Published: April 29th 2009April 28th 2009
Communism...Marx is spinning in his grave right now. It's time for a new "ism" I think.
Any preconceived notions we had of Vietnam derived from not much more than the last page of our extensive Chinese delivery menu (they'll make you anything from anywhere in Asia and deliver it before you hang the phone up), a plethora of Hollywood war flicks, and the names of 58,000 good men etched into a wall of black granite in Washington D.C. The word "Vietnam" brought to mind not a country, but a war. A war learned about in movie theatres and 10th grade history class. It's fair to say they didn't
exactly teach us everything in high school, or maybe I just slept through a lot more of it than I realized.
The 2009 version of Vietnam has very little association with that war, from a tourist perspective anyway, a psychologist may tell you otherwise. It's a country too busy moving towards tomorrow to dwell on yesterday, and yesterday around these parts...I think the correct term would be "really sucked," so why dwell on them at all. It's a communist country, but not really. You can't go too far without seeing the hammer and sickle flying and some good old fashioned Marxist propaganda posters, but it's all quite impotent.
They hang from the walls of KFC and Dunkin' Donut' franchises. The proletariat want to make money, they want to start businesses. Carl Marx be dammed...unless he needs a taxi or a room for the night. Money, money, money, money.
Let's apply some structure to these idle ramblings. We entered Vietnam from its far northwestern corner, and made our way down to the little town of Dien Bien Phu, whose small size should not belie its large historical importance. It was here the French were defeated, ultimately resulting in their exit from Indochina and the division of Vietnam into north and south. The town itself is a bit of a dump and we found ourselves wishing we could get kicked out of there as quickly as the French had been, although maintaining the pace of a French retreat is no easy task...they have, after all, had so much practice! (c'mon..who could resist that one.)
Dien Bien Phu, besides being really fun to say, will be remembered as my introduction to Vietnam's legendary traffic and motorbike culture. I (read: not me, but someone usually incredibly responsible that I
have been travelling with for a year now...wink...wink) had left the
A place that boggles the mind and inspires the imagination
bag with both cameras, computer, DVDs full of photos, chargers, ipods, etc, on the bus we had arrived on, and only realized this once the bus was ten minutes out of the station. As Lee calmly surveyed the situation (read: "AAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, WHERE'S THE BUS, WHERE'S THE BUS, WHERE'S THE BUS, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD , OH MY GOD"), some kindly soul, probably on the verge of war flashbacks due to the ensuing panic, told me to hop on the back of his bike. Not knowing what to do, but knowing that I needed that bag back, I buried that little voice in the back of my head that usually makes the most sense at times like these and hopped on his motorbike. Thankfully Brian, who travelled Vietnam with us, was left to stay with Lee and her updated take on the situation (read: "AAAAAAGGGGHHHHHH, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, WHERE'S ANDY, WHERE'S ANDY, WHERE'S ANDY, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD!"). Off I went. It wasn't until we had run the third red light in a row that I realized we were
actually on the wrong side of the road going into three lanes of thick traffic. I though it best not to distract the driver at this point with such trivial information as he did his best Luke Skywalker in the Asteroid field impersonation, and focused instead on making sure I didn't fall off the three square inches of space I was allotted for a seat. Thankfully, right before we hit warp speed we found the bus, recovered the bag, and lived to
tell about it. I guess, as they say "all's well that ends well," and aside from needing a change of underwear and a stiff drink, we were no worse for the wear. We came to learn in time that in Vietnam, the rules of the road simply do not apply, there is no right side of the road, just road, and when thats too busy there's always a perfectly good sidewalk to drive on. This is no exageration!
We took a beat up old bus to Hanoi that night and arrived with the sun. Hanoi is mayhem defined, the Old Quarter anyway. It bleeds character. I think in the context of a two week vacation, a day
Fish, cockles, you name it you can get it in the market
or two would be enough, but in the context of this trip it was worth some time. We certainly hadn't ever been to a place quite like it before, and saw things we couldn't believe.
The first time you know you're someplace different is the first time you try to cross the street. You can't, at least not the way we're accustomed to doing it. It's a skill you have to learn, and to do so you have to forget everything you were told as a child. The first thing you do is make sure you DON'T look left then right then left again...look straight ahead and walk. Secondly, as you're crossing DO NOT speed up if the oncoming traffic is about to run you down, always maintain a constant speed. You have to fight a lot of urges and instincts to cross safely in Hanoi, but you have to assume that the traffic will drive around you and somehow it does. Watching traffic became a favourite pastime. I actually saw a lady get in a tuk tuk and heard her telling the driver to take her across the street.
The insanity of the traffic can only be
Fresh? Sure. Sanitary? hmmm...
matched by the insanity of the morning street markets. It seems to kick off around 5am and runs until late afternoon. Everything you can imagine from the sea, the sky, the
farm, or the pet store, is patiently waiting to get butchered on the street. Every fruit or vegetable, every legume, every flower you can think of, is freshly picked and waiting to be sold. We found ourselves
wishing we had access to a kitchen, or should I say, I found myself wishing Lee had access to one as she is by far the more skilled in such matters. It's only once you've walked the street markets that you can understand the menus of the traditional restaurants, which at times seem closer to veterinarian text books. You name it, you can eat it...sparrow legs, civet stomach, turtle penis stew, snake blood sauusage...absolutely anything and everything. Hanoi was also our introduction to Bia Hoi. Bia hoi is a very good thing. Basically, it's fresh beer, unbranded I believe, that gets served on the street for about 15 cents a glass. It's good, it's cheap, and it makes traffic watching that much more interesting. Needless to say, Brian, Lee and I befriended
many a Bia Hoi vendor on our way down to Saigon.
So as not to go into too much boring minutia, I'll give you a quick rundown of events. After Hanoi, we hit Halong Bay for a two night cruise around...pretty cool. Headed down to Hue, the old capital for a few
days. Managed not to get a suit made. Perfectly tailored wool and silk for next to nothing...smooth move. I'll wait to buy an expensive one that doesn't quite fit when we get back! I think the real reason was the unconscious knowledge that owning a suit is akin to admitting I may one day have to wear one...a thought I can't tolerate quite yet. From Hue we went down to Hoi An, a really cool little town and a good mix of French and local cultures. Lots of good restaurants and shopping if that's your thing. Some top notch Bia Hoi and street food which is more our thing. If I had to sum it up in a word I would wrestle between quaint and charming, in the same vain as a Luang Prubang or Granada.
From Hoi An we made our way to Nha Trang,
Vietnam's failed attempt at a nice beach town. People go to the beach to relax, not to be continually pestered by people trying to sell you everything, and NO, I don't need a tuk tuk, or drugs, or a girl!!! The beach left a lot to be desired and the water was less than clean. Usually we try promote the good in the places we've been lucky enough to visit, but I've got to be honest on this one, Nha Trang was not for us and anyone who may be reading this looking for info, head further south down the coast to Mui Ne, you'll thank us for it. We did a few dives while in Nha Trang and although they weren't the best we've done, we saw a couple of sea snakes, really cool cuttlefish, and some pretty nifty little things like nudibranch's and sea horses...so there's something good about Nha Trang!
From Nha Trang we headed on to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City where we had the good fortune of meeting up with my cousin and her new hubby. HCMC itself is a bigger, more modern version of Hanoi, with maybe a bit more French thrown
in. We spent a fair amount of time getting reacquainted and meeting respective spouses, and let's just say, thankfully, beer is cheap in Vietnam. I for one, had a thoroughly good time, and Gurvs, if you get this, it was great to meet you man. May we spend many a day drinking cold beer watching Australia get whipped by a clearly superior and newly annointed number one ODI cricket team in the world (South Africa).
To squeeze some culture in between rounds, Lee and I headed over to the War Remnants Museum where we were reminded of "that war" we had surprisingly managed not to notice too much of since we'd been here. As an American, it's not a particularly nice place to go. On the surface, it's propaganda defined, but in the subtext you'll find plenty of reminders that war is insanity and horror beyond reason or rationality, and that some decisions made by the powers that be in the Pentagon back then seem at odds with everything you're taught is good about America. In truth, I think we are as bombarded with propaganda
as they are. When you see the pictures of the results of indiscriminate carpet
bombing of villages, the piles of children's corpses, the still ruined countryside where agent orange rained down and the generations of birth defects that will result from it, the millions of civilians blown to bits because they were the unlucky ones, it defies the imagination.
We tend to fight away wars and we're not that big on showing the public the results, it's not even legal to show the coffins coming back from Iraq anymore...out of sight, out of mind. It's too big a reality to hide and if it's going to happen there should be an obligation to see it in all its ugliness too. In truth, it's not a War Museum, it's a highly slanted museum displaying every bad thing that the US and their "puppets" did over the course of nine years. Every bad seed, every mistaken target, every accident takes center stage. There's not much mention of the fact that the South Vietnamese were fighting too, and North Vietnam isn't exactly regaled for it's treatment of prisoners and tactics. It takes two sides to fight a war and they sure come out smelling like roses. I suppose when you kill three to four million people
All sorts of Garlic
in their own country, half a world away, because you don't like how they choose to govern themselves, the fuel for the propaganda machine is cheap and easy to come buy. That's my two cents anyways.
It should be said that while traveling through Vietnam, the war was never brought up to us and we never received anything but general friendliness and curiosity when people asked us where we are from. As one man said when we spoke about it, "we forgive, but we don't forget." Fair enough!
After saying our goodbyes to Brian, who headed of to Australia, and to my cousin and her husband, who headed back to Hong Kong, we hopped on a bus and headed off to Cambodia. This is a short one, for further detailed info on any place mentioned, I refer you to wikipedia
cheers for now,
There are more photos below