Monday, March 24, 2014

Observations on Vietnam

A few take aways from Vietnam:

1.  They have worked hard on their tourist infrastructure, and it's noticeable.  I was amazed that the buses and trains ran on time and arrived on time.  (An aside: my train and one bus arrived an hour late, but I will count that on time based on my experiences in developing nations.)

2.  The Vietnamese accent is very difficult for me to understand.  I just couldnt get my head around the different sounds and that was a challenge through the whole trip.

3. It's a country that still is struggling with the scars of war. War hurts everyone. Everyone.

4. The climate is vastly different in the north and south.

5.  Motorbikes, while make for somewhat treacherous roads, have saved the nation.  If all those people were driving cars it would be continual gridlock.

6.  The Vietnamese really, really like their noodles.  (and you can only eat so much Pho before you want a cheeseburger.)

7.  Remarkably, every place I went had hot water.  If the Vietnamese can figure this out, it would seem that others in the developing world could too!

8. Ho Chi Minh created a nation and a national identity.  Clearly, he was a great leader....and still looks good in his glass sarcophagus. The Egyptians got nothing on Uncle Ho.

9.  The Vietnamese have fought fiercely to be an independent nation.  From  France, the US, Cambodia, China, the Soviets, The Russians, the Japanese, they have fought everyone.  And won. This perseverance has created a national identity.  

There is something special about this place, and as always, I wish I had a little more time to explore it. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Are there any winners?

How to write about today? I will find it a challenge to put I to words my experiences today. Perhaps that is because no matter how you feel about the war in Vietnam, it impacts you, but more importantly it impacted a country. A country that is still working through the consequences and trials of events that happened forty years ago. 

The day started off normally. I was going on the half day CuChi tunnels tour. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong for protection and surprise attacks and are located 50 km (30miles) from HCMC. The first stop was at a lacquer handicraft village. Several things made this place remarkable: all the craftspeople were victims of Agent Orange and were supporting themselves through creating the lacquer work. Second, the many stepped process and intensity it takes to create this artwork was amazing. We saw the process from the beginning. Work with egg shells and egg shell dust, the drawing of the designs, the painting, the cutting of the mother of pearl, the. Overcoat, the glossing and sanding and finally the polishing. The sheer volume this place puts out is amazing. While I wanted to support the program, I am not a huge fan of lacquer stuff!

Moving on we made it, finally, to the CuChi Tunnels. While the trip was only 30 miles, it took nearly two hours!  The tunnel complex is full of anti-American propaganda, as you would expect. There is a video describing in painful detail how inept the America forces were. An aside: while this complex is on south Vietnam, this was a stronghold for the VC. The danger was how close it was to Saigon and the southern government, and it was  at times the final stop on the HCM trail. 

The VC were very proud of the "farmers during the day, soldiers at night" routine and whole villages of people, men, women, children, elderly, were all part of the liberation movement.  They would pretend during the day to be happy local farmers, bit at night would be using their tunnels to attack the Americans and southern forces. Part of the tunnel experience is seeing all the different tiger holes and booby traps set to hurt and maim the opposition. It was pretty ingenious stuff the VC did to out smart and hurt us! They even figured a way to trick the German shepherds who the US employed to help!

The tunnels themselves are tight. Very tight and small. They Twist and turn and drop down different levels. There is 120m of tunnels open the the public. The are about as wide as a seat on a plane and you end up having to crawl through them. Certainly no room to stand. They drop down about te meters/30 feet underground. No wonder it was hard for the us forces to manage and fight against them. They had little access point hidden all over and would pop up and shoot and them hide in the tunnels. If the US GIs went after them, theyboften got stuck with the size if the gear. Overall, a cool testimony to the ingenuity of the VC. 

After a quick visit to the shooting range (and shooting an M30), we headed back to HCMC. And this is where the actual journey took place for me. 

The stop was the War Remnants Museum. The outside houses a large collection of US planes, tanks, and artillery. Cool to look at and take pictures. But the story begins when you enter the building. 

The museum is three floors and it is a powerful place. I had been expecting more anti-American and pro- Vietnam propaganda. What I found was a museum dedicated to exploring the toll war takes on a population: not soldiers, but the people of the country. It was powerful. The images speak for themselves, but it is incredibly well done. You first encounter more agent orange and dioxin victims who are volunteering and working to make a living. In many cases these people are disfigured, blind, and significantly handicapped. 

The museum goes on to tell a story of a country fighting for its independence, the world supporting a unified (and potentially  communist) Vietnam. And the sad atrocities of war. Not accusatory, but nonetheless, powerful in the role that the Americans acted in the history of this nation. It makes you realize that war impacts everyone in a country.  Not just the military, not just the armed forces.  And the approach of the US was troubling. They had a remarkably tough job. How do you know who your enemy is, when it can be anyone? A farmer, a mother, a child? Napalm and chemical weapons as well as tremendous bombing tore through a country. Who from their point of view. Just wanted to be unified under one government. 

The museum had powerful exhibits on the war protests, on peace demonstrations, on the effects of agent orange (still remaining today) and the photography of the war. Really, a place not to be missed.  Whatever your view of the war, you can't mistake that it claimed large number of civilian casualties and wounded. The estimate is 3 million Vietnamese died. 

Then I thought of our own war memorial and the work of our own troops, and the fight they had. They did what their country asked of them. They sacrificed for what the country beleived was the right course at the time. How can anyone judge them for their sacrifice and service. 

The take away for me:  there are no winners in a war. Everyone comes out a little worse and a little damaged. It is always the weakest, most innocent among the people who bear the brunt of attacks. 

Today had a major impact on me. In many ways it was a very hard day. Much like how I felt at Hiroshima and Auschwitz, this is a feeling I struggle with, but I hope to remember. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fast Paced Ho Chi Minh City

After an almost punctual bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City, I found myself at the center of Vietnam.  This is the place where everything kicks into high gear. If Hanoi is the cultural heart of the country, then HCMC is the heart on steroids. 

The French spent a lot of time in this city developing the place. They built wide boulevards that terminate at big landmarks. It is reminiscent of a European capital. Don't get me wrong it is uniquely Asian, with a colonial feel. Major landmarks are it's Opera House and Notre Dame cathedral. (The woman at my guesthouse told me it was "just like the one in Paris".  Similar? Maybe a little bit. )

Today's walking tour of the city included the tired Ho Chi Minh City museum. What was interesting about the place was really the planes and tanks displayed outside. I also enjoyed the currency display!  The museum was filled with kids in a school field trip who kept putting the bravest (probably fifth or sixth grader) up to talking to me. There was a wedding photoshoot in this building, and a sweet old man and what appeared to be his grandson who wanted pictures with me. Also the museum had been the presidents palace at one point and he had some bunkers and tunnels installed. More on that later. 

One of the main sights of Ho Chi Minh City is the Reunification Palace. So much of Vietnam's recent history plated itself out there. It stands on the sure of a former French palace and housed the president (last name of Diem). Since he was seen as a puppet of the US and an obstacle to a unified Vietnam (and he kind of abused his privilege as president) he was universally hated. So in a coup attempt, his palace was bombed by his own people. (Then he moved to the museum from above.). He decided to rebuild a thoroughly modern palace on the sight and hired a well known Vietnamese Architect. 

The building is classic 1960s feel. Big, airy, open, and with lots of concrete. Not a beautiful place on the outside. It is of course decorated like something out of Austin Powers, early 70s Asian chic. Basically it's like touring the White House, although it hasn't been the presidential home since 1975. The palace is impressive, most of the walls here are glass and there is a very open feeling here. Lots if high level meetings took place here with the US. There are pictures of Nixon and Kissenger meeting here.  It was here that south Vietnam  finally surrendered to the north in 1975. Basically the viet cong sent tanks down the Main Street and through the metal gates to take over the place in a very famous moment. Less than two days after the president had stepped down and went into exile. 

Remarkable here was that there were tunnels and bunkers here to protect the president as well. The Vietnamese really do like their caves and tunnels!  It seems that this was the major way to hide and protect themselves. Tomorrow I am off to the CuChi tunnels which were an extension of the Ho Chi Minh trail. 

No discussion of Saigon is complete without talking about its night life. People here like to go out. One of the major party streets is like nothing I have ever seen. Of course the lights, the neon, the small places, it's what you would expect. But not. The bars all fit a handful or two of people. They are basically store fronts. So it explodes on the sidewalks. The bars and restaurants out out mats and cardboard and just serve people sittingon the ground on the sidewalks. We are talkin about hundreds of people sitting on the ground drinki and eating. Where there aren't people, it is of course motorbike parking!  So people, cars, motorbikes, vendors, all are on the narrow street. Amazing. Like nothing I have ever seen. I was, of course, offered all sorts of pleasures walking down the street, girls, boys, weed, cocaine, some syringes filled with who knows what. Just another night in the big city. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Let's go fly a kite!

I couldn't get that song out of my head all day!  Damn you, Mary Poppins. 

I have spent the last day and a half in Mui Ne. It is an upcoming beach resort place, as several of the others have been overrun with high rise hotels/resorts. In many places, hotels were built quickly and did not pay attention to things like beach erosion, so some of the famous beaches are struging a bit. Not Mui Ne. 

Mui Ne is a big arc of a beach with one half of it beautiful white sands, nice solid surf, lined with both big and small hotels ranging from a beach "bungalow" to the more traditional resort type places. Some are small, some are big, some are nice, others not, there are some real options. The other end of the beach, also had the same options at the same prices, just without the beach. There is a seawall that drops off about 15-20 feet into the sand and water. The "beach" at these places is  just a platform with some sand on it on a cement wall. Not terrible, but really the beach either. 

When I decided to come to this beach, I was searching for something similar to Otres Beach in Cambodia: quiet, remote, and chilled out.  Mui Ne is not that. It is a busy beach town, completed with a strip and some very good restaurants. I upgraded my hotel to stay at a place that had the beach in its back door and it helped me to remember that you often get what you pay for! 

Mui Ne is known for kite boarding. The water is warm and their is a constant wind which makes it a perfect place for kiteboarding. While I have seen people kiteboarding before, nothing compares to the hundreds of people out there today. Hundreds. This is one of those destination spots if kiteboarding is your thing. To be honest, it looks awesome. Really awesome. Had I a few more days, I would be taking lessons.  I imagine it feels a little like you are flying at times. That said with so many "kites" out there, Mary Poppins got into my head. All those things in the pictures that look like birds, kite boarders! Regardless, I enjoyed the hot sun, the warm water, and the cool shade!

Tomorrow is the last of the bus trips (5-6 hours) to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. I wonder what songs I will be singing there! 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Street "foodie"

I am a bit of a "foodie", someone who is a bit of a food critic. Why I have many friends who Beowulf describe themselves the same way, they are talking about fine dining. Quality cooking, you know where you need to balance out the acidity with something. We all are a bit of a food critic since Top Chef hit the airwaves. 

My foodie status does not come from the fine dining world, but rather the street food world. I think since my very first international trip to Greece in 1996 I loved street food. Actually I take that back. I think I was much younger wanting  pretzels and hotdogs from vendors in Boston and New York. 

Why street food? It is cheap, usually delicious, and readily accessible at all hours of the day. There is an element of surprise in there too, you don't always know what you are going to get! I have munched my way around the world eating often what I can find in food carts on the side if the street along the way. 

Southeast Asia has no fear about their street food. It is everywhere and Vietnam seems to be the king of the peninsula. There are food stalls on pretty much every corner. Low tables and stools a lady presiding over a huge hot with noodles and meat around her. The men seem to do the serving and money collecting. I didn't eat in a restaurant during the first seven days of my trip! 

One person decided to market this and created a "street food restaurant" made up of some of her favorite recipes. It was, of course, delicious. A little bit of comfort food goes along way in any culture. It wa of course a bit upscale street food with a restaurant price to go with it. But the idea is a good one!

  Mui Ne takes street food to another level. The local boats come back with fish and it is sold on the sidewalk. Later in the evening you can walk by these impromptu restaurants and see what they are cooking and choose what you want. The options are seafood (fish, mussels, oysters, scallops, squid, crabs, eels, shark, turtle, etc ) as well as some weird land creatures...snakes, geckos, frogs. 

As much as I love a random cheap meal from the corner some days, I miss a nice juicy cheeseburger. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A little R and R on China Beach

After a lazy day in Hoi An yesterday, I figured it perhaps was time for me to make the trek to the famous China Beach where many American soldiers were sent for some R and R, during the war.  I can see why!  The beach is wide and beautiful and the South China Sea is cool and refreshing.  With the sun shining, it is understandable why American GIs would want to hang there.  

The beach is about five kilometers from Hoi An, perfect for a morning excursion before spending just A little more time in "the city".  Fueled bay need to do a little exercise I decided to rent a bike, a regular bike, and head out there.  Able to make only minimal adjustments, this bike was certainly not my Felt tribike from home. But at $1.50 for the day the price was right.  Much like the nonexistent traffic rules for motorbikes, bikes are on their own too, and without helmets to protect you!

One thing I have been noticing but became so clear to me today is how often the Vietnamese use their horns.  The blow them incessantly.  You hear them waking up in the morning until you go to sleep.  They want you to know: that they are behind you, they are closer to you, you should move to the side, or the other side, they are passing you, they want to give you a ride, there are cars coming behind you, there is a car in front of you. This horn blowing doesn't happen just once.  The same car can blow its horn ten times at you.  As a naturally jumpy person, horns always make me tense! But I guess with no traffic rules, you have to have some sort of order!

After at few more hours in town, I will be getting one bus for a seventeen hour journey south to one for the nations best beaches, Mui Ne.  Let's hope it is worth it, because this one was pretty spectacular!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Watching the world go by, Hoi An style

Hoi An is an old port which was frequented by the Chinese and Japanese in the nineteenth century.  It was an important place for trading with these two powerhouse countries back in the 1800s. All was good until the port silted up, long before they had dredgers. So what remains is a quaint old town with no tall buildings, some important temples and old historic homes and a certainly very walkable town. 

Because there are no big buildings, most hotels are out side of the old town. The streets are lined with store fronts from 150 years ago selling all sorts if textiles, souvenirs, and trinkets. Hoi An is famous for its tailors. If you have the time, they are willing to make any type of clothing you would like. Shirts, pants, suits, all custom made. Of course, sprinkled throughout all these shops are some very good restaurants and caf├ęs. 

Hoi An is the kind of place where time stops, and you just wander and relax. You never really have too much to do, but you don't really want to leave.

Hoi An is the type of place that you want to sip some coffee and watch the world go by. And that's exactly what I did!