Our trip to Vietnam was bookended by museums in Hanoi (the Ho Chi Minh Museum) and in Ho Chi Minh City (the more war-focused War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace that was the seat of the Saigon government).
For many Americans, the Vietnam War remains a horrific chapter in American history. In his autobiography, Robert Strange McNamara, Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and the hawkish of the hawks, confesses, “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” As for me, having spent a significant number of years active in the anti-war movement, I wasn’t about to escape what the Vietnamese call the “American War,” and one of the things I wanted to understand was why the Vietnamese don’t seem to hate us (Americans).
As it turns out, forty-one years after the war ended (we were in Vietnam in April and left the day before the forty-first anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975), both the question and answer have become more or less banal.
Seventy percent of the population in Vietnam was born after the US pulled out of Vietnam. For them the war has long been over, and they have moved on for a variety of reasons.
Many of the Vietnamese we talked to took a longer view and thought about the American War in a different way than I did. We were told that America played a relatively small part in Vietnam’s wars for independence — the crux of the message was, “The Chinese were here for 1000 years, the French for 100, you Americans were only here for 30 years, and our struggles are not over. Since 1the war ended there has been our invasion of Cambodia and skirmishes with Khmer Rouge forces operating from inside refugee camps in Thailand. Now, yet again, we have the Chinese to deal with — there are contentious issues regarding Mekong River water rights and Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. America is now our ally — supporting us in our dispute with China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.”
But it’s also about money. Vietnam is a development success story. The political and economic reforms in 1986 have transformed the country from one of the poorest in the world, to lower middle-income status with a GDP growth rate of 6.7 percent in 2015, and according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, may be the fastest growing of Southeast Asia’s emerging economies by 2025. Along the way, America has gone from being an adversary to becoming an economic partner — it is the largest importer of Vietnamese commodities, and US investors have invested eleven billion dollars across most industries in Vietnam. The US ranks seventh out of 101 countries and territories that have operations and production here.
But as we traveled from the North to the South, much to my chagrin, I realized that as much as I knew about the war, I effectively had only a two-dimensional view of Vietnam. It was a place on a map where the American politicians decided it was crucial to stop the influence of communism, at any cost. But until I spent time in Vietnam, I was missing an understanding, and appreciation, of the depth and breadth of Vietnamese culture, history (including its long history of struggles for independence), and its incredible beauty — all of which made the war even more tragic.
So I carefully put aside my analytical side, and with the Vietnamese version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” playing in the soundtrack of my mind, I set off to “Look for Vietnam”.
In the spirit of “My Favorite Things” (the John Coltrane version, not the Sound of Music one) here are some of my memorable experiences in Vietnam.
In Hanoi, on a walking tour with two college students who wanted to practice their English — standing in line with them and thousands of other people paying their respects to Ho Chi Minh (his specially preserved body is lying in state and it looks like he is asleep), and later drinking egg coffees and eating bánh mì (sandwiches) at our guides’ secret places.
Being at The Temple of Literature as hundreds of graduates throughout the city got their pictures taken, both in cap and gown with diplomas in hand, and later in traditional dress.
Watching a water puppet show at the Thang Long Puppet Theatre. Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique variation on the ancient Asian puppet tradition and dates back as far as the eleventh century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of North Vietnam.
Taking a night train to Sapa, arriving early in the morning to find spectacular mountains and farming terraces as we trekked through mud and up and down steep hills — aided by (mostly middle-aged) Vietnamese women from local villages, often in sandals, helping young hikers, in hiking boots, over the tricky terrain.
Walking through villages as we trekked, where, in a space of a few hundred meters, we went through a H’mong and then a Giay village, each with different dress, culture, and language. There are 54 separate ethnic groups in Vietnam, with the Viet (Kinh) people accounting for 87% of the country’s population, and who are mainly in the Red River Delta, the central coastal delta, the Mekong Delta and major cities. The rest of the country is sprinkled with ethnic groups still thriving after hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.
Wandering through temples of the Dinh and Lý Dynasties in Ninh Binh Province (in North Vietnam just south of Hanoi), and exploring Hoa Lu, the first imperial capital of Vietnam from 968 until 1010, when the capital was moved to Hanoi. Before 968 Vietnam was just a district of China, and it was here the Vietnamese later began their long march to the South at the expense of the Chams (in Central and South Vietnam) and the Khmer. By 1446 most of the South was under northern control.
Floating down the incredibly beautiful river and through the caves in Tam Coe on a sampan.
Learning about how different Vietnamese (Mahayana) Buddhism is from Lao, Cambodian, Thai and Burmese (Theravada) Buddhism. In Vietnam Buddhism was influenced by China and Confucianism and Taoism and has its Happy and Lady Buddhas. In Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma Buddhism was influenced by India and Ceylon and Hinduism and has its serious and male only Buddha images. We learned this as we toured the especially beautiful Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Vietnam (and with the largest bronze Buddha in Vietnam as well). Our guide was a lovely young person, and when we gave her a tip, she said she was going to use it to buy food for the homeless.
Floating down the river in Trang An — spellbound by its spectacular beauty and large caves, and discovering how amazing the caves were in North Vietnam.
Cruising Ha Long Bay, with its spectacular granite monoliths rising from the sea floor, shrouded in the mist, that at a distance, softened their hard features. Exploring Sung Sot Cave (founded by the French in 1901 and called Grotte des surprises (Cave of the surprises) with its fascinating rock formations, but unfortunately illuminated by a kaleidoscope of color. Kayaking on the bay to a lagoon and watching monkeys playing in the trees growing out from the shear walls.
Paying our respects at the Temple of Eight Ladies (or Eight Martyrs) in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park where eight women were trapped and died in a cave bombed during the American War. (At the shrine dedicated to them, the Vietnamese also pay their respects to the war dead.)
Then hiking through Paradise Cave (Dong Thien Duong) with its awe-inspiring 36 million-year-old stalactites and stalagmites. Zip lining, sloshing through the Dark Cave filled with pools of mud, then kayaking, and swimming in the river at the cave.
Cruising on a boat and then hiking through the fabulous Phong Nha Cave the next day.
Leaving Hanoi full of wonder, on the overnight train on the Reunification Line to Hué, and exploring the Imperial City and within it the Forbidden Purple City (in the Citadel) in Hué, where in 1802 Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long, thus beginning the Nguyen Dynasty. When he captured Hanoi, for the first time in two centuries, Vietnam was again united, with Hué as its new capital city.
Driving down National Route 1A, the Trans-Vietnam Highway, to Hoi An, through Hai Van Pass, the traditional division between the North and South (the ancient kingdoms of Đại Việt, and Champa). Climbing to the top of the pass, with its breathtaking view of Da Nang Bay.
Using Google Maps on my iPhone to help our clueless driver figure out how to get through Da Nang to Hoi An.
Walking through the Ancient Town of Hoi An, a key Southeast Asian trading port from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we could see the Vietnamese and foreign influences in its buildings and its street plan. In the first century it had the largest harbor in Southeast Asia, and between the seventh and tenth centuries the Cham controlled the strategic spice trade, with that coming tremendous wealth. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and Indians settled here. While originally it was a divided town with the Japanese settlement across the Japanese Bridge (a wonderful covered structure built by the Japanese), over time cultures blended and it became uniquely cosmopolitan and diverse.
Hiking through Marble Mountain with its fascinating pagodas, and then, as darkness fell, heading to Monkey Mountain to see the huge Lady Buddha.
Seeing the Dragon head of the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang breathing fire, a weekend tradition.
Exploring the Cham Hindu temple ruins of My Son outside of Hoi An. In 1177 the Cham raided Angkor, and it was the subsequent victory over the Cham a few years later that made Jayavarman king. He went on to unify the Khmer empire and built most of the grand buildings in Angkor. Another piece of the Southeast Asia puzzle in place.
Navigating through Ho Chi Minh City, the motorbike capital of Southeast Asia, where motorbike drivers act like pedestrians as they drive on sidewalks and any which way on the streets.
Crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels from the Vietnam War and realizing that the American forces never had a chance against an army more motivated and more expert in guerrilla warfare then they were.
Driving from Ho Chi Minh City down the National Highway, passing vibrant green rice fields and farmers tending their fields. On a boat trip from My Tho, on the Upper Mekong (the river that had captured my heart in Laos), passing the fish farms, stilt houses, and fruit plantations. Cruising to An Khanh by traditional sampan and exploring the picturesque tributaries of the Lower Mekong by boat. Seeing the modern industrial workings on the river banks of Can Tho, a modern city, with sprinklings of villagers using the river as their highway through the region.
Taking an early morning boat trip to the Cai Rang floating market (outside of Can Tho), a working food market, with its large wholesale and smaller retail boats, and the jostling of boats working their way through the markets. We had been to a number of floating markets in our travels, but this was by far the most authentic.
Cruising the small canals in Tra Su Cajuput Forest and seeing the wildlife and the forest growing out of the water.
The trip to a floating village (not a completely typical tourist one), where we saw how Mekong Delta people fish farm from their floating houses.
And it was here in the Mekong Delta that Linda articulated what I had been thinking — “This is not a vacation, thIs is our life”. And a great life it is turning out to be.
As I think of Vietnam, images race through my mind. Spectacularly beautiful countryside, Buddhist alters, motorbikes, great street food, beautiful women in Vietnamese dress, people continuously sweeping the streets, and above all, how warm and gracious the Vietnam people are.
But there is a darker side. The ease with which we explored Vietnam is one side of a double-edged sword. There were snack and merchandise tents at most of the places we visited, and hordes of tourists taking selfies and pictures of each other, obscuring the view of the very places they were visiting. At times (not only in Vietnam but at other popular tourist sights in Southeast Asia) it seemed like we were on a theme park ride (“It’s a Small World After All”).
The other problem that we faced, as Caucasians, is in Asia we can’t disappear into the crowd. While in Europe we could often pass for locals, or when we didn’t speak the language, at least maybe locals from a neighboring European country, that is never so in Asia. We were foreigners 24/7. Not a complaint mind you, just a challenge when you are trying to immerse yourself in the local culture.
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