When most Americans think of Vietnam, they imagine scenes from movies such as Platoon, Apocalypse now, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter. That doesn’t exactly portray Vietnam in the best light. So, I chose to come here to see another side of Vietnam. I wanted to meet the people, eat the food, learn the history from their point of view (over here they call it the American War), explore the countryside and see what there is to see.
I started my month-long exploration of Vietnam on the beautiful island of Phu Quoc. I spent two nights here relaxing on the beach, reading, and exploring the tiny island on a scooter. The beach is beautiful and unspoilt. There isn’t a lot of development on the island (yet) so the water is clean and it isn’t too touristy. Truthfully, it has the prettiest beaches I have seen since leaving Fiji.
Sunset on the beach
From Phu Quoc I took a 12 hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). This place was INSANE. Crazy busy, there are around 10 million people living here and I swear there are 10 million motorbikes driving around. So I get in late and check into my hostel that is smack dab in the middle of town. The city is so cramped, there are hundreds of tiny little ally ways off each street that are so narrow I can touch each wall at the same time. People are constantly harassing you, asking you to buy their knock off sunglasses or hair ties or fruit. “Hey lady, you want Ray Bans?” “Hey you, need a motor bike?” “Hey lady, come inside and buy something” yeah, no thank you.
I only spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh. I took a day trip to the Chu Chi tunnels museum. This museum showed an immense underground tunnel network that the North Vietnamese used as hiding spots during the Vietnam war. The original tunnels were much too small for tourists to go into so they widened one of the tunnels for foreigners to explore, but it was still way too small for my tall ass. Along with the tunnels they also showed up various “traps” they would set for American soldiers covered holes hiding bamboo spikes and such. And at the end of the day they showed us a video that I wasn’t quite prepared for. In the video they spoke of the “merciless American soldiers” and “evil Washington DC” and showed clips of smiling Vietnamese soldiers receiving “Killing American” awards.
The next day I figured it would be a good idea to go visit the War Remnants museum, also sometimes called “The Museum of American War Crimes.” It is supposed to be one of the best war museums in Vietnam. Once again, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw. The outside was old tanks and helicopters and planes, old guns and discarded bombs on display. But once you got inside- things turned pretty grim. Three floors worth of disturbing and horrible pictures portraying the horrors of the war and adverse American propaganda. An entire floor was dedicated to Agent Orange and the lasting effects still being felt today by the people and the landscape. All of the pictures had captions and almost all of them talked about the horrible and merciless Americans. The reality of it really caught me off guard, I always heard about the war growing up, but not like this.
It was apparent that the captions are from the point of view from the north so the content was very one-sided and biased, and it made no mention of the atrocities and horrors that were suffered by the South Vietnamese and US by the hands of the northern army. What I got out of all of it was that the Vietnam war was a very horrible thing, and both sides suffered immensely, and not a lot of good came out of it. And I’m still not entirely sure what the whole point was? Isa. The museum is worth seeing though if you ever make it to Vietnam. Most of the pictures there aren’t anywhere else, and as gruesome as they are, they need to be seen.
Since HCMC turned out to be a pretty humbling and depressing few days for me I decided to get away and go visit a cute little town in the mountains called Dalat. This was a beautiful little place to relax for a few days and see the countryside. I took a motorcycle tour with an easyrider around the countryside and got to see beautiful waterfalls, flower gardens, coffee shops and local tribes.
Mr. Hiep, my easy rider
- Weasel used to make coffee
They feed the weasels coffee beans….and they poop out coffee beans…and then they brew the pooped out coffee beans. It’s literally weasel poo coffee
But boy is it good!!!!!!! Delicious!
Deep fried cricket anyone?
Not so bad actually. Like potato chips….with wings and legs…
From Dalat I took a 16 hour bus journey to Hoi An. A city famous for its paper lanterns, banh xeo (Vietnamese pancakes), and tailors. It is a gorgeous little town right on the river and every night paper lanterns are lit all over the city and boats float down the river and there are delicious restaurants with little bands playing traditional music. This was definitely a place where I wished I wasn’t single, because it would be a very romantic getaway. But, alas, I am single so I spent my time eating delicious food by myself (never a bad thing) and getting pretty clothes made by the tailors.
Riverfront at Hoi An
After Hoi An, I spent a few days in Da Nang city, where the My Khe beach is located. There was a famous TV series back in the day called China Beach that was based here. It is supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that, but it was nice.
My Khe beach
From Da Nang I flew up to Hanoi to start the northern Vietnam portion of my trip. I was really looking forward to Hanoi because I would be meeting up with my friend Jeremy. Jeremy and I worked together in Fiji and also met up while I was travelling in Melbourne. Now he is here working in Vietnam for the conservation of monkeys. He has a great little flat in the middle of town, and a great place to kick back and relax.
Being here with someone who lives here makes me feel like I am seeing the city differently that I would if I were a backpacker. I am going to the most delicious places to get street food (places TripAdvisor doesn’t mention), fun little bars, exploring the city on his motorcycle, and meeting his local and ex pat friends. Hanoi is such a fun city! Much different from any other SE Asian city I have been to. It is crazy busy but also very beautiful. There are lakes and green spaces all over the place. The food here is so freaking unbelievably good. I’ve probably gained 5 pounds and I’m not even sorry about it. There is also a lot of history here, this city was bombed to hell during the war so there are very few old historic buildings left. The prison where John McCain was held in tortured is here (it’s called the Hanoi Hilton) and many other museums. It is a fun city to walk around and explore. It is a nice mix between authentic Vietnamese but with a few western influences.
How about pig? And you wonder why I’m vegetarian.
Little women walk around town selling fruit
Look at the fruit! So lovely
Tourists relaxing by the lake
I planned on taking a motorcycle tour 4 hours outside Hanoi to a place called Mai Chau. However, 3 hours in, I got in a little accident, dog ran out in front of me. I hit the dog, pretty sure I killed it, got thrown off the bike and hurt my wrist. Isa. I jumped on a local bus headed back to Hanoi, then went and got x-rays to confirm there were no fractures, just a sprain. After that I decided not to push my luck any further. I’ve made it almost 4 months, back packing around third world countries, and haven’t so much as had a runny nose yet. Apart from the motorcycle accident, Ive been extremely lucky. SO the rest of my trip I just took it easy in Hanoi, eating and observing life going on around me.
And so I have come to the conclusion that, I love Vietnam. A lot.
Here are a few other thoughts I have about Vietnam:
#1- Vietnam has to be the most dangerous place in the world to drive. There are no rules to the road. You can drive on either side of the road (and oftentimes the sidewalk), drive any speed, no stop signs, no lights, no rules! I’ve seen as many as 5 people crammed onto a scooter, babies and small children ride around on them without helmets. Cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and electric bikes are everywhere. I have also seen an outrageous amount of wrecks. It’s quite depressing to see an old woman who survived the American war and everything else in her life, only to die by getting T-boned by a scooter. Check out this video of the insane traffic, it’s just like this.
#2- Crossing the road may be the scariest thing in the world. You have to go against everything you learned growing up and just step into traffic, trusting that the bikes will go around you. The key is not to be unpredictable, don’t speed up or slow down, walk the same speed across the road so the drivers can accurately judge how to go around you. It’s insane.
#2- If you are a Vietnamese woman, the sun is not your friend. They go out of their way to make sure the sun doesn’t touch their skin. Jackets and gloves and hats and face masks. Because white skin is beautiful to them. They even go so far as to bleach their skin white. It’s bizarre to walk into a pharmacy and see an entire section of skin bleaching cream next to an entire section of sunless tanner and bronzer (for the ex pats and tourists). They must think western women are out of their minds when they see us laying on the beach soaking up the sun, trying to get as tan as possible.
#3- They love their karaoke. Karaoke bars on every street.
#4- American culture is everywhere here. Everywhere. T-shirts with the American flag, American products, American music, American merchandise, And they love President Clinton. It is a little bit baffling to me. After seeing all the anti-American propaganda and such in regards to the war, I don’t understand how they can embrace us so fully now. I asked someone about it and he said that no one thinks about the war anymore because it was a very bad thing, and it is better to forget it. Really though? That’s it? How can you just forget it? Guess you’d have to have that Buddhist mentality.
#5- Most countries that I have visited have had McDonald’s. In Fiji there was two! But here in Vietnam I haven’t seen a McDonald’s yet, however, I have seen plenty of KFC’s!! Bizarre!
#6- You are not cool unless you are wearing a face mask. First time I saw it, I figured that person was sick and didn’t want to get anyone else sick. Then I noticed a ton of people wearing them, all the time, especially when driving. Some even have matching jacket and face mask combos. Very interesting. I can understand wanting to protect yourself from germs….but if that was the case….why don’t people ever wash their hands? It’s kind of like an accessory here, nice purse, nice shoes, nice face mask!
#7- Tons of Russians here on holiday! Didn’t make a lot of sense to me until I found that a) there is a direct flight from Moscow to Nha Trang (party beach capital) and b) Russians don’t need a visa to come visit here, whereas everyone else has to pay close to $100 for a visa. Yay communism!
#8- Best cuisine I have had in Asia, quite possibly the best I’ve ever had. And that’s saying a lot because Thai food is really really good. Vietnamese food is just on a whole other level. The delicious combinations they do, the noodle soup, the rice dishes, the hot pots, the breakfast food. So yum. Street food is where it’s at though. Very delicious, and very cheap. And most restaurants only do one thing. You go and sit down and they just bring you what they make, takes the anxiety out of choosing something from the menu. They only do one thing but by golly they do it right!!
#9- The language is hopeless. I don’t even try. It is so very difficult. It’s all about tones and sound combinations I can’t recreate. Most cultures at least acknowledge that you’re trying to speak their language and can figure out what you’re trying to say – not here. Here if you don’t say it EXACTLY right the first time, they don’t try to work with you, they just ignore you. Very frustrating.
Well folks, that’s all I got for you! Hope you enjoyed following me around Vietnam, and all of Asia, Australia, and Fiji for that matter! This is the end of my trip, I’m on my way home now!! On to a new adventure!