I always wanted to go to Vietnam. Not to fight… obviously… but to travel. All I saw were movies like “Apocalypse Now”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” and I knew, since there was finally no war happening, Vietnam had changed and hopefully mended. I was also curious what the Americans had left behind; in terms of culture.
My partner, Travis and I traveled with backpacks because I couldn’t fathom lugging suitcases around during our adventures across potential unexploded bombs in rice paddy’s.
I went to an Asian tour company in China Town in Toronto and they were amazing, not only because they found us a great fare, but they told us important information like, “do not bring damaged American dollars because they only want new and clean looking money.” Our flight departed out of Toronto to England where we had a three hour wait and then we boarded a Korean Airline to Thailand. Korean Air was a wonderful airline where the service was impeccable and the food was great. We landed in Bangkok and had a four hour wait for our flight into Vietnam. We could have hitched a ride there faster. The entire travel took about 19 hours with the time on the ground between flights. The journey was ridiculously long.
I opted for a Thai foot massage at the airport while Travis cringed because he can’t imagine anyone touching someone else’s feet. He’s never had a pedicure. It felt good and it passed the time. When we finally landed in Vietnam it was around 6pm.. the next day for us. We got a taxi in Saigon and headed to the only pre-booked hotel on our entire vacation; somewhere near the airport. We had to sleep and we somehow managed to rest our minds and slept through the rest of the day and night in a simple but clean room with a shower. The next morning, we checked out and headed to Pham Ngu Lao in District One because we knew that was an area where backpackers could find cheap hotels. We managed to find one after talking to some people in a café on the corner of the street. We also had our “bible” at the time; The Lonely Planet, with tips to traveling in Vietnam. This area is where we met our Cyclo drivers that were to become our friends and travel guides for the entire time we were in Vietnam. Hue and Nyg were the sweetest couple of guys you could ever meet. They only wanted us to be happy; all the time. They peddled us around Saigon showing us all the sites like the Reunification Palace, where the tank crashed through the gates in 1975, ending the Vietnam war. The tank still sat there as a symbol.
We went to the War Remnants Museum which used to be referred to as the American War Crimes Museum. It is a yard filled with American Huey choppers that were shot down and Platoon tanks that were captured. There are unexploded ordnance to see. There are also some really disturbing photos of the My Lai Massacre and the effects of Agent Orange and other atrocities. There are replicas of the “tiger cages” the North Vietnamese used to house prisoners as well as a guillotine that was used by the French and South Vietnamese to execute prisoners up until 1960.
We saw where the American Embassy used to be, where the helicopter evacuation took place during the fall of Saigon. It closed in 1975 and was demolished two years prior to our trip there.
The Vietnam-Soviet Petroleum company occupied the building for years and on the rooftop there were still rusting c-ration cans and sandbags left ,from the evacuation, when the building was demolished in 1998..
The architecture in Vietnam is French and Asian combined. Some of the markets are in the most beautiful buildings but ,once inside, it is vast and cramped, with stalls of people cooking over steaming woks and buckets of boiling broth.
We saw women sitting up in little cubicles with sewing machines making clothes all day in the crowded space.
Our hotel was a small room with a small bed but we had our own bathroom and it cost us around $10 US a night. We were within walking distance of all the restaurants and shops. There were open air stalls with incredible artists who were reproducing famous paintings on canvas. There were perfectly copied Warhol’s and huge art deco paintings. My one regret was not buying one. I couldn’t figure out how to transport it around the country and into Cambodia without it eventually being destroyed.
The traffic in Vietnam is horrendous and the crazy thing is that there are no traffic lights or signs or anything. Everyone moves like fast flowing lava traveling down a roadway; always in sync and always moving; a mechanical winding snake. There are numbers of people on overloaded motorbikes sitting in every position imaginable and then there are Cyclos, which are bicycles with seats on the front, for tourists to ride around the city. There are cars and trucks that are overloaded. There are so many people. Crossing a road takes some courage and know- how. You just need to start walking and have faith that everyone will go around you. The thing is; to not stop once you have decided to make your move because they are anticipating you moving along as they weave in and out and around you. They are very aware, defensive drivers, but they also will stop their car or bike anywhere… walk away ; leaving it in what you would perceive as a traffic lane. It’s the craziest system.
It is very polluted in Saigon because of all the vehicles and unfortunately people are not really conscious of littering. It was hot and smelly in the streets. You would see someone dragging a block of ice down the sidewalk to hack up later and put in beer or soda. As in all countries where the water is not purified you need to be careful about ice and always drink bottled water. I never drank a cocktail and stuck to beer without ice in it my entire time in Vietnam.
When we went, in 2000, it was just starting to become a place for tourists to go. There were Vets who were returning to find some peace of mind in seeing that the country had survived and the people of Saigon, now Ho Chi Min City, had moved on and were trying to build a new life. Everywhere we went the Vietnamese knew and requested, the song “Hotel California” by The Eagles. I’m not sure how or why… but they knew that song. It is most likely from Kareoke which is a big past time and you will find rooms in the most run down looking buildings that are fancy and air conditioned for your singing comfort. The Vietnamese also love to use the “thumbs up” while saying “A-OK” which must be a leftover expression from the Americans.
The Vietnamese are enthusiastic and happy to meet people from a different culture and really care about your happiness while you are there visiting. They desperately wanted to show us how things have survived but also wanted us to know that there was a lot of hardship. Both of our guides had grown up during the war and when they were old enough around 1978 they had to go and fight in Cambodia against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. One of our drivers had shrapnel in his back and he looked so much older than his years and they had friends and relatives die in both the Vietnam War and the war against genocide in Cambodia.
Almost everyone in Vietnam has suffered because of the long years of war. You can see it in their eyes behind the smiles and in the quiet moments where no one speaks. The children are also suffering because of the poverty. They only go to school for three or four years ,if they are lucky, and then they are working on the streets selling lighters, cigarettes, books, and anything considered touristy that they can carry.
We met kids who were only 7 years old and spoke four languages. They hadn’t been to school but working on the streets they had learned to speak English, French, German and Russian.
We bought the kids dinners and cokes and they would eat half of what was on their plates and then sneak off with the rest to hand it over to a parent who was watching from a distance. It broke my heart. The children in Vietnam are very special because there is a hope and a joy that they express openly with strangers like ourselves. Travis bought a mandolin and would play songs for the kids. They knew a little bit of Jingle Bells but they did knew all of Frere Jacques the French lullaby. “Frere Jacques Frere Jacques dorme vu dorme vu”. We sang that with them and they were so excited we could all sing a song together.
One day we asked Hue and Nyg to take us to the Mekon Delta. They rented motorcycles and we were off on the horrible bombed out roads to the river. It took a couple of hours and we blew a tire on the way and had to stop to have it replaced. Inside the mechanics shack was a women charging for haircuts so Travis decided to get a trim. She pulled out a straight razor and started dry shaving him around his neck and chin. I saw the terror in his eyes… one slip of that blade. She went to move onto the back of his neck and he squeaked out, “No! It’s OK… no.” She understood and stopped. She moved onto his hair and when she finished he looked like a Vietnamese Ken doll. His molded and folded hair was then sand blasted with hair spray and as we sped away on our motorcycles I looked over and Travis’ hair was not moving an inch in the dusty dry 50 mile an hour wind.
When we arrived on the Mekon we met a guy with a boat and we chugged down the river with our friends. It was eerie and strange after watching so many movies about the war. All I could think about was Apocalypse Now. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been for the Americans and South Vietnamese. The river has a winding beauty with its thick jungle banks but you cannot see what is around the bend. You could be lulled into the peaceful tranquility and all of a sudden face an ambush. Thank god the war finally ended and now it is just another river with dark brown water. We stopped for lunch somewhere along the way and ate gigantic steamed shrimp.
By the time we returned to Saigon we were exhausted and filthy from the dust and dirt of the roads. I think we were always dirty in Vietnam. There is a dirt film in the air.
One of our most bizarre day trips was to the Cu Chi Tunnels in the Cu Chi district near Saigon.
There are interconnecting underground tunnels that were used by the Viet Kong to hide from detection during the war. Some of them were right underneath American bases. The Viet Cong would come out at night into the jungles and lay traps and place charges and mines. There was an American tank left rusting in the jungle. It had been ambushed and it still sits there as a haunting reminder of the turmoil this country and America had to endure before the end of the war in 1975.
I’m claustrophobic but I thought I would be remorseful if I’d traveled all this way and not experienced this. We saw an original entrance to a tunnel that was a patch of grass lifted from the earth exposing a narrow hole down. You had to raise your arms above your head to get through.
They have an entrance for tourists that is much larger and has earth steps down but once inside you have to crawl along. They have added electric lights so at least you can see. Once inside my heart started pounding and the panic set in. I just kept talking to myself and quietly saying that I would be out shortly. I went 10 meters and then took the first exit out. I did see one of the small rooms that the tunnel opened up into before I scrambled out. It was so small. I can’t believe that there were babies born in these tunnels who never saw the light of day. They were like mole people.
Outside the tunnels in the jungle were traps everywhere. Covered pits that housed bamboo spikes so if you were a soldier walking along you could all of a sudden drop through the earth and become impaled. Really gruesome stuff. So many ingenious ways to killing a man.
This was a pit of spikes, hidden, and covered by a soft porous wood that would not withstand the weight of a man. It would be covered over with some dirt and leaves and not seen by the human eye.
Prior to entering the site we were shown propaganda movies and footage of the Viet Cong fighting the war and living in the tunnels. The whole thing was really surreal.
When we left the site we noticed a beautiful Temple and stopped there to have a look. it was called the Bến Dược Memorial Temple. We didn’t expect to find something so beautiful near something so horrible.
ON December 19, 1975 the first stages of the Memorial monument was inaugurated by the Communist Party to memorialize the soldiers and people who died in the war. Visitors are welcome to come inside and burn incense and meditate.
We went inside many temples and we couldn’t believe the ornate structures with multiple poles of winding snakes and serpents. Some were so beautiful and had traditional Vietnamese music playing.
As we left Vietnam to make our way into Cambodia we experienced a sadness to leave our friends behind. We traveled in a small cramped bus with other tourists to the border. It took several hours on roads with huge craters left from the bombings. There were no washrooms on the way. Our driver stopped at one point to grab a fish that had jumped out of a gutter at the side of the road. He picked it up and put it in the front of the bus. Something he would take home for supper I imagined.
When we finally arrived at the border it was a scary site. I really felt like I was in a movie.
Like a lot of places, there is corruption, and we were told if you put a five dollar bill in your passport you could get through the border faster. I was too afraid to do that. I just stood in line and ,when we got up front, the guards took my fashion magazine and immediately started looking for a centerfold. That was pretty funny. We finally crossed into Cambodia and… well… that’s for another post.
Someday I hope to go back and find my friends who made us feel welcome and safe and happy. I will always remember them in my heart if I don’t make it back there.
I will never like the song “Hotel California” though.