Good Morning, Vietnam
I’m a little late on this post since we’ve already been in Viet Nam (I’m going local) for 1.5 weeks, but mark that as a testament to how much fun we’re having. Our journey from Cambodia on Thursday the 18th was neither our least nor most interesting border crossing experience. Our shuttle bus from Kep took us to the border and dropped us off – we then rode a different shuttle bus (but coordinating companies) to Ha Tien to catch the ferry to Phu Quoc Island. The level of security at the border was absolutely laughable, and we were pretty sure the Vietnamese-side x-ray machine wasn’t even on. The journey was relatively painless, though I can’t say the same for 2 rather dumb Canadians who somehow missed the fact that you needed a Vietnamese visa before crossing the border. They clearly could have used my organizational expertise.
Sidebar: T&I were unsure and a bit wary about saying we’re Americans while in Vietnam. Of course decades have passed since the Vietnam War (known here as the War of American Aggression) and Americans have been traveling to and living in this country for just as long, but we didn’t know what to expect. The first Vietnamese man we spoke to (on our island bus from the Phu Quoc ferry to our hotel) was immediately excited to hear that we’re American. His father fought with the Americans in the war and experienced a horrific head injury – he was very near death. The American doctors treated him in the military hospital and he fully recovered. The gratitude of his son was heartfelt and honest, and we weren’t entirely sure how to react except to say that we were so happy his dad was okay. More about the war and current sentiment toward America/ns later, but I wanted to document our first experience, especially since it’s the only one like that.
Phu Quoc Island is the largest island in Vietnam and is home to 2 of its most beautiful beaches – not just in our opinion. The island has seen a ridiculous amount of growth and development in recent years, but all of its electricity is still generator-generated. There are plans for gigantic resort developments and the teeny-tiny airport will supposedly be open to international flights by the end of this year. It would help if they had a proper road around the island, which they’re working on, along with proper water pipes/drainage/sewer systems. It’s kind of a mess on the streets and in the town areas, but the beaches are pristine and stunning. Though technically still rainy season (June-November), we had clear, beautiful days and mostly gorgeous nights.
We stayed in a bungalow on the beach (one end of Long Beach, to be exact) at the Lien Hiep Thanh Family Hotel. Though fairly busy, we were there in low season and really enjoyed the peace & quiet, cheaper prices, and better service. We filled our days with reading on the beach, swimming in the obscenely warm and clear Gulf of Thailand, snorkeling (total waste, unfortunately, since the corals are mostly dead), fishing (Tyler- 4 fish, Seema- 1 tire), and eating copious amounts of fresh seafood. We made some wonderful new friends from NYC,London, and Pennsylvania and adventure-ate with them at the night market in town on a couple occasions. For less than $10/person, we ate all of the following (and drank as much Tiger beer as we wanted): squid, scallops, sea urchin, red snapper, octopus, oysters, tiger prawns, flower crabs, morning glory (cabbage-family vegetable cooked with copious amounts of garlic), rice, and garlic bread. Our favorite was EASILY the flower crab – not only is it totally unique to this part of the world, but it combines the best elements of lobster and crab into one deliciously meaty, easy to eat shellfish. It was pretty simply prepared – grilled in the shell on an open bbq – sprinkle some lemon and chili sauce on top and you’re in heaven. For dessert (yes we still had room), we headed to Buddy’s for some imported New Zealand ice-cream (ironic since when we were actually in NZ for our honeymoon, we can’t recall eating ice-cream at all).
The highlight of Phu Quoc was our Sunday night on the town – after gorging ourselves at the night market, our group of 7 headed to Kiki’s nightclub, which unknown to us, is a local hotspot. After spending almost 2 hours dancing away to random Vietnamese dance music, Gangnam Style, and assorted American pop, we decided to head back. It had started lightly raining, but the group vote was to walk back along the beach (about 30 mins) to our hotel. Our walk was lit by lightning only and the crashing waves, thunder, and the sounds of our own merriment provided the soundtrack. Because of the pitch-black night, I discovered that the water was bio-luminescent – a stunning representation of mother nature’s artistic genius – and one I had never seen before. As the 5 of us American 30ish year olds who quit our jobs to travel carried our flip-flops and let our feet sink into the white sand as the warm rain drenched us on this remote island of a faraway land… we were the happiest people on the planet.
On Monday morning, we said adieu to island paradise and boarded a cheap JetStar Pacific flight to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Random Southeast Asia travel tip – flights are cheaper than trains and buses are known to have tons of accidents (esp. at night), so do yourself a favor and book a 1-hour flight instead of a 15 hour toilet-less death ride. You’re welcome.
Saigon is everything and nothing like I expected it to be. First of all, it’s ridiculously clean and beautiful, but not just by Asian standards. It is clearly French-influenced and inspired with its large boulevards, tons of green park space, and colonial architecture now mixed with modern skyscrapers (and Buddhist pagodas). It’s quite cosmopolitan and international, and we even ate the best Tex-Mex we’ve had outside of Texas in a tiny hole-in-the-wall in the backpacker district. Crossing streets here is reminiscent of Frogger and can be stressful because of the inordinate amount of motorbikes, but it makes every moment an adventure (that you don’t have to pay for), so T&I enjoyed it. We stayed at the Diep Anh Guesthouse in a back alley of the Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood (i.e. backpacker district), which put us in prime walking distance to pretty much everything we wanted to see (and eat).
Another sidenote: Vietnamese food is everything we dreamed it would be and more. We’re in love and will happily tell you why, but in a later post dedicated to the topic – it’s earned that level of respect and prestige.
Our sightseeing in Saigon focused on the war, and since we only had 2.5 days, we probably didn’t eat as much as we could have. But learning more about the Vietnamese perspective of this war they teach us so little about in American high schools was an important mission for us, and we easily sacrificed market time for history lessons. What we’ve learned may make you upset, and it may even piss you off (at us, at America, at the Vietnamese, at the world and its injustices). I will preface by saying that our opinion of the war itself is not a reflection on the men & women who serve(d) in America’s military. We have nothing but the utmost respect for military personnel and certainly cannot place any blame on them for the poor policy and inhumane decisions made by our country’s leaders. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t EXTREMELY important lessons from our country’s experience to be applied today. Moreover, the American “way” of always thinking we’re right or that we’re great or that we know best is total and utter propaganda on the same level as the signage here in Vietnam about how the communist brotherhood takes care of everything. If we can’t take a step back and see ourselves in the eyes of the world (increasingly negative since the 1960’s) and adapt accordingly, our nation’s greatness will forever be lost.
Here’s what I learned in school about the Vietnam War in a nutshell (though I was exposed to more in college in Poli Sci/History classes and law school because I took a few international law/human rights courses). Prior to our current war in Afghanistan, it was the longest war America has fought. It’s the only war we’ve ever lost. We were fighting the communists. The poor Vietnamese people didn’t want to be Communist.
Never mentioned: Agent Orange and its jarring effects; mass bombings of villages, jungles, and entire ecosystems; the fact that many (if not most) Vietnamese supported the Viet Cong; the fact that Ho Chi Minh (leader of the communist party and North Vietnam) was French educated, well-traveled, and respected by world leaders; the ridiculous, racist, and outrageous comments made by American policy and military leaders like “we’ll bomb them into the stone age”; the fact that once again, the attempt of a European colonial power to impart some sort of bifurcation or division among a people led to deep resentment and internal strife.
Despite my intense love for the country that has given me the opportunity to live this most amazing life – that has given my immigrant parents a completely different life than what they would’ve had in India- when I saw the pictures on the wall of the War Remembrance Museum of children born without limbs/eyes/genitalia because of the use of Agent Orange during the war, I felt deeply ashamed to be an American. We were near tears – even thinking about it now gives me chills. We destroyed this country and generations of its people – there are children born in this decade with all types of defects because of the high levels of toxins still found in some parts of Vietnam (not to even mention leftover landmines). And for what, exactly? To stop the spread of communism simply because we didn’t like it? Instead of admitting it was a fight we weren’t going to win despite our ridiculously refined military prowess (because NO ONE has won a war fought in Vietnam – ahem just like Afghanistan ahem – even when all they had were AK-47s and bayonets) and pulling out before things got ridiculous and losing the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans (let alone Vietnamese), we decided to use bio-weapons against the masses, only fueling MORE people in Vietnam and around the world to support the Viet Cong and voice outrage against America.
Is the museum full of its own version of events and propaganda in favor of the communist regime? Obviously. Parts of that irked me, like calling the Viet Cong “American Killer Heroes.” But is it really any different from any national museum anywhere in the world? I’m sure we’d like to tell ourselves that American/European museums aren’t biased, but they are. I remember visiting the British Museum in London and being totally annoyed by some of the descriptions of British colonial rule in India- as if civilization couldn’t have occurred without the Brits, despite the historical fact that one of the first human civilizations developed in India long before people were even white. Bias is everywhere, which is why you always have to dig deeper for the other side/perspective/opinion. Having the opportunity to see America in a different light, albeit a negative one, is important to understand my country and its history in more depth and with greater context.
The Vietnamese are extraordinarily nice people, and lucky for us (and despite everything), they love Americans and Indians. The younger generation (most of the population) is all about mimicking American culture/clothing/cool-ness and learning English and making their lives better. Every man and woman over the age of 18, after asking us where we’re from, asks how old we are, if we’re married, and if we have kids. When we say “not yet” – they invariably say “this year- year of dragon- you have boy!” and get as excited as any of our family members about the prospect of our halfsie children. They are kind and smart, funny and affable, with big hearts and an inner strength and peace I envy. We are enamored with Viet Nam and feel extraordinarily fortunate to be in this truly unique country.