I think I should start this story from the real beginning which was at the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok. I had to get my visa there and it was easy to find, because it is located across the street from the American Ambassador’s residence. I don’t know if this placement was intentional or some kind of sick joke, but the Vietnamese Embassy is literally falling apart (like there were construction workers trying to put it back together) and across the street in America, behind an iron fence, it looks like the Garden of Eden. Anyway, after I procrastinated until the last minute and got my visa, I was off.
My 3 conclusions about Vietnam:
1. America lost.
2. Vietnamese food is boring.
3. How is it possible for so many motorbikes to exist per square foot of road space?
I spent a week in Vietnam and had the opportunity to do and see a lot, or at least a lot of whatever the government controlled tourism industry would allow me to see. I started in the capital, Hanoi (in the North for everyone that forgot their high school history lessons). Upon arrival, I learned very quickly that the way to cross the street is to just walk at a slow pace and the sea of motorbikes will part. It’s miraculous. However, if you walk quickly, they seem to be attracted to you like moths to a flame and you will certainly die. And I swear to God, they must have some kind of locking mechanism on their horns that just allows them to drive with the horn on, like how you would drive with headlights on. Please imagine this scene in your mind and laugh.
Hanoi has an amazing old quarter that was built by the Frogs when they were the colonial power. The architecture is French Colonial but the buildings are tired, overgrown with all sorts of tropical flora and decorated with lanterns, baskets and other bric-a-brac. On my first day in Hanoi, I ate my only truly remarkable meal. I went to a place called Cha Ca La Vong, which serves one dish: fish cooked in oil. I hate fish, I usually avoid it, but this place was in my 1000 Things To See Before You Die book and I love to check things off the list, so I just went. It was absolutely delicious.
I wandered around the old quarter for a while learning the ways of the motorbikes. In the center of the city, there is a big park with a lake (Hoan Kiem Lake) and a temple on a small island in the middle. It’s called The Temple of the Jade Mountain and is dedicated to Taoist and Confucian principles. I must have been there on portrait day or something because there were a ton of women taking photos. They were all beautifully made up and were wearing long, traditional Vietnamese dresses. It was very peaceful and you could feel the French influence in the park and street design. I kept plodding along taking photos and just being a tourist. I tried asking what was going on, but they couldn’t understand me so I just remained ignorant about this whole situation.
Next stop on my meandering, self guided tour was lunch. I just went to a street vendor selling noodles. They were fine. This is how I would describe 95% of the Vietnamese food I ate. It’s fine. There isn’t much flavor and there is no spice. It’s not bad, it’s not good. It’s food that I can eat and it will keep me alive. If American restaurants served Vietnamese food the way it is prepared in Vietnam, they would go out of business in a month. The photo was the most exciting part of this meal.
In Hanoi, many of the roads are named after what they sell, or traditionally sold, on that particular road: basket road, lantern road, silk road, shirt road, meat road, vegetable road etc. There are also lots of mobile vendors wheeling bicycles laden with fruits or carrying bars with baskets on either end. A lot of people also wear these woven, triangle hats, which I thought were just a horrible, racist Asian stereotype, but turns out, the Vietnamese wear them for real, even in the city. The local barbers just set up shop on a wall. Literally, they have a chair on the sidewalk and a mirror and little table bolted into a cement wall. I admit, I was tempted to get a trim just for the experience.
Up next was the Temple of Literature, where portrait day continued so you better believe I took full advantage of the chance to take a million photos like an obnoxious tourist. I think maybe it was graduation? I tried asking again, but no luck. I paid the obligatory white person fee and grumbled my way into the college/temple. The Temple of Literature was originally built about 1000 years ago as the first university in the kingdom and it’s dedicated to Confucius. There are large tablets engraved with the names of people who passed the royal exams.
At this point, I needed to start to wander my way back to the hotel because I had been walking in unguided circles almost all day. I took a route through what I call propaganda park. I’m sure it has a real name, but the giant statue of Lenin and large Vietnamese flags everywhere lent themselves to a more “state controlled everything” sort of name.
Day 2 was my Ha Long Bay day trip day. Ha Long Bay is well known for its limestone karsts and picturesque scenery. The tourism here is largely controlled by the government at it’s difficult not to go on a group/herd package tour, so that’s where I found myself. I was picked up early by an oversize van and luckily since I was travelling alone I got a good single seat. There were some enormous 50 year old Australian men that got on after me and had to sit on an aisle jump seat that was made for someone about the size of one of their legs…. for 4 hours…. on roads that were almost all under construction.
Our first obligatory tour bus stop was at a factory where disabled people work to make art and handicrafts for tourists. It’s definitely presented as a “we do this to help these people” factory but I couldn’t help but feel like it was a borderline slave labor operation set up purely to use the handicapped people for profit. Nevertheless, they were amazingly talented craftspeople. There were women smashing duck eggshells to make canvases, silk weavers and painters.
On the way to Ha Long Bay, there were lots of big open air restaurants along the street with like 100 chairs at them, and no people. We probably drove past 200 of these places over the 4 hours, and I saw fewer than 10 customers. On top of that, it seemed like there were just no people… anywhere, even in the big towns. No one walking on the street, no vendors, nothing. It was very odd, especially coming from Thailand where there are people all over the street.
We finally arrived around lunch time and were herded on to our boat for the 3 hour tour (not a Gilligan reference, it was literally a 3 hour tour). They served us lunch, again it looked better than it tasted, and we started our government approved cruise. Unfortunately, it was a pretty gray, drizzly day and since I was there in October, there was also a bit of a chill in the air. But after spending a year living in 90+ heat everyday, some natural cool air was nice. Also, my definition of chill has changed dramatically; now “a chill” means that it was below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The fog and drizzle made for a sort of mysterious, eerie scene. At the risk of sounding incredibly annoying, I will also say that the karsts weren’t super interesting to me because I’ve already seen the same thing in Thailand so the fact that the weather wasn’t great was ok.
Our first stop was a floating village with a population of about 100. These are people who literally live in floating houses with the karsts towering above them for their whole lives. There is a school and a little store and, of course, a government building. There was an option to paddle your own marginally seaworthy kayak, or to pay a small amount of Dong (yes that is the name of their currency, and the Dong jokes never get old) for a guy to row you around. I was on vacation and feeling like I didn’t want to sink, so I opted for the latter and hopped on a boat with this guy and his awesome helmet hat:
When I got back to the raft/grocery store, our guide was smoking “Vietnamese tobacco” out of a giant bong. He said it was very strong and offered me some, but I’ve watched too many episodes of Locked up Abroad and I feel like Vietnamese prison isn’t forgiving to Americans.
Apparently some of these islands are hollow and filled with caves. That was our next stop; an awesome cave. The cave, Dong Thien Cung, was discovered fairly recently and they have the whole inside lit up with colored lights so it is a really cool sight. I haven’t been in a cave in a long time, so this was a nice treat, especially since I wasn’t expecting it. It was nice to see something different. I was there during the off season, so the herd was smaller. Apparently during high season, it’s so full that you can barely walk. If there were such things as cave fairies, this is where they would live.
That was all we did for the day tour. Our junk boat cruised us back to the traditional Vietnamese tourist port and we took the van back to Hanoi, with a stop at another handicapped factory of course. Halong Bay was definitely cool, but it’s a shame that the government controls so much because I have never felt like such a sheep.
I didn’t get back until around 8ish and I had to find my other hotel which was a huge pain in the ass because their Google pin wasn’t in the correct location so I literally walked back and forth down the same street like 7 times and was on the verge of losing my mind. Oh “A Dong Hotel”, you were such a mystery. Yes, I partially picked it because of the name, how could I not? It turned out to be a good place and I went out and got some boiled vegetables for dinner. So delicious. Not. I think these stir fried vegetables were literally just boiled in water with some oil. There was no flavor at all, not even MSG. But again, it sustained me which I guess is the purpose of food.
On my first day I bought oranges, 2 kilos of them by accident, so that was breakfast the next day. Day 3 was Vietnam war/Commie/shopping day. I went to a really cool store called Craft Link where everything was made by local craftspeople. It’s a non-profit so it seeks to support local artisans. I got lots of silk for an absolute killing by American standards. In retrospect, I probably should have saved this for later because I had to carry everything for the whole day.
Next stop was little park where it seemed to be wedding photo day. In Thailand and the rest of SE Asia, the wedding photo process appears very strange to westerners. First of all, they usually rent their wedding dresses and they will take photos in several different dresses. But even more unusually, they take their wedding photos well before the actual wedding, like sometimes weeks or months in advance. When I tell them in our culture it’s bad luck to see the bride in her dress before the wedding day they are surprised. But since America has an incredibly high divorce rate, maybe we have the whole luck thing backwards….
I did lots of wandering on my way to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. Hanoi is really cool because it’s laid out like a French city with big tree lined streets. And there are almost no street vendors, unlike in Thailand, so I could walk without crashing into Grandma Daeng selling noodles in the middle of the sidewalk. I went to the train station which is cool because the sides are old French architecture from the turn of the century, but it was damaged during the war so the center is like a big Commie cement block.
I had a small detour where I tried to take a photo of this butterfly for like a half an hour. I still don’t know how to use my incredibly powerful camera (100% my own fault) although when I hold it I think I am a National Geographic photographer. It’s smarter than I am.
In the afternoon I went to Uncle Ho’s final resting place. He is lying in state in a huge granite tomb, which means that his body has been embalmed and is on display. This specifically goes against his will, in which he said he wanted to be cremated and scattered all over Vietnam, but the government didn’t do as he wished, weird. Unfortunately for me, since October is low season, Ho Chi Minh was in Russia for his annual cleaning. No joke, he goes to Russia every year to get cleaned and say what’s up to those dead Russian guys.
In the shadow of the mausoleum, and the giant Vietnamese flag there was a really nice concert of traditional Vietnamese music going on so I hung out and watched that for a little while. The musicians were really talented. As an American who has been conditioned to think of Communism and propaganda going hand in hand, it was hard to look at the scene and think that American’s are so different. Go to Washington DC and go to the Lincoln Memorial and listen to people play music with American flags everywhere. We’re not so different. Except at least our dead guys haven’t been preserved for 40+ years. Even Ho Chi Minh thinks that’s weird. To be fair, the propaganda in Vietnam is way way more blatant than in the States, but it’s not to say that it doesn’t exist in America too.
The final stop was the wrecked fuselage of a B52 that the Vietnamese shot out of the sky over Hanoi. The B52 Victory Museum isn’t highly publicized so I was the only person there which was a nice change. Seeing an American plane wrecked and displayed in that way was probably one of the most foreign things I’ve ever seen. Besides the bad English, the language used on the plaques was something that would never be written the US: Sume Types of Boms – Used by US Army during the Air War of Destruction over the north of Vietnam during 1964-1972 — Wreckage of US B52 Bombers – Shot down by Hanoi’s people and army during the US Air Defense Attacking to the North of Vietnam in December 1972. Seeing this American plane (that I usually see in all its glory in the US museums/air shows) totally blown to pieces put some things into perspective. It still makes my brain go upside down because as an American, we are indoctrinated with such a contrasting message to what I saw here. That concluded my short stay in Hanoi.
I made it to the airport without any issues, but when I got there I made a HUGE scene. I went to the self check in kiosk and got my boarding pass, ok no issues. I went to wait in the security line, but apparently I was waiting in the wrong one, and had to go wait in another one. This is when I started to de-rail. So I waited in the other line for about 15 minutes, and when I got to the ticket checker, the woman told me, in terrible English, that I needed to go back to the counter and get a stamp. So I went all the way back to the check in counter to get my stamp. Ok not a huge deal, I arrived with some extra time so I was ok. I went back and waited again and had my bags scanned and a woman asked “Have Swiss knife?” I was like what the hell is going on here. Then I remembered that I have a multitool credit card in my purse that I have carried through security probably 50 times with a 1 inch dull blade and a pair of scissors with blades as long as my thumb nail. Tooooooo dangerous. So she was like “scissors can’t have, knife can’t have” and I was like “WHAT?! Are you kidding me? Fine, I will check my bag” because that multi tool is like the most useful thing I own. So I went back to the check in counter again and told them I needed to check my bag. I was raging by this point, I feel bad for that guy at the counter. He told me, “ok it’s not included with your flight, it’s $13.” So I said, “ok fine, I don’t have cash or time, I’m not checking it.” But it was already on the scale and he said, “carry on limit, 7 kilos, must check.” My bag was 10. FINE. He said I could take 3 kilos out and carry it. So I took out the oranges, changed my shoes and moved a bunch of stuff into my purse carry on, right in front of him. I was ready to play my crazy white girl card, which I rarely have to use, but this was one of those moments. Then, he pushed me over the edge when he pointed to my purse and said, “Your bag too? limit 1 bag per person.” I lost it. I used lots of profanity and threw my raincoat down on my open bag like a WWE wrestler and was like “WHAT THE FUCK!!!!!” but seriously wtf. I had already gone to security twice and this was my second time talking to that check in guy and I stood right in front of him furiously unpacking my backpack into my purse and THEN he decides to tell me one bag. He deserved it. I stole his face so badly, he just waved me away. I put the knife in my glasses case and the scissors in my camera case and breezed right through security with 10 minutes to spare. I’m glad to know that someone as insane as I was in that moment was allowed on the airplane. Saigon, ready or not here I come….
I met Bom at the airport and it was really exciting because it was his first time outside of Thailand. We stayed at a super cool hostel/homestay run by a Vietnamese family. After we finally found it, we went to get some pho down the street. Unfortunately, it was as disappointingly bland as the pho in Hanoi. This was bowl number 3 or 4 and I still don’t see the obsession. It must be better in America because there’s no way the real stuff would ever sell in the US restaurant market. After Pho, we went to sit on the backpacker street, Pham Ngu Lao and be tourists.
The next day we met up with Ken. Ken is a university student who is part of an organization called Saigon Hotpot. Basically, students who want to practice their English apply for this club and then they will take tourists around the city. And it’s FREE. FREE!! This was one of the best tours I have ever been on and all it cost me was a bus ticket and lunch for Ken, which I was more than happy to pay because he was awesome.
First, he took us to a temple in China town. In Thailand, there are temples and religious shrines everywhere you look; but in Vietnam it’s the other end of the spectrum. I’m sure this has something to do with religion being the opiate of the masses etc.
Next stop was a big local market. This was 2 stories and bustling with local people selling all sorts of stuff. Saigon has a bad reputation for theft and Ken warned me to keep my camera in my bag so I didn’t take any photos there. After the market we took the bus, on which Ken politely answered all of my American questions about Communism. We got off in a different area of town and went to the cathedral, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Since Vietnam was colonized by the French, there is a sizable Catholic population. It was cool to see a Cathedral especially since I have been away from this kind of stuff for so long.
Next to the cathedral is the Saigon post office, which is especially cool because it was designed by Gustav Eiffel when Vietnam was part of French Indo-China. Yes, the same guy. There are large murals on the wall depicting the borders of the colonial powers in the early 20th century and old wooden phone booths. I bought a nice postcard of Uncle Ho and sent it to my parents in America, but it seems that it still hasn’t arrived, 11 months later… When my kids send me a post card from Afghanistan, I will remember this moment at the Saigon post office.
We walked through some big parks and everything reminded me a lot of France; big tree lined streets and actual city planning where the street numbers make sense. I miss that. Like #64 is next to number #66 which is across the street from #65. In Bangkok #64 is next to #105 which is next to no number which is next to #21B/4. I think people just make up whatever address they want in Thailand so the organization of the streets in Ho Chi Minh was refreshing.
Lunch time was next. We went to the same restaurant that Ken went to with his family for his birthday. It was good food, but again, nothing shocking as per the general theme of all the food I ate. Not bad, but not really special.
After lunch, we went to the famous war museum. Wow. This really put a lot of perspective on the Vietnam, or as they call it, American War/Independence War. I’m not a Vietnam War scholar, nor do I believe the museum isn’t strongly biased, but there were photographs that I would NEVER see in an American museum. The villagers running out of their homes with their skin melting off, the torture at the prison camps, corpses of people blown to pieces, the side effects of Agent Orange… It was really eye opening.
There was one photograph that I found to be particularly interesting because of the caption. The caption says “An American soldier with the skull of a Vietnamese patriot.” This is a photo that I probably would see in a US museum because it doesn’t really show the horrors of war, but it shows just enough to pique peoples’ morbid interest. However, I think the caption would read something like this in a US museum, “An American patriot with the skull of a Vietnamese rebel” It made me really think a lot more about how there are two sides to every story, but we’re often only taught one of them. We stayed until closing time and then parted ways with our fantastic guide Ken.
We went to check out the main night market in town which was pretty similar to all the tourist markets in SE Asia. Lots of hippie pants (which I bought a pair of because I can’t seem to get enough), tourist knick knacks and costume jewelry. I was very excited to see that they had self serve froyo. Bom had never experienced this because Thai people really don’t like to serve themselves so these don’t exist in Bangkok. Due to his inexperience, he loaded his bowl with all the heaviest “condiments” and it was something stupidly expensive like $12. I think mine was 3 bucks.
After spoiling our dinner with dessert, we went to Pho 2000 which is where Bill Clinton got pho when he came to Saigon. I didn’t expect it to be the best pho in town because it’s definitely touristy, but this was probably one of the most boring ones I tried. It was like warm water and noodles. The coolest thing about this place was the view of a major intersection with no traffic lights. I still can not comprehend how this works. Or maybe it doesn’t and I was just lucky enough not to die while I was there. If you watch the video, you can see a herd of motos just converging on each other with bikes and cars and trucks and pedestrians all trying to go somewhere. It’s truly remarkable.
The next day was an early wake up for a 2 day tour of the Mekong River delta. I will preface this by saying that while we saw some cool stuff, this was probably the most “package toury” experience that I’ve ever had. We were just herded from one tourist thing to another. There was almost nothing authentic about it unless we went a little away from the group but then we were promptly herded back. The tourism industry is HIGHLY controlled here so I assume that’s one of the major contributing factors. I can’t believe that this is how some people travel all the time.
Stop number one was at a Buddhist temple. I don’t think there was anything particularly significant about it besides the fact that it was a good stopping point for bathrooms and food. It wasn’t ancient or special but there were some big statues. We continued on, and when we arrived at the mighty Mekong, we got on a boat to begin the tour. We had to put on our “life jackets” of course. I’m all for safety first, but I know that these things would probably cause more harm than good if a situation arose where we actually needed them. There were lots of barges filled with goods floating down the river. They all had a design on the front that looked like eyes. There were fishermen in the shallows on simmilar, but smaller boats. And then there was the fleet of boats filled with whiteys.
The boat took us to get lunch at a traditional Vietnamese tourist trap. I would say it was a restaurant but it was definitely only set up to serve the people on the Mekong boat tours. We were served an egg, boiled vegetables, white rice and some oily slabs of meat that must have been pork? I tried to look at the bright side though and the one thing about this place that was good was that they had pomelo trees, so I got to see how the fruit grows.
Next government approved tourist stop was a coconut candy and honey operation. This stuff was delicious, but the coolest part was being able to hold the bees and the giant snake. It must have been some kind of constrictor because it was huge and heavy and wrapped all around me. I felt like Britney. So touristy but totally cool. I got Bom to touch the snake with one finger but that’s as far as he went.
After our coconut and honey binge we got on little wood boats and floated down a small canal or tributary of the Mekong. The water is really murky since it’s a delta and along the banks are really tall reeds. We also got to wear the triangle hats to complete our transformation into full on tourist. At the end of our float, they took us to another tourist set up and we watched some “traditional musicians” and ate “traditional jungle fruits” such as banana and pineapple. If they’ve learned anything about foreigners it’s that the content of the tour doesn’t matter, but if they don’t feed us every 45 minutes to an hour, they can expect 1 star on TripAdvisor.
The day was coming to a close so it was time to go to our “homestay” which we paid extra to do as opposed to staying in a hotel. When we arrived in the small town, it was definitely not a homestay, but was still cooler than a hotel. It was thatched bungalows along a slow moving tributary. No hot water, no AC and the beds had mosquito nets. They served our tour group dinner and rice whiskey, which as usual, was just fine, literally nothing to write home about. There were some really cool Polish girls who sat with us and I had to chance to see them again in Bangkok so that was a bright spot.
The next morning, I think they served us a traditional breakfast of Kellogg’s cereal or something, I can’t even remember. We went for a bike ride around the village and then took motos to a market where we would meet up with the main herd. It was a pretty standard Asian fresh market: fish, fruits and vegetables, meat, rice etc.
We got on our day tour boat at the pier to go to the floating market. Basically this is a bunch of barges anchored in the river selling their produce. They had big sticks hanging pineapples or sweet potatoes or beans to show what they were selling. Little coffee boats zipped around to the barges and tourist boats. The whole scene was pretty cool.
Our tourist boat stopped at a barge selling pineapples. They were obviously ready for us and spoke standard “buy stuff from me” English. Luckily everyone else on the boat bought pineapples but couldn’t finish them so I benefited directly from that.
Our next few obligatory stops were fairly uneventful. A rice paper factory and an orchard which had both been outfitted to handle the package tour coming through. I just can not believe people travel like this all the time. The best part of the trip was seeing the things outside of the tour, but whenever I wandered away, I was quickly found and shuffled back to the herd.
Upon returning to Saigon, Halloween celebrations were in full effect. We were staying in the backpacker area so that obviously made it more of a scene, but I think the American influence makes Halloween a little more popular here than in surrounding countries. The road was completely gridlocked with cars, motorcycles and people. I have never seen anything like it. Usually people can at least weave their way through all the cars and motos, but this was complete gridlock. It reminded me of when you fill a jar with rocks (cars) then add gravel (motos) then add sand (bikes) then add water (people). It took an hour to walk one block. So that was enough of that for these old bones.
The final day was Cu Chi tunnels day. For those unfamiliar, these are the tunnels that the Viet Cong used during the “War of Independence/American War” or “Vietnam War” depending on where you come from. The network is massive and this particular section was critical in the Tet Offensive and a base for Viet Cong operations. After going down into these things, I understand why America lost. I can not believe people actually lived and functioned from here. That’s a victory in and of itself. We went into one of the large upper sections, close to the surface and I had about 1 inch of clearance on either side of my shoulders and I was on my hands and knees. We crawled through about 100 meters and it was unsettling. We were allowed to go further, but after 100 meters, I was so disoriented and I had to get outta there.
The complex is situated in a forest where there are still craters from B52 bombs and the frame of an incapacitated American tank, they’re really proud of that. They also have a gun range where you can shoot all sorts of things, including an AK47. The whole thing was creepy because as we walked through the forest, you could hear machine guns in the distance. They also re-constructed all the jungle booby traps that the Viet Cong set and they look absolutely f-ing brutal. Spikes everywhere.
That afternoon, back in Saigon, in the quest to find Pho that was as impressive as it should be for all the hype, we went to a restaurant that is supposed to have the best Pho in all of Saigon, Pho Hoa Pasteur. It was fine. I just wish I could say more about it. One thing I can say though is that it looks great in photos.
Around sunset, I grabbed a drink at a famous roof bar where the American war correspondents used to hang out during the war. That was my last stop before flying out. All in all it was a great trip and put things into a lot of perspective. I never thought I would be so excited to get back to the peace and hornless-ness tranquility of Bangkok.