Finally. A holiday.
After a certain amount of time I think people might forget how important it is to take vacations. It is sad for me to admit this, but I think one can just ‘get used to’ working all the time. Certainly, it seems to be an endemic problem in Hong Kong. In order to address this deficiency in my life, I decided to go to Vietnam for the Lunar New Year. I have wanted to go to Vietnam for a long time and have twice been locked and loaded (as one might tactlessly say) with a visa and a ticket… and then: FOILED. But not this time. The third visa is a charm! There are lots of reasons behind my wanting to go to Vietnam, and as I have written of them or talked about them at length previously, I will leave it at that for now. Suffice it to say that I am well on my way to coloring in all of Southeast Asia on my mental Places I Have Been Map and that makes my inner OCD very happy.
Prior to my departure I was overwhelmed with all sorts of conflicting information about Vietnam and the Vietnam experience, colored also by my own ideas and thoughts on the country. I have never heard a place described with such wildly divergent opinions. One consistent comment was that I should expect to be underwhelmed with opportunities to “do stuff” as I was going for Tet and everything would be shut. Of course I knew I was going for Tet… a word I had heard long before I ever really understood the Lunar New Year, when I learned about the events of 31 January 1968: The Tet Offensive. For some reason this made me want to see the country at this time even more. The significance of the Vietnam (American) War on the political understanding and awareness that I was raised with cannot be underestimated, and the effects of the campaigns of 1968 were felt for years.
I had been told by someone (who actually knew what he was talking about) that the War was really just not a big deal to the Vietnamese today. I couldn’t believe it at the time… but now that I have been there I sort of get it. Of course there is War stuff everywhere as the Vietnamese are some of the most market oriented (and religious, but I’ll get to that shortly) Communists I have ever seen. Okay, I haven’t actually really seen that many Communists… but you get the point. I was also told that I would be ripped off and hassled and scammed everywhere I went. That turned out to be completely erroneous information, though I am starting to wonder if I am unaware of getting played or if I am just really not getting played (I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter, I am not bothered either way, and who wants to be that dick haggling over one more US nickle? Still, my taxi ride from Noi Bai Airport into Hanoi cost US$16 and not US$150 like it did for someone else…) However, no one mentioned that I wouldn’t find a single 7-11 in-country. How could it be that no one saw this as pertinent information? No 7-11? [Vietnam also had no McDonald’s or Starbucks that I could see. I guess that makes them a little more purist on the Commie spectrum than say, China.] But… no 7-11? I was distraught for a minute.
Then I got over it.
I started my trip in Ho Chi Minh City… but I soon learned I was truly in Saigon. I figured since I was trying to escape the brutal cold (50°F) in Hong Kong, I should start out where I knew it would be warmest and move north as the week of Lunar New Year (notoriously chilly) progressed. I saw several friends in the airport on my way out, they were all on the flight to Hanoi departing five minutes before mine (how was the weather guys? Heh heh…) so we got to swap plans and predictions and suggest a rendezvous later in the week. Inshalla, eh? I flew on Vietnam Airlines (Cathay partner so I get miles, woo hoo!) and the flight and arrival were completely uneventful – as they should be. I was met at the airport by a taxi sent from my hotel and in a matter of minutes – 30? I was at my hotel. I stayed at a great little place called the Spring Hotel in District 1, which is pretty much the tourist area to stay; it actually is officially Saigon. I think I paid around US$45/night. I know a lot of people will think that is expensive, but I gotta say… I am soooooo over backpackers, that I am willing to throw a little cash towards a buffer zone. Plus, I remember being a backpacker in my twenties and wondering who those creepy old people were that were lurking in the hostels and backpacker haunts. I don’t wanna be that cretin. Anyhow, the hotel was awesome, the bed was huge, the breakfast was free (and Western… I am adventurous, but I do not do Asian breakfast) and there was free wireless. Actually it turns out that the entire nation of Vietnam has free wireless… oh, except for the Sofitel Metropole… but I will definitely get to that later.
After arriving and getting settled in, I hit the streets to see what was open and what was happening. I immediately found my second best friend, HSBC, (second to 7-11, of course) and got caught up. And once I grabbed my fill of Dong (yeah, I know, I have been waiting to say it) I ventured out. The streets were packed! People, motorbikes, flower vendors, balloon vendors… but true to the predictions… everything was closed. After I did a brief walking tour of the area, I got my head around getting some dinner (this was to be the start of a seriously fabulous food week… ) and went to a restaurant that specialized in com tam, Vietnamese broken rice. Now, you all know I do not dig on rice, but I had to try it. And, well, the place was open, so there you go. It was pretty good… kind of like the consistency or feel of bulgar wheat, like in tabbouleh. But the best part was the grilled chicken that came with it and the soup – oh my god. It was so good. I had seconds. And the first of many Bia Ha Noi. Following this I strolled back to the hotel and figured I would make a plan for the next day and see what was happening in my neighborhood. The guy running the front desk was awesome and hooked me up with a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai temple for the next day (US$5 for the trip) and when I asked where I could get a massage he called around for me and got me a 2 hour massage right then… it was a little pricey, US$15… but well worth it in a lovely spa. I returned to my room a happy noodle.
Up early for breakfast and a full day, I headed downstairs… after emailing my parents of course, because I could! Free wifi… so great! The manager of the hotel came up to each person having breakfast and gave us lucky money, in Hong Kong this is called lai see, in Vietnam it is li xi, and this is a tradition I will certainly take home from Asia… I mean, who doesn’t like getting little red packets full of money? In any case, I thought it was a very cool gesture on behalf of the hotel, I always like an auspicious beginning and hey, who can’t use a little more Dong? (Yeah, okay, I will stop soon.) Following my delicious breakfast – I was back on bread like the carb addict that I am because I am not going to pass up good French bread in the land of rice and noodles – I got picked up by my guide, Lim and we headed out through town. First we would go to a workshop where handicapped workers produce a lot of the lacquer that I was soon to find everywhere… though there would be no workers there today, and then we would hit the temple for the noon service and then the tunnels.
Lim was awesome. He did three tours in the American War and fought for the SVA. He had so many great stories about old Saigon, he showed us where the American soldiers had hung out, the places that got really wrecked in the Tet offensive and told us about how the population has fluctuated so dramatically because of political maneuvering. Saigon is the biggest city in Vietnam now, though there was obviously a mass exodus following the fall of the city to the Viet Minh. He also pointed out all the motorbikes… not that he needed to because oh my god, they are everywhere, and as in most parts of SE Asia loaded with entire families, household appliances and groceries… simultaneously. He said there are about 4,000,000 motorbikes in the city – whose total population is about 7,000,000. That should give you pause. And then there is the way people drive. Even Wiki says (with accuracy I can vouch for):
Visitors should consider the city’s streets as dangerous due to the motorists’ lack of behavior and the city’s lack of traffic law enforcement. Drivers can be seen driving the wrong way up one-way streets, ignoring red lights, not stopping for pedestrians on marked crossings and driving on the footpaths.
Lim told us about the helmet law that was put in place because around 150 people per month were being killed in traffic fatalities. But then mentioned that it hasn’t been totally effective because the helmets they buy are not very good as they are made in Vietnam (his words.) Some of the helmets were pretty funny, like jockey helmets and Hello Kitty beanies and stuff. Kids are not required to wear helmets because it is not economically viable to have to keep getting new ones as they grow out of them. That is some interesting logic.
The workshop was, well, a workshop. It was cool to see how the eggshell lacquer was made, I ended up buying a bunch in Hanoi… and it seems like a crafty thing to do with all those egg shells. But I mostly wanted to get out to the tunnels. Next we went to the Cao Dai temple. This is an interesting religion. According to the CIA World Factbook only a couple percent of the population practice this religion, but also according to the Factbook 80% of the population does not practice any religion and I have to say that did not appear to be the case, unless traditional spiritual worship and stuff is not considered a religion… they were pretty serious about offerings and shrines and lucky money and prayer everywhere I went. Back to Cao Dai. These guys have a ticket to all the rides in the afterlife. They have combined Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam among other animist and spiritual traditions into one big party:
CaoDai is a universal faith with the principle that all religions have one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness, one same ethic based on LOVE and JUSTICE, and are just different manifestations of one same TRUTH. GOD AND HUMANS ARE ONE. Humans shall observe LOVE and JUSTICE in order to be unified with GOD.
Seems like a pretty good plan, really. And I got to see their Holy See, a place that was like a mix between a beautiful church and an acid-trip-inspired fun house. We watched their service (there are four a day, at six, noon, six and midnight) and got to stroll around the temple. Then it was lunch… my only uninspired meal over ten days. Lim, I forgive you.
Finally, Cu Chi (I don’t know if you look at the links I put on here, but you really should check this one out.) This was a really interesting place and seeing the way the VC fought and lived left me speechless. Then I shot automatic weapons and I was left deaf. All in all it was a mind-numbing experience. I desperately tried to get my hands on a copy of the video they play – American Killers #1! – but was unsuccessful. If anyone knows where I can get one I will love you long time if you let me know. Wherever your sympathies lie regarding wars like the one in Vietnam, I don’t think it is possible to ever really be objective. When you hear about things like the My Lai massacre it is revolting… but when you see the booby traps and guerrilla methods employed that is pretty bad too. Seeing it made it seem much more real… much more dangerous, that is for sure. It is hard to explain what it felt like to see all this stuff… I will try to work it out in a more articulate fashion someday.
My final day in HCMC/Saigon was spent tooling around the still mostly closed city seeing the important things… Reunification Palace; Uncle Ho; the weirdest museum ever (the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City) in which you will find the most eclectic and illogical collection of artifacts – from oddly scaled human dioramas to prehistoric trade relics to a US Huey UH-1 helicopter and anti-aircraft weapons; More Uncle Ho – prop-art not pop-art; the post office (Uncle is there too), the cathedral (non-religious – ha), and of course, the War Crimes Remnants Museum. In an ironic turn of events I ended up watching Tropic Thunder the night before I went to the War Museum, which in hindsight may have been a mistake: possibly a bit irreverent. Still, the museum is dramatic (even though it is like this big square room around which remnants have quite literally been scattered.) The photos are the most amazing along with the Hall of Historic Truths where all of the anti-war stuff is displayed.
I left Saigon with a bag full of DVDs a head full of sights & sounds and a belly full of good food & beer. I smiled all the way to Da Nang.
The Da Nang International Airport is tiny – and was once the busiest airport in the country. Da Nang is where the US Marines first landed in 1965 and is adjacent to the world renowned China Beach. I didn’t stay there though, I headed about 15 miles south to Hoi An and Cua Dai Beach. Again, a flawless trip and easy transfer after which I arrived at a gorgeous hotel situated between the De Vong River and the South China Sea. This was a great little spot. And Hoi An was as nice as everyone said it would be. It is a UNESCO site now too, so I got to check another one of those off my mental list. It is a town near Hue that did not suffer similar destruction, by ‘mutual agreement’ the history says. Interesting that there can be mutual agreement on stuff like that… Today it is a very photogenic town. And again, incredibly friendly people, though you could see that it could be appallingly full of tourists. I started to shop here, in particular at Reaching Out where I met the people who made the stuff I was buying… again, completely amazing people. In Hoi An I truly chilled: I took photos, I sat on the beach, I ate kick ass food. It was the perfect midpoint of the trip.
Heading to Hanoi, I had no idea what to expect. A lot of people told me that this was the only place they like in Vietnam, but I had liked the South and Hoi An so much I didn’t really know what to make of that. I had heard descriptions ranging from “kick ass” to “totally romantic” to “amazing.” I am not sure I would use any of those terms.
My arrival was as easy as they all had been, but I was surprised when my taxi driver stopped to pick up his friend and how long the trip into the city was. I also was not prepared for the Old Quarter. For some reason, and I hate to even admit this, I think I was imagining New Orleans and not Asia. I know, silly… but the way Hanoi had been described to me was nothing like I found it. Which is not necessarily bad, I was just surprised. My hotel was a little place right in the middle of the action on Phu Hang Bac. I learned that all the street names indicate the primary (original) thing that was sold there… Hang Bac was Silver Street. Still a lot of jewelry stores, but like the rest of the country, they have diversified. The hotel is cute and the guys working there were great. Free wifi, and custom made breakfast (Western!) again, and a DVD player in the room to test out my pirated collection. (I managed to purchase every Academy Award Nominated Film except for the shorts/documentaries/foreign films. Pretty solid effort… and around US$0.75 each.) I chose to walk every where in Hanoi. It is flat and easy urban walking. I had been motorbiked all over Saigon and mixed it up a bit in Hoi An… Here I was completely dedicated to the ankle express. My first day I just explored… there was so much going on and the architecture is really wild… all these old French buildings that have been Asia-fied, and the buildings are super narrow; apparently the property tax is based on frontage area. So my hotel, for example, was only as wide as my room, everything is front to back rather than right to left. This makes for millions of amazing little alley ways and breezeways that are very enticing. The bummer of the Old Quarter is that it is sort of permeated with the backpacker scene. Like Koh Sahn Road has infected the place. Now, I like Koh Sahn Road as much as the next person, (okay, probably less than the next person, I tolerate it) but I find the multitude of t-shirt vendors, souvenir shops, atm’s, and booking agents a bit overwhelming and in Hanoi’s Old Quarter they were also a bit incongruous. I managed to return to Hong Kong sans red t-shirt with gold star, green army hat with red star or traditional straw hat. Amazing.
Still, the Old Quarter definitely has its charms. Excellent restaurants, French cafes, good bars and an amazing number of Ca Phes that were nothing like a French Cafe, but little corner shops or darkened entries where all sorts of crazy coffee was brewed up and served with the ever present condensed milk to myriad of locals perched on kindergarten sized plastic chairs. In equal number were the Bia Hoi stands which are local, fresh beer bars. You just sit down and drink beer made with no preservatives (and not always cold enough to my taste…) again on the little plastic chairs. I imagine after a few too many, getting up from those chairs could prove to be a humorous drinking game. There were also traditional elements all over; food sellers and the ladies with the two buckets balanced over a shoulder that make up their portable pho shops. One bucket carries the chairs and tables and the other the ingredients for the pho, and there you have it, instant restaurant. It is with a little humility that I admit I did not eat any street pho. Also evident everywhere were the national flags, a “requirement” of sorts for every household over national holidays. There were a lot of flags… and a lot that were commemorating the February 3, 1930… the date of the founding of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Awwwww.
And again, there was Uncle Ho. He was everywhere. Though nowhere as much as in the vicinity of his mausoleum/museum. Waiting to see Uncle Ho was like being at Disneyland, except for no one working there was smiling. They are very serious about L’oncle and you move through the attraction far more quickly than you move through the endless maze of the line. But there he was, a ‘wee little man’ as the Scottish guy next to me said. It was surreal. The dead Commie tour in general is strange. I guess I have to hit up Lenin next. I also saw Uncle’s house and his cars… he had pretty nice digs for a ‘simple’ guy. His house on stilts is supposed to show how he walked the talk… but it sort of looks like a tropical villa all made of beautiful hardwood and situated in a park. Not so much like where his comrades were hanging out.
I continued my Tropic Thunder tour here at the Army Museum and the ‘Hanoi Hilton.’ The Army museum was interesting, again the photos grabbed me much more than the guns and ammo… but they are most proud of the Soviet MiG they have. There is also this amazing heap of a wrecked B-52. As I was looking at it I was hearing this really haunting sound and wondering what the hell sort of sound track they were running (I had just sat through a mock up of the battle at Dien Bien Phu so a soundtrack was not a crazy expectation.) As I got closer to the B-52 I saw that the sound was coming from a family of cats that appeared to be living in the wreckage. For some reason this made me so sad I had to leave. I don’t know why, but there was just something about it.
The Hanoi Hilton has an unintended effect of showing how much better the American POWs had it than the Vietnamese did under the French. Or maybe it is not unintended, but it is striking. No disrespect to POWs because I am sure that it totally sucks… but when the prison held Vietnamese political prisoners it looked like a concentration camp. The prisoners looked like death. When the Americans were there it looked like Top Gun. Seriously. Military styling, but the US POWs looked healthy and were shown playing basketball and volleyball, making Christmas dinner, etc., etc. Writing this now I guess it is probably an intentional comparison. They are also showcasing all of the John McCain stuff.
For my last bit of time in Hanoi I treated myself to the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, supposedly one of the best hotels in the world, let alone Asia.
This hotel is lovely, at least the old part where I stayed. Beautiful big rooms, the best bed I have slept in since I left my bed in the States and a great shower. Aside from that, the place completely blows. The service had that air of “if you have to ask questions you don’t deserve answers.” For the standard rate of US$300/night, I deserve answers with chocolate sauce on top, you idiots. My French friend told me that what I was describing was sort of typical of French service. Well, they can keep it. I missed my little hotel in the Old Quarter immediately. I tried to find a restaurant listed in the hotel guide in my room and was told, “It is closed.” I looked at the guy waiting to see if he would then suggest something else… But no. That was apparently the end of the data I would be receiving: It was closed. Hm. Oh, and they make you pay US$6/hour for wifi, which I am fairly certain I have mentioned is FREE everywhere in this country. And you cannot use the wifi in your room. I consider my 5-Star lesson learned here. In the future, I’ll pass.
So my impressions of Vietnam?
- The soundtrack is insane. Never again will I mention Hong Kongers and their affection for honking. It is a whole new level in Vietnam. I was annoyed initially and then just had to give it up to them and be straight impressed, I have never seen such dedication to anything.
- Warm, literally and metaphorically. The people there were really really nice. They had a sweetness that I don’t find in Hong Kong. Things like when a group of very serious soldiers were waiting to board a transport truck and I stopped to take a photo they waved and smiled wanting to be in the picture. People in the streets were helpful and anytime I asked anyone anything they were always ready to help.
- Intimate, in strange and sweet ways. I am not sure how to describe this, but there was an intimacy in Vietnam that was really poignant and unexpected. Little things that you would see that just brought everything down to such a human level… a reminder that tourist v. local aside, somehow we are all kind of the same… I don’t want to sound all kumbaya-ish, but it was like being in a tailor’s shop and trying on a dress and turning around to see the tailor’s grandpa sleeping in the bed behind the fitting rooms. Just right there. Or being in a taxi and being able to reach right out and touch the guy on the motorbike next to you and these same people smiling and waving as they cruised gently by. Or being steeped in hordes of people but not being pushed and faced with the constant jockeying for position that I deal with every day in HK. Or looking at a photograph of an American soldier and realizing that he could be someone you know, just a guy, doing his job for an unknown boss… Conversely, looking at the VC soldiers’ ingenuity and realizing that the guerrilla threat really would be confounding and bizarre to a 19 year old from Des Moines. Or kittens living in a B-52. Or having a kid, who last month was living on the street, tell you about their favorite place to go in Hanoi while you sit in the restaurant where they now work as part of the KOTO program. Or the taxi driver asking me how old I was and if I was married and saying, “Oh, well, I am sure you will find someone. I did!” Or Lim asking me where I was from and on hearing America, touching my knee and saying, “Oh, that’s alright…” The list goes on.
- Vietnam seems to be pleasantly caught between histroical reverence and progress. They don’t seem bothered by it and I read that their exports to the US alone have increased by 900%. since 2001. But Uncle Ho is still there, everywhere, with his hammer and sickle. And when you go see Uncle you better not cross your arms. [Btw, does anyone else find the title “Uncle” a little creepy in the Pervy McPervis kind of way?]
Final analysis? Vietnam was great… Of course, I have rarely met a vacation I didn’t like…