Vietnam


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We’ve been traveling for almost six months now and among the many lessons we’ve learned is this: travel can sometimes feel like a full-time job. Okay, like a really good job where we have neither assignments, deadlines nor specific working hours, but all the same, finding places to sleep each night, navigating new places every day, deciding where to eat every meal and making sure that we see everything we can in every place we visit can take its toll after awhile. Happily, we have the freedom to leave all of that behind for a few days and take a vacation within our vacation. And that’s just what we did for two days in Nha Trang and a few more in Phu Quoc.
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A westernized beach town on the southeast coast of Vietnam, Nha Trang boasts rows of hotels where guests lounge by the pool by day and a plethora of beachfront bars and restaurants where they migrate at night.  We were pleasantly surprised by Nha Trang, as other travelers had given it fairly mixed reviews.  Although it’s certainly not the place for you if you’re looking to experience “Authentic Vietnam,” the long stretch of beach is clean and dotted with manicured gardens, making for a picturesque escape from the bustling, pre-Tet crowds in Vietnam’s larger cities.
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A better choice for those looking to steer clear of the beaten tourist path, Phu Quoc Island sits in the Gulf of Thailand, off of the southwest coast of Vietnam.  Rumor has it that huge hotel complexes are headed its way in the near future but, for now, laid-back beachfront bungalows share the island with forests, mountains and a sizeable military base (necessary to prevent Cambodia, which claims the land as its own, from encroaching on Vietnamese interests).  Derek and I spent a day scuba diving1 and the rest of our time lazing by the beach and walking the miles of sandy shoreline.  At the end of our time in the sun, we were fully recovered from any travel-related stresses and ready to continue on with our adventure.  

  1. Our review of Phu Quoc diving: Enjoyable, but not alone worth the trip to the island.  The water was so clouded with sediment that, at times, we felt like we were swimming through a snow storm. []

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When I first visited Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) with my parents back in 1996, I was mesmerized.  Decades of French rule ending in the mid 1950s and a massive presence of American military during the 60s and early 70s have combined to create a city steeped in history.  In 1996, the streets were jammed with thousands of people heading to various destinations via bicycle, with the occasional motorcycle ridden by the Vietnamese elite.  The only signs of Western influence were the few French-era buildings and hotels that were mostly in need of renovations and a paint-job.
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Wow, how things have changed!  In the past 12 years, the economy of Vietnam has skyrocketed.  With investments flowing in from around the world (including the United States), the Vietnamese have been able to increase their standards of living exponentially.  Bicycles have been replaced by countless motorcycles, and the Vietnamese elite now drive European sedans.  On almost every corner, there is a French bistro, sushi restaurant, boutique hotel or jazz club.  The city is virtually unrecognizable from a little over a decade ago.
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Our time in Ho Chi Minh City coincided with the climax of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year (for all of you rat-lovers, you’ll be happy to know that this year is the Year of the Rat).  Our guidebooks had warned us that the city shuts down during the holiday as families spend time together in their homes; the streets would be deserted.  Lies!  The roads (and sidewalks…) were filled with motorcycles, typically carrying 3 or 4 passengers1, and Vietnamese families packed the streets much like New Yorkers pack Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  At many times, it was difficult to even move.  You could feel the excitement of a people who know their country is in good times and only headed for better.
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The city is renown for its many pagodas, or temples.  Little did we know that it is a tradition to visit the pagodas during Tet.  As we arrived at a nearby pagoda, we were overwhelmed with the throngs of Vietnamese who had come to show respect to their ancestors.  Inside the pagoda, there are small plaques with the name and picture (and, in some cases, an urn carrying the ashes) of a deceased relative.  The visitor waves a few sticks of incense in front of the plaque, bows and, in some cases, leaves an offering of an item that the ancestor enjoyed (e.g., fruit, cookies or even beer).

The remainder of our time in the city was spent at the other main sites including the Presidential Palace, where the President of South Vietnam resided prior to the end of the Vietnam War, and the War Remnants Museum, a museum displaying some fairly brutal and grotesque pictures from the Vietnam War, with captions that were only a bit more objective than the ones we had seen at the DMZ.

Given its vibrant culture, its energy and the many opportunities it offers to experience history firsthand, I can’t help but think that we’re going to Miss…Saigon (pun most definitely intended).

  1. After witnessing 4 passengers on one bike, we were intent on finding a bike carrying 5.  Luckily, a 5-passenger bike was spotted soon after our search began, followed by a 6-passenger bike a few days later.  I’m not sure the good people at Honda knew that a family of 6 would utilize its scooter for a family outing. []

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Our visit to Vietnam would not have been complete without a trip to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ.  This strip of land, which is approximately two miles wide, divided North and South Vietnam before and during the Vietnam War (or, as it’s called here, “the American War” or, depending on the speaker, “the War of American Imperialism” or similar). It thus separated Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong (VC) in the north from the American and South Vietnamese forces down south.

Nearly every American of our generation has friends and loved ones whose lives the war changed forever.  Our uncles and our fathers served there (as did a few thousand women), and we’ve seen its lasting impact on them.  We’ve grown up watching movies about the battles waged from 1963 to 1973 and hearing stories about the discord the war prompted back at home.  While Derek, Alyssa and I knew the basic outline of what took place during those troubled years, there was nothing like a field trip to the actual war zone to make it all hit home.

At 6:00 a.m. one morning, we boarded a bus full of tourists (some American, some non-) and set off for the DMZ, not really knowing what to expect.  At the end of the day, we had not only seen the sights, we had learned an important lesson about how cultural perceptions can influence the retelling of history.
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Our pint-sized guide (he maybe came up to Derek’s elbow) had a father who fought for the North and uncles who enlisted for the South. Like his American counterparts, he had grown up in the shadow of the war, only–given his geographic location—much more so.  Born and raised in post-war Vietnam, he saw on a daily basis the physical destruction that the war caused, and he told us that his father died from the effects of Agent Orange.  Needless to say, playing witness to the war’s devastation left him less than impartial: many of the facts he recited to us contrasted sharply with those in our Australian-written guidebook, and he peppered his spiel with adjectives that made the Americans on board bristle a bit.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the tour was the time we spent at the Khe Sanh Combat Base.  Americans of our parents’ generation will remember Khe Sanh as the marine stronghold that President Johnson, in 1968, feared would soon be the site of a massive Viet Cong siege.  The media took up the cry; Newsweek and Life both did cover stories on the impending attack.  Huge supplies of planes, troops and ammunition were amassed to ward off the threat from the North, but it never really materialized as planned (the siege was much smaller than expected).  Many scholars now believe that the VC threatened to attack Khe Sanh in order to distract US forces while the VC readied itself to launch the now-famous Tet Offensive. As it turned out, the comprehensive attacks that the North launched during the Tet holiday that year severely wounded the US and its allies and, according to many, mobilized American public opinion against the war.
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Khe Sanh now plays home to a small museum that prominently features pictures of Vietnamese soldiers doing various activities that, according to the captions, “Caused the Americans to flee in panic.”  The comments in the museum’s guestbook were at once intriguing and heartbreaking.  In addition to the usual “Peace Now” and “Down with the American Imperialists” messages were words from widows of American soldiers, from a mother whose son had been killed at Khe Sanh and from a U.S. Brigadier General named Tommy Bell: “I fly 243 missions here during 1966-1967.  We may have killed two million Vietnamese.  For this I am very sorry.  I will never fight another war.”  Those comments will stay with me far longer than anything I might have read in a history book.
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After brief stops at the Rockpile and Dakrong Bridge, our bus pulled up to the Vinh Moc tunnels–almost 2 miles of underground passageways in which North Vietnamese women and children lived during the war, largely protected from the bombs that rained above their heads.  Not a place for claustrophobics, the dark tunnels are about five and one-half feet tall and maybe three feet wide.  They form a sort of warren, complete with meeting rooms, living areas and a maternity ward where 17 babies were delivered during the war years, only to spend the first years of their lives entirely underground.

All in all, our day in the DMZ allowed me to glimpse the vast differences between American and Vietnamese perceptions of the war.  Particularly given the debates over our country’s current involvements on foreign soil, it also afforded me a timely and much-needed history lesson. Now it’s time to hit the books in search of answers to the many questions raised by our time in a place where so many soldiers–American and Vietnamese alike–gave their lives in service to their country.

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After Hanoi, we flew to Hue, a former imperial city on the banks of the enigmatically named Perfume River.  We spent a mist-filled afternoon exploring the Citadel, a section of the city that is surrounded both by a moat and by tall, thick walls.  These safety precautions did little to defend the area from the Vietnamese-American War; huge swaths of the Citadel were razed during one of the bloodiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive.  Tourist dollars are helping to fund ongoing restoration efforts, and the results are already visible throughout the complex.  The Imperial City, a Citadel-within-a-Citadel that once housed the emperor’s residence and important state buildings, looked like a run-down version of Beijing’s Forbidden City but was remarkably free of the hordes of tourists that we’d seen there.
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Hue is known for its food, and we were all eager to (over-)indulge.  We didn’t find too much worth, um, writing home about, but perhaps we were just looking in the wrong places.  We did discover some great snacks at the local market, which buzzed with frenetic shoppers making last-minute purchases for the upcoming Tet celebrations.  Armed with sugary coconut strips and dried, shredded beef (it’s good–seriously…), we left Hue for what, we hope, will be the sunnier skies of Southern Vietnam.

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Carrying cumquat trees for Tet
Hanoi is a city difficult not to love.  After finding a hotel in the Old Quarter, we set off exploring its narrow streets.  Historically, each street in the Old Quarter was devoted to selling a certain product, from which it received its name – Flower Street selling flowers, Shoe Street selling shoes and Fish Street selling an array of freshly caught fish.  Around every corner, you are bombarded with sights and smells that are quintessentially Asian.  Outside the Old Quarter, you will find a fairly modern city filled with government buildings (Hanoi is the capitol city of Vietnam), beautifully restored temples and French colonial buildings and gorgeous, tree-lined lakes.
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For us, Hanoi’s vibrance was only enhanced by the upcoming holiday of Tet.  For the Vietnamese, Tet is THE holiday.  Celebrated on the days before and after the start of the Lunar New Year (which falls on February 7th this year), it is when almost everyone returns home to their families.  For a traveler, it is a unique time to be here.  The whole city of Hanoi was filled with vendors selling flowers on every empty sidewalk, markets filled to the brim with shoppers buying food made only during this time of year and streets packed with motorbikes and people trying to make all their last-minute purchases.

In addition to its many temples and lakes, one of Hanoi’s big draws is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  Ho Chi Minh is a hero without rivals in Vietnam.  After founding the Community Party in Vietnam, he made it his mission to expel the French colonists from the country.  Ultimately, the French left Vietnam after being defeated by Ho and the gang in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, ensuring that Ho would be worshipped as Vietnam’s saviour for generations to come.
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You can’t walk 100 feet in Hanoi (or in virtually every other city in Vietnam) without seeing a statue of Ho or a building or road named after him.  The ultimate memorial is located in a beautiful park in the center of the city where, in a small building, Ho Chi Minh’s body has been embalmed and is open for viewing.  It is an odd memorial to a man who lived a fairly simple life and had specifically requested a basic cremation.

As you are rushed through the small room where his body lies, you are required to dress appropriately, walk quickly, not carry anything with you (especially cameras and phones) and maintain complete silence.  I was especially concerned with this last requirement since silence has never been a virtue of Shanna’s.  Sure enough, within seconds of entering the mausoleum Shanna began talking only to be quickly hushed by one of the many gun-wielding guards.  As I walked past Ho’s body, I was struck by the peaceful nature he exhibited and by his remarkable resemblance to Colonel Sanders.  Perhaps KFC Vietnam has found its mascot?

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Hai Au Queen Boat in Halong Bay
In the green-gray waters of the Gulf of Tonkin sit the more than 3000 limestone karsts that combine to form the wonder that is Halong Bay. The bay has long been a draw for tourists visiting mainland Vietnam; most of us hop on buses in Hanoi and, after a long ride through rice fields and pastel, dollhouse-like homes, step aboard rickety boats (called “junks”) for some time on the open water. That’s exactly what Derek, Alyssa–my best friend who’s traveling with us for a few weeks–and I did a few days ago.  Hurrying through the fine mist that has seemed ever-present during our stay in Vietnam, we boarded the Hai Au and set off to explore the karsts.
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Derek and I had biked through karsts in Yangshuo, China, but seeing them by boat was a different experience entirely.  The tiny, colorful fishing boats anchored in front of the towering karsts create a stunning, almost ethereal landscape, and rumors of a Halong Bay-based Loch Ness monster only increase the intrigue.  (Sadly, if he’s out there, we never spotted him.)

The junk stopped at the three-chambered Hang Sung Sot cave, known to tourists as “Surprising Cave,” likely due to the, err, adult nature of one of the rock formations within.  After exploring the cave, we braved the chilly air and paddled kayaks through a tunnel in one of the karsts and into an idyllic lagoon.  Later, we warmed up over endless games of Uno, which is quickly becoming my favorite travel pastime.  Our captain dropped anchor in the bay for the night, and we all fell asleep to the sound of waves lapping against the boat–not a bad lullaby at all!

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Imagine going into your favorite store and finding that everything fits you perfectly, comes in your favorite color and fabric and is 75% off.  That pretty much sums up our time in Hoi An, Vietnam.  The town was a major port until its river began to dry up; it now finds its commercial edge in the more than 500 tailor shops that line its quaint streets.  I entered one such establishment, Yaly Couture, armed with printouts from the J. Crew website.  Two days later, I shipped home the beginnings of a new, custom-made wardrobe, all purchased at prices dramatically lower than I would’ve paid for the authentic stuff.  Even Derek got into the act and bought a new suit (though, in order to preserve his masculinity and because it’s actually true, I have to admit that he wasn’t quite as excited as I was).
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The town is geared toward the gaggles of tourists who come to shop.  Store after store offers up shoes made to match their new purchases, and excellent restaurants and sidewalk cafes wait to serve those suffering from shopping spree-induced fatigue.  People taking a break from consumerism can spend a pleasant few days wandering the streets of Hoi An’s historic Old Town; they’re lined with art galleries, shoe stores, Chinese lanterns and French colonial buildings and are ridiculously charming.
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Just 15 minutes outside the city are the gorgeous beaches popularized in the late-80’s sitcom, China Beach.  During the Vietnam War (or, as it’s known here, the “American War”), U.S. soldiers stationed all over the country retreated to this long strip of white sand for some R & R.  Today, it’s barely developed, but signs announcing the impending construction of new, luxurious mega-hotels are everywhere.  Like so many other places, this one likely will be nearly unrecognizable in a few years.  Until then, however, Hoi An has something–shopping or otherwise–for everyone, and it all seems to be a great bargain.

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We’ve covered a lot of ground the last few days, most of it via motorcycle.  From Don Khon, we drove (and, by “drove,” I mean Derek drove and I lazed on the back of the bike) north to the Kingfisher Eco Lodge in Kiet Ngong.  We haven’t been to Africa yet, but I’m pretty sure that the lodge gave us our first taste of what an African safari is going to be like.  From the balcony of our bamboo bungalow, we watched elephants1 munching on impossibly green grass in a field a few hundred feet away.  We climbed aboard one of their peers for a trek up a hill to the archaeological ruins of Phu Asa.  Sadly, we never made it to our destination: our ride took one look uphill, turned around and headed right back home.  I guess that explains why transport via elephant isn’t all that common these days…
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Although we never saw Phu Asa, we did make it to the nearby town of Champasak to see Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer temple complex that’s often compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.  Frangipani-lined walkways led us through the wat’s tumbledown structures, which–even under the glare of the harsh, midday sun–exuded an almost mystical air.

We turned in our motorcycle and boarded a bus bound for Attapeu, a town near the Laos-Vietnam border.  After a night there, we hopped on another bus, this one headed for the Laotian border town of Bo Y.   We had read that it was now possible to cross into Vietnam from Bo Y but, so far, few Westerners have tried it (they usually cross at a place farther to the north).  (I have to admit that I felt both cool and adventurous to be making this attempt, particularly because it’s not yet detailed in the Lonely Planet…)  The bus dropped us off on the Laos side of the sandy border town, which had a decidedly Wild West feel to it, and we walked into Vietnam, where it picked us back up.  Piece of cake.
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Next, it was on to Kon Tum, which boasts a well-deserved reputation as one of the friendliest cities in congenial Vietnam.  We procured both a motorcycle and a guide and set off to explore the area, which was the target of an American bombing raid in 1972.   Our first stop was the Vinh Son orphanage, where I once again fell in love with–and resisted the urge to kidnap–one of the little girls I met.  Although this orphanage was far cheerier and better equipped than the one we visited in China, it was somewhat more depressing, in that many of its wards are never adopted; they live out their entire childhoods in the orphanage.  Of course, this is a much better fate than the one that some of them would have faced had they not been put up for adoption: some of the children are part of an ethnic minority group called the Jarai that, until a recent government clampdown, was known to bury live babies along with their dead mothers.  This horrific practice apparently stems from a time when there were no alternatives to breast milk, and so the death of a mother necessarily meant the demise of her baby.
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Waving goodbye to the children, we rode to a Bahnar village, where we saw our first rong house.  Kind of like village community centers, rong houses have towering roofs, the height of which is said to indicate the wealth of their villages.  (I wonder if every village strives for a rong house roof higher than the one of its neighbor…)  We left our motorcycle in the village and set off on foot through jungle landscapes and fields where cows grazed under banana trees.   We floated back to the village in dugout boats, one of which was captained by a boy who could not have been more than six years old.  Although we had nearly as many flat tires as we did days on our motorcycle, two-wheeled travel took us to places–and led us to people–that we never would’ve encountered had we rented a car!

  1. Kiet Ngong is one of the few places where elephants are still used to help with farm work. []