Boker Tov, Vietnam!

Vietnam has been described as “a fashion maven’s paradise.”

Vietnam motorcycles 311 (photo credit: Ben G. Frank/The Scattered Tribe)
Vietnam motorcycles 311
(photo credit: Ben G. Frank/The Scattered Tribe)
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.
And the 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 purchases.
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. and eBay have nothing on this open-air shopper haven, price-wise and commodity-wise.
Walking 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 Orient.”
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 home.
Amazingly, in six decades of foreign travel, I had never come across a Jewish community where the entire kehila, including the rabbi, is from somewhere else.
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 industry.
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:
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 hotels.
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.
While visiting 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 race.”
They have been drawn to the perceived, exotic Vietnamese way of life.
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.”
So, 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 Site.
Even dead people draw a crowd in Hanoi.
Travelers are 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 Beijing.
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 as 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.