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This ain’t your father’s Vietnam

Our October 2008 Vietnam trip.

Mue Ni

Mue Ni


Laura and I left for Vietnam at the start of her October break from school. We took an overnight sleeper bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, our first of many. At a hotel on Khao San Rd, we stored our bags and headed out to explore. To kill some time before our room was ready, we walked around the neighborhood and took a tour of some of the surrounding canals in a colorful longboat, which we had the luck of getting to ourselves. Bangkok has many canals and many of the locals, of all classes, live along the water. Oftentimes we saw beautiful villas that could fit right in on Miami’s South Beach next to tin roof shanties. Some wood construction homes looked quite like some of the older arrogantly shabby beach houses on the Carolina coast. Houses not directly on the canals are connected by narrow water paths, and some canals are accessed through water locks. Clumps of water lily pads float freely throughout. These were much more pleasant to view than the numerous plastic bags and bottles we passed. Despite an emergency bathroom break at a waterside wat, it was a great tour and a fun way to see Bangkok from the water.

We did not encounter any PAD protestors, but we did see election tents set up at key points. In Thailand, booze is not sold at stores or in restaurants during elections, so we inadvertently ended up seeing Khao San Rd, which is notorious for drunken debauchery, in quite a different mood: sober and quiet. We found a great used bookshop, bought me a plain silver wedding band (for nine bucks!) and walked the night market area. Khao San’s night market is similar to Chiang Mai’s, but with more hustle. In addition to pirated DVDs and music, one can openly buy fake identification and certificates; everything from TEFL papers to university degrees. Why did I spend so much money on college when I could have gotten the same diploma for two thousand baht? How dumb am I?

After Bangkok, we flew on AirAsia to Ho Chi Minh City. AirAsia is a budget airline and we’d heard stories of shoddy equipment. When Laura first moved to Thailand, she flew AirAsia from Singapore to Bangkok and on to Chiang Mai, and confirmed these stories as accurate. Laura was especially surprised when our flight ended up being on a new plane with nice leather seats. Seating on AirAsia is open and not assigned, so getting in line at the counter is crucial to getting a good seat, as well as blocking cutters from shoving ahead of you. Monks get preferred seating. We saw this later on the train, also. Hustling onto the plane was a sign of things to come.

HCMC (previously known as Saigon) was thrilling, shocking and chaotic. The hotel we booked our room through had sent a driver (thank God) and he met us at the curb. He pointed us to the ATM and then took our bags and hurried us off to his car which was very well used. The drive to the hotel was exciting; our car, engulfed in a sea of motorcycles, charged forward, horn blasting. Motorcycles were everywhere. Motorcycles on the sidewalks trying to get ahead, up and down both sides of the street against traffic, inches away from our windows. It was as if we were in the middle of a herd of exotic mechanical buffalo moving through concrete canyons in a rush to get to the watering hole before it was all gone. The motorcyclists were surprising to us, as every driver was wearing head protection. We saw this throughout Vietnam. In Thailand, folks only wear helmets on payday. (When pulled over by the Thai cops, one has a choice: a ticket for the city, or a smaller cash fine.) We found out later that in Vietnam everyone wears helmets because of a new law that was put into effect in January of this year. The reason: 34 people a day were dying in motorcycle accidents. We saw a minor one the next night: two girls, obviously tipsy, clipped by a speeding bike at an intersection. Vietnam has a population of 86 million. Compare this to the United States, population 300 million, where about 115 people die a day in car accidents.

Our “mini-hotel” was a lovely six room operation with wonderful friendly staff and tiny, but clean rooms. We had our first of many yummy meals at a nearby restaurant and tried Vietnamese Dalat wine, which is not so good compared to other wines, but neat for its localness. The next morning we took a minibus tour with three Israeli guys about my age who had recently finished their military service and a group of five 50/60-something Malaysians. We started off with a visit to the War Remnants Museum which told the Vietnamese side of the war with America. Most of the visitors that day were school kids, but we did see other tours, and several older white guys who we figured were probably vets. Captured military equipment, tanks, planes, helicopters, flame throwers, and howitzer cannons are on display around the museum, as well as a mock up of a “tiger cage” prison cell—not the kind Senator McCain was held in, but the kind we put captured VC in for long-term interrogation. Posters and mannequins showed some of the torture techniques used, including Army manuals, but surprisingly, no examples of water boarding, which I thought had been used extensively in Vietnam, and which we now hear of often in reference to Guantanamo Bay. The most lasting impression came from the exhibits on the effects of Agent Orange. Some of the birth defects shown in the pictures could have been caused by anything, and we visited the museum knowing that we were in for a heavy dose of communist propaganda. Cleft palates and Siamese twins, for instance, occur all over the world—not just in areas where Agent Orange was used. But clearly some of the photos had to have been legit, especially the aerial shots showing before and after visuals of jungle sprayed with Agent Orange. The amount of bombs and chemicals the United States dropped on Vietnam is staggering. It was a somber visit full of guilt and sadness. We both had a sinking feeling that in thirty years we might visit a war remnants museum in Baghdad or Kabul.

But after that, we saw some lighter stuff. A Chinese pagoda, which is a temple that merges Buddhism and Chinese ancestor worship. Lots of incense, walls of paper prayer banners, and pots in which to burn paper cutouts of things to wish for. Some of the incense comes in large brown coils or thick yellow poles like long corndogs and burn for an entire month! Our Malaysian companions took a few minutes to burn some incense and pray. I was a little embarrassed when a woman, not in our tour, blatantly filmed them going through the ritual. As I look back on it, our companions may very well have seen an opportunity to demonstrate, and did so quite willingly. Then again, is it appropriate film someone in their place of worship? Can you imagine a tourist filming Catholics taking communion five feet away? What you can see between the lines is the beginnings of a feeling that haunted me throughout our trip: that we were part of a larger group of western tourism that was out of place, and that the only thing we were bringing to Vietnam was our money. In Thailand, at least we can say that we teach our students language skills that can help them get a job later in life, even if that job is likely in the tourism industry.

Also on the tour we saw the old French palace, which was once the base of operations for French government in Saigon. Beautiful conference rooms and an extensive network of basement military facilities. On the roof there is a really neat bar/dance floor and a helicopter landing pad. It was very easy to imagine the rich and influential politicians and their guests of the day having fabulous balls while the rest of Vietnam went to bed on straw mats after a long day in the paddy. Two giant red Xs show where Vietnamese resistance dropped bombs on the palace in the 50’s.

One last highlight from the Saigon tour is a lacquer factory that employs blind workers. It takes more than 30 steps to make those shiny bowls. We walked through the workshop, past rows of workers, some blind, some seeing, working on their respective parts of the process. An enormous amount of work goes into even the simplest pieces, but the more complex bowls and platters have intricate patterns cut from mother of pearl with tiny saws and inlaid shards of eggshell. Endless sanding and layer after layer of lacquer is applied. Protective gear is minimal: a dust mask at most. No gloves, no closed-toed shoes, no eye protection. It was not what I would call a sweatshop, but it certainly wasn’t up to OSHA standards. And then we were led to the retail side of the operation and encouraged to buy. A bowl costs about five bucks, though it was created by two dozen people over several hours. Amazing.

What else about Saigon? In addition to heavenly Pho (soup) we ate French as often as possible. Baguettes and croissants every day. On the street, one can get an excellent country pate sandwich (I had several) on toasted baguette with pickles and watercress and tomatoes and chili paste for about 7,000 dong/50 US cents. If I could serve this same product in Boston, I could charge ten times that and people would be lined up the block. Though it was a treat to eat at some great French bistros during our trip, I was a glutton about getting as much out of the cheap local fare as I could.

After two nights in Saigon, we took a four hour bus trip up the coast to Mui Ne, which we had heard was reminiscent of the south French coast. We certainly felt inspired by the two Vietnamese who reclined in their sleeper seats in front of us, chatting away in French. Ultimately we took many buses—long over night hauls, twice, up the coast from Saigon to Hanoi. Saigon is at northern latitude 10.5 or so, about where Caracas, Venezuela is, and Hanoi is at northern latitude 21, even with Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The climate changed from tropical to chillier monsoon cloud cover as we traveled north, but before I get ahead of myself, Mui Ne:

Many visitors stay on a strip of resorts that have deals with nearby golf courses. At the end of the strip, closer to the fishing village, there are some budget hotels. We stayed at a cheaper place one night, and at one of the more affordable resorts on the second night, both right on the water. The beach was thin with large grains of sand and we slept with the sound of the ocean in our ears. Recently I’ve learned that on average, seven pounds of by-catch (unwanted or illegal marine life hauled on board) is killed for every one pound of shrimp caught, so I’ve been avoiding shrimp, but in Mui Ni I couldn’t resist. I also convinced myself that local fisherman would probably keep whatever they pulled up and make some use of it. I have no proof of this—just wishful thinking. One memorable meal was a lunch at a beachside cafe watching the kite surfers and windsurfers (Mui Ne’s geography has ideal conditions) and eating scrumptious shrimp cooked with chili, garlic, and ginger on steamed rice. Heaven, I tell you. Another highlight from Mui Ne was a tour we took of the nearby sand dunes. Previously when I thought of Vietnam, my visuals came mostly from war movies, so I pictured lots of jungle. Along the coast, however, there is a strange mix of sometimes very green pasture, and other times very arid, red sandy soil. Around Mui Ne there are large sand dunes. Not quite as large as the ones I remember from the inland sea between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but large enough to sled down nonetheless, and you can, by renting thick plastic sheets from the local boys, who will gladly be your tour guide and use your camera to take your picture, and then quote you a price to pay them. At the beginning of the trip, we met one such boy, and had a pretty good idea of what was happening. We bargained with him to stop harassing us about the price and allow us to enjoy the walk, and ultimately paid him a dollar for snapping a few photos of us and allowing us to take a picture of him and his friends. He wanted more, of course, but stopped us before we got back to where our driver was waiting for us, saying he would be beaten and robbed by the bigger boys if they saw us pay him. We have no way of knowing if this was true, but it did startle us and he did not accompany us back to the car.

The next day, we checked out of our hotel and bummed around until our bus left at 1:00 AM. We had the backpacker experience of sitting on the steps of the cafe, which was closed, waiting for a bus to arrive. All the bars were closed. Nothing was open. Mosquitoes were everywhere, and we both had to use the bathroom. Honeymoon, it was not. Then a long, bumpy ride to Nha Trang, where we arrived at 5:30 AM. We were there for a long lay-over (the bus for Hoi An leaves at night) so we got a room for eight bucks, got some decent rest, showered, and walked to the beach. One of the gems of Nha Trang is The Sailing Club, which has really wonderful teak beach loungers under palm leaf cabanas lined up along the water. For a buck each, we got chairs, read our books and cat napped. During this part of the trip we felt like we were in limbo. Traveling by bus, where you can’t really get a good night’s rest, gives a feeling of woozy jet lag. Looking back on it, we would have done better to spend the money and take a train, or choose fewer cities to visit. But on with the tour!

Hoi An was definitely one of the highlights. It’s a foodie town bisected by a river and surrounded by rice paddy. The old city has been preserved with care. At night, walking along the markets, classical music is played from speakers attached to every other building. I had a memorable walk one night, looking for carved wooden figurines, listening to Claire de Lune wherever I went. One of our very best meals of the trip was taken at The Cargo Club, which we would highly recommend to anyone. The restaurant has their own bakery and during the day runs a very comfortable cafe. We stayed in Hoi An for two nights and then took our final bus trip overnight to Hanoi.

As we drove into Hanoi in the early morning, the sky was overcast and gray. Some rain had fallen overnight, and the streets were muddy. We drove along a black concrete river that stunk of sewage, and when the bus stopped shortly afterwards, in the outskirts of the city—far from downtown and necessitating a taxi ride to get anywhere—many Vietnamese motorcycle drivers began pounding on the doors. While we were half awake and still trying to get organized, the bus doors opened and these men flooded inside and soon were sitting on our seat beds demanding to know where we were going. Not exactly the best way to wake up in the morning. It took a lot of self-control not to shove some of these very aggressive guys out of the way, but of course doing so would bring immediate dangers. At this point I was ready to head right for the airport. Arriving in Hanoi on the bus was an all time low for the trip. Eventually Laura and I made our way off the bus and collected our bags and quickly left the scene. We grabbed the first metered taxi we could find and asked to be taken to our hotel, which we had booked ahead of time.

Downtown Hanoi was much better than the industrial park where we were dropped off. There is a nice park with a long lake in the downtown area, and it is very pleasant and accessible. After checking in to our room, we went through the by now old-hand ritual of washing the bus stink off and taking a nap. By lunch time we were exploring the city and finalizing our plans. We had read in our Lonely Planet that the Ethnology Museum was a must-see, but were dubious as many of the Lonely Planet recommendations in our book had turned out to be pretty mediocre. We had a hard time understanding this, as our book was the most recent edition. It just goes to show that things can change pretty quickly in these developing countries, and consistency is something that we might take for granted. After a lot of beach town fare, we wanted to get as much culture as we could out of Hanoi, as we had done in Saigon. So we went to the museum. We shopped around for a taxi and tried to get a fair price. I had looked on a map ahead of time to get a sense of what route we might take. I figured it was a straight shot down the highway for seven kilometers. We found a taxi that agreed to 9,000 dong per kilometer, which is normal, and during negotiations, we found the driver’s English to be passable. He then proceeded to drive a completely different route than what we had predicted, and when we tried to communicate, acted as if he couldn’t understand us. What was supposed to be a 40-50,000 dong ride turned into almost 190,000 dong (about twelve dollars) trip, meandering in circles until we closed in on the museum. At that point we decided we could not argue or make a stand, as we had insisted that he run the meter, thinking this would protect us from getting hustled, as we had been in earlier business transactions. All the driver had to do was call the cops and show him the meter. Of course, this is all part of the scam, right? And yeah, sure, it’s twelve bucks when it should have been three, and neither Laura or I have ever gone to bed hungry, but the principal of the thing was infuriating. This type of thing happened to us all over Vietnam; we watched locals walk into public restrooms, and then were stopped ourselves and told to pay a small fee, or at bus rest stops, our English menus had prices three times those of the Vietnamese menus, but this taxi ride was by far the transaction that took the biggest advantage of our naivety. By this time I had developed a theory that Vietnam is like Vegas, in that all the money you arrive with will be left behind. We felt as if we were wearing t-shirts displaying USA ATM across the chest.

The inside of the museum was a bit of a let down. Some artifacts from hill tribe people were interesting, but how many ceramic pots can you look at before getting the idea, right? Outside are the gems, and another strong recommendation from us. Several tribal houses have been built and visitors are encouraged to go inside them. This was a lot of fun! As we explored the different long houses and the houses on stilts, we could visualize what it must be like to live with perhaps two dozen other people in basically one large room. The house for single men was the most impressive. Fifteen feet up in the air, with a peaked roof another forty feet high, just one enormous room. The floor is made of split bamboo tied to the beams. The entire structure is made without a single nail. These are incredible tree houses, and I doubt there are many people in the US who could build something half as sturdy with simple hand tools.

On our final night, we met up with a friend who had returned from a few days in Halong Bay. We had wanted to go to Halong Bay also, but didn’t make it. If we go back to Vietnam, we would fly straight to Hanoi, our favorite city, and spend some time on a junk in Halong Bay, cruising around the islands. Our friend joined us for a lovely meal near our hotel and we got standing room seats at a sold-out water puppet show. For tourists, water puppetry is a big deal in Vietnam. We were not disappointed, though I admit, my expectations were low by this point.

Imagine a waist high pool of water, maybe fifteen feet long and thirty feet across. Upstage is a screen. At stage left is a live band playing the Vietnamese equivalent of Appalachian country music: drums, rattles, banjos, two string guitars, and a one-string instrument that can bend notes in a really spooky way. From behind the screen, puppeteers manipulate complex puppets attached to long rods, and depict several dozen scenes, such as water dragons fighting each other while shooting fire works from their mouths, birds mating and making an egg, and a courtship ritual between man and woman riding on top of a water buffalo. These shows are usually done in villages in a rice paddy, but the one we saw was indoors in a permanent theater, obviously geared towards tourists, as the audience was entirely white. It was a nice capstone to the trip.

The next day we flew to Bangkok, spent the day in the train station, and then caught an overnight train back to Chiang Mai.

Vietnam was an incredible experience. We saw six cities in twelve days. This was an intense and ambitious trip, and at times quite stressful. Riding in buses was cheap, but sometimes not very comfortable for long legged ones (though Laura was fine). Like the Quiet American in Graham Greene’s novel, we arrived full of idealism. By the end of our trip, we felt as if Vietnam had sucked all our idealism away, leaving us with a sober impression of a country struggling to catch up, but more than a little proud of their history of fighting back against colonial occupiers. First the Chinese and the Khmers and the Tais, and most recently the French and the Americans. But the food is great. The beaches are quite nice. And if you’re into getting tailor made clothes (we weren’t) you can get a full suit, custom made, for about $150. Though we tried to connect with those Vietnamese who we met along the way, most friendly conversation happened with hotel staff, who I suppose, are used to the curious tourist asking dumb questions to get an authentic experience. Honestly, most other Vietnamese people we spoke to were trying to sell us something. Come to think of it, that includes the hotel staff, too, doesn’t it? So how do you judge a country based on this limited exposure? It was very polluted, the roads were bad, and every resource that could be exploited for tourism, seemed to be. A trade deal in 2005 further opened up Vietnamese textiles to America. We now import even more finished, or nearly finished garments from Vietnam. Motorcycles, which are everywhere, fill the air with exhaust, and public transportation is still a dream in the cities. Apparently there is a massive country-wide project in the works, but first city sewer systems need to be upgraded, as they’re still using the same infrastructure that the French installed. Bodies of water are convenient places to dispose of waste water. In Hanoi, we saw pipes pouring black sludge into the canal where our bus stopped. I had the chance to read the local English daily once or twice, and it seems that water pollution is a growing problem in the cities, for reasons listed above. About a third of Vietnamese families (mostly rice farmers) live below the poverty line and must receive state welfare to survive.

Our friend Kate, who we met up with in Hanoi, stayed for another week afterwards, and when she returned to Chiang Mai earlier this week, had similar reports of being taken advantage of. I would say that the hustler-index of Vietnam is higher than what we’ve experienced in Thailand, though knowing even a little bit of language helps immensely. I don’t mean to be a Debby Downer about Vietnam. Laura and I grew closer during the trip, so even if we were thrilled to come back home to Chiang Mai, which we love, and really do feel at home in, we bonded in a big way. Plus, we had lots of time to read. She finished four novels during the trip, and I made progress with Anna Karenina, my first Russian novel that I’ve begun to read in earnest, and one of the greatest novels ever written, according to the director of the creative writing program at BU. Also, we traveled to Vietnam with an interest in expanding our knowledge of post-colonial theory, and we did accomplish that. Troubling to me, the once hard-core proponent of globalization and development, was a sense that globalization was not necessarily benefiting the Vietnamese in the long run. There is a fast growing middle class in Vietnam, as evidenced by the amount of motorcycles, most of which are Honda knock-offs made in China. The cities make the New York or Hong Kong rat race feel groggy; Vietnam wakes up at 4:00 AM, drinks strong coffee, smokes a pack of cigarettes, and goes balls to the wall until late into the evening. In Thailand, folks nap all the time. Very rarely did we see this in Vietnam.

One of the more poignant parts of The Quiet American, which I read in graduate school this past year, is a conversation between Fowler, the older British journalist, and Pyle, the book smart American CIA agent. In an argument about how the West should be involved with Vietnam, Fowler tells Pyle, (I’m paraphrasing) “these people don’t care about your ideas and they don’t want your help. They care about growing rice and having enough to eat, and if they accomplish that, it’s enough. A hundred years from now, they’ll still be growing rice.” As we traveled through Vietnam, that text came to mind often, and I found myself on more than one bus ride staring out the window at whatever passing town I could see through the rain in the darkness, wondering about the future, and what can be done.

2 Comments

  1. Jessica wrote:

    No one says it like Graham Greene.

    Interesting to read about your trip!

    Wednesday, October 29, 2008 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  2. Craig wrote:

    Bravo! Delighted by your anecdotes. I regret never having written about my time in the region. I have found that Vietnam ages well with time, though. I’m nostalgic for the pate and breads and the three hour-long $13 hair-cut, shave, and full body (nothing naughty) massage. Still, departing Vietnam for Cambodia was a welcome relief – if short-lived. A common surprise of the many travelers I met in SE Asia was just how aggressive transactors the Vietnamese could be. I found the Cubans, at times, to share similar traits. Communism breeds the best capitalists! I know it takes time for experiences like yours to sink in but I’d be grateful if you’d indulge us, eventually, with how your time in Vietnam influenced your perspective on the conflict of the 60s – both on the virtues of the war and its attendant role in American domestic life.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 2:26 am | Permalink

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