(February 14— February 19, 2014)
*Note: this was originally published via email on February 21, 2014*
The MV Explorer reached Vietnam in the late morning of February 14th, but with the 90-degree sun beating down on my pale skin it felt more like July. To reach our port in Ho Chi Minh City, we sailed through a long river with no signs of civilization on either side of the river which, along with the humming of the wildlife surrounding us, was eerily similar to the beginning scenes of Apocalypse Now. I even felt like Martin Sheen traveling along the river into an unknown country with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and other 60's anti-war classics stuck in my head — I could so clearly in my mind see a troop of American helicopters hovering over us heading towards a battle along to “All Along The Watchtower.”
For Japan and China, I had an idea of what I was getting myself into, but for Vietnam I had almost no idea of the country’s present condition. All my associations with the country came from a war fought nearly fifty years ago, so all my knowledge of the country was outdated. I’ve seen my fair share of Vietnam war movies to have a sense of what Vietnam was in the 60's and 70's, but what about Vietnam in 2014? When you take away Hollywood out of the equation, what would I find at the end of this river?
We reached Ho Chi Minh City around noon and we had an early flight to Ha Noi the next morning, so our first day in Vietnam was spent getting used to the layout of the city.
I traveled in Vietnam with my roommate Brandon and two girls, Lisa from New York and our Argentina friend who went by the nickname “Chips.” The two girls are close friends and Lisa is the salsa dance instructor, so the two girls are known as “Chips and Salsa” while my roommate and I were known as the two B’s. Our little group represented each major part of America; Brandon was from the west coast, Lisa from the east coast, myself Chicago (no one knew where Indiana was), and Chips from South America. It was fun meeting many Vietnamese and explaining to them that our group was from all across America, though even then most Vietnamese didn’t know where Chicago was.
Ho Chi Minh City — really any city in Vietnam — reminded me of Miami, a place full of activity, bright colors, hot heat, and incredible food. At times, especially while driving around in a taxi at night surrounded by neon lights and seeing all the people out and about trading goods and drinking delicious Tiger beer, I felt like I was in a deleted scene from Scarface. It was wonderful.
The first thing you notice right away about Vietnam is the traffic. In Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals), there are about 10 million people, and 7 million of those people own motorbikes while the other 3 million are sharing seats on those bikes, and everyone happens to drive on the same road all at the same time.
Traffic signals, or any driving rules that we learn in America, are only mere suggestions in Vietnam. Here a green traffic light translates into, “uh, I mean I guess it’s ok for you to cross, but you probably shouldn’t,” while a red light means, “you probably shouldn’t go, but no one is stopping you.” The only time we ever felt safe on the roads were in taxis or in large buses, because we figured a taxi could take on a moped.
When crossing any street, you must have an exit buddy with you. This could be your fellow travel mate, a local Vietnamese, an Australian backpacker, a group of dogs, a motorbike, or any big pack of people also crossing the street, just as long as you have someone (or something) to cross the street with, for you cannot cross any street of Vietnam by yourself; you need someone right by you as an extra pair of eyes, and at the least your exit buddy is there to buffer you from a collision.
The crazy traffic was just one of the many surprises we discovered in HCMC. We didn’t see a single McDonald’s, I had some of the best coffee I ever had in a country where every other store is a French cafe, I paid to use the bathroom at major tourist spots, I saw more karaoke bars than anywhere in Japan, and we stumbled upon the nicest Starbucks I’ve ever been to where we were seated by a hostess and had our orders taken for us (there must be a correlation between all the coffee shops and all the crazy driving). But at the same time, Vietnam looked and felt like the world’s largest Goodwill; every building appeared run-down and every store was full of fake goods that were so cheap that you felt bad not buying it. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how everything in this city could be so cheap yet so luxurious — I had never seen anything like it.
Our first major stop was the War Remnants Museum, a museum dedicated to the Vietnam War, or “The U.S. Aggression Against The Vietnamese” or “The American War.” It was a very emotional time as we came face to face with photographs of the damage (“crimes against humanity” as the museum loved to call) caused by the United States. Throughout the museum are different sections showcasing different documents of the war from weapon replications to photographs to letters, and every piece of evidence was either a harsh reminder or an unwelcoming discovery of the deeds of the American military against the Vietnamese people (a lot people I was with wasn’t aware what Agent Orange was, and some had to leave the room because they could not handle the pictures of the victims). The museum was full of European and Australian travelers, and I would overhear the sly remarks of how awful the Americans were, and I had to keep my mouth shut because I could not think of anything to say that could justified what we did.
On a lighter note, the rest of my time in Vietnam was spent in the present, where the Vietnamese are fine with Americans. A lot of our time in HCMC was spent shopping in the famous fake markets. We got to once again barter for our goods and I bought a pair of funky pants and a bamboo flute. These items, along with my growing hair and fake Harry Potter sunglasses that I bought in China, are slowly transforming me into John Lennon.
Though everything was cheap, one of the biggest challenges of Vietnam was understanding its currency. 100 American Dollars amounted to about 2,070,000 Vietnamese Dong, so everything was cheaper. But the Vietnamese loved to take advantage of any tourist, and many times we didn’t (or couldn’t) figure out the conversion and had to settle for the price that was given to us. The currency was in our favor, but I felt like I spent too much money. But even then, Vietnam was a great change from expensive China and Japan.
The food was also a highlight of Vietnam. We had Pho (pronounced ‘Fa’), which is a type of boiled broth full of various meats and noodles. A specific Pho place was recommend to me by a former SASer, and it was so good that I went back again with another group of SASers to introduce them to Pho.
After a day in HCMC, we took a flight to Ha Noi, the capital city of Vietnam. We only wanted to go to Ha Noi to get to Ha Long Bay, but we ended up spending two full days in the city eating, drinking and buying many more cheap goods.
We flew into Ha Noi early in the morning and had much time after checking into our hotel to explore the city. Supposedly there are more people living in Ha Noi than HCMC, yet the city did not feel as crowded. The streets were just as full of motorbikes (you still needed your exit buddy to cross any street), but we had plenty of room to roam on the sidewalks. There are also many European and Australians in Ha Noi, so it was nice to not be in the small minority like we were in Japan and China.
Ha Noi being the capital of Vietnam, there were more government buildings in the city, which meant that there were more security guards on street corners. Our hotel was right next to an embassy and every time we passed the building we went pass the same guard for the two days that we were there. This officer would not allow himself to smile at these foreigners, but by the end of the second day he gave us a head nod!
On our second day in Ha Noi we woke up early and took the 4-hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay, a recent addition to the natural wonders of the world. The weather in northern Vietnam was misty and we were worried about how our trip on the water would be, but it turned out that the fog and mist made Ha Long Bay even more beautiful.
The bay itself is made up of a series of islands of various sizes, none of which had beaches or any sort of entrances onto their shores. They acted more like pillars in the water, and our little boat navigated around the pillars while we traveled to each part of the bay. With the fog, we felt like we were in Pirates of the Caribbean, and the inner Jack Sparrow in me was on the look out for treasure, which realistically could have been found in any of these islands — supposedly many of these islands have secret passages that were used during the war.
We spend the entire day traveling to the different sections of the bay, kayaking in various parts and having excellent seafood, though we were all thrown off by having to eat the shrimp and fish with their heads still on. Our group became close with a newlywed couple from Chile on their honeymoon (Chips, our South American representative, spoke for us), and they giggled at our blank stares at our seafood and they showed us the proper way to eat them.
After all our adventures in Ha Long Bay we came back to Ha Noi late at night for some nightlife, and by nightlife I mean drink lots of Tiger (a delicious Vietnamese beer) and explore the mile long night markets full of fake goods.
After our Ha Noi time was over, we flew back south to HCMC and had a full day left, so we spent it at the Cu Chi Tunnels. It was fascinating to see how clever the Vietnamese were in their tunnel system and in their traps, though we were reminded that these tunnels and traps were meant for killing American soldiers. I also got to shoot an AK-47 at the local shooting range. I forgot how loud a gun could be. Then I tried to imagine myself battling in the Vietnam War with this heavy gun while soldiers are coming in and out of tunnels hidden throughout miles of countryside. It wasn’t a pleasant image. The tunnels were another humbling reminder of the Vietnam War, and as we crawled through the tunnels deep underground I gain a profound respect towards the Vietnamese people.
But the unexpected highlight from Vietnam was the bus ride back to HCMC from the Cu Chi tunnels. Our driver took the back roads to get us back to HCMC quicker, and we found ourselves in the Vietnamese countryside for an hour and a half watching the sunset. We were on our way back to the MV, so I was sitting by the bus window reflection on my time in Vietnam, but I found myself just focusing on the setting sun. It was just like the Indiana sunsets back home, and the countryside was as flat and as green as my hometown in the summertime, and I started to think about home and how far I’ve come and where I have yet to go.
It was watching that sunset that was my highlight of Vietnam. It was a simple yet powerful moment in a country full of many simple powerful moments. The War Remnants Museum will always stay with me, but I found myself finding everything I needed to find in that sunset. Vietnam was our third country in a month and we’ll be in Burma at the month’s end, and the stress of traveling had finally reached me. The most time we had between countries has been two days, and this bus ride was the first time I got to really process the past month and what all I have seen. I have already met some of the most important people in my life on the MV, and these countries have only brought us closer as we got to experiences places that most people will never see. It was a torn feeling of blessed and sadness, knowing that travel is a long a winding road, but it’s a beautiful road.
For me, seeing the Vietnamese sunset was a much-needed reminder of home and that some things, no matter where you are in the world, will never change.
And that is a wonderful thing.