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Published: March 9th 2014
The same winding stretch of land - where only decades ago, children from two ends of the world were torn violently from their families in an agonizing spiral of violence and terror, the pawns of politicians and strategists hunched over their maps, righteous by their doctrines - is traversed today by an international amalgamation of teens and twenty-somethings in colorful 'Good Morning Vietnam' tank-tops and five-dollar flip flops in the relative luxury of a Sinh Cafe sleeper bus. If you enter Vietnam in the North, your journey likely begins in Hanoi - nestled along the banks of the Red River, the city has been continuously settled for more than 1,000 years, enduring near continuous occupation by the Chinese, Japanese and French, it was finally named the capital of a newly independent and reunified Vietnam following the North's Victory in the 'American War' in 1976. Neither brutal French colonial rule nor the fire-power of the world's most powerful military machine were ever able to bring the historic city to it's knees - and today the quaint colonial architecture and tree-lined boulevards hum with exuberance as more than 6.5 million people make their way in the metropolitan jurisdiction. Beyond the historical districts, cranes
and high-rises dominate as the rapidly developing economy rushes forward behind the might of a population expected to reach 15 million by 2020 in Hanoi's greater metropolitan area alone.
Seventeen hundred miles to the south of Hanoi will find you in old Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now officially known. From humble origins as a small fishing village in the midst of vast wetlands - the metropolitan area has now grown to accomodate more than nine-million people, dwarfing it's US counterparts save for New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. It is expected that the greater metropolitan area will be home to more than twenty-million people by the year 2020 in what has become one of the world's youngest and fastest growing nations. In between, Saigon came under the rule of the Khmer Empire, whose suzerainty waned in the 17th century as poverty stricken Vietnamese settlers, ravaged by years of clan-warfare, made their way south while the declining Kingdom of Angkor continued to cut it's losses. They were joined by a sizable number of Chinese migrants, themselves fleeing a war-torn land. Under Vietnamese influence for the first time, Saigon began to grow into a more significant
The bicycle which serves as a makeshift shop is almost lost in the image.
settlement, but Vietnamese autonomy would be short lived. By the 1850s the French, frustrated by the power and prestige of it's rival in the British Empire was swallowing up it's own imperial possessions. 1859 marked the beginning of a devastating period during which the people of Saigon would fall victim to the ravages of colonial rule - investment was limited to the extraction of valuable resources while the population was marginalized under antiquated feudal policies re-instituted by French colonial administrators.
We landed in Hanoi to begin what would become more than one-hundred days of travel with a wide-eyed sense that we had the entire world at our fingertips - that anything was possible. We secured lodging, $10 a night and headed out to explore on foot. The aura of the city was intoxicating, puzzling, mind-altering - a winding assortment of quaint French colonial buildings filled with a mix of bourgeois pleasures and back-alley gems alike. On one side of the street a quiet air-conditioned cafe with thick glass to muffle the harsh sounds emmanating from the exterior, dreadfully high ceilings with exposed wood beams, a sprawling glass window exploding with colorful cakes and pastries and pies - too magnificent
A beautiful skyscraper in HCMC
to eat - and every make of international or Vietnamese coffee with every preparation imaginable, wealthy locals and posh tourists lounged about in an almost forced casual air, staring intently at their tablets through black-rimmed glasses. Just across the way sat a corner 'tea-shop' where locals lounged on small plastic stools with their feet splayed across the gutter, an air of cigarette smoke wafting in the moist hanging heat while they chatted casually and nibbled on local delicacies - time, a concept perhaps lost to them. Both were beautiful in their own ways, I loved them both and I loved it all - the struggle between tradition and modernity seemed like less of a paradox as we wandered the increasingly narrow boulevards around the West lake.
I found myself bound by the strange sense that filled my mind, everything was so new and yet it did not seem strange or unfamiliar. Still, it was nothing like what I had imagined. Often when we plan to travel we create an image in out mind's eye, based on the experiences of other travelers, guidebooks, historical accounts, a few pictures or video snippets and gradually the more we think, the picture becomes
so vivid that we sense we've already somehow captured the essence of, or reached some understanding about, this place that we've never even been - and inevitably the place proves to us just how wrong our mental formations often are. There are so many factors that swirl into the web of notions we perceive, so many delicate intricacies that just as no one is able to describe it to us, so too do we find it impossible to paint the picture ourselves. It made me wonder how terrifying the world must seem to people who form their pictures from Fox News or hateful talk radio programs. How violent, unpredictable and cold must the world seem through their eyes.
We stopped for a Vietnamese slow-drip coffee - ordering the blend where the bean passes through the digestive system of some type of weasel before - hopefully - undergoing a thorough cleansing and sanitation process. The beans are then freshly ground and added to a small metal drip filter. A thick dollop of condensed milk is spooned into the bottom of a clear glass, the metal filter sits on top and slowly lets forth the thickest, blackest liquid one would dare
Slow-drip coffee in Hanoi
imagine ingesting. It only takes a few tablespoons, so rich is the brew, and when blended with the condensed milk a consistency reminiscent of syrup is left in the glass - sweet, chocolatey (though no chocolate component is added) and with a bit of a nutty flavor, varying from bean to bean. The flavor presents so delicate, so smooth, that one could almost forget that, rather than an ecologically sustainable cohort of weasels merrily feasting on wild coffee flowers, and well-compensated local employees working diligently to sift through the excrement in a easy, clean and sanitary nature, the picture of where this coffee comes from is probably not so splendid. Our favorite blend came from Cafe Hue, a tiny hole in the wall selling whole beans with four single stools and a table arranged out on the sidewalk. It was started by a doctor in the late 1970s and despite some coffee snob chatter on various websites we came across, it is about as forgotten and laid back as it gets - the local man and woman who worked the shop spoke no English but were exceedingly friendly - on our third visit to the shop our regular $1 cups
The beautiful and gritty coexist in Hanoi
were given to us free of charge, the benefits of being a repeat customer I suppose. Be warned that despite the tiny mugs, these coffees have the kick of a double espresso, and the absence of the bitter bite might lead one to assume that this is a mild coffee - but such an assumption could leave you in a fair amount of distress.
When it comes to sustenance in Hanoi, as has proven true elsewhere, if the Lonely Planet tells you to eat somewhere, you probably should eat just about anywhere else. I know that travelers probably hear this so much that it is either seen as a cliche, or met with a response like 'yeah no shit.' Of course we knew the day we landed in Thailand that the best food we were going to find would come from a street vendor - someone who specializes in sourcing the freshest ingredients each morning, preparing the same two or three dishes day in and day out, likely just as their parents had before them, and closing up shop as soon as they sell out for the day. These people are nothing short of masters, and yet sometimes we
A beautiful church in HCMC
find ourselves wanting a simple English menu and a place to sit down and have a few choices and a few beers, theres nothing wrong with that. Right? Well in our naive incompetence we were shocked by how terrible our first meal in Hanoi was - we were tired, didn't know the lay of the land, and were yet to try a single dish in Vietnam, what better way to ease in than a simple meal with lots of choices from a highly recommended restaurant? Well the broth in my noodles was so flavorless I actually tried to ask for MSG by name - and when the condiment cart came out it had sweet chili sauce and maggi soy sauce salt and pepper - (was this a bad American chinese buffet?) and it was served with no fresh herbs, overcooked pork, and noodles that could have been mushed into an easily digestible paste by the oldest, most toothless man in the world. Tara's plate was boiled tofu in what I swear must have been Campbells tomato soup. We had this confirmed again a few days later at another restaurant, whose second floor terrace appealed to us as a perch from
which we might inconspicuously gaze down on the action below - but once again the food was so appauling and flavorless that even the hope of redemption from the interesting vantage was ruined.
Vietnam in general, but Hanoi in particular, is filled with some of South East Asia's most experienced tricksters when it comes to parting the gullible tourist from their money. Some of the easiest to spot include the guys who try to 'fix' your shoe before you even know what they are doing, the women who try to hoist their shoulder pole onto you and then demand that you purchase something in exchange for the 'experience,' to taxis with fake meters and gas-station attendants who don't reset the meter before filling your tank. Of the more problematic but no less comical variety are the blatant copyright infringements such as the Kangaroo Cafe - there are two in the city and both proclaim their authenticity with giant signs which claim the other is the imposter. Then there is the popular Sinh Cafe bus line, which eventually changed it's name to Sinh Tourist after literally hundreds of other shops took on the name in an attempt to steal business.
Enjoying lemon tea in the streets of Hanoi
After finally tracking down the real Sinh Tourist at 52 Luong Ngoc Quyen St. we noticed that the building did not look like the picture. Come to find out that there is an imposter Sinh Tourist across the street from the real one, which has added a '52' sticker in an attempt to fool potential customers into thinking that they are the real shop. We had to observe the building numbers on both sides of the street in order to figure out which was the actual, real and original Sinh Tourist! As a rule of thumb it can generally be established that the woman with the shy and quiet smile, looking up at you with curiosity in her eyes, or perhaps the young man sitting next to you who slowly and calmly engages you in a bit of chit chat, or the family who runs the noodle shop and stare intently as you take your first bite - anxiously awaiting your approval - these are the times and places where authentic engagement might begin. If someone approaches you in an overly friendly or forward manner, proceed with kindness but caution.
Having finally procured our tickets, travel through Vietnam was
calm and easy. We ventured back through history in the timeless valleys of Sapa, explored massive winding caves near Dong Hoi, had our breath taken away by the natural aesthetic beauty of Tam Coc, feasted on Vietnamese delicacies and cheap local beer in Hoi An, breathed the fresh mountain air of Da Lat and wandered the brick-red dunes of Mui Ne. When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City - our final stop before crossing into Cambodia, we tried to make sense of it all. District One of the sprawling metropolis is what most Americans would refer to as Saigon - it was a puzzle whose pieces we could only stare at with awe and mystery, lacking even the most basic idea of how to assemble it, where to begin.
After dark the tourist district flashes with neon-lights and revelers pour out into the streets at makeshift tables drinking cheap beers and all manners of local delicacies and international fare. It was an overload for the senses, the colors and sounds, feeling your skin glisten with sweat as the moist air became a part of you - the aroma from giant cauldron's of broth blending seamlessly with those eminating
from the Italian pizzarias - one giant mass of humanity exploding in all of it's vibrancy. If you allow yourself to give in to the allure it is an intoxicating experience, if you step back and place it into context you wonder how any of it could possibly be sustainable. Ho Chi Minh City represents the paradox of a philosophy that promotes endless growth and development - the inherently common message of the rival models during the Cold War, and seemingly the only voice today. Where is the food going to come from to feed all of these people? The petroleum to make all of this plastic and fuel all of these lights? How will they widen these streets to accomodate the increasing number of tour busses? What will become of all the waste? How can they possibly keep up with the alcohol all of these kids are drinking?
In the early hours after the initial fury of the morning commute, Uncle Ho's city takes on a much more human character - many people are either working or avoiding the heat. District 1 becomes quite walkable for those unfazed by excessive perspiration, and Tara and I explored it in
it's entirety. We began our mornings with freshly blended smoothies made from dragon-fruit, mangoes, melons, coconuts and fresh pineapples. We enjoyed quiet lunches at the communal tables of noodle houses. We quietly laughed to ourselves as young kids in military fatigues or fighter-pilot outfits served as local police officers, directing traffic and guarding certain sites (from whom or what a mystery to us) - though you are reminded that they carry real automatic weapons when you try to take a picture of the wrong thing and one of them is suddenly moving toward you, shouting with one hand on the giant hunk of lethal metal strapped across their shoulder. We strolled down to the waterfront where beautiful French-colonial era hotels line the boulevards, we peered through the glass into the dimly lit parlors with impossibly high ceilings where diners sipped on white wine and nibbled at dainty plates of tapas. Many of these mansions also housed casinos and dinner buffets with all you can eat and all you can drink - some as reasonable as $30 per person. It would be ingenuine of me to suggest that we didn't feel a pang of envy as we stared in from the
Bun Bo Hue - Hanoi
3 types of beef, five types of herbs, a specialty rice noodle from Hue in delectable broth with lots of condiments - $1
sidewalks made blistering from the undeniable sun, our mouths salivating at the thought of such pleasures. I pondered what a rickshaw driver or street vendor must feel as they gazed into this world, completely unknown despite it's spatial proximity, if by chance they ever found cause to wander down this way.
By late afternoon the traffic begins to thunder anew. As we peered down the massive roadways at a major intersection it seemed that the stunning mass of humanity, bicycles now replaced by their motorized equivalent, might continue on infinitely into the horizon. Soon the sidewalks began to teem with life as well, and as the sun retreated beyond the horizon the city roared to life once again. I glanced up at the billboards - Calvin Klein, Louis Vitton, KFC - I wondered what Ho Chi Minh, the humble founder of an independent Vietnam, the boy from the small rural village who shunned wealth and opulence even as the most powerful man in the country - what would he have made of all of this?
And what are we to make of these two lumbering giants - the behemoth and the colossas? Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh
City are exploding in all directions, the population climbing like the newly constructed high-rise towers - young, ambitious and hungry. The streets are also flooded with ever increasing waves of tourists and, as such, it is becoming more and more difficult to find an experience that many of us would like to claim as "authentic." Still, I was struck by a feeling in Hanoi that, behind all of the scams and t-shirt vendors and soulless restaurants, there was an air of being somewhere that was historical, cultured, vibrant and real. In Saigon, I felt that sensation a bit more difficult to come by. Then again, I would be remiss to suggest that I actually know anything about these cities, a mere passerby, a brief and flittering observer. If someone asked me what my favorite thing about the cities was, I might ultimately reply 'leaving.' While cities can be invigorating, vibrant, endless in their possibilities - the sheer natural radiance and geographical diversity waiting for those who venture out of the capitals is simply unparalleled in my experience. When it comes to the pure and simple essence of beauty and freedom, to my mind, humankind will simply never come close to
emulating that which existed before her birth, and which shall, we hope, remain after his death.
Above: A final video compilation of our entire trip through Vietnam, Hanoi - HCMC
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