This is my second post about my trip to Vietnam. If you want more helpful, detailed information regarding travel to Vietnam you can find it here in my first post! But if you are here for a laugh and the more fun tidbits about my Vietnam trip then settle in, grab a beer or .. you know.. whatever and read on!
Our trip started in Hanoi, the capitol of Vietnam. When I say ‘our’ I mean myself and my travel companion, a friend from Hangzhou who I’ll call J. On our first day in Hanoi we decided to go to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Now I don’t know about you, but when I think of a mausoleum I think of a small concrete building where I know there are dead people inside, but I can’t actually see them. Apparently the Vietnamese (and the Chinese and the Russians) had a different idea. After making it through multiple security checks and wondering how far I could make it across the ‘off limits’ lawn before one of the many guards tackled me, we made it to the actual (huge) mausoleum.
As we walked single file into the room where Ho Chi Minh now rests we kept our hands down at our sides, but out of pockets, we didn’t talk and we didn’t stop. Thems the rules unless you want to get stabbed by the very real bayonets that the half dozen guards standing attention around the coffin carry. Do I actually think that the guards would stab you… no. Maybe? Did I want to risk it anyway… no definitely not. Honestly I was quite taken aback to see, I mean actually see, Ho Chi Minh laying there in his little glass box. I have to admit that the first thing I thought of was Snow White in her glass coffin waiting for Prince Charming to come wake her up from her death sleep. Then I saw the giant hammer and sickle on the wall behind the coffin with even more guards, and I told my brain to can it. The rest of that first day in Vietnam went by rather smoothly. Except J and I went looking for over an hour for a certain One Pillar Pagoda, and it turned out to be a dinky little thing hidden away in a park.
We also visited the Hỏa Lò Prison which is where John McCain was held during the Vietnam War. Which was actually pretty cool to see, even if the ‘walk in the park treatment’ of the Americans imprisoned there seemed to be a bit exaggerated for the tourists. I’m not, however, going to argue with the prison whose idea of barbed wire is jagged shards of broken glass stuck into concrete. It was after that that J and I had our first taste of the sweet, sweet food of the gods that is Vietnamese street food. If you have read my other posts you will know that I love street food, and Vietnamese street food is no different. Tasty meats, succulent noodle bowls and more baguettes than this bread starved gal from China could handle.
After a full day of attempting to cross the street and starring in our own personal Frogger game from hell, we managed to stay alive and decided to have a celebratory beer. If I thought the streets in China were bad, Vietnam is way worse. There are about 88 million people in Vietnam and just about under half of that in motorbikes (about 37 million). That’s a lot of bikes to dodge. So a nice cold beer was definitely in order. One thing I really miss about home is all the good beer you can readily get, especially with Ohio breweries popping up like acne on a preteen. Not that China doesn’t have beer, but finding a good stout or porter is like finding a unicorn.
Day two in Hanoi started with the Temple of Literature and was followed by our first lost wander. Getting lost is sort of a specialty of mine. Maybe I should have mentioned that to J before we went on this trip, but he never seemed to mind wandering off the beaten tourist path with me as long as we could get good food and a cold beer afterwards. It’s the little things in life! This particular wander took us deep into the local maze of Hanoi, and it took awhile to reemerge onto a main street. But it was nice to see the real side of Hanoi, not just the tourist side.
The hostel we stayed in, called Central Backpackers II, boasted free beer every night. So naturally we went both nights. I can’t say it was the best beer I have ever had, in fact it was pretty terrible. However, I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. So beer! Woo! The nightlife in Vietnam varied depending on the city, and in Hanoi is was just OK. Both nights we went to half empty bars that had to ‘close early’ because of the (quite loosely enforced) curfew. Police officers would come around and the bars would pull down the security door half way, tell everyone to hush for five minutes and then be like, ‘keep drinking! It’s fine! You probably won’t get in trouble’ Regardless, we had a fun time and managed to find our way back to the 24 hour food street for a late night plate of fried rice.
The next day we left Hanoi for Ha Long Bay. Originally we were supposed to only do a one day tour of Ha Long Bay, but we decided to switch to the two day tour so we could be with all the people we met from our hostel. A booze cruise around a bay with some fun people and no curfews? What could possibly go wrong!? Well for starters, thanks to our lovely hostel we ended up on a different boat. A boat where we didn’t know anyone, and we were the youngest people there by a few decades. What should have been a crazy boat party turned into J and I listening to an old French Canadian couple sing karaoke and then sitting around watching the deck hands play some crazy Vietnamese gambling game and smoke what I assume was tobacco before going to sleep at 11 pm. No, stop, I can’t handle this much fun… The only thing that saved it from being a completely dull waste of an evening was beer lady. Oh beer lady, I could write you a sonnet.
Right after we got back to the boat after we did a little kayaking around the bay I hear J shout at me from our room. I go back to the room to find him leaning out the window and the top of someone’s head outside. That is when beer lady floated into our lives. There are multiple floating villages in Ha Long Bay, and people make their livelihoods from selling goodies to the tour boats. We hastily bought some beers from the beer lady before the boat workers could see us (technically we weren’t supposed to bring outside alcohol onto the ship, but $2 for a beer in Vietnam! Highway robbery!) and spent the rest of the night hiding in our room drinking our few precious beers with the 3 only other youngish people on the boat.
The highlight of our Ha Long Bay trip was our short tour of Surprising Cave. I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t surprising. Apparently the reason it is named Surprising Cave is because the person who found it was surprised. Seriously? I’m pretty sure everyone who ever suddenly discovered a giant whole in the earth was surprised. You couldn’t have a little more imagination? The best part of the tour went a little something like this:
Tour Guide: “Now we are entering the next ‘surprising’ part of the cave!”
J: “That’s a penis.”
Tour Guide: “This cave has a rock formation of a finger pointing to the heavens.”
J: “No… that’s a penis.”
Come on, how is that not the first thing that comes to mind?
So that was the highlight of the Ha Long Bay tour. Sounds exciting right! Just as we thought the trip couldn’t get any worse, we ran into one of our hostel mates (who we were supposed to be on the boat with). He rubbed a big old batch of salt in our wounds by telling us how awesome their boat and tour was. Awesome.
When we returned to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay, our mini streak of bad luck continued. We hopped on a sleeper bus to head to the south of Vietnam. I say ‘sleeper ‘ bus, but you are much more likely to have a heart attack and fall out of your ‘bed’ than sleep. It was comfortable enough sure, but remember all those motorbikes I mentioned? Literally, and I do actually mean literally, every 10-15 seconds the driver would slam on the brakes and lay on the horn of the bus like he was trying to give the steering wheel CPR. I’m a heavy sleeper, but damn. I made the mistake, only once, of getting into a ‘top bunk’ on the sleeper buses and some genius before me had tied the seat belt around the arm rest so it wouldn’t even reach around me. I spent a very fretful night holding onto the arm rests for dear life.
Our bad luck kicked in when we arrived around 7pm in a town called Hoi An. We were supposed to stop there, but ended up having to go straight on through to Nha Trang because of our extended Ha Long Bay tour. What should have been a smooth, but long, ride all the way down from Hanoi to Nha Trang ended up with us getting kicked off our bus and having to buy brand new tickets because our hostel just happened to forget to reserve our seats all the way to our correct destination. Thanks Central Backpackers II, you have officially been added to my shit list, right alongside centipedes and that guy who stole my holographic Gyarados Pokemon card in the 4th grade. I remember who you are. You should have waited more than a week before you “magically” ended up with a new Gyarados card. People don’t forget.
Eventually,with the help of the bottle of strange whiskey/rice blend liquor (that actually wasn’t completely horrible) to make the 24+ hour bus journey go by a little quicker, we finally made it to our next destination: Nha Trang.
We originally planned on staying in Nha Trang for only one night, but when we arrived and saw the beach we decided to extend our stay. Our hostel had a great deal to do with our decision as well. We stayed at a place called Mojzo Inn and it was amazing. The hostel itself wasn’t anything crazy special, but the people running the front desk were. As soon as we walked in the door their hospitality was like a warm blanket on a cold day. They instantly learned your names and were so helpful with anything you needed. One of these angelic women even tried to carry my bag up to my room for me. Except my backpack probably weighed more than her, considering she tipped over when she tried to pick it up. But she tried and it was adorable. On our second night we came back to the hostel to a note on J’s pillow that said:
“Dear C & J, Tomorrow (21st Jan) your train leaves at 7:30 am, you should start to go at 6:50am. Be there half an hour before the train leaves.”
When we made it down to the reception the day we left they had an alarm set for us in case we didn’t wake up in time, and they made us breakfast sandwiches to go. I had to fight the urge to ask them if they would come home with me and say nice things to me when I’m sad.
One thing about Nha Trang that was… interesting? There are tons of Russians. I think maybe Nha Trang is to Russians what Panama is to college students on spring break. So the entire time we were in Nha Trang we were surrounded by loud, rowdy Russians. Not that I can’t be a loud and rowdy American sometimes, but when I’m laying on the beach trying to relax must you yell for more drinks and start doing flips right next to me? Why are you even doing that? Is that a thing?
Nha Trang isn’t a huge sightseeing city, but more of a lay on the beach and drink kind of city. Oh man… do I have to?
We did manage to see the big Buddha statue in Nha Trang before heading once again to the beach. One of my favorite things that happened in Nha Trang, and this may seem a bit strange to some of you, was when we went to a little brewery for a beer sampler (to be honest the beers were pretty standard and nothing special). It was instead a little orange tabby that came right up to me and jumped into my lap and fell asleep that just did me right in.
I have always been a dog person, but I love cats too and this little lady was just the sweetest. I truthfully teared up when she fell asleep in my lap. It was like she took a claw straight to my heart strings. If there is one thing I can’t resist it is dogs and cats. Ask J, he’ll tell you I spent the majority of that beer tasting speaking solely to the cat. That makes me sound crazy doesn’t it. Actually, i’m good with that.
Nha Trang passed by quickly in two days of sand, smoothies and really good food. Add in some street performances and late nights with questionable endings and you have little Russia. I mean, Nha Trang.
It was one such questionable night when I almost went to bed at a decent hour, but instead decided to go across the street for a quick bite to eat and ended up drinking shots of Jager until 4 in the morning while watching the Seahawks battle the 49ers for the Superbowl spot. (Don’t shake your head, Pop, you were young once! I can always ask Uncle Jerry or Uncle Jim for your college stories.) I hate Jager, but when your buying! J had wandered off somewhere, as he was like to do, and I found him later already in bed and gave him a ‘boop boop’ goodnight tap on the nose (which i’m sure the Jager had nothing to do with) before climbing up into my top bunk.
Our bus to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, left early in the morning and we were able to reach out last Vietnam destination on the same day. In case you don’t know, Ho Chi Minh City was formerly named Saigon, but was renamed after the Vietnam War ended. Although Saigon is still pretty commonly used. We got pretty lucky and the bus dropped us off right on the street of our hostel. A short walk down the street and wander through a smelly local fish market and we were there! Here we stayed in the Khoi Hostel, which was nice if nothing special. It was close to the ‘drinking street’ so that was perfect for us. I admit our dinner that night was not Vietnamese in the slightest. We found a little restaurant called The Hungry Pig and decided to give in to our American weaknesses and get some delicious, delicious bacon sandwiches. I regret nothing.
Because of a suggestion from two girls from our hostel we wandered to check out the main drinking strip of the city. Once we managed to make it out of the maze of alleys and local streets we had gotten lost on, we found our way to Pham Ngu Lao. It is not a typical drinking street of bars and clubs, although there are some. Instead the guest houses and stores located on this unassuming street will set out hordes of plastic kiddy chairs and tiny tables in front of their establishments when night falls. Here locals and foreigners alike will come every night to drink cheap beers and eat tasty street food from the passing venders. We skipped the bars and clubs entirely and sat down in front of a little guesthouse. The old woman who runs the place instantly adds more chairs to keep more people coming, and pretty soon we were a few rows back when at first we had been in the front by the road. The best part about this street drinking is being forced into meeting new people. Sure you can sit by yourselves and be loners, but we decided not to be lame and struck up a conversation with the like minded travels crammed around us.
On day two in HCMC we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels which were really interesting, if a little depressing. But compared to the War Remnants Museum where we went the next day, it was a walk in the park. Actually, it was more of a walk in a forest and then a slightly scary crawl through some tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a vast network of tunnels that actually extend much farther than what the usual tourist gets to see. The North Vietnamese soldiers used the tunnels as a stronghold and hiding place during the Vietnam War.
We started the tour by looking at all the ways the Vietnamese soldiers killed the American soldiers. Oh yay… I have to hand it to the Vietnamese for being really creative though, as morbid as that is. Regular ol’ spike pits are so yesterday. Lame. Instead let’s build pit traps that sent spikes through your armpits and kept you there. How about pit traps that sent spikes up your entire body or door traps that slammed a slab of spikes through you, and if you were able to stop it with your hand, the bottom half would still swing forward and catch you right … well beneath the belt. Terrifying. I never had such a clear picture of just how horrifying it must have been for those poor soldiers, both sides. As we walked through the forest, the mood was effectively set by the sound of gun fire from the shooting range next door. It wasn’t unsettling or anything.
Then it was our turn to crawl through the tunnels which, by the way, have been enlarged for the tourists. Meaning that the tiny tunnels that are barely large enough to crouch in were even smaller when the North Vietnamese soldiers had to live down there for months. I’m not claustrophobic in the least, but when we got to the third and final level of tunnels, which are roughly 15 feet underground, even I felt it hard to breathe. It was a bit of a relief when we emerged from the oppressive tunnels and were able to breathe fresh air again, and we were only down there for 5 minutes.
This was our last night in HCMC, our last night in Vietnam actually, so we naturally went out to the drinking street again and had another nice night of 12,000 VND beers (75cents) and late night street meat cheeseburgers.
The next morning we got up early to go to the War Remnants Museum. Please bear with me while I get a little dark for a second because I don’t think you can go to the War Remnant Museum and not get at least a little dark. Let me start out by saying I understand why Vietnam is not a top vacation destination for a lot of Americans. I get that most people don’t want to walk around with a big heavy bowling ball of guilt sitting on your chest for your entire vacation. Trust me, I get it. However, I don’t at all regret my decision to go there, and I think more people should. It is important to learn about history from all points of view, especially history pertaining to your country. I don’t know what everyone else was taught, but a lot of what I was taught about the Vietnam War was a bit one sided. Now I also understand that everything you see in Vietnam about the war is going to also be mostly one sided. Like the video we watched after our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. Within the first minute I heard ‘bloody American pig dogs’ and more. (Needless to say, J and I, being the only Americans there, were oh… just a tad bit uncomfortable. Should have claimed to be Canadian or something. No one dislikes the Canadians.) You have to take it with a grain of salt, but it is important to at least have something to take said grain of salt with. So I would chose again and again to go back to Vietnam and specifically to go back to the War Remnants Museum. However, I would prepare myself a bit more. The outside was fine, no worries there. Just going to take some pictures with these giants airplanes! Goody!
But then you walk inside, and get repeatedly punched in the stomach by a huge, daunting dude named Guilt dressed in army fatigues. It was three floors of staring in uncomfortable silence at photo after photo of the atrocities done during the Vietnam War, mostly by Americans. Not saying that the American soldiers didn’t have a horrible time in the war either. It is war, it’s never pretty. I could never, not even in my darkest centipede and doll filled nightmares, imagine what those poor soldiers had to go through. However, the truth is right there in front of you for three floors. It is hard to not feel some shame.
Then you get to the Agent Orange room. Oh geez. In case you don’t know, Agent Orange is a chemical compound made from different types of herbicides. Used by the Americans during the Vietnam War to defoliate dense areas of forest and rural land to make it easier to combat the guerrilla tactics of the Vietnamese soldiers. It is a pretty brutal chemical that seeped into the water supply, the soil and injured both animals and people. Not only were those alive during the war seriously affected by Agent Orange, but children born as late as 2008 (or possibly later) were still being born with defects because of it. Not just Vietnamese citizens either, although the Vietnam Red Cross estimates that 1 million people have been born with birth defects because of Agent Orange. There were also American soldiers who were very seriously injured and had children with birth defects due to Agent Orange. So there is an entire room filled with images of children and people who have been negatively affected by this chemical, and this room is complete with deformed fetuses. Do I think that is a little much. Yes. Did I force myself to look anyway? Yes. Do I really wish I hadn’t. Also yes. So remember that big husky dude named Guilt who punched you in the gut earlier? Yeah, he is back on a serious ‘roid trip. J and I made the walk back to our hostel in silence. Some of you might think, ‘OK stop being dramatic. It is war, terrible things happen in war.’ I agree with you, but it is a different matter to come literally face to face with the effects of what your home country, your home of the brave, did. During the entire trip through Vietnam, J and I had been noticing a large amount of people with deformities or disabilities, and after the War Remnants Museum the realization why hit us like the Seattle defense in full Superbowl mode. It is a tough light-bulb to deal with. It is like doing seven minutes in heaven and then turning the light on only to realize you have been kissing your brother. You really wish you had just left that light off. (And no that is not a true story, I don’t have a brother.)
So on that lovely note, i’ll sign off for the day. That just about covers what happened on my trip back in ‘Nam! Or at least covers what I can/want to share without making this post a mile long. I apologize about getting a little dark there, I promise after the Killing Fields in Cambodia it won’t happen again! I hope no one is scared away from visiting Vietnam after reading this. It really is an amazing place with some of the nicest people I have ever met. Let us be honest, if the Vietnamese people wanted to hold a grudge against Americans they could, but we were only ever received warmly and with generosity. I would love to go back to Vietnam again someday, and I hope that I get the chance to. I hope that you get the chance to as well. Don’t forget to go to the Mojzo Inn and say hello to the angelic Vietnamese women working the front desk for me! If you are American, don’t actually say that you are Canadian. Be proud that you are one of the few that went to face your countries flaws, and now you are all the wiser for doing it.
Until next time explorers don’t forget:
Adventure is out there, so never stop exploring!