Seeing the world, one country at the time

Vietnam in a Nutshell


Vietnam is vibrant, noisy and colorful. It is a mecca of motorbikes carrying everything plus the kitchen sink. It is silk purses, conical hats, white flowing robes, ornate shoes, baguettes, pho noodles, fresh herbs and seafood, red and gold painted pagodas, propaganda, markets, motorbikes, cyclo drivers yelling “sir!” and fake books, watches, Ralph Lauren shirts, and DVDs. It has mountains, sea, lakes, forever beachfronts, sand dunes, coffee plantations and the Mekong Delta. Vietnam is a country with one foot firmly planted in the future and only a big toe lingering in the past. Everything it is today is a confluence of 1000 years of Chinese rule, 100 years of French rule and 30 years of war with the Americans. All that, and an enduring spirit.

The Chinese left behind their architecture and their emphasis on education. During their rule, the highest goal of any man was to become a mandarin, a doctor who waited on the emperor. Only after passing arduous triennial examinations was ONE mandarin chosen. The Chinese also left a strong work ethic that has, with the recent loosening of government control, morphed into a frenzy of capitalistic efforts, called “free enterprise” by those who aren’t willing to accept that capitalism vanquished communism after all. The larger cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are crowded with vendors, markets and boutiques with vociferous salespeople enticing shoppers to spend their dollars and dong just there.

The French ruled Indochina for nearly a century and their influence is obvious in their distinctive colonial architecture of columned yellow-hued government buildings and homes, as well as their delicious baguettes, a backpacker staple and the cheapest food source in Vietnam. The French even simplified the written Vietnamese language, by substituting the Roman alphabet for the Chinese characters. It was the Vietnamese desire to be free of the French that led to the war in Vietnam. Starting in the mid-fifties, the Vietnamese movement toward Communism began in earnest, as a means of achieving independence.

The Americans left UXO (unexploded ordinance), chemicals, bomb craters and scrap metal that has been ingeniously reconfigured into tools, plates, combs and flower vases. They also left the deformed victims of napalm and Agent Orange poisoning and the destruction of land by defoliators. But Mother Nature has a way of overcoming and bouncing back and those places along the DMZ that were reduced to burnt scrub are once again pristine blankets of vegetation. Americans have tried to assuage their guilt through generous donations and battlefield tourism. However, the government won’t let them off that easily and reminds tourists of the American wrongdoing at every opportunity through propaganda. The main reminders of the war seem to be stored in museums to teach future generations how the brave Liberators saved the country from the evil Americans. Never mind historical accuracy and politics, this is a matter of national pride.

Despite the government’s official view, the Vietnamese are quick to forget or at least forgive. They are survivors. What struck us most was the fact that they seem to harbor no anger, nor do they play the victims. This was best explained to me as an anecdote in the book Catfish and Mandala. Two men are in love with the same woman. They both have good and bad times. After fighting for her, one man (Vietnam) wins and marries her. He starts a new life and creates new memories. He reconciles his feelings and moves forward. The other man (America) loses her and goes back to his own country, where he has only his memories and lives stuck in the past. The Vietnamese are getting on with life and moving forward with a smile and a feisty attitude.

Vietnam is a country unified and modernizing at lightning speed. In the north, Hanoi, the capital, is noisy from the millions of motorbikes crowding its streets and sidewalks, but it is dead silent between midnight and five in the morning, when its citizens awaken and gather en masse in public areas to exercise, meditate and socialize. It may have been the headquarters of Ho Chi Minh and the communist North Vietnamese government, but it has wholeheartedly embraced commerce and trade and the free market (as well as the black). Even the streets are named after guilds reflecting the goods that were sold on them in the past.

Lars and I flew into Hanoi from Bangkok, not knowing what to expect. We had a month to explore. From Hanoi we spent three days in the quiet fishing bays of Ha Long with their dramatic islands shooting skywards. Then we rode 30-year-old Russian motorcycles through the northern mountain villages of Sapa and its environs to the border of China. The northern hill tribes still farm as they have for thousands of years, wearing black velvet and bright neon or red headdresses. We were lucky enough to rejoin our Dutch friends Herbert and Margreet for these unforgettable adventures, which made them even more fun.

We stayed in Hanoi for a week discovering its twisting alleyways, Chinese temples, and finger-lickin’-good foods. We shopped (you can’t help yourself), we partied at the American Marine House, saw the famous water puppets and navigated the constant stream of traffic and survived, amazed at how well the drivers avoided us. We headed south on Highway One along the eastern seaboard from the capital to historic Hue, to the antique romance of Hoi An, to the tourist haven of Nha Trang and finally to the quiet fishing village and kite surfing hotspot of Mui Ne. From Mui Ne we made a beeline for Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon.

Somewhere in the middle of the country, right around the 17th parallel, is where North and South Vietnam were split by the Geneva Convention until the Viet Cong reunited the two sides in April 1975. It is where both sides suffered the most casualties during the war. It is where the infamous Rockpile, Khe Sanh base and Ho Chi Minh trail are located, along Highway 9 toward Laos. We took a daytrip there. It has become a popular tourist attraction, attracting those trying to come to terms with the war and those trying to understand it. Looking at the lush green mountainsides, It was a stretch to imagine the smoke and bombs and hear the choppers above from thirty years ago.

Just south of the DMZ is Hue, the old capital of Vietnam before the split. In 1954 at the end of the French occupation, the last emperor of Vietnam left his Imperial Palace at Hue and moved to Saigon. The Imperial Enclosure is still there, impressive in its sheer size, but mostly in ruins since the war. They’ll rebuild it and, like elsewhere in Vietnam, the damage of the wars will be disguised. The city is known for having the best schools in Vietnam and the best food. We explored its different palaces and pagodas by bicycle and cyclo and watched the monks practice kung fu in the forest at sunset.

A few hours south of Hue is Hoi An, named a UNESCO World Heritage site because so many of its historical buildings are still intact and rather than modernizing, the city is being paid to restore and maintain them. It was not heavily bombed, so it has become a favorite tourist destination, not only for its assumed charm, but for its tailoring industry which has exploded as tourists flock to have cheap clothes made. Tailors burst the seams of every street and ventured a “just looking, don’t worry” as we passed, hoping we would choose them to revamp our wardrobes. (They must have noticed the holes and patches we sport.) Many fittings and hundreds of dollars later, we walked out with our arms loaded with dresses, suits, jackets, coats, blouses, pants and shoes. After living out of a backpack a year, we felt like kings.

Our last days were spent in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, depending on your side in the war. It is primarily a sprawling, busy city. It boasts some historical buildings, several good museums, luxurious venues, extensive shopping and crazy traffic. It isn’t a place to linger, so after exhausting the walking tour circuit, we spent a day visiting the infamous Cu Chi, an underground base and network of tunnels stretching 260 km (160 miles). Here the Viet Cong hid from and sabotaged the Americans for years without being discovered. We also visited the Holy See of the Cao Dai in Tay Nhin, to get a picture of what this colorful faith is like. This eccentric religion worships Confucious, Buddha and Jesus and considers Victor Hugo a saint. The mere idea invites ridicule, especially when considering the gaudy wedding cake design of its Great Temple. But we left their service with a newfound respect for the peaceful practitioners. I may not understand their beliefs, but I like their humanity.

Our month rushed by and despite all the hawkers and the consumer mentality, the airtight traffic and constant noise, we liked its spirit enough to consider living and working there if the opportunity arose. We would definitely return, as to so many other places. Wherever we go, no matter how long we stay, we discover more and more layers that deserve time and exploration.