An American in Vietnam

In the last post, Nick said he knew Vietnam would be a very different experience than any we’ve had before, and this certainly proved true. From the beautiful mountain scenery and ethnic hill tribes of Sapa, to the serenity of Halong Bay, and the bustling capital of Hanoi, North Vietnam was a healthy dose of true Vietnamese culture.

Our 10 days in Northern Vietnam was unintentional, as we had originally planned to spend about half that time there, and then move south along the coast with Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon as our final destination. Because we had to wait a week for our Indian visa to be processed at the Embassy in Hanoi, we made the best of our extended stay and toured the North as much as we could. However, this meant much less time for us in the south so we decided to fly to Danang, about half way between Hanoi and HCMC, and then on to HCMC. 

In Danang we met up with Liz, an old college friend of mine who has been living and teaching in Vietnam for the last 4 years. It was great to see a familiar face and to chat about life as an expat. It also gave us an opportunity to talk politics; being a communist country, criticism of the government is not tolerated and you are unlikely to find a Vietnamese person who will be willing to talk about politics. The media and press are also monitored and censored- we were even unable to access Facebook without software to unblock it. These things aside, the country feels quite capitalist as Vietnam became a socialist-oriented free market economy during the mid-80′s. Thanks to increased foreign investment (America being the largest investor last year), Vietnam’s economy is enjoying healthy growth, though they too have been hit by the global economic crisis.

by Vietnamese artist Linh Trung Tran

We didn’t do anything touristy in Danang, which was just fine. We were happy to have drinks on the beach and hang out with Liz and her American friend Steve, also a teacher, and her Canadian friend Kristina, a dive instructor. They made for great company and we relished the opportunity to socialize and just feel normal.

Danang is Vietnam’s 4th largest city (formerly home to the largest air base used by the S. Vietnamese and Americans during the war), and the closest major city to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site. After we said goodbye to Liz, we hired a private car for the 30 minute drive from Danang to Hoi An. Originally Hoi An was a trading port full of merchants, tailors, and craftsmen but since becoming a UNESCO site, the town caters mostly to tourism.

Hoi An's old quarter

From what I have read, every year the town loses more of it’s culture and traditions because of the mass influx of tourists. Store after store sells the same souvenirs, and the traditional way of life for Hoi An-ians has all but disappeared. This is the downside to designations like UNESCO, which help to preserve historical heritage but also bring in tons of tourists which inevitably impacts the local culture, in good ways and bad. Aside from the tourist-trap feel, the architecture of the town is well-preserved and it’s absolutely beautiful at night when the whole town is alight with lanterns.

lanterns are a popular souvenir in Hoi An

Hoi An bridge at night

We rented bikes for $1 each and biked to Cua Dai beach to soak up some sun and relaxation. We haven’t seen a beach in a while, so it was really nice to be on the coast again and the beach was lovely to boot. The downside to visiting beaches in most developing countries is you are approached all day long by people selling bracelets, cigarettes, chopsticks, whatever. This interrupts the peaceful beach experience but there is no way to get away from it. In Thailand it wasn’t too bad but in Vietnam, they are more persistent. My favorite line was “I haven’t sold anything all day, please open your heart and your wallet.” We did break down and buy a bracelet and a necklace, but not from the lady who asked us to open our hearts and our wallets.

biking to the beach

Cua Dai beach

As we made our way from Hanoi to Hoi An, we definitely saw an increase in Western tourists, and the landscape began to change. Gone were the tightly packed, narrow streets of Hanoi and the French colonial architecture, in came the high rise apartment buildings, beach resorts, and wide avenues. Because the Americans were based in the south, the cities became modernized before the north. Personally, I enjoyed Hanoi more so because of this; it felt more authentically Vietnamese than the south.

From Danang we hopped a quick flight to HCMC for 2 days. On our first day we visited the War Remnants Museum, which was both educational and depressing at the same time. Formerly called the Museum of American War Crimes, the museum documents the atrocities committed by the Americans and South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. The Museum is painfully honest about the brutalities of war and the reality that many victims are innocent civilians. The museum displays include photographs of the mangled dead bodies of soldiers and civilians, personal accounts from survivors, and a gallery of photographs of people and children affected by Agent Orange and napalm.

Warning: disturbing images below.

victims of Agent Orange & naplam

villager begging soldier to spare his life

Some may ask why you would want to see photos of dead and deformed babies and of people suffering? I believe that is important to see with our own eyes the effects of war, as we are so far removed from the realities that other countries have experienced as a result of our going to war. Unless you have friends or family in the Armed Services, it is hard to really comprehend the affects of war happening in a faraway land. The museum is a grim reminder that war is not something to be taken lightly. The visit was an emotionally draining few hours but well worth it.

from the War Remnants Museum

While in HCMC, we also took a The Saigon River Express down the Saigon River to the Cu Chi tunnels, the secret tunnels of the Viet Cong guerillas in south. The tunnels were amazing for many reasons, but mainly for how teeny tiny they were.  The Cu Chi tunnels are only a small part (75 miles) of the Viet Cong tunnel system, which spanned hundreds of miles throughout southern Vietnam. The tunnels concealed living space, storage, kitchens, and supply routes for the VC- they basically waged war from underground. They have widened a few meters of the tunnels for tourists, so tourists can “walk” through, though completely hunched over. Not for the claustrophobic!

boat ride to Cu Chi tunnels. who wants to guess what I'm eating?

secret tunnel entrance

the widened tourist section of the tunnels

Overall, the War Remnants Museum and the tunnels were a unique experience, though it did make us feel really guilty and terrible as Americans, though this was purely our sentiment and not that of the Vietnamese people. We have always been welcomed and treated with kindness in this country, and it seems that it is a national mandate to forgive but not to forget. It’s also easy to forget when you are subjected to only one side of the story that American soldiers suffered atrocities as well and many American lives were lost, but it’s hard to compare with the damage inflicted on Vietnam and it’s people.

A few Vietnamese even expressed to us that they wished America had won the war- for 20 years following the war Vietnam’s economy struggled under communist rule and the people suffered. After the US lifted the embargo in 1994 and President Clinton normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, life improved dramatically for the country.

For anyone traveling in SE Asia, Vietnam is a do not miss. The cities are interesting, the people friendly, the mountains beautiful, the beaches idyllic, and the history captivating. You can’t go wrong!

Next post from the Kingdom of Cambodia, home of Angkor Wat.

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Filed under Friends, strange but true, Tours, Vietnam

7 responses to “An American in Vietnam

  1. Great post…I went to Vietnam in 2001. Amazing country. And food…

  2. Cheryl Dowlen

    It looks like an egg with a skirt on but I know that you don’t eat eggs so maybe it is some type of fruit like lychee?

    • Rachel

      winner! yes it’s a lychee fruit, and I do eat eggs (my mom & Nicole don’t) thank goodness because if not I would have gone hungry quite often on this trip!

  3. Mark Bryan

    Love the blue shirt. You probably do a lot of washing with the limited amount of clothes you have.

    The lanterns must really be beautiful in person. Sort of like Paris with an Asian touch.

    • Rachel

      haha I guess you noticed I have that shirt on in a lot of photos! we do laundry about every 5 days. yes, they really give the town a cool ambience and we bought one as a sounvenir.

  4. I sent this to Elizabeth. It was so. Interesting.

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