Wednesday, August 24, 2016

#17b: Vietnam. The South.

And so, we went south. We boarded a plane and landed just outside of Hue, the old capital of Vietnam. In many ways, Hue turned out to be forgettable city. Its urban center non-existent. Many historical landmarks barely recognizable as anything more than piles of old rocks. But Hue does have a story to tell. American soldiers once held this city against a furious North Vietnamese (NVA) attack. In hopes to protect their positions, both American and NVA forces ordered artillery to fall indiscriminately over the entire city, leaving nothing but rubble and corpses afterwards.

As we walked the streets of Hue, this was still very evident. Green grass gives way to piles of rubble and stone... women dance in long blue dresses in front of the partially destroyed ancient temples, pirouetting around the dark recent past of Hue, the massacres of epic proportions from which the defending Americans eventually had to flee.

Most tourists do not come to Hue to relive these memories. They come because it has a vibrant history as the romantic capital of Vietnam's past. It is built along an ancient river and the Vietnamese have revered it for hundreds of years before the recent war made it notorious. Unfortunately one who arrives now arrives as a witness to destruction... A place undergoing a rebirth which is not complete. Hue is not a beautiful city, although one can imagine a time in which it was.... It is a testament to war. A war which has left visible scars which Americans should see.... Not because it is our fault, but because our fathers lived through it. Our uncles, our brothers fought here for a cause they probably did not understand, but died for nonetheless. Hue is a memory of this tragic past.

On our final day, we got into a car which drove south. The driver was friendly, and told us stories of the Vietnam countryside as we moved. He was proud of his country, except when we were pulled over at what seemed like a pointless checkpoint. The car slowed, and the driver got out at an officer's demand. This went on for several minutes while my wife and I waited confused in back of the car. Finally the driver came back.

"Thank god this happened in the south" he said, "In the north, we may have been in real trouble!"

I wasn't sure was he was implying, but I smiled and said something stupid like "Oh, I know!" and we got on our way.

He told us that when cops see you have tourists in your car, you get pulled over and have to pay money. Simple as that. "It's a tax." He said. I felt bad, was confused, but decided I'd tip him nicely. Maybe it was a tactic of his. And if it was, it worked.

When we finally arrived in Hoi An we were tired from the long drive and the whole ordeal and settled into our hotel. I guess we'd taken a liking to Vietnam's French history by this time, and Hoi An was no exception. The Ha Na hotel was an old French colonial house. We strode through grassy courtyard, the hammocks and the ivy covered walls and the Vietnamese woman at the front told us to have a vieux carré while we waited for our room.

On the way in, I'd seen that the shop across the street sold Vietnamese wine for only a few bucks. Impressed, I slipped across as we waited and got their finest bottle in anticipation of having something special with my wife as we lounged on the hammocks in the courtyard later that evening. Ill bet you didn't even know that Vietnam made wine... neither did I! That evening I learned why. My wife refused to drink it after half of one glass, and after mine I decided I'd rather stick with French wine.

The next day we finally got out into Hoi An. It was hot. Sweat ran down my face and we walked down the streets dodging the sunlight as if it was poisonous (which I suppose it actually is). I bought a children's shirt in a store as a handkerchief to dry off as we walked. But amidst the heat, we found that Hoi An knows its place when it comes to tourism during any time of year. Shops boast custom made suits, dresses, shoes, ties. Anything. If you are in the mood for spending money, Hoi An will take it - which we learned the hard way. My advice to travelers: if you NEED a new suit, by all means go to Hoi An and get one. But if not. Flee. This city will convince you that you need one one in short order. The guide books tell you. The pretty ladies that make them are friendly and convincing and verbose about their families that need the money. And the shops are nice looking and on every block.

But the beaches which are a 20 minute ride away are a piece of heaven. We spent two days in the city before going to the beach. The room was spartan. It had a bed, a hammock in a small yard in front and a sandy path which led to the South China Sea. But there was a peace which one rarely finds anywhere in the world. After a day of tiger beers and beach time, we walked to dinner down the beach to an expat bar with nice drinks and Europeans lounging on couches looking out to the sea.

We had a nice meal, and just before we paid, I felt my pockets and realized I'd left my wallet in the room. Oh no. The only solution was to go get it.... Maybe a mile back down the beach. I told my wife I'd go and let her wait there. The road though town was quicker than the beach so I made my way back on the pavement in the night. The first few houses were clearly those of the expats, large and with porches overlooking the sea; laughter and conversation echoed in the hot evening air, lit by their spirits and their floodlights pointing towards the beach... It was a life which I admit that I began to envy as I walked. To live a live of luxury in a foreign and beautiful place at such a reasonable price! (These Vietnamese palatial houses on the beach went for about the price of a mid-size two bedroom home outside of Denver. Yes. I checked.) But then by the hundreds: small cinder block squares with large open rectangles as front doors and thatched palm roofs; whole families lying down on uncarpeted cement floors with no furniture watching a tiny TV. House after house I passed this after the few opulent expat mansions by the bar. This was the real Hoi An. Not the shops, the fancy hotels - the restaurants which served Phó in many different varieties. This was Vietnam. Where the per capita GDP is less than $2,000. But finally, I arrived at the hotel.

I opened the safe, retrieved my credit card, and decided I'd head back to the bar via the beach in the dark instead of witnessing all that again. Because after all... What could I do?

Saturday, August 13, 2016


I'll take a brief pause here. A pause to paint picture of perspective. It's one informed, admittedly, by blatant North Vietnamese communist propaganda, but one which should be experienced nonetheless.

There is a museum in Hanoi known now as the "War Remnants Museum" which we visited on our visit to the city in 2014. But just a few years before it was known affectionately as "The Museum of French and American War Crimes." A few meetings with the tourism board and the American ambassador and bingo! We've got a name that as an American I can enter feeling nice and welcome like I was just going into any old history museum! But as one enters... it's clear that this is still the intended name. I felt as though a German entering a Holocaust museum. We passed a group kids on a school trip, gazing at photographs of young children fleeing terrified from US napalm attacks... An entire floor of the building dedicated to photos of communities afflicted by agent orange, a terrible chemical bomb released by the US as a way to deforest the jungle to uncover NVA and VC hiding places. I found myself ashamed. I found myself avoiding the groups of children, looking at the pictures hung of LBJ and thinking "why?", at what cost?

I left the war remnants museum with a whole new perspective. All of my history books had told me that the Vietnam war was fought to prevent the expansion of the USSR. To prevent the terrifying domino effect of Communism from taking hold in Eastern Asia. But in Hanoi... It was about defending your home. It wasn't about global diplomacy and geopolitics... It was about the defending your mom's rice paddy, regardless of if she was communist or capitalist or completely apolitical. This is something as Americans we would never come to understand, and it would be our downfall... We came to defeat the hearts and minds of communists under the thumb of Kruschev and Brezhnev, but what we ended up fighting was the hearts and kinds of Vietnamese who just wanted their families and way of life preserved. The war was lost when we began, and it is a shame that American history books don't teach our country's great successes along with our failures. Yes that's right folks, we lost the Vietnam war. And not only that, we left with our tail between our legs and a severely damaged international reputation. Was it worth it? It's really hard to say, given that if there were dominos falling, not many fell, and the impact of their falling did not result in the doomsday scenario predicted at the time. Yes, it easy to sit back and say these things in hindsight, but the beauty and curse of history is that it repeats itself and we can carry the wisdom of the past into the present. Thank goodness we'll never make the same mistakes twice.

Seeing the faces of the Vietnamese in that museum gave me perspective. Perspective that it is possible that a country can do wrong. That maybe it's not a given that we're always the good guy. That war is terrible. That I've been blessed to have never been anywhere remotely near a war zone.

We left the War Remnants Museum back into the bright summer heat of Hanoi. We walked in silence for a while, not sure how to take it all in. I wanted to be offended by the propaganda. I wanted to tell those little kids that JFK and LBJ were not evil men (despite their being Democrats). I wanted to tell them that America was just trying to help if they only had the wisdom to accept our benevolent outstretched hand. But somehow I knew that what we'd done to their country was something unforgivable. The fire bombs and chemical weapons. The buried land mines unexploded to this day making it dangerous to walk through the countryside in many places. The unspeakable tragedy of My Lai. Not to say we were the only wrong doers, but I definitely left the place not proud of the role that my country played. Those children had a right to grieve the war and ask "why?" To look at those photographs of kids their age being burnt alive after a napalm attack and to be angry.

In a world were we all want to believe we're always right, it's good to get a heathy dose being wrong sometimes. So no. I didn't leave offended. And I didn't blame them for telling their story just the way they did. In fact, I think they had the right to leave the museum with its former name. It's a tragic story they have to tell - just as tragic as the one I've experienced many times walking down the Washington D.C. Mall past the tens of thousands of names of Americans who gave their lives in the war etched onto that somber black wall. It was a tragedy worth remembering from both sides, and one which any American should experience if they go to Vietnam... Just remember this handy Vietnamese phrase: tôi đến từ Canada.

Friday, July 15, 2016

#17a: Vietnam. The North.

I'll be completely honest: I never wanted to go to Vietnam. Well... in a way. It's not like I was drugged, blindfolded, and brought here against my will, but this place just never seemed near the top of mind when I imagined the world and what to experience. I'd heard from friends that it was nice, seen beautiful glossy photos in travel magazines and all that, but this never stirred up any real desire in me the way the Louvre, the fjords of Norway, or the pyramids of Egypt did. Its rain forests just didn't seem all that different than those I'd seen in Latin America; its cities seemed overcrowded and probably not all that interesting; its beaches nothing more special than those in the Caribbean which was practically my backyard (relatively speaking). There are times in life (frequently for me) where a man needs to learn how wrong he's been: this was one of them for me. Our time in Vietnam was perhaps the most memorable few weeks I've ever had.

We arrived in Hanoi after having read horror stories about the town. No rule of law. Crossing a street is suicide. Everyone is out to scam you. Not all of this turned out to be completely untrue, but this really did not diminish the visit. We checked into the Sofitel Metropol, a very decent hotel in Hanoi's French Quarter, and were greeted by French speaking Vietnamese women (even though I speak nether French nor Vietnamese, this gave a sense of opulence to the place that I can't properly explain). The pool was clean and quaint and the waiters brought fresh fruit and cocktails out quickly. This hotel was an oasis in the middle of the most hectic city we’d ever been. Hanoi is insane, but was also somehow charming. But after a few days, we were happy to leave.

Next, we boarded the train and settled into our beds for the night. The whistle blew, and the cars lurched forward as the engine began to pull us north towards Sapa. This was not a fast train. It crept up the river valley slowly and carefully resulting in the 150 mile journey taking up the entire night. And in the morning we were in Sapa. The day before in an urban spider web of scooters, telephone wires and pushy street vendors; and now surrounded by mountains, rice paddies, and Hmong village people – Sapa is a bona fide Asian paradise: the hillsides are all segmented into terraces paddied with rice, cows wonder around seemingly aimless through villages and fields alike, the family pet and milk source one day, a feast the next. Although Sapa seems among the most popular excursions out of Hanoi (based on it being plastered all over every tourism office we saw in the city), it is still peaceful and a welcome escape after having braved Hanoi.

And then there was the boat. Ha Long Bay. The place where the legends say dragons descended and formed this endless expanse of peaks protruding from the foggy waters. If you've ever seen a National Geographic about Vietnam, this is the front page. I'm not sure what I make of the dragons story, but dragons or no dragons, it was a sight to see. We had a berth for two on our “junk” which we shared with a few Brits, some Aussies and couple with whom I never spoke. The Aussies as it turned out were to be engaged one night - so I bought them all whiskeys and we moved to the top of the boat. Squid fishing is best done at night under the lights, so we took turns at this as the night progressed into quite a memorable one as we anchored under the stars in the bay. The stars began to move about the sky a little faster and the ship seemed to leave its anchor as I went drink for drink with an Aussie. I found this to be inadvisable.

In the morning I made my way down the narrow ship’s hall to breakfast from our cabin and I was greeted by my newfound Aussie and Brit friends with a jovial "good morning director!" Slightly confused, I looked at Mrs Grimes, who reminded me of my foot thumping on the deck of the boat (unfortunately right over our cabin where she slept) the night before. It then came back to me that among other things, I had been directing the group in song the night before (I believe this to "In The Jungle" from the Lion King, which I can't rightly explain). I’m not sure it’s anatomically possible, but I could swear that I was sweating whisky on our hike the next day with a 500 ft elevation gain under sweltering heat and humidity. Such is the cost of making Australian friends, I guess.

After Ha Long Bay, we returned to Hanoi for a flight down south to continue our Vietnamese adventure, which after all this, was only just beginning.