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Visiting The Jews Of Vietnam


Benn Frank, The Baltimore Jewish Times, January 13, 2012


Ask any recent visitor what they remember most about Vietnamese cities, and chances are it's "those darn motorbikes." The noise level in those urban centers reaches a crescendo not unlike a major American city. But the sound is different. Here, the noise comes from motorbikes and motorcycles that roar past.

My eyes and ears picked up these loud-sounding "bees" buzzing down wide, tree-lined boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, their horns blaring and warning me to stay out of their way. Making the scene more haunting were the bike riders and their Star War helmets and hospital-type masks to ward off pollution. Dodging these modern urban cowboys, whose butts are planted firmly in the saddles of their motorized steeds, offered quite a challenge.

I had traveled the world in search of exotic Jewish communities for my new book, "The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond," and here I was in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in the People's Republic of Vietnam, the U.S-Vietnam conflict four decades long gone. Make no mistake about it, Vietnam today is a very in-place for American tourists and Saigon, as many still call it, is in many ways, the Paris of the Orient.

The pace of the city is frenetic, energetic, hectic and loud, with streets and avenues packed with pedestrians. The Vietnamese are "very friendly to Americans," and today very entrepreneurial.

And that has brought Americans to Vietnam, including Jews.

"We didn't know there were Jews in Vietnam?"

Those probably are the first words visitors utter when they meet Rabbi Menachem Hartman, Chabad rabbi in Saigon.

Unlike India where that community is definitely composed of Indian Jews who have lived in that sub-continent for centuries, the Vietnamese Jewish community, is not made up of Vietnamese Jews in the true sense of the word. Indeed, there are no homegrown residents, except perhaps a few converted, native Vietnamese who married Jewish foreigners.

About 10,000 to 15,000 Jewish businesspeople and tourists travel to this Southeast Asia country each year, according to Rabbi Hartman. Only 150 to 200 Jews reside in Vietnam all year around to constitute this Jewish community which is made up of "ex-pats," or "temporary residents," and mostly American, although some French and Israeli citizens and students live here.

In nearly six decades of foreign travel, this was my first experience at a synagogue or Jewish gathering where everyone in attendance, including the rabbi, was from somewhere else. Many are here to make money as this former foe of the U.S. has opened to the West and has adopted what some label "crony capitalism," Most Jews here engage in what is commonly known as "the shmate business; others imbibe the so-called Vietnamese way of life.

Rabbi Hartman, who opened Chabad House in Saigon in 2006, welcomes visitors and temporary residents. On a typical Friday night, more than 60 people attend services and a fully-catered dinner at Chabad, 5A (villa) Nguyen Dinh Chieu st. District 1.The organization offers kosher meals for individuals or groups, including delivery to hotels. For holidays, especially Passover and Rosh Hashana, Chabad often rents an auditorium in a hotel. The number of first class hotels in Saigon is growing, including the Rex Hotel which some say served as the headquarters of the USIA during the Vietnamese War. The Rex's popular rooftop bar served as a watering hold for journalists, who received daily press bulletins known as "The Five O'Clock Follies."

Today, Vietnam has been described as "a fashion maven's paradise." Not uncommon for American tourists is to actually buy an extra suitcase for purchases.

Visit Saigon's General Post Office for its architecture. Admire the imposing French-colonial city hall. The Notre Dame cathedral, the many pagodas, the Hindu temples, the Jewish Chabad house, all reflect a "mélange of faiths," deep cultural and religious traditions and diversity of this country.

Rarely encountered in conversations, unless initiated, are the Vietnamese wars. The country seems more interested in the future than the past. Not to say that the conflicts with France and the U.S. are forgotten. Just visit the War Remnants Museum , located in the former U.S. Information Service building, "where events are told from a Vietnamese perspective."

Travelers 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 capital city, Hanoi, which recently celebrated its 1000 year anniversary. About 100 Jews live in Hanoi where visitors crowd the mausoleum of Ho-chi Minh, Communist leader of Vietnam's independence movement. 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.

Good source for travel arrangements is Lotus Tours, New York City, tel: 212-267-5414; email: info@lotustours. com Excellent guide in Vietnam is Trung Thanh Nguyen at fareasttour@hcm.fpt.vn . No direct flights to this very "in" destination, but highly recommended is Cathay Pacific Airlines. http://www.Cathaypacific.com .

(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.")