Good Evening, Vietnam: Learning More, Moving Forward

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-2: Hanoi
  • Days 3-4: Halong Bay
  • Days 5-6: Hue
  • Days 7-8: Hoi An
  • Days 9-11: Ho Chi Minh City

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: October 5-15, 2014

Our Odyssey:

All of my life, anytime I have heard the word “Vietnam”, the word “war” was never far behind in my mind. It’s not that I have any close personal connection the war- I don’t have any family members who fought in Vietnam. It’s more of an automatic association leftover from grade school where the only thing I ever learned about Vietnam was about Communism and the war (called the American War by the Vietnamese and much of the world).

In many ways, the past 10 days in Vietnam will serve to redefine my automatic associations with Vietnam- words like “noodles,” “Halong Bay,” “imperial,” and “motorbike” will join “war” on the forefront of my mind when I hear “Vietnam”. Like these words, my experiences in Vietnam have been diverse- both tragic and joyous, serene and chaotic. Like modern Vietnam itself.

Our trip to Vietnam was also part of the Intrepid travel group trip that took us through northern Thailand and Laos. With our Thai trip leader Gung, we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital in the northern part of the country, from Vientiane, Laos. The first thing we all noticed upon arrival was the immense number of motorbikes. To set expectations, I should add that motorbikes are very common means of transportation all over southeast Asia, but Hanoi took what we had seen previously to a whole new level. It is not unusual to see a whole family of 4 on one bike, or men with arms and backs bogged down with ladders and other equipment, or people transporting dozens of ceramic pots strapped along the back and sides. It is also not unusual to disregard traffic lights, turn signals and lanes. To the foreignor, it is utter chaos, yet somehow it all seems to flow and work. We did not see a single accident in Vietnam, despite what we perceived to be several close calls. As for crossing the street, you just step right out into the madness and walk slowly and at a steady pace. Somehow, you don’t get hit.

Our first night in Hanoi, we went to a water puppet show. I had no idea what to expect or really what a water puppet even was. Water puppets are an ancient and traditional means of story telling in Vietnam. The particular show we attended featured 14 scenes pulled from a canon of over 400 classic stories. They represented agricultural life, mythology, and spirituality. Puppeteers stand behind the screen, controlling puppets with long rods, making them seem to dance and float across the pool of water that is the stage. I loved it, and it reminded me of Disney’s Fantasia with the mix of music and story-telling, just sub in water puppets for the animation, and Vietnamese classics for the music.

The next day was a free day without any planned Intrepid activities (aside from an orientation meeting for the Vietnam part of our trip), so after saying goodbye to Gung, who would be replaced with a different trip leader for the rest of Vietnam, we walked to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. This museum is very nicely put together and teaches people about various aspects of women’s lives in Vietnam. For example, one exhibit focused on how various ethnic tribes celebrate marriage and prepare for child birth. Another was dedicated to women who fought in the American War, and still another to the worship of the Mother Goddess.

That evening we met our new tour leader, Khoa (pronounced like “quoi”, the French word for “what”), and 6 new people joining the group. Most of the group went out for dinner afterwards to get to know each other.

The next morning we left early on a bus bound for Halong Bay, a bay of torquoise waters dotted with over 3,000 limestone islands and cliffs. Along the way, we stopped at a ceramics factory, which was interesting to see (this is also where we saw just how many the locals dared to strap onto their motorbikes). Shortly before lunch time we got to Halong Bay and boarded our “junk” (a word for the boat). It wasn’t “junky” at all but actually very luxurious with beautiful rooms and common spaces. We were all so delighted when we saw just how nice this boat was. Shortly after setting off for the islands, the boat staff served us a delicious lunch of shrimp and crab.

Within these islands are also many caves, and we stopped off at one cave network, called Sung Sot cave, commonly referred to as Surprising Cave as it is surprisingly large inside. The cave system is made of three caves, each increasing in size. The last and largest is a massive room that is reminiscent of being in a large auditorium, only better because it is a cave. The ceiling of these caves was particularly unique. Rather than having stalactites hanging from the ceiling, there were curved indentations from where the waves of water erroded away the limestone.

After the cave tour Khoa gave us the option of going kayaking around the bay for a mere $12. We were on the fence about it because we did not want to get our clothes wet again, but ultimately decided to go for it. Jennifer and Anthony as well as two newer people to the group, Bing and Damien, joined us for the adventure. Once we were all situated in the kayaks, Khoa guided us through a natural tunnel in one of the cliffs to a spectacular circular cove. Once inside the cove, we were surrounded on all sides by stunning cliffs. We were the only ones there which added to the experience. I felt like we were the only ones in the world for a while in our little secret paradise in Halong Bay. As we were getting ready to kayak back out to the open bay, we came across another surprise- three little monkeys sunbathing and grooming one another on a rock. While Tim and I saw monkeys on Monkey Island in Thailand, this experience felt both more intimate and more authentic. We had unexpectedly stumbled upon these little guys out in the wild just doing their monkey thing, and had the privilege of getting to watch them in silence and awe for a few moments.

Upon exiting the cove, we kayaked out to an area perfect for viewing the sunset coming down over the cliffs of the islands. The whole adventure could not have been more perfect. Before the sun completely set, we kayaked back to our boat, and Tim and I agreed that this experience alone was one of the top experiences of our year long trip.

The boat crew topped off the evening with a most delicious dinner that also showcased some fancy food art. For example, they used a carrot to create a fishing net draped on top of the fish they served us. Tim and I ended the evening sitting outside on the boat deck having great conversation with some of the other group members.

The next day we returned to Hanoi. Starting in Laos, Tim had begun to develop a rash on parts of his body. We initially thought it was heat rash but found it was not going away. We had already visited pharamcists and tried various meds to no avail. So, upon arriving back in Hanoi, we went to the hospital down the street from our hotel. They were able to see Tim relatively quickly and, after Tim showed the doctor the meds he had already been taking, the doctor gave Tim some additional prescrptions. We got them filled and left. When we got back to the hotel, Tim looked up what his meds were and to his dismay, found they were the same meds he had been taking before that weren’t working. We thought maybe he had ringworm, so Tim looked up some antifungal medications and we went back to an over-the-counter pharmacy to try those.

Hopeful we had figured out what was going on with his body, we mostly relaxed the rest of the afternoon before the whole group left to go to the train station for our overnight train to Hue, the old capital of Vietnam. The overnight train was kind of fun- we bunked in a berth with Jennifer and Anthony and generally slept well. When we woke up the next morning, however, Tim’s rash was even worse and spreading to other parts of his body. He was understandably frustrated, so as soon as we got to the hotel, Khoa arranged for a doctor to come visit Tim in the hotel room. He was not particularly helpful, however, as he just advised that Tim go to the hospital. So while the rest of the group went on a guided walking tour of the Imperial City (the home of the monarchy when Hue was the capital), Tim and Khoa went to the international hospital.

I went with the rest of the group to visit the Imperial City with the task of taking photos and reporting back to Tim anything interesting I had learned. Hue had been the capital for the last royal dynasty of Vietnam, the Nguyen dynasty, from 1804 to 1945, when the king abdicated and Ho Chi Minh became president. The Imperial City was the walled area in which the king lived with his family and concubines. Much of it was destroyed in the French War (the war in which Vietnam won their indepdence from the French colonists who had been there for nearly a hundred years governining via a puppet government) and the American/Vietnam War. Restoration and rebuilding projects are underway currently.

When I got back to the hotel room, Tim was there and already his rashes were looking substantially better thanks to some better meds he had gotten. It turns out he had been having an allergic reaction and the rash was hives. I suggested Tim look up whether MSG, an ingrediant used heavily in Laos and Vietnam, could cause such a reaction. He found that an allergy to MSG is actually common and can cause hives. He has been using his medicine since then and also avoiding MSG, and we feel confident now that Tim is allergic to MSG. Tim was so relieved to identify what was going on and to see it finally getting better!

The next day we all went on a motorbike tour around the countryside. We were each passengers on our own bikes with our own drivers. This day ended up being a lot of fun, and riding through the chaos of the city was not as scary as it looked. We rode for about a half hour through rice fields and countryside. Our first stop on the tour was to a small village with a covered bridge spanning a small river. These covered footbridges used to exist all over Vietnam, but most have been damagesd and now only 4 remain in the entire country.

While on this bridge, we were approached by a darling woman of 82 years who claimed to be a palm reader. For a dollar each, she would read our palms. I had mine read and she said Tim and I will have 2 kids (though we COULD have 4, we should stop at 2), but not right now because I am too young. She said Tim would marry me in the coming years, and then she leaned in close to my ear with a smirk on my face and said, “And when he love you, he love you reallllyyyy good!” Her naughty little statement made me laugh.

This village also hosted a small museum of traditional farming tools, and another charming elderly lady demonstrated all of the tools for making rice, grinding rice down to a powder, irrigation tools and more. Some of this equipment looked the same as some of the machines found in the gym today- these farm workers must have the strongest arms and legs!

We hopped back on the motorbikes and headed to our next stop, the 3rd Nguyen emporer’s tomb. This secluded place out in the country was used during his lifetime for rest and relaxation. The location of his body after his death is actually unknown. When the emporer would die, volunteers would offer to bury the body, knowing they would be killed afterwards to prevent the body from ever being found by enemies. In return, the families of these volunteers would always be taken care of and honored.

Our next stop was lunch, and then back on the bikes until we got to a little dock at the end of a path in the woods. From here we said goodbye to our bike drivers and got on a boat that took us down the Perfume River (called such because there used to be a lot of flowers floating in it). The boat took us to Thien Mu pagoda, the first pagoda we had been to in Vietnam. We learned that in Vietnam, temples are not for worshipping Buddha, but for worshipping and honoring actual people. Pagodas, on the other hand, are for religion. Back on the boat, I slept the rest of the way to the city.

That evening, Tim and I ended up going out to a really fun bar. Tim couldn’t drink due to his meds, but after I had had a few drinks, I was ready for the dance floor and Tim was an excellent dancing partner as always.

The next day, Saturday, we took a bus to Hoi An, a charming old city known for being illuminated with lanterns at night. We stayed at a very luxurious hotel with a nice swimming pool- making this the perfect place to just unwind for the two days we were there. The last night there, Sunday night, me and Tim went out with two other girls in the group, Sara and Caroline, to a great little bar called Good and Cheap Bar. The pool table was free and they let us play whatever music we wanted thanks to a laptop and YouTube. Drinks were cheap and Tim and I even tried their house liquor- some strange, foul-tasting herbal drink that is allegedly good for the stomach and back.

The next morning we were up very early to catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. This is the largest city in Vietnam and played an important role for Americans in the war. The American War started as a civil war between the communist North (led by Ho Chi Minh and backed by Japan and Russia) and the South (led by Diem and backed by the US, France and Australia). The US troops were the only ones to actually fight on the ground in Vietnam in addition to the Vietnamese, and this is why they call it in the American war here.

Immediately after landing in Ho Chi Minh City, we went to the War Remnants Museum, which was previously called the American War Crimes Museum (let that sink in for a minute). This museum was fascinating and uncomfortable to visit. The story of the Vietnam War Tim and I were taught in school does not use words like “genocide” or “international war crimes” to describe the Americans- but this museum certainly does, using quotes from prominent figures around the world and from the United Nations to hit home the worldwide view of the United States’ actions in Vietnam. Of course, this museum was biased, and I would expect it to be, so while I hesitate to believe everything we read there, I do believe that what I was taught in school is just as biased and should be handled with the same degree of skepticism.

The most moving exhibit was a photography room showcasing the photos of photographers who died documenting what was happening in Vietnam. The images were powerful and gruesome- ranging from an American soldier crying with his head on his desk after a battle, to bloody bodies after a bomb attack, to daily life of the villagers in areas where fighting was happening.

They also had a special exhibit on Agent Orange, the chemical released during the warfare in Vietnam that has led to severe genetic abnormalities in both Americans and Vietnamese. For example, children of parents exposed to Agent Orange have mental handicaps and physical deformations. It starts chemical and becomes genetic, being passed down for generations.

I left this musem with more questions than answers, which I think is appropriate to a subject matter such as the American War. Did we really commit a genocide against the Vietnamese people? Did we really regularly torture prisoners and use war tactics condemned by the international community? How do I as an American reconcile feelings of national pride with feelings of national shame and guilt for the violence we committed in Vietnam?

That night we took a break from the heavy thoughts and enjoyed a Mexican (yes, Mexican) meal and a few margaritas. Jennifer and Anthony stayed out with us well after the group dispersed after dinner for additional drinks. It was a really fun night that included dancing in the taxi cab and late night Oreos. When we got back to the hotel, we had a few more beers up on the top floor of the hotel, which is the breakfast room and hotel bar. The next morning, everyone was hungover, which was a surprise to no one.

That next day, a Tuesday, was our last day with the full group before those who joined for only the Vietnam portion of the trip would be departing. The whole group went on a day trip to the Mekong Delta, about an hour and a half away from the city. The bus ride was rather miserable but once we got to the Mekong Delta the rest of the day was great. The adventure started with a short boat ride to Coconut Island, which has an abundance of, you guessed it, coconuts. We first visited a coconut candy workshop, where we learned how they use every bit of the coconut tree to support their work. We also got to try samples of the candy as well as some very foul-tasting liquor that had been soaking up the remains of a dead snake in the jar.

We then hopped on tuk tuks for a ride around the island along narrow streets covered with palm frond canopies. Our next stop was a relaxing spot with hammocks where we tried some of the local fruit- pineapples, mangoes, and jackfruit. I had never had jackfruit before, but it is absolutely delicious. We then got back in the tuk tuks and rode to a local restaurant where the served specialities of the region, including Mekong fish and shrimp.

After lunch, we had a row boat ride through small canals back out to the river. Four people sat in each boat, so Anthony, Jennifer, Tim and I shared a boat. The woman rowing our boat gave us each one of the iconic cone hats to wear during the ride through the peaceful and scenic canal. It was so beautiful and serene- such a perfect way to wrap up the visit to the Mekong Delta before heading back to the city.

That night we all attended a cultural show called AO Show. It was much like a Cirque de Soleil show with a Vietnamese cultural emphasis featuring artistic and acrobatic scenes focusing on both agricultural and city life in Vietnam. It was impressively done, using only bamboo materials and props to create beautiful scenes. Tim absolutely loved it.

After the show we had a group dinner at KOTO, which is a restaurant that is part of the Know One, Teach One non-profit organization. The organization sponsors Vietnamese teens who are considered disadvantaged or at risk to teach them aspects of the service industry and English language to help them have careers as adults. The dinner and service were both outstanding.

Today, our last day in Vietnam, Tim and I booked a cheap ($8 per person) tour out to the Cu Chi tunnels. Located about an hour and a half away from Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi tunnels are a part of the nationwide tunnel system used by the North Viatnamese fighters during the American War. The tunnels are about 3 meters underground, and many of them are so cramped and small you can barely move. I had the opportunity (one of only 2 people in our tour group) to go down into one of these tight tunnels- and what an experience that was!

I had to enter the tunnel feet first and lower myself onto the the ground. I used our tour guide’s cell phone to light the way and was able to walk in a crouched position for a few meters. Shortly along the route, which involved a few turns through the maze, I saw a bat flutter in front of me. At this point, I was kind of freaked out to be in this cramped tunnel with no exit in sight with who knows how many bats. The tunnel also became smaller as I went along- I was no longer able to crouch and walk. Instead, I had to get down on my elbows and knees and shuffle through. The space was so tight, that the bats hanging from the ceiling had to move to make way for me. When they would flutter by I would feel their wings on my forehead and cheek- meep! Finally, I heard the voices of our tour group and I knew I must be nearing the end. I climbed out to a crowd of people taking my photo, my adrenaline pumping from the experience and my arms and legs covered in dirt and, likely, bat poop. I couldn’t imagine people actually traveling kilometers through this tunnel system like that.

The rest of the tour focused on tactics used in the jungle fighting of the war. We saw booby traps, bunkers and other tunnels (less confining ones, built larger in recent years to accommodate larger people), and got to try cassava, or yuca, and a hot herbal tea. It was a really interesting site, and fascinating to imagine what life would have been like for the soldiers fighting on this jungle battlefield.

Tonight we meet our new tour leader for the Cambodia portion of our trip and a few new travelers joining the group. Tomorrow we take a 7 hour bus ride across the border to Phnom Penh, leaving Vietnam behind and embarking upon our discovery into both the ancient history at Angkor Wat, and the recent history in the Killing Fields, of the Cambodian people.

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