Alright, so I’ve totally been slacking and have had every intention to post this two weeks ago, but you know, life. Sorry! So here is the much anticipated part 2 installment of the vacation Zach and I took back in January, featuring Vietnam.
I will be completely honest, I knew a little bit about Vietnam before going, but probably not as much as I should have. I knew the US was involved in the war there, that American’s protested our involvement, and we eventually withdrew and the side we were supporting did not get their way in the conflict, and because of that, Vietnam is a communist country. Outside of that I was pretty clueless, so it was beyond eye opening to land into Ho Chi Min City from Cambodia mid afternoon and be ushered directly to the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. Our tour guide explained to us that this museum was erected not too long after the war, and was originally named the US War Crime museum, but in the 90’s when we lifted the embargo and stabilized relations, the government decided to change the name to the War Remnants Museum in order to play nice with our government, but they literally only changed the name of the museum. It was very much an Anti-America propaganda museum, and our tour guide let us know we could spend as little or as much time as we wanted too. Don’t get me wrong, war is war, and both sides do not so nice things, but that museum painted a picture that the US was the devil and the Viet Cong were angels. If you didn’t have previous knowledge, you would leave that museum thinking the Viet Cong had zero guns and tanks, because everything on display were our weapons, our bomb shells, pictures of the destruction and devastation caused by agent orange.
Needless to say I left that museum feeling like enemy of the state and a little worried about how we would be received being Americans. But our tour guide explained that everyone pretty much understands that the museum is propaganda set up by the government, and for the most part the Vietnamese have a very positive view of Americans, they just don’t love our government and their meddling ways.
And I will say, I absolutely loved our time in Vietnam and its people despite the less then warm welcome we got from that museum. Despite such a tough history and a suffocating government, the Vietnamese people are some of the happiest people I have ever encountered. They are always smiling! It was kind of unnerving, but also made for a wonderful vibe.
After the museum, we went to the Independence Palace, which was built by the US government in order to help prop up the South Vietnam government during the Vietnam war. The palace itself is pretty magnificent and rumor has it, it might be the venue where Trump and Kim Jong-Un will be meeting later this month. The President of South Vietnam at the time had a direct line to the white house from the palace and that phone is still on display.
Ho Chi Min City is a bustling metropolis, home to 8 million people and 9.5 million motorbikes. You do the math. Traffic was INSANE. There are very few traffic lights for a city that large and crossing the street is like a real life game of frogger. Our tour guide told us that the bravest driver has the right of way, and I believe it. There was no rhyme or reason to the traffic pattern but it works for them. Though there is an obscene amount of honking, the drivers are generally patient and not aggressive with each other at all and there are hardly an accidents, which totally blew my mind. It was also insane to see what was transported on those motor bikes. Our tour guide showed us a picture of a live cow being transported by motorbike in the middle of the city. Seriously, if there is a will, there is a way, and it is being transported by bike.
Because the city is in the south, and the people in the south were fighting against communism in the war, all the locals call the city Saigon, which was the name of the city before the Vietnam War. The government renamed the city after the war in honor of Ho Chi Min, a prominent and respected leader of Vietnam in a way to kind of erase what Saigon stood for before the war. But even in the north of the country, where communism was welcomed, they still call the city Saigon as well. It was very confusing at first to say the least.
We had tour guides in both the North and the South of the country, and of course their government came up, since Vietnam is really only one of two communist countries left in the world (China being the other one….most look at Cuba, North Korea, etc as dictatorships anymore). No one likes the communist government and people from both areas told us they wish the South had won the war. But for them, the Vietnam war was not about government types as it was for us (we joined the war to prevent the spread of communism), instead it was about independence and being able to govern themselves on their own. Previous to the Vietnam War, France had colonized the country for over 90 years, and before that, China invaded off and on for over 1000 years. They just wanted peace to stand on their own. At least that’s how it was explained to us. They all agreed that the fact that there is no homeless, and no one is really poor unless they are part of the indigenous tribes that live in isolation, they feel stifled by their government but have no power to do anything about it. And let me tell you, it was odd to walk around Saigon and see no one begging on the street, no homeless in a city of that size. It was pretty incredible. But unfortunately that pro was one of the few that was listed of a communist government. Everyone is require to get an education, but parents have to pay for all education from grade school to college. So if a family can’t afford education for their children, they will only send them long enough to learn how to read and write and then they go to work to help contribute to the family. They also pay for healthcare 100% and the government checks in on them if they haven’t seen a doctor in a while, because the government makes money off of people seeing the doctors there. They do have insurance similar to what we have in the states, but health care is very expensive and if they are able they try to seek treatment in other countries because they feel the doctors there perform unnecessary procedures to make money for the government. Yikes. We unfortunately ended up giving some money to the government while there because Zach developed what I lovely called the communist cough; he was pretty darn sick for a few days and was in need of some meds that were no over the counter. Luckily, you don’t need a prescription to get medicine from a pharmacy there, and so we went to the Rx around the corner, explained his symptoms to the nice lady behind the counter, and was able to get antibiotics and hard core cough meds in less then 5 minutes. Yay Communist Cough.
Despite the government, Vietnam was amazing! It was so incredibly cheap (a bowl of Pho was $1-2 dollars, a beer less then $1). And Vietnamese coffee has ruined me for LIFE. Because milk was so scarce during the wars, they figured out that using condensed milk was a tasty alternative to flavoring their coffee. In Hanoi, they are famous for their egg coffee, where they whip an egg yolk for 10 minutes until light and frothy and then pour the coffee over it to cook the egg. The result is decedent and amazing. Seriously. All other coffee sucks after drinking coffee in Vietnam.
While in the south, we also toured a tunnel system the Viet Cong and villagers used during the war to wage war against the US and survive our Agent Orange attacks. It was fascinating. The system of tunnels we saw was home to up to 20000 people at one point and they widened the tunnel we were pictured in below by 40% so tourist can fit. People living in those tunnels had severe health issues as a result, but it provided them a way to survive a brutal war without leaving their village. Of course, this site is maintained by the government and so propaganda was heavy here as well. We watched a video where villagers were celebrated as “American Killers” and how the Viet Cong were a simple and kind people just trying to gain their freedom. It was uncanny to watch, and our tour guide again warned us and said if we didn’t want to watch, that was fine. But we sat through all 12 minutes of it because even if it didn’t paint the entire picture, its always good to listen to another point of view.
Another thing I learned about Vietnam was just how long of a country it is. Whereas our flight from Cambodia to Vietnam was only 45 minutes, our flight from Saigon to Hanoi was 2 hours long. Hanoi is considered the “little Paris” of Southeast Asia, and you can definitely see where the French occupied the city for almost 100 years. Even though the French were not kind to the Vietnamese during their time there, the people of the area still build houses replicating the French architecture of Hanoi. It was absolutely gorgeous to see. Where Saigon was more of a modern city with skyscrapers and the like, Hanoi is an old world town with tons of character showing its storied past with all the motor bike traffic of a large city. We toured a Taoist temple, the prison where the French tortured and killed thousands of Vietnamese and later housed US prisoners of war, including the late John McCain, and also had the please of eating at the same restaurant that Anthony Bourdain and President Obama ate at. It is a great point of pride for the country and the Bun Cha was AMAZING! Probably one of the best meals we had in Vietnam. And all for the hefty price of $3 a bowl.
Overall, my favorite part of the Vietnam portion of our trip was a cruise we took to Ha Long Bay. It was absolutely breathtaking, and pictures most certainly do not do it justice. We kayaked, saw monkeys in the wild, went squid fishing, and got to tour a fishing farm to see how the locals live off the land to make a living. You will notice that it looks foggy in most of my pictures, and unfortunately, that is smog. The last two days in Vietnam were awful for air quality, and honestly, at the airport it was the worst I have ever seen it since moving to Asia. This makes me infinitely sad because even though air quality isn’t great in Korea, I had it in my head that we would be able to take a quick flight to another country in Asia to get a breathe of fresh air. That is absolutely not reality. Thailand is experimenting with drones creating artificial rain right now because the smog has gotten so bad currently. So though it was absolutely gorgeous, it was also bitter sweet to see the area tainted by pollution. But as everyone is making enemies with China, companies are figuring out that the government in Vietnam is very open to manufacturing in the country, and at a fraction of the cost, so companies like Cannon and Samsung now have their largest manufacturing facilities in the world right outside Hanoi. And the people and environment are suffering because our tour guide was explaining to us that there is absolutely no regulation on this companies, and so they dump and pollute as they see fit. It was horrific to drive through on the way to the airport. People living near these areas are developing cancer and other medical concerns in a higher concentration then other parts of the country but the government does not care because it is bringing money into the country. So the people are frustrated. And rightfully so.
Overall, I would absolutely recommend going to Vietnam, and quite honestly, if we had more time in Asia, we would love to go back. We only scratched the surface and overall it was an amazing experience. The people are amazing, the culture is colorful and fun, and they are so proud of how far they have come after such a tough past.
Right now, Zach and I are gearing up for him to be gone for the next two weeks and then navigate his crazy work schedule going though March and April. One of our friends from DC is coming to visit in April (YAY!!!!!) and we may have a visitor in March (stay tuned), so we will be in Korea for the next couple of months. As soon as Zach can get some leave on the calendar, I think we are going to hit Japan next so I can live like a Geisha for a few days (so excited!!!!!).
Right now Korea is gearing up for Lunar New Year (Chinese new year, but you know, no one likes China anymore), so its been interesting seeing all the preparations in both Vietnam and Korea over the past view weeks. Its the year of the pig and Lunar New Year is like our Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years combined so everything will be shut down starting Tuesday (including post! yay).
So don’t be surprised if you get more messages from me then normal starting this week (I will be bored with Zach being gone)….consider yourselves warned! Anyways, that’s all for now. Hope all is well with you all. Until next time….