HO CHI MINH CITY – When the second of two Indo-China wars finally ended in 1975,
who would have dreamed that war-ravaged Vietnam would become one of the most
“in” destinations for western tourists and that American and French Jews, as
well as Israelis, would be flocking to this Southeast Asian land.
number keeps rising. According to Rabbi Menachem Hartmen of Chabad Jewish
Center, now in its second home in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), about 20,000 Jewish
tourists, business persons and Israeli government officials – including
President Shimon Peres on an official state visit this past November – tour this
country of an estimated 90 million persons every year.
Vietnam today is a
very “in” place. Historic pagodas and the graceful curves of French colonial
buildings, structures with Chinese motifs and American-style high rises dot
cities and countryside. Hotels and restaurants have been returned to the private
sector. The tourist industry is growing at almost 20 percent annually. And
millions of visitors are drawn to this land each year.
One reason is that
Vietnam has been described as “a fashion maven’s paradise.”
Indeed it is
not uncommon for tourists to actually buy an extra suitcase for
After visiting Saigon’s Ben Thanh market this seems like a
prudent move: booth after booth, section upon section of clothes, textiles and
tchotchkes – everything imaginable.
Overstock.com and eBay have nothing
on this open-air shopper haven, price-wise and commodity-wise.
the now peaceful streets of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), I realized what other
travel writers before me understood: this metropolis on the Saigon river remains
fast-moving and exciting, especially in the large ethnic Chinese section,
Cholon, which adds to the city’s cosmopolitanism.
The sounds and pace of
Saigon get to you immediately, frenetic, energetic, hectic and loud, a reminder
of New York City or Tel Aviv.
During long walks in the early evening, I
notice streets packed with pedestrians. At night, tourists flock to the Rex
Hotel at the corner of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue boulevard, and ride up to the
popular rooftop bar which during the Vietnam War served as a watering hole for
journalists. The view is magnificent; this is after all, “the Paris of the
Down below you can observe the rivers of motor bikes moving
through city streets.
Every visitor to HCMC and Hanoi remembers those
“darn” motorbikes. Stand at any corner and you, too, will be mesmerized by the
swarms of motor bikes, their bee-like sounds ringing in your ears. Getting
across major intersections is like trying to dodge the traffic swarming around
Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.
Today’s scooter-propelled youth hold no animosity
for Americans or Westerners. The war’s long over. People in the city and country
want to become a prosperous nation, not a battlefield. This is good, especially
for American seniors who though cognizant of the nearly four-decade interval in
historical memory since the end of the Vietnam conflict, note that today, the
two former combatants, (the US and Vietnam) now hold joint naval maneuvers in
the South China Sea.
Still, the Vietnamese government does not want its
populace to forget its battle with the French and Americans. Tourists quickly
learn that history often belongs to the victor. At the War Remnants Museum and
the famous Cu Chi tunnels, visitors are shown propaganda films, observe captured
American war booty and underground passageways.
The war also was covered
extensively in Israel, including articles by Moshe Dayan who in 1966 commented
on the conflict for Israeli newspapers and often went out with US Marine
reconnaissance patrols. But that was yesterday.
Today, this Communist
government has long opened to the West, bringing opportunities to American
Jewish and Israeli entrepreneurs, including at least several dozen Israeli
companies; as well as Israeli doctors working in clinics and treating burn
victims, for instance. Approximately 300 Jews declare Vietnam as their temporary
Amazingly, in six decades of foreign travel, I had never come
across a Jewish community where the entire kehila, including the rabbi, is from
About 200 Jews reside in HCMC and 100 in the capital,
Hanoi. According to Rabbi Hartman, one-third are American expats, one-third
Israelis and one-third from throughout the world. Many of the Americans are
engaged in what is commonly known as “the shmate business, a flashback to the
days when New York’s island of Manhattan was the world capital of the garment
Welcoming Jewish tourists and residents in HCMC is Chabad
Jewish Center, now in its second home at Nguyen Dinh Chieu St. 5A (Villa)
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Chabad phone: (+84) 08-391-00181; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Hartman, who was born in Kiryat Malachi,
and his wife Rachel have three children, Levi, Chaim and Effi. He says that
while there is intermarriage among the expats, there are no converted Vietnamese
Jews. He pointed out in an interview that the “Vietnamese like us; they welcome
us, because they like to think of themselves as the Jews of Asia, as well as
nation of the book.”
Kosher food can be obtained at Chabad every day. The
organization supplies kosher meals for singles or groups at their
Friday night and Saturday morning services attract many, as do
all the holiday celebrations.
More than 60 people show up for the Friday
night Shabbat meal. Activities are offered at Chabad, including a woman’s group,
a Torah study group, a youth group, a singles group, a weekly Hebrew school
which includes art classes, and weekly classes for adults.
Vietnam, I participated in the Second Seder, (less formal than the First, which
was attended by about 150 persons in a large center city hotel). American
businesspersons and tourists, Israeli backpackers and French students agreed
that Vietnam was certainly an exotic community to recall the exodus from Egypt,
as well as a place, far, far from home.
At the seder, I learned that not
everyone is here to make money, at least outwardly.
Some, I am told, have
fled what one might call the “American drive for the almighty dollar.” They
desired to escape American life and its so-called “proverbial rat
They have been drawn to the perceived, exotic Vietnamese way of
Rabbi Hartman opened the first Chabad center in 2006 when there
were about 60 Jews in Vietnam. Before he came, chabbadniks went from city to
city, making contacts and finding out Jewish names. He claimed there were about
sixty Jews in Vietnam in 2006.
Jews, of course, arrived in Vietnam before
the US Army and before Chabad. They entered Indochina with the French in the
latter half of the 19th century and settled in Saigon. In the 1880s Jewish
soldiers and officers fought in the French Army in the Tonkin campaign. In 1939,
the total Jewish population in Haiphong, Hanoi, Saigon and Tourane numbered
about 1,000 individuals, as well as 80 Jews in Tonkin. They would suffer under
Vichy France. After World War II, with the return of French Republic rule, an
estimated 1,500 Jews called Vietnam their home, a home which they fled with the
after the disastrous battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Plans are in the
making to establish a Chabad center in Hanoi, though even now, the organization
sponsors activities in the capital of this country, a country which certainly is
cognizant of its cultural diversity, due in no small part to its geographical
location. Vietnam is situated on the eastern portion of the Indochinese
peninsula, bordered on the north by China, on the west by Laos and Cambodia, and
on the east by the South China Sea. Vietnamese children are taught in school
that their country takes the form of an elongated letter “S.”
tourists should not linger too long in Saigon. Visit the country’s beautiful
beaches, trek through hills and valleys. Fly or drive to the ancient capital of
Hue to see the Citadel; it’s quieter there. Move on to Hanoi where visitors
attend a performance at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Stroll around Hoan Kiem
Lake. Shop in the Old Quarter. Cruise in Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage
Even dead people draw a crowd in Hanoi.
constantly lined up in front of the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist
leader of North Vietnam. I recalled that in previous years, I had visited the
embalmed Lenin in Red Square, and Mao Tse-tung in Tiananmen Square in
On my trip to Vietnam, I paid a visit to see Ho. And no, he does
not roll over in his tomb at the sight of so many Americans and Westerners lined
up to view him in state.
Indeed, a small example that interest in Vietnam
has risen is that the “Southeast Asia through Jewish Eyes Tour,” led by Rabbi
Marvin Tokayer, creator of the “Journey Through Jewish Eyes” travel program has
increased in numbers to the Far East, including Vietnam.
I hope he tells
him to watch out for the motorbikes.Ben G. Frank, journalist, travel
writer, is the author of the just-published,
The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the
Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, Globe Pequot Press; as well
A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition;
A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia
and Ukraine, and
A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.