Rushing through Vietnam
The only impression I have of Vietnam is old documentaries from the Vietnam war (or the American war as the Vietnamese themselves call it), and more recent computer games and movies like Battlefield Vietnam, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. They all have one thing in common.. they are filled with machine gun fire, napalm, battle scenes and protestant songs from the 60’s and 70’s American flower power generation. A country with such a proud history as the equisite Vietnamese deserved more than that, in the measly one week we had available for Vietnam my mission was clear: discover the real Vietnam!
A goal like that can’t be completed in a week, but you have to aim high! The reason why we were running out of time was simply that we spent way too much time in Thailand and Laos, leaving both Vietnam and Cambodia to be dealt with at blazing speeds. To make ourselves feel better we know that we have to come back in order to fully appreciate both of these countries. As we are now sitting on a bumpy bus heading towards Phnom Penh we only have a week to do Cambodia too.. but there will definently be a next time! We have so far said the exact same thing about India, Thailand and Laos as well.. But I guess you never really finish a country, that’s the beauty of travelling! There is always more to see, experience and enjoy. Since I still have a good 60 years left of travelling I feel certain that I will atleast scrape the surface of the world, and wear out a few passports before I’m too old to sit on rickety old busses traversing the countryside of far away lands.
Alright, that was the digression of the day, back to Vietnam! We crossed the border feeling prepared, but still a little nervous. It turns out that skandinavians for some reason can get a two week visa for Vietnam for free! The reason we were a bit nervous was that everyone we met up to then had paid up to 50 dollars for a visa, and the fact that the border was far away from everything else made the prospect of arriving there without the proper documentations a bit distressing. Karl Kristian, having returned from a short trip back to Norway, had bought a visa in Vientiane since he didn’t know about the skandianavian visa rule. Since our stopover in Vientiene was very short his visa was left at the Vietnamese embassy leaving him without a visa and 50 dollars poorer. It turned out that it wasn’t a problem at all as we were ushered through the security checkpoints and getting the approproate stamps. Our passport stamp collection is growing by the month!
Leaving from Vang Vieng in Laos we had decided upon a bus that would take us to the old imperial city of Hue.The busride was the longest so far ending up with a gruelling 23 hours on the road… Apart from being one of the main focal points during the 1968 Tet offensive by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war, Hue has a lot more to offer. It was the high seat of the imperial Nguyen court in Vietnam for a long time. This has left Hue with the heritage of the Imperial City, an enormous city within the city that is surrounded by a moat and a thick wall. This city was partially destroyed during the fierce street fighting that occured when the Americans took the city back after 3,5 weeks of Viet Cong rule. If you’ve played Battlestar Vietnam then you have done your share in tearing this place up 🙂
The highlight of Hue was the imperial cuisine. It’s based on a former emperor that had an exquisite sense of esthetiques when it came to how food was supposed to be prepared. This has left Hue with a culinary heritage to be proud of, and for us an opportunity to sample it. We dined at Quan An Ngon (it’s listed in Lonely Planet) which was a bit pricier than our usual dinner, but a bit more impressive. The meal consisted of seven dishes, all of them arranged to please the eye. The picture at the beginning of the post is of our starter, spring rolls arrange to look like a peacock! 🙂 The food was delicious, and except for the dessert that turned out to be something made out of peas there weren’t any dissapointment. So if you want to sample proper imperial food in a lush garden setting then check out Quan An Ngon.
We debated for a while which method of travel we would use to get to Ho Chi Mihn City (Saigon) but ended up with buying the more expensive plane tickets after realizing that our time in Vietnam and Cambodia was limited. Since the flight was 1 hour and the bus ride would take approximately 24 hours it was really a no brainer. Our excellent receptionist at Thai Binh Hotel II was more han helpful at booking us tickets, reserving tables at restaurants and generally being an helping angel. The hotel was reasonably cheap as well so if you are going to Hue this place comes well recommended!
Since we had prebooked our guesthouse to HCMC (Ho Chi Mihn City) or Saigon as the locals call it, a taxi was waiting at the airport to pick us up. I know.. this doesn’t really sound like a backpackers story does it? Nice hotel, then a flight to Saigon before getting a private pickup at the airport? You would be suprised at how cheap it is though, the possibility of saving a few bucks lost for once to the comfort of having things prearranged. I’ll call it Saigon cause it just sounds a lot cooler than HCMC, and the locals used it as well. Saigon is huge! It’s by far the biggest city in Vietnam having received most of the growth due to the 1989 introduction of market economics. Having their money flow from Moscow cut off after the breakup of the Soviet Union the introduction of a market economy was inevitable. Saigon was a thriwing city under the American protected government that ran the country from the french withdrew untill the north Vietnamese overran it in 1975. So Saigon is now in it’s second growth period that will hopefully last longer than the last one.
During the communist controlled time from 1975 to 1989 Saigon was a shadow of it’s former self due to the communist regime’s removal of the free market and institutionalization of the citys entire industrial sector. This led the city into a period of poverty and corruption, that was the result of the collapse of the economical system and the rewarding of former Viet Cong soldiers to prominent city positions on the behalf of south Vietnamese. This resulted in people with little or no formal education occupying positions of considerable power. It was not before 1989 that the city started it’s engines again, turning around and changing into one of the tigers of the asian economy. Saigon was once again back in the leading seat of the Vietnamese economy and although the communist were still in charge the situation looked brighter.
The Saigon that we drove through on the way from the airport to the guesthouse did not look like a poor city, nor did it have the communist “look”. It simply looked like a bustling, thriving asian city that was definently going somewhere. 95% of Saigons population lives in 10% of the citys downtown area making it more than crowded enough. Since we had already been hardened by the even more populated indian cities, we felt right at home here 🙂 Our prebooked guesthouse Ha Vy was nice enough, and with the added pleasant surprise of free wifi from the nextdoor hotel I was more than happy with our rooftop room. It was not untill after the first night that I realized that having a rooftop room also means that you will slowly get cooked alive as there was no ventilation.Adding to the fact that we had not secured a large enough number of fans to keep us cooled off it resulted in the worst night of sleep that I have ever had. It definently didn’t get any better when Veronica turned off the main fan at night due to a very realistic nightmare, resulting in her seeing white smoke coming out of the fan and therefore promptly turning it off! 🙂
The next day we managed to get the old windows opened as well as locating some leftover fans. This made our room the closest thing to a breezy escape from the heat that our budget allowed. Our first day in Saigon was spent doing what I really should not be doing, shopping. As the Norwegian government has decided that I haven’t paid enough taxes, and me using a bit too much money during our first 2 months in South East Asia, shopping should be the last thing on my list! Since I’m already here my logic is simply that some stuff is so cheap compared to Norway that I actually save money by shopping here! The logic is set in stone, and it’s a result of several years of internet shopping gone horribly wrong. The Ben Thanh market has a decent selection of souvenirs, but if you’re looking for clothing it’s really not the place. All the stalls had the same bad quality t-shirts and the poeple selling them were literally all over you trying to sell you their copy of a 90’s Quicksilver t-shirt.
The sight that definently made the most impact in Saigon was the war remnants museum, formerly known as the American war crimes museum. It’s a museum that depicts the horror of the vietnam war from the Vietnamese perspective. You have to know a bit about the vietnam war before you go here as it’s more of a showcase of horrendous acts commited during the vietnam war rather than a purely informational instituation. As it’s well know, history is written by the winners, and this is also the case in Vietnam where the war is referred to as the American War. As for why it came about it’s as simple as that the Americans invaded the sovereignity of Vietnam. Compared to museums in Europe the brutality of the very graphic pictures of victims of war came as a surprise. I guess there is no better way to convey the message of the anti-war movement than showing the brutal and horrible face of war.
Saigon has a lot more to offer than war and shopping, namely ice cream! Fannies is by far the best ice cream place we have been to so far on this trip. If you’re ever in Saigon Fannies has to be visited. Although the ice cream costs about twice that of a cheap dinner it was so worth it.. Took us some time to find it though, as the Lonely Planet Saigon map is horrible and the city is pretty confusing by itself 🙂
On our third day in Saigon we figured we would immerse ourself into a bit more of the Vietnam war history and travel to the tunnels of Cu Chi. The tunnels of Cu Chi was set in an area just north west of Saigon which also was a stronghold for the Viet Cong during the entire Vietnam war. The tunnels of Cu Chi are legendary as they were built first in resistance to the french, then developed and enlarged to continue the battle against the Americans. These tunnels were tiny in width but made it up in length as there were tunnels all the way to Cambodia! People could hide down in these tunnels for months as the Americans were bombing the shit out of the above jungle. The tunnels had dormitories, meeting rooms, hopitals and kitchens located on three different levels. This made sure that only the top levels caved in when they were hit by bombs making sure that the Viet Cong in hiding survived to carry on the fighting.
We opted for a day trip organized by our hotel which was around 8 dollars not including the entrance fee to the tunnels. The trip had the usual stop at a shop before the driver finally took us to the destination. As the area around the tunnels had been made into a tourist trap that was well built out I was a bit surprised by the movie that they showed in the beginning. Instead of a informational video like you would expect it was simply a propaganda video that dated back to the 70’s with horrible image quality and narration. There was really no good information in the video, only that Americans were horrible people.
Our guide then took us from display to display where they showed off everything from living conditions to letting us walk through a tunnel of our own. This tunnel was of course not the original size as a lot of the tourists travelling to this area are close to obese and getting them stuck in the tunnels would do nothing good to the Vietnamese tourist industry. Even though the tunnels had probably been enlarged by atleast 300% it was still claustrophobic! We walked about 50 metres though pitch black tunnels only to be blinded by the sun upon our exit. 5 minutes in these tunnels gave me the creeps, I can’t believe what months would do to your sanity…
What better way to learn about the horrors of war than to fire an AK-47?? This is apparantly the Vietnamese logic and sadly enough it did work… I have never fired an AK-47 and as there was a shooting range on the premises the choice was easy. 3 bullets for around 3 USD was pretty expensive but as I said, it had to be done! Karl Kristian, Veronica and me had our turns while Eli took pictures and videotaped. So from now on when I brag about my ‘nam experience there is atleast a hint of truth to it 🙂
Vietnam was awesome! We are just sorry that we did not have more time.