We got to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam just a day before New Year's Eve and boy was I ready to celebrate! I was finally feeling better after some "stomach problems" that had been nagging me since India. The first thing that we had to do was learn how to cross the street in this country. You see, the entire culture that had grown up on bicycles has been converted to motorbikes. I wouldn't call them much more than a moped since they carry a whopping 125 cc's (compares to my 1200 cc bike). Anyway, they still ride them like they would a bicycle, but faster. What do i mean? They are everywhere and no one abides by any real sort of traffic rules. Red lights are merely a fashion statement, so watching a busy intersection reminds me of the ant episode of the Discovery Channel. Do you wanna know the best way to cross the street in Vietnam...just go and assume people will avoid you. It is kind of scary at first, but then you can get used to it by avoiding the single most important thing my mother taught me as a child. The key is to not look either way before crossing a street. It works here. And beside this was nothing compared to India...in India we wouldn't dare even try to cross the street.So, we spent a few days in Hanoi checking out the city and had an Aussie New Year since the country is full of Aussie tourists. We have mulitple offers for people to take us around Australia once we get there in a few weeks. The entire government and culture is fixated on the life on Ho Chi Minh (aka Uncle Ho). Every town has a Uncle Ho Museum, but nothing was as strange as visiting his mauseleum. We walked into this large building with no windows that had the air conditioning on full blast. Many Vietnamese soldiers were present and kept the crowd moving in an orderly 2x2 fashion. Hands out of pockets and at your side. Once we came around the corner we see Uncle Ho live and in the flesh. They embalmed his body after he died (almost 30 years ago or something) and have it on display for all to see. Apparently, they feel that young Vietnamese that did not live during Ho's lifetime must be able to see his dead body to be able to respect his achievement. I guess putting his picture on every coin, bill and billboard wasn't enough. I'm not sure if hte people love the man, or the governmentt wants the people to...either way, seeing this dead man's lifeless body was a bit over hte top. Lenin doesn't even have his "plasticized"body on display, but then again, Lenin wasn't able to re-unite a country that had been under foreign occupation since the dawn of time (China, French, Japan, French and they would add the U.S. in this list).
After a few days in Hanoi, we spent a few days on a Chinese "junk" boat tooling around Halong Bay, about 3 hours from Hanoi. It was very relaxing and just amazing scenery (see above). We had great weather and wished that we could spend a few more days of sunshine and pampering. Unfortunately, we had to leave the North for a few dreary and dark days in Hue, the site of the Tet Offensive and a good place to tour the DMZ Zone and the rest of the American War (as they call it). There wasn’t too much left to see from the war since the government attempted to erase all history shortly after reunification in 1973. However, over the Vietnamese government has recently realized they are dollars to be made from tourist looking for a bit of history. There were some newly constructed museums and monuments, but really takes a bit of the ’ole imagination to really understand. We spent a day visiting sights like Khe San, Quan Tri, the DMZ Zone and Voc Minh tunnel systems used by the North on the other side of the DMZ. We also spent some time on the Ho Chi Minh Trail as we visited some out of the way military cemetery that went on for miles. The area is still littered with craters left from the massive bombings that took place here and much of the area is still contaminated with land mines and nasty chemicals that stunts vegetation growth.
It was interesting to get the other perspective of the war, but it was too over the top and the propaganda was so skewed that it was almost comical. Not that I agree with the Vietnam War and our meddling (or today’s Iraqi version), but in our history books, we skipped over the part where the U.S. invaded Vietnam to begin a massive colonization of Indo-China (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). This in turn would lead next to the colonization of China…and so on. An example of some text would start like this: “The Imperialist U.S. government, in an attempt to enslave and colonize the Vietnamese people, landed in our great nation just as the reunification of our glorious comrades was to take place…” I really can’t do it justice, but after spending some time in the country, you really get a sense that the anti-American propaganda was used to re-unite the people (North and South) using some evil scapegoat. There were so many historical sites that were also destroyed in the war and many times were heard “this too was destroyed by the Americans”. No doubt we had some big guns blowing shit up everywhere…
Interestingly, there were many places that we saw downed U.S. aircraft (helicopters, planes, etc) as well as rusting military gear (guns, uniforms, shovels, packs, etc). There were also some people selling old war junk that included some old medals and even some American dog-tags. I read a few and almost wanted to take them home with me to reunite them with the fallen soldier’s family. It was tough enough to see the rusted junk, but seeing people’s names, hometown, religion, etc etched into the metal, it really made the event much more personal. Regardless, it was good to see all the war time stuff and get a sense of what the soldiers went through during the dark years of our country. Much of the heaviest fighting took place along the Ho Chi Minh trail that is basically thick jungle and relatively mountainous. I can’t imagine that our troops were even remotely prepared to fight this type of battle. The Vietnamese clearly used this to their advantage.
After a depressing few days, we went to Hoi An, a charming French colonial village that is well known for the tailors. They can make and copy anything from scratch and have it ready in a few hours. Luckily I was able to get a few pairs of boxers made since I lost a few in Hanoi. All I did was pick out the fabric and after some careful measuring, new underwear. This was comforting since the only replacement I was able to find at this point wasn’t exactly comfortable…who the hell still wear’s tight underwear? And to boot, Asians are small people…am I really an XXL? Don’t answer that. Since it was raining, we got creative and bought a few things. Jenny picked up a beautiful dress and a few tops while I was able to get a couple of shirts and pants made up. They can make anything as long as they have the right fabric. Hoi An was a good change of pace and we really enjoyed the town’s people, food and French colonial architecture. Lastly, we visited the hustle and bustle of Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam. It was pretty much as expected and took in a tour of the Mekong Delta. While the tour wasn’t too exciting we met some a couple from New York that recently graduated from college that are doing a similar tour to ours. After a night out with them at the local bowling alley (bowling is HUGE in Vietnam), I was feeling a bit old.
Anyway, after seeing so many images (albeit, one sided) I still can’t help to somewhat sympathize with the people of Vietnam who fought for so many years against the Chinese, French, the Americans and in their own civil war to re-unite its people in the eyes of Ho Chi Minh. Seeing the many places around the country (Danang, Saigon, Mekong Delta, Hoi An, etc) I realized the extent of the war was so far-stretched across the country and extremely brutal (on both ends). Again all this made me think many times of what is going on in today’s Iraq situation…I guess history repeats itself.