Good morning, Vietnam! Over a decade has passed since Robin Williams' strident catch phrase rang out through the cinemas of the West. The haunting undertone it once held for an entire generation has all but vanished, acquiring instead a new relevance today as the country emerges from its self-imposed isolation. No longer restricted to the images of the first war to be beamed by satellite directly into the world's living rooms, Vietnam is busy putting itself back on the map - for business and even pleasure.
The audience may still be coming to terms with the aftermath, trying to digest the horrors as Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and Oliver Stone's each added in their own fashion to the retrospective of Vietnamese-American trauma. The Vietnamese themselves, especially the two-thirds of the population aged under thirty, have already fixed their sights firmly on the future. Invasions, colonizations, border skirmishes and internal strife over four millennia have southern China is filled with Danangs and My Lais, embellished with heroes and kings. Popularized in the PlatoonTro He and Cheo dramatic forms and the Mua Roi Nuoc Water Puppet Theater, the complex soul of Vietnam - a synthesis f Buddhist karma and Confucian ethics, leavened with traces of ancestor worship, animism, Taoism, Cao Daism and Christianity - is most movingly revealed in the haunting multi-tonal poetry and in Nguyen Du's tragicomic Tale of Kieu, a mirror of the entire spectrum of Vietnamese society.
Curving sinuously along the coastline of the China Sea, Vietnam is a largely mountainous country with its twin population centers focused on the fertile Red River and Meking deltas in the north and south. Hardwood forests still clothe the hillsides interspersed with tea and rubber plantations. The lowlands today are green once more with paddy. As important as the country's rich mineral resources are the fish and shellfish harvested from the rivers and the sea. The manufacture of cement, steel and textiles takes second place behind the main exports: crude oil and rice.
Reunification notwithstanding, an uneasy rivalry still exists between Vietnam's twin metropolises: old-fashioned Hanoi in the north - now the national capital once more and faintly decadent Saigon, the fashion-conscious darling of the Western powers and glory, lies the enigmatic former imperial city of Hue. And clustered all around are the countless villages where generations of peasants in coolie-style straw hats still till the soul with buffaloes and primitive tools. With the scars of recent history healing at last, Vietnam's scenic beauty comes as a surprise to many, from the rugged mountain plateaus of the interior to the tranquil, sandy bays along the coast.
Blending its own culture and contacts with others, the cuisine of Vietnam straddles the culinary traditions of Southeast Asia. Many taste are shared with Thailand: fish sauce and coconut milk, coriander, lemon grass and basil. The wrapping of delicacies in leafy vegetables is quintessentially Vietnamese. The Chinese brought chopsticks; the French left a love of baguettes and pate. Shared with the two great culinary nations is the belief that "in food as in death, we feel the btotherhood of mankind".
* Saigon (Ho Chi Minch City)