Finger Lickin' Good!
31 July - 19 August:
Ahh Vietnam. The endless months of dreaming of edible food, gorgeous landscapes and pretending I'm not really American (we opted for Swiss German... what, it's funny!)... I have to say, we were not prepared for the tourism circus that is Vietnam. And the food is really not what I expected... everything is deep fried! Huh? As we overheard a Canadian traveller succinctly say "Vietnamese food... better in your home country!"
In a nutshell (and I don't want to overly kvetch, but it must be said) Vietnam is a holiday DISASTER. Fellow travellers (especially those on short holidays) you might just give the whole place a miss, since the point of a holiday is to come back rejeuvenated and relaxed, not more stressed out than when you arrived. The basic problem is that Vietnam is a communist country with a recently operating free market economy, resulting in everybody treating you like an ATM on legs, but when you complain about lack of service or not getting remotely the tour/experience you were told you were buying, it's nobody's problem. Except yours. Because you don't have any money left. Grrr. Also, it's either more expensive or impossible to
Used to be a beautiful, colonial building. Rebuilt in concrete in the 50s and never, ever remodeled inside or out since. Like being stuck in a James Bond evil doctor's lair.
just arrive somewhere and try to sightsee any monuments ad hoc, so you're pretty much forced into buying a CRAPOLA tour (which isn't what you agree to buy in the travel agency) with a zit-faced, non-English-speaking (which you've been promised), really really VIOLENT Vietnamese guy that screams at everyone constantly and then sniggers and tells mean things about you in Vietnamese to his likewise non-English speaking even meaner-looking, sucidal manaical bus driver as he hurtles you on to almost certain all-too-soon meeting with the proverbial maker. K. 'Nuff said.
We made it to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, referred to as HCMC or Saigon), where our friend from NYC, Evie, met up with us for two weeks travelling north. We stayed in the cute backpacking area of Pham Ngu Lao, checked out the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum and made our plans how to best see the country and get up to Hanoi in time for Evie's flight out on the 12th.
The tourism options in Saigon really centre around the "American War" and the destruction caused by bombing and Agent Orange as well as the resiliance of the Viet Cong in a David and Goliath
Super cool dragon carpet
in the Reunification Palace
tale of overcoming the world's superpower. Of course, I grew up with the history of the "Vietnam War" which condemned the Viet Cong and labelled the entire war as a chaotic war of ideology: communism vs the free world. This was not the Vietnamese experience, however. This was a land of peasant farmers struggling to survive after French occupation, civil war and suddenly occupation and devastating bombings from the U.S. The War Remnants Museum displayed not only the machinery of the war, but also the after-effects of Agent Orange, specifically in the offspring of those living in the areas that were innundated with the harsh herbicide unleashed on the jungle to reveal the hiding places of the Viet Cong. It's easy to condemn the American government for waging a war that destroyed countless innocent lives (which I do) but what's even more shocking and unsettling is the godlike reverence the Vietnamese still pay to Ho Chi Minh. While the country was divided into North (communist, backed by Russia and China) and South (Republican, backed by the US), families in the south were tortured and killed by Americans and Republican forces afraid of the Viet Cong, and even more severely punished
Ha ha ha ha ha. I told you about this game!
and killed by the Viet Cong (per Ho Chi Minh) if they suspected they were supporting the capitalist regime. The result was devastating, breaking up families, countless deaths by unmentionable means and a huge groundswell of support for an independent Vietnam, fought for and achieved by the Viet Cong. After independence was achieved, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and "Uncle Ho"'s image (looks just like an Asian Colonal Sanders -- seriously!!) is everywhere, revered as their dear "saviour" who cared so much about every one of them that he happily had many of them killed in the process. It's a paradox that I cannot understand, but how much is understandable in war? I wonder what will happen in the Middle East in 15 years' time -- will we flock there as tourists to visit the sites of devastating bombing, a situation quite similar to the Vietnam War? I guess the overwhelming part of seeing it in Vietnam is knowing that it's going on today, elsewhere in the world, and feeling outraged and saddened. The last 2 months of this trip have been a smattering of "dark tourism" -- visiting places of historical atrocities -- and it's been both
The VP's meeting room
hugely educational and unbelievably depressing. When the screaming, scheming Vietnamese tour guide is added to the mix, it's unbearable.
We visited the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon, a system of over 200 KM of underground tunnels, meeting rooms, artillery chambers, sleeping quarters and kitchens dug over 14 years by the Viet Cong militia. These tunnels were never invaded by Republican or American troops and were the key to the Viet Cong's surprising strength and victory. There were also similar tunnels in the Demilitarized Zone in central Vietnam. We were able to enter the tunnels, which had been widened for tourists to experience, but were extremely clausterphobic and difficult to manoeuvre in. I have to say, I was deeply impressed at the survival skills of the Viet Cong, beating all the odds with only tunnels, hoes, bamboo weapons and very little guns or ammunition. Our guide showed us the traps they set around the tunnels to protect them -- completely inhumane, medieval booby traps scattered about the jungle. Considering the sophistichated and devestating US arsenal (B 52 bombers and napalm), the Viet Cong's unbeatable weapon was sheer will to survive, and it was in endless, desperate supply.
Another meeting room
headed north to Da Lat by bus and arrived in a beautiful French-influenced hill station high in the mountains. We had been hoping to arrange a motorcycle tour with Easy Riders, Vietnamese tour guides on motorcycles that show you the real Vietnam. We met some on the bus to Da Lat and spent two days going North with them through the Central Highlands. One of the cyclists, "Wing", was a Republican Veteran and all three of the Easy Riders (Thai and June as well) were hysterical, extremely knowledgeable, spoke great English and showed us the most beautiful mountains, great local restaurants and lots of historical sights.
This was hands down, no questions asked the BEST TWO DAYS in Vietnam. These guys were so much fun, adorable, really really informative and immensely entertaining. We were hoping to shrink wrap the three of them and take them with us for the rest of the trip. It was like taking a road trip with your favourite uncle who spoils you rotten and teaches you how to play the guitar. For example.
Unfortunately, the weather was against us, and it was flooding and typhooning throughout the central plains. I swear, breaking the
news to the guys that we were stopping the trip, all three of us felt like we were breaking up with our high school sweethearts. They understood and looked a bit sad, packed up their gear, hugs all around, promises to email and recommend them to EVERYONE we meet (which I have religiously done), and watched them slowly ride away into the rain-soaked streets. Our guesthouse arranged for a night bus north to Danang to check out Hoi An. Sounded painless enough -- this was the point of the trip where one of Life's Great Lessons ("It's not what you ask, it's how you ask the question) made an unforgettable cameo.
What we ASSUMED (no! NEVER assume. never again) was that we were paying 170,000 dong (hello, 11 dollars. Ouch!) for a 13-hour comfy, AC (stupid, stupid!!), tourist coach bus on the paved roads, possibly including a Vietnamese or Chinese (dubbed over in Vietnamese with one monotone narrator for all characters). What we ended up with was a MINI BUS (think VW terrorist van, Asian style) with room for 10 people, yet occupied by 23 people. TWENTY-THREE Vietnamese peeps and three gringas in a van. Sounds like a joke
In Ho Chi Minh. They go past the bars at night peddling their SUPER stanky wares. Blerg!
with an amusing punch line. I'm still not laughing. We sucked it up and got in, refusing to allow them to cram 2 additional people in our seats (which they wanted to put on our LAPS) and started counting down the hours. It was like being stuck in a parallel universe. We were looking for the hidden cameras -- surely this is a joke. Surely Simon Cowell or some other B-list TV star would jump out from behind a tree laughing, informing us that we were stuck on the reality-show-of-the-month-of-holiday-disasters-blowing-up-in-your-face.
There were 5 people crammed in the front seat, the driver hacking and spitting out the window every 10 seconds, all of them screaming and shouting to each other, the guy behind us leaning over us and screaming at the driver, money being passed around, cigarettes being smoked, ashes flying thru the van, cigarette butts thrown in Evie's lap almost burning her, me smacking the back of the dude's head who threw the cigarette, all of them laughing and sniggering in Vietnamese (I'm sure it was something about the three white devil princesses) topped off with bronchitis-ridden driver swishing around water in his bacteria-infested mouth and spitting it ALL
OVER EVIE. All this while the driver was on his personal suicide mission of playing chicken with all the cars, motorbikes and huge transport vans on the road (he drove mainly in the wrong lane, darting away from oncoming traffic at the last second). It was 13 hours of sheer torture with overturned buses from other manaical drivers littering the highway of terror to Danang. Evie even saw a guy in a pool of blood laying on the road, motorbike 200 yards away, smashed up mini-bus overturned as we hurtled past at death-defying speeds. We arrived at 3am in Danang, unscathed but extremely stressed out and furious, but thankful to be alive. We found a bus to Hoi An and settled into the super-posh (for us) Hoi An hotel ($60/night, ouch!!) as all the other hotels were closed that early in the morning.
We decided to spend a couple of days in Hoi An shopping and de-stressing. Hoi An is known for their amazing tailors and shoemakers -- a dangerous offer for three stressed out females. I ended up having three pairs of custom-made high heels and a gorgeous wool jacket with dragon-print silk lining before I snapped out
of it. But it was so cheap, and I needed the retail therapy.
After a couple of days shopping, we headed up to Hue (pron: hway) to see the Imperial City and the mausoleums of former kings. Beautiful French-influenced town with a much more chilled out vibe and a culinary culture renowned throughout Vietnam. We made it up to Hanoi, where Evie caught her plane back to the States. Kris and I booked a tour to Halong Bay, a beautiful stretch of coast with over 3,000 small islands jutting out of the sea. The scenery: amazing. The tour: nightmare. The worst experience I have ever had on a trip, from dishonest, scheming tour guides preying on all of us for money and no organisation whatsoever. No energy left for details.
We came back to Hanoi, argued with our tour company for an hour, got a lousy $30 back (and wished his business "bad luck" since he didn't uphold his refund policy -- they are very superstitious, the Vietnamese. Turns out, it came true, because as we left the agency, the two even-more-pissed-off-than-us Canadian brothers we met on the trip were heading his way to demand their money back,
too. Sweet justice!!!!) A lot wiser and with no tolerance left for any BS, we found a new tour company and a trip up to Sa Pa, near the Chinese border and made sure our tour company put everything in writing and agreed to pay for the tour after we came back, so we wouldn't get scammed again. The scenery was beautiful, the people generous and sweet and adorable, and the tour company -- A to Z Queen Salute Travel -- a dream come true. FINALLY, we got it right, and now it's time to leave.
I have to say, even despite the crap and hassle, we did enjoy ourselves. But that's because our luxury is TIME, so we were able to take breaks from incessant touring, just to recover. In short, I won't be coming back to Vietnam anytime soon. This seems to be the concensus of almost every other traveller we've met as well. One guy told me he hated that Vietnam turned him into a monster. A really sweet Dutch guy, he said he was horrified as he found himself almost ready to get into fistfights on several occasions. It's clear the tourism wave came too
fast and furious to a country that is communist in name and money-hungry opportunists in reality. Of course, the political and historical scars on the country have deeply affected its psyche. That's why I feel so torn to be so negative about touring a former war zone, but the experience was exhasperating. I appreciate all of the beautiful nature we saw and the generous, lovely Vietnamese people we did meet, but I am so glad to get the hell out of here. We're off to Laos on a night bus this evening, where we'll meet up with my friend Tam for a few days. Peace out!
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