A Postcard from China Beach
Its bizarre at the very least - and going beyond that maybe more than a little distasteful- to contemplate a situation where in thirty or forty years time, Helmand province in Afghanistan were to become a tourist destination solely as a result of the present conflict. Yet maybe you shouldn't rule it out.
Part of Vietnam's current tourism offer includes tours of the DMZ - the ostensible demilitarised zone that sat between North and South Vietnam for some twenty years until reunification in 1975. The guide books are a bit sniffy as to what these actually offer but I came across a group of American seniors in a hotel in Hue who were taking it in as part of their visit.
Da Nang, Vietnam's third city, provides its own striking example of the wholly unanticipated consequences of conflict. It displays the full throated exuberance in architecture and development which we expect from the Asian tiger economies - making Hanoi a little dour in comparison Two recently completed new road bridges, a full blossoming of tower cranes and high rise blocks of agreeably extravagant design crowd the city centre.
A new road runs out of the city along the coast and along it resort hotels have shot up with the speed ( and some might say much of the architectural merit) of a crop of mushrooms. Hyatt, Crowne Plaza and a range of others are clearly staking a major claim for the international resort and conference market. Golf courses are designed and are being laid out.
And the cause of this concentration of development? Da Nang provided the United States with its most northerly operations centre during the Vietnam war. It was a major R and R location - there's a suggestion that GIs found the beach ( China Beach) a great attraction. My impression always was that for military on recreation leave, a beach may not have headed their list or requirements but I will happily take direction on that one.
More significantly however Da Nang was also the base for all air operations into north Vietnam. For a period it was almost the busiest airspace on the world. Runways were constructed which in terms of length and other engineering could accommodate the largest supply and operational craft then active.
And all of this infrastructure has been taken over by Vietnam itself ( intriguingly most of it - airport, town and beach - actually owned by the Vietnamese Army)
The airport sits less than five minutes from the City Centre. I have never come across an airport so close to the city it serves. A brand new terminal building opened in 2011 with capacity for 6 million passengers and further expansion is being considered. International destinations already include Beijing, Shenzen. Seoul-Incheon,Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
The process so far in Da Nang seems to take the biblical injunction about beating swords into ploughshares into an almost perfect paradigm for development.
More generally tourism looms large on Vietnam's agenda. There are far more Caucasian faces on the streets here than I have ever seen in a Chinese or Indian city - drawn from Australia, the United States and Europe. Backpacker Row still breezily offers ' A bed for five bucks' but I suspect its the prospective Da Nang resort occupants that will be the real target. They won't have to manage the pestering from hawkers and street peddlers which actually seems fairly low intensity and good-humoured ( and the shoe-shiner who most pestered me probably- I am ashamed to say- had good cause). Customer service in my experience in hotels and restaurants was exemplary but continuing growth will create a training and development need which is a possible market opportunity for providers from the UK - and elsewhere.
Spend an hour or so dutifully walking through the Museum of Revolutionary History in Hanoi. The walls are adorned with the grimly serious faces of insurgent and revolutionary leaders who struggled against the French, the despised southern 'puppet' regimes and the United States for a century or so. The final room celebrates achievement since re-unification.
Outside on New Years Eve, preparations for celebrations are in full swing - Vietnam seems happy to give full value to both January 1 and the Chinese New Year ( Tet) in a few weeks time. Under a statue of an historic hero in a city square a crowd is gathered watching a group of kids engage in a bout of competitive break dancing to a sound system blaring out international dance music. Outside the Opera House another stage throbs with sound and pulses with light.
Then you remember that the dancing kids grandparents were probably manning anti-aircraft stations exactly forty years ago bringing down B52 bombers - as were those of charming and utterly helpful hotel manager. The way the world turns. Bizarre ?