The first steps you take, leaving your hotel for the first time when arriving in Hanoi are an assault on the senses in all the best ways. Instead of the chaotic city complete with death-defying pedestrian crossings against a sea of motorbikes that I had read so much about, somehow what struck me much more was a peaceful feeling in the historic old quarter. Each sidewalk is so full with locals enjoying the aromatic offerings of pho, bahn mi and bun cha vendors that the pedestrian traffic is forced to walk in the street and share the limited space with speeding motorbikes, the odd cyclo and increasingly expensive cars. What struck me after only a short time walking here was the incredibly egalitarian structure of the city….even as western brands have begun their expansion here it doesn’t feel the same as cities in China or elsewhere in Asia. Instead you watch as the nouveau riche, driving a range rover that with tax probably costs more than many homes in America waits for an old man on a dilapidated 50cc motorbike to get his take out food from a street stall in a sort of impromptu drive-through line.
Food is something enjoyed on the most elemental level in Vietnam…. come lunch time the entire country seems to almost shut down as the rich and poor enjoy sidewalk dining taking in crispy nem (spring rolls), rich & aromatic pho broth filled with fresh greens, and grilled skewered meats. People here are happy…. at first our western sensibilities might see the front desk clerk’s effusively polite and happy service as disingenuous, but after a couple moments it becomes clear that it is in fact genuine and one has to wonder what their secret is….perhaps the food? Thinking deeper though — how possibly can this country that has defended itself first against a brutal colonial regime and then against the worlds superpower have a people so filled with happiness and posivitity?
One of core ethos of travel has always been to not judge or make decisions on a country based on the actions of that country’s government, as the people of the country shouldn’t be held accountable for things they can’t control done in their name. Years ago when I visited Montenegro, when it was still called Yugoslavia (but was just made up of Serbia & Montenegro) I encountered a towering man who asked me where I came from. This was just several short years after the US bombed civilian targets in Belgrade and throughout the country — so after I told him Chicago, he quickly replied… “I think your government is evil, but I love Americans…my cousin lives in Chicago.” The Vietnamese exemplify like no other…. how can they possibly not have ill will against America for the war crimes committed against them during the war? Perhaps they do — but they act the exact opposite towards Americans, they are some of the most welcoming, friendly and honest people I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with.
Before coming to Vietnam I knew I wanted to visit the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in Ho Chi Minh City. Anyone who knows me even a bit knows that I strive to learn both sides in history and that I tend to question ‘the truth’ we are told about American (mis) adventures around the globe. I feel it is my duty as an American, while my family nor I personally had no involvement in the war, to understand the hell that was brought upon a sovereign nation for no other goal than expansion of the military-industrial complex. After entering the gates and paying our admission we began to orient ourselves and figure out the best order to see the museum…for a moment I found myself standing by a leftover tank from the war, separated from Risa. A man turned to me and asked me where I was visiting from. As I began to tell him “New York,” I noticed he had no arms and that his face was disfigured and appeared to have been burnt at some point. He proceeded to introduce himself as Tran and asked me to shake his hand….I was admittedly unsure at first how to do this, but he motioned for me to shake his stump. In the 5 seconds that this transpired I felt a gripping sadness for having to have said New York, especially as he told me he was a land mine survivor, disfigured by the mines left behind by American in the war. He tried to sell me some trinket and I sort of drifted away, totally inappropriately without even saying much of a word, just silently overcome with emotion for the whole situation. Walking into the museum I was embarrassed at my response, but far more just overtaken by the horror and anger that it brought to me. This man, and millions more were disfigured or killed by weapons paid for by nations taxpayers. To make things worse, even years after the horror, we, as a nation haven’t made any financial restitution or support for the damage we have done. This is contrasted with the hundreds of Americans I saw in the museum that day….learning and being horrified by the actions their government did in their name, with their money. Once again, the people exercised remarkable humanity and triumph over the horrors of war, while a nation commits inexcusable wrongs and doesn’t offer so much as an apology.
Again…. I’m brought back to the beauty and resilience of the Vietnamese people. They paid an enormous and brutal price for independence and lived years in a semi-hermit state, but they have earned every thing they have today in a rapidly emerging economy…and then some. I’m honored to have been a guest in their country over the past days and thankful for the kindness and hospitality I was a recipient of.
Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon)
4 thoughts on “A Heady Mix….”
Wow, great write-up!
I also loved Vietnam when I was there, and was struck by how open and friendly and enthusiastic people seemed to be towards American tourists. As a Canadian, home to a generation of draft dodgers, I also grew up on the idea of the “Vietnam War” being a defining moment in US history, and was rather shocked (and somewhat schooled) to realize that this US-centric view didn’t apply at all in Vietnam.
Over there, the context for the “American War” was as a historical blip, compared to centuries of Chinese, then decades of French, then years of Russian/Soviet influence. This is not to minimize the war crimes committed or the impact on human lives, of course. But also worth noting: Vietnam’s economy has grown in leaps and bounds since Bill Clinton (local hero over there) ended the trade embargo, and ordinary Vietnamese citizens, after decades of hardship, are making money again. Not saying it’s all flowers and roses — some of the working conditions in those factories are pretty damn frightening, and Vietnam seems overdue for a backlash / upgrade to working standards and worker’s rights — but Vietnam over the past two decades has been enthusiastic about aligning itself with the west and growing its economic and trade potential. The growth of tourism is just one example — heck, the youngest generation is even doing something that hasn’t happened since the 50s and would’ve been unheard of since then — learning French, to speak to the waves of French tourists! Maybe their grandparents spoke a little in the colonial days; their parents certainly didn’t, if anything many of them learned Russian, and the kids are all learning English and French.
The enthusiasm by which the VIetnamese people have embraced the growth and the future is hard to resist, and is probably a big reason why I enjoyed the country so much. For what it’s worth, I loved Hanoi and Northern Vietnam, suffered in the heat and humidity of the south, and was amused by the way that even communist propaganda hasn’t managed to overtake market capitalist potential (when propaganda posters are on sale in shops to tourists in a nominally communist country, you know you’re in Vietnam).
Glad you had a good time. Where’s next?
Thanks! Loved your commentary as well….. such a good point about the irony of the communist propaganda shops. You are absolutely right that the way that the young have embraced the future and growth is definitely a reason for the charm…. I talked with our driver to Halong Bay while on the cruise about the political system and he explained emphatically that he thinks that the communist system has room for improvement, but that he wants to improve it..not get rid of it. I would typically write something like this off as just someone saying what they have to say to stay out of trouble, but his points were very logical and well articulated, so I think it’s more that he’s given it a lot of thought.
The transition into a capitalist / socialist system is definitely not going to be without it’s struggles…. the contrast between Saigon and Hanoi to me was already striking. Hanoi seemed to keep it’s traditional and communal feeling while Saigon seemed to incredibly western to me. In fact, in many ways to me I think Saigon and much of Vietnam feels much more truly developed than Bangkok, but that’s fodder for another post.
Appreciate the feedback and glad to see you are still reading along!
Great pics & write up, how was the food? Any issues eating the local food/fruits?
It sounds like the vietnam vets on their side are faring no better than the american vietnam vets, which is sort of ironic when you think about it
The food / fruit was incredible. Seriously, I have a somewhat weak stomach at home, but didn’t get sick in the slightest from anything that we had on the streets in Vietnam. Probably was the first country I’ve been to where you can sit down for something like pho on a plastic stool, cooked in something that looks anything but hygienic but magically is. The coolest part is then you can sit and any locals place as a result — so you aren’t relegated to just restaurants for tourism.
Totally agree re: the irony on the Vietnam vets…. ironically in some ways many probably are more taken care of by the socialist state than vets in the US.