We thought Hoi An would be a break from the intense city environment of Saigon and it was, but not from the crowds. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its history as a commercial crossroad for Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, Indian and Japanese traders of spices and ceramics, and the mix of architecture reflects the varied influences. The listed historic district, Ancient Town, isn’t a living museum but rather a crowded, somewhat chaotic, and, while we were there, hot jumble of craft emporia, touristy souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants. I’m pretty sure there are museums too, but we spent our days just exploring the streets and alleyways, plopping down at a café whenever we needed a cold drink to cool off or a coffee to perk us up. The tourists were from everywhere and in a hurry, the shopkeepers were aggressive and bent on separating everyone from their money, but we loved every minute of it. The town is gorgeous and obviously well loved and there are flowers everywhere. We had some delicious meals, too.
On paper it looked easy peasy. The goal was to decamp Saigon, grab a ride to the Saigon airport, fly to Da Nang Airport, grab a ride into Hoi An, check in and be comfortably ensconced, feet up, ready for the start of the Baku Formula 1 Grand Prix on Fox Sports. Of course we all know that paper will sit still for anything.
The Grab ride went off without a hitch, always a first class car with good air conditioning. Upon opening the glass airport doors the vibe was chaos. Screaming toddlers in various stages of despair clogged the aisles and I made a quick prayer to the flying gods that the whole lot of them aren’t going to Da Nang. We were flying Vietnam Airlines and after fighting our way to a departure monitor we found our flight to be one of the few that were still listed as “on time.” With a heavy sigh of relief we had two hours to wait, but first let’s find an area free of mama’s little helpers. Oops! I stood up and several rug rats scampered into my seat.
While having a bit of a nosh, Marce thought she heard something about a flight to Da Nang. Sure enough, checking the departure monitor we found a short delay. In Vietnam there’s no such thing as a short delay, especially on Vietnam Airlines whose speciality seems to be confusion. Whoa, that was a nasty half gainer into a full face plant for the screaming little duffer. Yes the feet you failed to notice were mine. Doesn’t anyone own you? I noticed our gate no longer listed our Da Nang flight. Now he’s pointing Yours Truly out to his mother.
We waited in several long lines only to be kicked out at the last minute and told to wait over there. The monitor over our gate never changed but our circumstances continued to evolve. Now he’s shooting me with a transformer action figure. Frustrated fellow flyers started to ask me what happened to our flight as the delays began to stack up. Squeak squeak squeak, my god the little angel has shoes that light up and squeak with every halting step. Is this necessary?
Our two hour cushion evaporated into deficit and while hope springs eternal I began to make peace with not seeing the Grand Prix. We moved a good distance from what we thought was our gate due to screaming seemingly unsupervised little darlings running roughshod over the airport. A message flashed on the departure screen stating that there may be delays due to the lateness of our plane’s arrival.
Here’s another little screamer but this one is dressed up like a crying lady bug with antenna sticking out of its head. The time continued to slip until we noticed our gate had been changed. Finally our plane arrived and we lined up for a jam-packed nuts-to-butts bus ride out to where they’d parked it. I couldn’t help but check the time every few minutes.
When we landed in Da Nang I think we made it clear to our Grab driver that we were in a hurry to get to Hoi An. The traffic was bad but he did his best, tapping out a more or less constant staccato rhythm with the horn button, but then so was everyone else, which blended into a caucalphony of noise that we’ve learned is the soundtrack of Vietnam.
We did make it for the last half of the Grand Prix. For this weary traveler, Hoi An will have to wait until tomorrow.
This is the fifth country we’ve visited in Southeast Asia and we’re finding some obvious differences.
Our first clue that we’re not in Kansas anymore is the intensity of the traffic. Where traffic in Cambodia and elsewhere is equally dense, we never heard a single horn from a car, motorbike, or tuk-tuk. Drivers are bold but polite. Here, horns are not just a specific warning but an announcement of presence. Our Grab driver for the ride from the airport displayed mad twitch muscle chops to produce a constant signature tattoo that brought to mind Herb Alpert playing the Spanish Flea.
The traffic density rarely lets up, making crossing the street an adrenaline sport. I haven’t exercised the required technique since Naples, where you step off the curb, look neither left nor right, don’t deviate in course or speed and have faith that the stream of traffic will part like the waters for Moses. Directional lanes don’t mean much if where a driver wants to go happens to be against the flow, nor are the rare traffic lights taken seriously, a fact proudly touted on a popular t-shirt.
People all over the world rest when they can, but only in Vietnam have we seen them drop anywhere at all, balanced on their motorbike seats, on the sidewalk, in hammocks in the park. The other day we were booking a car to take us over the mountain to Hue and when I reached for a brochure I saw two pairs of inert legs protruding from under the counter. The clerk making our reservation just stepped over them, unperturbed.
We generally like most street food, but we’ve fallen in love with the ubiquitous and cheap bánh mi, literally “bread” but more of a light sandwich on a fresh baguette. They’re usually filled with some kind of meat, pâté, spiced mayo and a few veg. Most traditional vendors vehemently reject the idea of a veg version but I’ve been able to find a few less orthodox practitioners and have enjoyed egg or tofu fillings, and today had an amazing and creative one featuring both tofu and shredded jackfruit. Depending on location they can cost anywhere from 50¢ up to $1 or even more in highly touristed areas. The bread is always fresh and crispy. Jack says the quality of the meat varies, but it’s an easy and delicious lunch or snack.
Vietnam was at war for thirty years, and although they’ve moved on, the physical debris is frequently used as decorative elements, and the American invasion gets used in retail by people who aren’t old enough to know first hand the toll it took. There’s a bar right down the street called the DMZ, and we passed this place earlier today. The street vendor asked Jack where he’s from, and when he answered “America,” the man pointed to the display and said, “So is this bomb.”
Finally, we’re reminded at every turn that we’re visiting one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. This is my fourth communist country, after East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, none of which exist anymore. The posters and flags are everywhere and always make me stop and think. I don’t feel the least little bit of the repressive paranoia that was so evident under the soviet satellite states, where I experienced surveillance cameras for the first time, and went about my business under watchful authorities or even armed guards. This just seems like a normal capitalist society, but with more red.
Our hotel is so centrally located that a few blocks in any direction leads us to something on the Must Do list. This morning within a few minutes’ walk we found ourselves at the War Remnants Museum which we’d decided to skip. But once Jack saw all the planes on display we sidled up to the ticket booth and plunked down our bucks for entry.
It was already steamy hot, and while Jack inspected the collection, I sought shelter from the sun. A young man beckoned me over to his shady bench and the conversation started with the usual opener here in Vietnam, “Are you French?”
“American!” He seemed genuinely delighted.
“Yes,” I said, and I looked over at the war machines and added, “and this makes me sad.”
He turned to face me and spoke earnestly. “Do not worry. It was a long time ago. We are friends now. Americans are good people.”
I thanked him for that, then asked what they learn in school about the war.
“We are taught that America is the enemy. But we know from books and documentaries that Americans are good. War is always bad. It was a long time ago. Don’t worry.”
His name is Peter and he’s a tour guide and we continued our conversation until Jack finished his review of the fleet and found me under the trees. Peter told us that Vietnam isn’t looking backward but is focused on the present and future. We exchanged cards and later he sent us a kind email wishing us well for the rest of our Vietnam journey.
Jack and I moved in to the museum and spent time at the exhibit showing photos of all the anti war protests around the world.
It was Jack’s turn for a sit down and I explored the galleries on the upper floors. Some I just couldn’t face, like the ones focused on war crimes and agent orange. The gallery detailing the timeline of events from the end of WWII to the present was well done, and the memorial to all the press photographers who died was a reminder of the remarkable people who run towards danger instead of away from it, just so the rest of us can know the truth.
We made a quick stop to the Reunification Palace, the site where North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates, signaling the fall of Saigon and ending the war.
Any lingering doubts we had that the Vietnamese people have moved on from the war were roundly dispelled as we watched the usual photo op/fashion shoot using a displayed tank “of the type” that led the incursion into the palace grounds. It’s not clear what happened to the original.
We needed to purge the war thoughts and spent some time exploring the shops. At an upscale food emporium we found this display, something we haven’t seen since we were last on American soil.
And despite our determination to eat only Vietnamese food on this trip, we couldn’t pass by a Mexican restaurant we found right near our hotel. Margaritas, guacamole and tacos. Say no more.
The one thing we were determined to do in Saigon is have a drink at the rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel.
The Rex was the headquarters of the American Information Service during the Vietnam war and the site of the Five O’clock Follies, the much reviled daily military press briefings that had little relationship to reality.
By the time we reached the open-air bar a fresh breeze kicked up. We snagged a table with a view, ordered up a couple of fancy drinks and imagined the heckling the press officer endured as he attempted to paint a positive picture of a conflict that was increasingly going south.
We lingered until sundown, watching the lights come on at the beautiful city hall, then walked a few blocks to one of the vegetarian restaurants I’d marked on the map. It was a quiet place with a menu that we barely understood but we managed to select a few dishes, and with the help of our server, ordered up a few “cleansing drinks.” Jack’s was listed as apple-cinnamon, and rather than being apple juice flavored with cinnamon, as we assumed, he was disappointed to see that it was pure water with a few apple pieces and a rather large curl of cinnamon bark.
The cinnamon reminded me that Vietnam produces the best in the world so I asked our server where I might find locally grown cinnamon to take home with me. She didn’t know but offered to ask the chef. A few minutes later she returned with the largest cinnamon stick I’ve ever seen, and presented it as a gift from the chef. We took turns scratching the bark and breathing in the spicy aroma.
While we ate Jack leaned in and whispered that the man at a table nearby was wearing a SpaceX t-shirt. As we were leaving I walked over and told him we were admiring his shirt. He laughed and asked where we’re from. When we told him, he brightened and said, “I studied in America.”
“The Wharton School.”
“No kidding! I’m from Philadelphia!”
How small is the world? Small and getting smaller I reckon. Turns out he lives in Singapore but is originally from India. The big question from us was, does he work at SpaceX? No, but his company did a project for them.
“So you came by the shirt legitimately?” I asked.
It’s pretty easy to impress Jack and me, and the encounter put a smile on our faces as we shook hands and said goodbye.
A few blocks on we heard live music and followed the sound to a massive stage show set up in front of the Opera House. It was a Soviet-like celebration of the workers’ paradise, and even though we couldn’t understand the lyrics, we could definitely get the intent. “We are all happy to be cogs in the machinery of state!” Even the dance moves were poses we’ve seen in Soviet films and statuary, with a few gratuitous chest pumps by the men to bring it into the 21st century. The women’s choreography was chaste and heroic.
We watched for a while but couldn’t make it ’til the end. It was a long day full of surprises and it’s time to sleep.
I can’t go anywhere without visiting the local market so we plodded along in increasing heat and humidity to Ben Thanh market, which was a bit further than our feet wanted to go. It was the huge and warren-like type of market and we couldn’t discern the organization, if there was one. By now we were well past needing a sit down and a cool drink.
The cool drink could be had at the market but not the sit down, especially in air conditioning, so we abandoned the market ramble in favor of a café break, which we accomplished after my obligatory ceremonial sidewalk fall (not a neurological event but a frequent occurrence due to inattention, uneven or broken pavement and a trick ankle that lets me down a little too often for my taste.) I didn’t actually hit the dirt this time but I did end up with a muddy foot and shin, so when I spied a man hosing off his motorbike halfway down the street I jetted right up to him and pointed to my leg. He obliged without hesitation and hosed down my leg while his friend doubled over in laughter. I’m perfectly fine being a source of amusement and thanked them both.
We’re only a few days from Independence Day here, April 30, the day the Viet Cong tanks broke through the gates of the palace and ended the War of Aggression. We can see various venues being set up for celebration and at the Ho Chi Minh memorial we spied a small but quiet group gathering in the park. We were stopped by police from approaching from the back, so Jack circled around to get a photo. Unfortunately we couldn’t find anyone with sufficient English to tell us the significance or identify the groups who were taking turns reading short speeches, respectfully holding a moment of silence and laying the same wreaths over and over while photographers recorded the moment.
On the way back to the hotel we ducked into a silk embroidery shop, mainly to catch our breath in the air conditioning, but the artwork took our breath away again. These are not paintings, but finely detailed stitchery in luminous silk thread. One picture takes up to a year to complete. The shop minders hovered closely so I didn’t feel I could take closeups, but trust me, you couldn’t tell they aren’t painted even inches away, so perfect is the needlework, so subtle the color shading. I’ve never seen anything like it.
As we get older we find we no longer try to squeeze every must-see site into our travels, especially on shorter journeys like this visa run to Vietnam. It isn’t just the decreased range we have owing to Jack’s deteriorating knee and my aching back, but we often think, do we really need to visit one more temple? Do we want to spend a half day in a museum? Is a three hour bus ride worth a photo op? But the real reason, as we’re still learning after seven years of near continuous travel, is that good things happen when we set out with only a vague destination and keep our eyes and ears open.
Saigon was always going to be a challenge. Yes, it’s a city with important historical significance and a widely touted foodie reputation, but it’s huge and sprawling and more than a little daunting as we tried to plan a tourist itinerary for our days here. We consulted online lists of Top Ten Things to Do but in the end we threw up our hands and did what we usually do, picked a direction and started walking.
Because we like architecture we walked towards the old Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, a scaled down replica of the original, sure to be poignant in light of the recent tragic fire in Paris. But as we were rolling our eyes over the huge McCafé on the corner we were delighted to discover an entire street of book stalls and cafés, heaven for readers. We were tempted to stop right there and just soak up the literary atmosphere and we thanked the French for the legacy of café culture they’ve imprinted on their former colonies and possessions.
The architecture didn’t disappoint, although the cathedral is mostly scaffolded and shrouded in tarps and netting.
The post office is also beautiful and inside we watched a public scribe fill out a complicated form for his customer. I’ve never seen that before.
I was 16 years old in 1967 and afraid I’d never see the world beyond the Jersey shore, our usual family vacation destination. Most of my 18th century immigrant ancestors undertook long sea journeys from Europe to reach the docks of Philadelphia and must have kissed the earth and said “That’s quite enough of that, thank you very much,” and didn’t budge from the spot for 150 years before finally bravely venturing 20 miles west to the suburbs where they again dug in for the duration.
I do have one branch on my mother’s side who sailed back and forth across the Atlantic and throughout the Caribbean and it’s those genes I must have inherited, because unlike my parents, I’ve always had itchy feet. So when I heard over my high school public address system that applications were being accepted for the foreign exchange program I saw that as my only opportunity to experience something else of the world.
What followed was an intense and months-long process of written questionnaires, essay-writing and interviews with conference rooms full of men in suits. Nineteen sixty-seven was the height of the Vietnam war and there was much anti-American sentiment around the world. I was questioned extensively about how I will react if and when I’m challenged about our involvement in Indochina.
And it’s one, two, three What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn Next stop is Vietnam; And it’s five, six, seven Open up the pearly gates Well there ain’t no time to wonder why Whoopee! we’re all gonna die —– Country Joe and the Fish, 1967
I must have given appropriately diplomatic answers because I was accepted into the program and in the summer of 1968 I flew to Sweden to begin a year of study abroad. During the year I was challenged, not often, but always aggressively and I was in the unenviable position of being 17 years old and having to defend a country I love about our involvement in a war I disagreed with as I was still grappling with understanding the dynamics of world politics, the “threat” of communism and what that meant to America.
Some folks are born made to wave the flag Ooh, they’re red, white and blue And when the band plays “Hail to the chief” Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no —- Credence Clearwater Revival, 1969
Vietnam was the first televised war and the film footage on the nightly news was terrifying. Vietnam was halfway around the world. The people and landscape were profoundly different from what most of us knew of the world before satellite communication and the internet. Unlike World War II this was guerrilla warfare in the jungle against people who were defending their country to the death against alien invaders using tactics that our leaders portrayed as barbaric. At home, rising anti-war sentiment split the country in two, mostly along generational lines.
War! (huh good god, y’all) What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! (say it again)
War! (whoa, lord) What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! —– Edwin Starr, 1970
All of this was the inescapable context of our teen and early adult years and left its painful mark on my American generation, regardless of political ideology. And it’s this long buried scar that suddenly flared up as we stepped off the plane into the jetway in Saigon. I was hit with a wall of sadness and an internal soundtrack of the Ride of the Valkyrie, Fortunate Son and the whap-whap-whap of a Huey that nearly buckled my knees and brought me to tears. I looked over at Jack and saw the same struggle on his face yet everyone around us appeared normal and stepped quickly towards the scrum at passport control.
In the taxi to our hotel I saw a billboard featuring Christy Brinkley, and we noted the ubiquitous KFC and McDonald’s. American popular culture has dug its claws deep into the flesh of this country we nearly destroyed fifty years ago and it made me feel even worse that even though we lost the war on the battlefield, we must have won the culture war, for good or for ill. We’re going to have to come to grips with this in the coming days.
It’s that time again, time to leave Malaysia before our 90-day visas expire, stay away for at least seven days and re-enter for another 90-days’ reprieve. The easy route is of course a quick sail or ferry over the border to Thailand to hang out on the beach for a week, but we’ve always thought of these bureaucratic constraints as opportunities — excuses, if you will — to do some inland travel. We seriously considered a spiritual journey to the Himalayas (it’s not as far as it sounds) but after weeks of research and planning, we came to our senses when we realized we don’t have appropriate footwear or clothing for the trekking we’d want to do. Even if we could get proper footwear in Langkawi (doubtful) no one in his right mind would head off on a trek of any kind on new hiking boots. We reluctantly nixed that destination for now and set our sights toward Vietnam.
Vietnam is a big country and travelers can spend many weeks or months exploring the diverse cultures, landscapes and historical places from north to south and back again. But as always, we’re limited in time and budget and have to make some hard choices. We’re starting in Saigon, now officially Ho Chi Minh City, but still called Saigon by just about everyone.
And so we set off on the early ferry from Rebak to Langkawi, took a Grab car to the airport for a flight to Kuala Lumpur, and after a few hours layover boarded Malindo Air flight 561 for Saigon, excited to be going somewhere new and hoping to escape the paralyzing heat of Langkawi.