Notes from Vietnam.
To me, Vietnam was always the epitome of a country another world away. A country I didn’t know much about, except through snapshots of what I saw on tv or in movies - which pretty much meant I knew it was another world from where I lived, and there was once a war there (Canadian history books didn’t cover the war), which caused a lot of protests and deaths. And so Vietnam, for some reason or other, always fascinated me… always intrigued me.
I remember watching Forest Gump when I was little, and watching Forest go fight in the Vietnam War, "wow, it’s so different there, so far away… one day, I’m going to go to Vietnam!"
And, so I did.
Where is Vietnam? It’s the easternmost country of Indochina. It borders China, Laos, and Cambodia. It’s about the size of Germany, but is long and narrow.
People Deets? 90.5 million people (whoa!!). It’s actually the world’s 13th most populous country.
Cities Visited? Hanoi (Capital), Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Min (route found here) Total distance covered 1,913km.
Transportation? Buses and trains and trains and buses! There is a train that runs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min, which is super popular. I spent two lovely nights on that train, one night even sharing it with a lovely, little, mouse. That train is the main way to get from city to city - if you go, you must book ahead.
I didn’t have the initial shock factor I think most Westerners, straight off the plane would have, as I had just arrived from Kathmandu, Nepal, which made Hanoi, Vietnam (the capital) seem like the modern world. But still, it was incredibly different from the streets and cities I’ve grown up with.
In international business class at University we’re all taught the usual – how customs vary around the world, and how the way people deal with each other differs. Well, in Vietnam, I got my first real taste of this.
My first impression of Vietnam, which was a bit of a shock, was the sense that it was an every-man-for-himself type of society. If you bumped into somebody, no apologies were needed, you just kept on walking. I found the one-man mindset a little hard to get accustomed to, but within a few days I found my move-aside-folks-I’m-coming-through wisdom, and was rolling in Vietnam’s game of life.
I really liked the city of Hanoi. It’s Vietnam’s second largest city, and the hustle, bustle and insanity of the roads greatly kept me entertained. It was also the city where my naive self realized that communism was still in full swing there. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to Cuba, which is 110% communist (and awfully sad, at that), but Vietnam is a somewhat secret communist society - pretending to the rest of the world they’ve changed, are better, are democratic, but they’re not. At all. But luckily, I think the local people are aware of this.
They’re fed the usual communist propaganda, but seem to realize, it’s just that, government propaganda (which I would credit to the Internet!). I went to where Ho Chi Minh (communist-governed leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) used to live (and is now buried) and couldn’t believe the praise he got. I raised my hand and asked if he ever got married, married? No. Ho Chi Min was too busy doing good things for his country to have any time for women. He never had lady friend. I somehow highly doubt that. They made him out to be a god in the north, praising him for all he’s done, yet after a little research, I think it’s highly debatable whether the man was good or bad - personally, I think he was very communist, and used getting Vietnam unified from France to pretend he wasn’t).
After Hanoi I headed to Hue, Vietnam. For people heading to Vietnam for a limited time, I think Hue’s a town one can easily skip, so I’ll skip along too, as it rained while I was there, and besides a few mausoleums (where dead people are buried) of people I had never heard of, not much is there, except for a small town, similar to the one found in the next city, Hoi An.
Oh Hoi An! Granted, it was a little piece of Europe completely set up to lure tourists in, but nonetheless, the city is super cute and worth the visit. It’s also the tailoring city of the world. Oh how exciting! You can just walk into one of hundreds of stores, tell the ladies what you want and voila, the very next day pick up your personalized article of clothing (made to fit). But-but-but, I’m sad to report it was a little disappointing.
I ended up buying three dresses, and two winter coats for US$220. A good price, right? Right… if the clothes were constructed well and actually fit. I didn’t think it was worth it. I think if you’re a peculiar shape (super tall, short, fat, thin, etc) then yes! It’s a good place for you. But generally generic sizes in stores fit me, so I should have saved my money. I also found the women very rude. I was super polite, but found it was hard to explain to them that I wanted a shorter hem, or higher neckline, without them getting defensive and thus having an argument with them. I got each item at a different store; 4 were bad. 1 I liked. So… if you go, do your research first.
Next up? Ng Trang, the partying city of Vietnam with one of the most beautiful stretches of beach Vietnam has to offer. The locals there have also recently figured out the beach is worth a lot of money because left, right and centre, massive hotel chains were building sea side villas for the super-rich. Unfortunately, I got poor weather in Nha Trang, but still enjoyed the little town. Nha Trang is worth the visit if you’re with friends who like to party (check out Sailing-Club club literally on the beach for a fun night of dancing. But, word from the wise, don’t argue with the bartender when you pay him for a drink, he takes your money, then you politely wait, but never gives it to you. Just let it be, otherwise you’ll get a guard assigned to you for the entire night. Fun times there).
The final city I went to was Saigon (or, Ho Chi Minh City). And as you know, I really didn’t like it, but-but-but, nonetheless, I feel it’s a must-go-to city when in Vietnam. I found it wasn’t a tourist city, but a true, real-life-this-is-how-the-people-live city. It also has the Vietnam War (or what the Vietnamese call “The American War”) museum, and the famous war tunnels an hour and a half away.
The tunnels… hmm, what to say about the Vietnam war tunnels? Really, I should have written an entire post on the tunnels as I found them so interesting, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t bring myself to…. Probably, because I couldn’t think of the best things to say. I’ve been to a fair number of war memorials, but the truth is that I found this to be the first one where the dead were not respected. On either side. The guide was very, “look at how we killed and tortured the Americans, lol,” which as you can imagine, didn’t sit well with me. They also had a gun firing range right there, where thousands of people had lost their lives, which was gut wrenching, I found, to stand there and hear the machine guns go off.
But the actual tunnels were still incredible to see. Genius really. They are a 3 level, 200km network of underground, small (very small), tunnels constructed by the Vietnamese in order to hide from and fight the Americans. It was actually the tunnels hat allowed the war to go on for so long (19 years). The Vietnamese were smart, very smart, creating an entire living system underground.
Vietnam is a beautiful country, which (in my opinion) still has many issues, but is still absolutely worth the visit, especially if you’re from the western world.
I’m so pleased I went to Vietnam and would absolutely recommended it as an experience, but I’m not sure I’ll ever go back (unless I go back in 30 years, to see the changes in their development - which I think would be interesting).