I wrote this in 2011 after spending 6 weeks in Vietnam. I am hoping to go back this year.
Vietnam was a country that I had always wanted to go to. I love modern history and Vietnam played a large part in the Cold War. I will admit to not knowing much about it though, other than that there was a war there 40 years ago. Maybe that is what gave it that sense of mysticism, a country that had defeated the Americans and taken control of their own nation after years of being a French colony. That is a very simplistic view of it and the Americans never officially went to war with North Vietnam. Neither do I agree with the politics of the Communists that took power and the policies that were used to punish the South Vietnamese after. After a friend suggested going to Vietnam during my holidays I thought ‘why not?’ and went three days later.
The process of getting to Vietnam was pretty painful. I had made a last minute decision to go and I had to get from Chengdu to Nanning near the Chinese-Viet border. I also needed a visa but that was easily obtained in Nanning. The hardest part was getting to Nanning. I went to buy a sleeper train ticket and they had none so in my wisdom I bought a hard seat ticket. The girl asked me twice if I was sure I wanted a hard seat ticket. I said “Yeah, no bother, I’ll be fine”. It was a good thing I didn’t have too much time to think about it because I think I may well have changed my mind about sitting on a hard seat on a Chinese train for 35 hours.
Sitting on a train for 35 hours is not something I want to do in the near future. Although everyone was very friendly, sleeping was impossible. Chinese people seem to be able to sleep anywhere at any time but I think I managed about four hours on the whole journey. All I could do was smoke and laugh and nod and pretend to understand the guy who was speaking an obscure Chinese dialect. Not that my Chinese was much good at that point. The pain was well worth it though, after waiting a few days for my Visa in Nanning I headed off to Hanoi by bus.
At Chinese immigration I gave my passport to a Chinese girl with a scowl on her face. She inspected my passport, stamped it and threw it back at me. I love Chinese immigration. I then got on a little bus thing with two Dutch girls and we went to the Vietnamese border post. There were a lot of Chinese crossing with us and chaos ensued. Vietnamese immigration at Pingxiang entails you throwing your passport through a window along with everyone else while the 3 immigration officers stamp them without even looking at you.
So 7 days after leaving Chengdu I finally arrived in Hanoi. I stayed in a dorm in the Old Quarter and as soon as I got into the dorm I thought “This is a fucking mistake”, as a crazy Texan in an Argentina football shirt tried to force Jack Daniels on me. He said I looked like a man that liked a drink. Good observation. Five years ago we’d have been best friends. When I met him a few times after though, he was a nice bloke, just a bit mental. His plan was to travel to Myanmar, go to Munich for the beer festival and then go to Vegas to be a professional gambler. I truly believe that is how it will go for him too.
The first morning I was in Hanoi I went with a couple of girls in my dorm to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. I am not sure if it is legitimately him or not. He is supposedly sent to Russia every year to be fixed up. I reckon the Russians have stitched them up to be honest and sent back one from Madame Tussaudes. It was a very surreal experience; just the sense that it may indeed be him gives the room a very strange feeling. The guards make sure you do not smile, laugh or talk while you walk around the mausoleum. He is highly revered in Vietnam and against his own wishes he appears on all banknotes and was embalmed. The Vietnamese see him as the man that freed them from the French, although I am not sure what he would think of Vietnam today, much the same as I often think what Mao would think of the China of today. I spent a few days wandering around Hanoi, drinking coffee and trying to avoid being scammed by all the people that try and approach you.
When I came to Vietnam I had no plan and just decided to do whatever I felt like doing rather than being held to a set plan. You can only really go north to south or south to north in Vietnam because it is such a narrow country. I booked a train to Danang which I knew nothing about but would see what happened when I got there. Danang is where the Americans first landed in 1965 and there are still remains of air force bases on the outskirts of the city. It is also home to China beach which is where the marines had R&R. I stayed at My Khe beach where there were no tourists except for myself. Danang is not a tourist spot and is a good place to see a ‘real’ Vietnamese city. The streets at night are bustling and full of open air restaurants. If you walk along the beach in the evening you will find the locals playing football or going for a swim in the sea, and it was the only place in Vietnam that I attracted stares for being a foreigner. The people were very friendly though. On my second night there the hotel thought I had left and gave my room to someone else. They sorted it out and the Vietnamese guy was put in another room. I went back out a few minutes later and there was a hooker knocking on his door so it was lucky I arrived when I did!
Marble Mountains, Danang, Vietnam
About 10km outside of Danang is the Marble Mountains. The Viet Cong hid in these mountains during the war and when you go inside you can see the hospitals that they built inside. The American Air Force bombed the mountains but from what I was told they were not very successful in flushing the Viet Cong out. It’s strange because from the mountains you can see China Beach and can imagine the Viet Cong watching them on R&R. The mountains also have temples inside them. Some of which are liking walking on to a set in an Indiana Jones film. I went through a small door and came out into a massive hall with statues of Buddha and altars. It was one of them moments you get when you are travelling when you think ‘is this real?’ There was not much to do in Danang after seeing the mountains and a museum so I headed on to Hoi An and Hue.
Old American airbase just outside of Danang
America beach in Danang where the U.S soldiers would go on R&R
Hue is a city that saw a massive amount of fighting during the war. There is a large citadel in the middle of the city which was a battleground and in the book ‘Dispatches’ the fighting is described very vividly. I wandered around the citadel a few times while I was in Hue and it seemed strange that only 35 years ago it was a scene of such carnage. From various descriptions I have read and heard from the Vietnamese the citadel was littered with bodies. One account tells of how the Americans approaching the bridges up to the citadel find a Vietnamese kid walking down the road smiling and laughing, while others went about their everyday business. It was something the Americans could never understand. The Vietnamese just got on with it regardless of the absolute chaos that was going on around them. The resilience and industriousness they have is what has got them to where they are today: A country with the aim of joining the first world by 2020. It wouldn’t surprise me if they achieved this either. While walking back from the citadel one day a lady at a shop I bought a drink in asked me if I could spend some time helping her with her English. She was 55 years old and had never been out of Hue but she knows that if she can speak English she can attract more customers. I went back a few times to see her and although I didn’t want anything for helping her she gave me a few Cokes.
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Hoi An is about 150km from Hue and very close to Danang so I ended up going south then back north again to get there. I had heard a lot about it, but I was not very impressed with it. It is just a tourist town that has been fixed up to make it look better. It is also expensive compared to the rest of Vietnam. Unless you want a suit or some other clothes there is not much reason to go there. I did get lost there though which I don’t think is very easy to do as it is not a very large town.
From Hoi An I carried on to the city of Nha Trang. I had been told by various people that this place was the ‘Magaluf of Vietnam’. I didn’t think I’d be spending much time there because that is definitely not what I was in Asia for. I ended up staying there for two weeks. It is not anything like Magaluf and is a nice place to relax and just do not a lot. It gave me time to think and relax. My job in China for previous 5 months had been incredibly draining and difficult and I needed that time to chill. I was also having doubt about returning to China. I didn’t look for a job in Nha Trang but if I had been offered one I would have taken it. There isn’t an awful lot to do apart from sit on the beach and then chill out in a bar in the evening. I went across to a small island with some friends I had originally met in Nanning and then met again in Nha Trang. We managed to find a boat to take us across and then wandered around a small village before getting chased by guard dogs.
Although I avoided the places they went to, there were a lot of people of foreigners in Nha Trang that were only there to get pissed. I’ve had my years of madness and all I can say is ‘WHY?’. You go all the way to Asia to get wrecked every night. What is the point? When the Vietnamese staff realised I didn’t drink they were much more friendly and would sit and talk with me. Their opinion of westerners is that all we do is drink and get out of our heads every night. Seriously, just go to Magaluf. I am so glad I never went years ago because I would have missed out on some of the most beautiful countries in the world.
I was offered a job in a town near Dalat while I was in Nha Trang. Dalat is high up in the mountains of southern Vietnam and is a nice escape from the heat although at night it did get quite cold. The scenery was beautiful and Dalat reminded me of India. I decided against taking the job because by this time I had decided that I wanted to go back to China and learn Chinese. I’d learnt a fair bit and I thought it would be a waste to not learn it to a good standard. After deciding against the job I headed off to the place that is synonymous with southern Vietnam: Saigon.
When the North Vietnam Army ‘liberated’ Saigon they renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. Very few people in the south call is that though and stick to the name Saigon. It’s crazy, it’s hot, it’s full of people trying to scam you but it has a charm. It took me a few days for me to appreciate it but it is one of my favourite cities. The War Memorial Museum has a section devoted to the effects of napalm. I had to walk out after a few minutes. I wanted to cry and I couldn’t look at the pictures anymore. I can’t comprehend why it was used against civilians. There are still people that are being affected by its use in the war and it really is tragic. I am aware that there was a lot of propaganda in that museum but with napalm you don’t need propaganda, the results of its use need no embellishing. The book ‘The Girl in the Picture’ is a good read about a napalm victim.
I also went to the Palace in Saigon that has been left as it was when it was liberated in 1975. It is like stepping back into the past with war time maps on the walls and old telephones. There was an old American helicopter on the roof and the American tourists all wanted a picture taken with it! On my way back I was approached by 3 people claiming to be Thai’s and they wanted to take me to a wedding the next day. To get away I agreed to meet them the next day. I didn’t go and meet them but it is part of a scam where they start playing cards and let you win. Eventually they take you to the cleaners and from what I have heard a lot of people have fallen for it. The scams in South East Asia are very clever and I often wonder if the same happens in London.
Map room in the presidential palace, Saigon
I wandered around Saigon for about a week while waiting for my visa extension. As I didn’t know where I was going next I finally made the decision to head for Phnom Penh via the Mekong Delta. The trip through the Delta was impressive although we kept being harassed to buy things and due to it being rainy season the rain was non-stop. After 6 weeks I made it to the Cambodian border by boat.
Cambodia, taken from the Vietnamese side of the border
Vietnam left a massive impression on me. More so than other countries in Asia. My interest in modern history is probably part of the reason but also I have said before, the resilience of the Vietnamese people. The French said ‘The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Khmer watch it grow and the Laos listen to it grow.’ They work extremely hard and nothing illustrates that more than the floating market near Can Tho. People go to the market at 2 in the morning to buy things to sell in markets as far away as Saigon. They are also very friendly. Considering their previous interactions with western countries this is pretty admirable. Market reforms in Vietnam only took five years to come about after reunification and even before that there was a massive black market. If there was any country not suited to Communism then it was Vietnam. They are fiercely proud of their country but they are also very open. One Vietnamese man openly criticised the corruption in the country. This amazed me because having lived in China I didn’t expect it. There is still problems in Vietnam, ethnic minorities are still considered a problem by the government. There is still poverty, although no as obvious as in Cambodia or Laos. There are only 2 million members of the Communist Party and there are 86 million people in Vietnam. Perhaps political change will come at some point in the future but for the moment the Vietnamese just seem happy to have what they have. I admire their being able to come back from a war torn country stricken with poverty to what they are today. Many people I met didn’t like Vietnam but it is the most beautiful country I have been to with some of the friendliest people I have met. You just need to get past their instinct to sell you something!