ethnic groups.  However, the diversity of such groups peacefully co-existing in so small a nation illustrates the basic fact that we are all members of the same human race on the same planet Earth.  Despite our multitude of differences, the potential remains in all of us to live together in harmony and in peace.

Video ***

Globe Trekker: Vietnam is presented in its original television full-frame format.  The photographic media used include celluloid film, high-definition video, and even grainy stock from host Justine Shapiro's old film camera.  As a result, the visuals will vary in their sharpness and graininess.  However, the video quality is generally clear with bright colors, realistic skin tones, and a pleasant presentation of exotic images.

Audio ***

Globe Trekker: Vietnam is offered with its original English soundtrack with occasional voice-over narration by Justine Shapiro.  There are no subtitles or close captions, although this should not really present a problem.  The audio quality is fine and occasionally makes use of ethnic music or dialects, too.

Features **

"I love the smell of paddy fields in the morning!"

As with any travelogue, this disc provides background pages about the host nation.  In this case, these pages concentrate on travel, climate, food, festivals, and highlights in Vietnamese society.  The information is somewhat basic but is further complemented with internet web-links to the various Globe Trekker sites.

The best feature, however, is the bonus trek - Treks in a Wild World.  This episode, Motorbiking in Vietnam (24 min.), is hosted by Zay Harding as he traverses the Vietnamese countryside via motorbike.  This trek is essentially an extension of Justine Shapiro's own journey through Vietnam.

Zay offers many important traveling tips for motorbiking in Vietnam and occasionally peppers his comments with Hollywood movie quotes.  His trek begins in Hanoi and from there to Ba Be Lake National Park.  Created in the 1990's, this park was meant to preserve the native fauna, flora, and endangered wildlife of the region and contains some impressive limestone mountain rivers, navigable via boat.  Zay heads for the region's spring festival, a celebration for the upcoming harvest season and an opportunity to participate in an assortment of traditional games designed for match-making.  Zay's most courageous moment, however, comes when he indulges in a culinary encounter with a duck egg, complete with a mature duck fetus inside.  That is one gross delicacy even I cannot stomach!

Next up is a trip to Da Lat to explore the Central Highlands, home to thirty-five different minority groups descended from aboriginal mountain people.  With a temperate climate and rich volcanic soil, this region offers a wealth of crops and farmers' markets.  Zay's journeys conclude with a tour of the countryside and old temples by a war veteran, who sadly reminisces about the losses from the war, and a visit with a famous regional elephant tamer, one of the last practitioners of his kind.

Summary:

Most people only know Vietnam from the bitter lessons taught in history books.  However, the country's rich ethnicity and heritage offer so much more, and Globe Trekker: Vietnam provides an opportunity for adventurers and arm-chair globe-trekkers alike to explore the path seldom traveled in Vietnam.

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