Vietnam was one of the few places in the world that I had no desire to visit. Christina decided we were not going to miss it so she dragged me over the border kicking and screaming.
Once we got here I was immediately happy we decided to come. As we waited at the Cambodia-Vietnam border I met a Cambodian man that has lived in Canada for the past 30 years. We started talking about bribes we’ve paid crossing borders and he started to show me pictures of his children. He showed me an old picture of his family in Phnom Penh in 1970 when he was a kid. As he gazed at the photo of about 10 people, his parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters he glanced back at me and said that everyone in this picture died during Pol Pot except him and his mother. After noticing my shock he said ‘but my life is very good now and my first daughter is about to go to college’ and he smiled from ear to ear. I can’t even imagine what this man went through before moving to Canada in 1982.
Once we got to Saigon I said goodbye to my new friend and wished him luck. Saigon was a great city and the highlight for me was the Cuchi Tunnels. The cu chi tunnels were used by the Vietcong and Cuchi people during the American War in Vietnam.
To get to the tunnels we took a bus about 2 hours out of town. On the bus watched a 30 minute Vietnamese “historic” documentary (on replay) about the war and the tunnels. The video was full of war propaganda. The narrator was the voice of a sweet little girl who started talking about how beautiful and peaceful Cuchi used to be, showing video of Cuchi families happily living together. Then suddenly the video switches to B52’s carpet bombing the entire area and the narrator speaks “…then the American invasion came with their brutal bombing”. The documentary continued using words like brutal, savage, and cruel to describe Americans (the narrator always used the word Americans instead of American army or American government, which I thought was interesting). When the narrator talked about the Viet Cong she used descriptive words like heroic, clever, and brave. The narrator showed video of different VC soldiers. She would give their names and bios, saying “this brave soldier killed 150 Americans”. After watching this video (4 times) it made me feel like crap. I was upset at the distortion and persuasion used in the video.
I started thinking this must be what it feels like for a German to watch an American film about World War II or a Muslim to watch any American war movie about the Middle East. It feels shitty and untruthful because it only tells one side of the story.
Our guide was a war veteran in his sixties who had fought for the southern Vietnamese. It was very interesting to listen to his stories. He talked about his war injuries, the friends he lost, and what life was like during and after the war. He was very outspoken and in your face.
At the end of the tour someone asked him if he still had any resentment towards the Northern Vietnamese or the Americans for what happened. He explained how for several years after the war he was very angry with both, then said “Now, 40 years later…forget about it”.
After the tour our guide came to the back of the bus to talk to us. He looked at Christina and said to me “your girlfriend is very beautiful, my wife used to be gorgeous but 35 years and 4 kids later, forget about it.” We all had a good laugh. He then asked how long Christina and I had been together and I told him 4 years. He said, “4 years and your not married!!! If I was her dad I would kick your ass.” We all started laughing again. He then asked “Where are you from?” Christina and I paused for a second, a little reluctant to mention we were American. I said “America” and he said “America! I traveled America last year I went to Florida, California, Oregon, and Louisiana. The people were so nice! But the government is fucked. If I ever see that Henry Kissinger I will kill him.” We all shared an awkward laugh. He continued “My daughter went to school in Oregon and works at the university. She is married to a nice American man and I have a beautiful grandchild. I told that American man when he first came to visit me, ‘you take care of my daughter or I’ll send you home in a little box.’….But I really like him.”
I didn’t want to know how he treated the people he didn’t like.
I asked our guide if he would ever come live in America with his daughter (implying that he might have more opportunities in America). He smiled at me and continued “I like America but I could never live there.” I asked “Why?” It was very simple, “In America you have to call your neighbor before you go to their house.” He continued, ” Here in Vietnam we are always with our neighbors, we spend time and rely on each other like family. I don’t want to live in a country that you have to call your neighbor before you go to their house. It sounds crazy.”
The next few days I spent some time thinking what our guide said about neighbors. His cultural values were fascinating and very different. In western culture we place high value on independence with less regard for cooperation but in his world it was the opposite. He couldn’t imagine living a life where his neighbor was just another person, even if there was potential for increased wealth and security.
While in Northern Vietnam we visited small villages and national parks just South of Hanoi, where Vietnam’s limestone mountains are protected. The landscape here is incredible. It’s the same as we saw on our motorbike trip in Eastern Laos, except here it is covered in dense jungle.
Over the years the erosion of limestone has created huge caves, many of which were used by both civilians and soldiers for protection during the war. The largest cave in the world is in Phong Nha National Park. An overnight camping trip in the cave cost $3,000, which is not exactly in our budget. Instead we went to the Paradise Cave for $12, which was really impressive.
The most famous place to see Vietnam’s limestone mountain landscape is at Halong Bay, just East of Hanoi. This is probably the worst time of year to see the bay because the whole region is cold and covered in fog, but decided to take our chances and took a cruise into Halong and Han La Bay from Catba Island.
Like we expected it was really foggy, but still a beautiful view. Our boat cruised through a floating village where hundreds of people live on the bay. Their homes float on makeshift docks and there’s very little room to move around beyond thin wooden walkways that hold their fishing nets. It was all very “Waterworld.” Our guide told us these communities spend most their lives on the bay and rarely go the mainland. Many do not have an education and rely on fish farming for a living.
After Halong Bay there was one place we really wanted to see before our visa expired, which was Sapa, in the very North, close to the Chinese border. Sapa is known for its minority Hmoung culture, amazing hiking treks through rice patties which are steeply stacked on bright green mountains. The only thing is that February is Sapa’s coldest and foggiest month. We heard from other travelers how cold it was, but decided to take an overnight train to Sapa and see it for ourselves.
We were in Sapa a whole 24 hours before deciding to turn right back around for Hanoi. We were not prepared for just how cold this place is in February. Oh well…you can’t win em all.
We both agree Vietnam was a highlight of our trip in Southeast Asia so far. We will spend the last few days of our visa in Hanoi. We passed through Hanoi on the way to Halong Bay and really love the city. It’s just as populated and crazy as Saigon but has a less modern, more historic feel.
On February 11, we are being cordially kicked out of the country and will have to move on. We spent the past week deciding where to go next and have made a really good decision. Our next post will be from Yangon in MYANMAR.
Photographs of Northern Vietnam: