I am a member of a generation in the United States that does not, luckily, immediately associate Vietnam with war. My parents are a different story. I remember hearing from my mother about her classmates and their receipt of their draft letters – how so many often remarked, ‘if only my mother had me a day later.’ I also remember my family friends being some of the first travelers granted visas to Vietnam after the ceasefire.
I went to Vietnam in January 2010, meeting up with my parents during the winter holidays when I was teaching in China. I will say this – whatever your feelings on Vietnam and the war, give the country, and it’s people, a chance. It’s a beautiful place.
My parents arranged the trip in Vietnam (and our continuation into Cambodia) through a travel company we’ve used since called Sita. While there were a few inter-country flights, we also had a decent amount of driving to see the countryside.
All told, our itinerary in Vietnam was:
- Halong Bay
- Hoi An
- Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)
Of where we traveled in Vietnam, I would say I much preferred Hoi An and Hue than either of the major cities.
We arrived in Hanoi (in the North) and one of our first excursions was to Halong Bay, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I would almost say the boat ride out to the Thien Cung Cave was more enjoyable and beautiful than the caves themselves.
The actual cave was, rather than appreciated for it’s natural beauty, turned into a light show with fluorescent lights illuminating the stalagmites and stalactites, with the artifice of having a ‘dragon’ living within. It was a lot of unnecessary pomp and pageantry for a location I’m sure looked lovely naturally.
My personal opinion: if you’re heading out to Halong Bay, opt for a cruise around the bay rather than a tour which includes the caves; you’d be wasting your time and money.
From Hanoi, we moved on to Hue. Hue was an interesting place for a number of reasons, not in the least because it was the imperial capital and has the ghosts of palaces within and around it.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown up Irish and in an (extended) family of funeral directors, but I’ve always been fascinated by time and things (or dynasties) rising and collapsing, crumbling under our fingers. We all are, to an extent and I could really feel it there in Hue, amid the ruins.
I really don’t remember spending that much time in Hue, so I think we must’ve only passed through to walk amid the ruins before continuing on to Hoi An.
If you don’t know a lot about the history of Vietnam before the war, here’s a little factoid – they were, for a long time, French IndoChina. Thus, a lot of Vietnamese food is bread or baguette heavy. Blame (or thank) the French. I feel like when it comes to baguettes and bread products you have to thank the French, but colonisation, not so much.
Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City
Like Hue, Hoi An was a bit of an oasis for us in Vietnam, somewhere we really genuinely enjoyed, though it was touristy for sure. I’m sure this was in part to where we stayed – a hotel which definitely had ‘beach retreat’ written all over it – white airy rooms, lots of open spaces, and of course, the obligatory poolside bar.
Hoi An was quieter than Hanoi, which is to be expected when Hanoi has a population of 7 million and Hoi An at about 120,000. Hoi An is also a World Heritage Site thanks to UNESCO, as it is a well-preserved ancient town.
Our guide one morning decided to take us through the local market. It was, as most Asian markets are, loud, crowded, smelly and generally abrasive. I had been living in China for more than 6 months at that point, though, so loved it and embraced it, and was more than familiar with it. My mother – not so much.
Outside of the heritage, one of the big draws for Hoi An are the tailors. We went to a number of tailors to look at what they had to offer as well as to see the silk production process. Which, if you weren’t aware, actually still does involve worms. That’s actually a thing.
While we didn’t buy anything, if you are looking to buy something, be aware. I learned this well after the fact (though it doesn’t surprise me), but basically everyone in Vietnam works on commission. So that friendly old lady on the street who told you her ‘daughter’ works at this great tailor down the road? Working on commission. The staff at your hotel? Working on commission. Waiters and any tour guides you might be working with? Working on commission. They will tell you to go to wherever they’re taking a commission from, not necessarily the best location.
If you want to buy something quality then, don’t blindly trust. I know, I know – you travel, you know how to do your research. But bear with me. Use as many crowdsourced platforms as possible – fake reviews run rampant so look at more than one review source or message board for who actually has a good reputation. Platforms like Trover could be useful as well. And if you can, talk to people you know and trust who have been to Hoi An – the numbers are getting bigger as Vietnam continues to become more of a tourist destination.
Away from the material, like in Hue, in Hoi An I felt those ghosts of the past as well, those moments of silence and the upswell of grace.
Then there were the all too practical moments, like where we walked in on a lunch at a part of the silk making process where they were putting out a whole pigs head in the sun, covered with cheesecloth. Why, I can’t for the life of me remember. Let’s say it was blocked out.
From Hoi An, we went down to Ho Chi Minh City, which is where we were when the Lunar New Year – Tet – was celebrated.
It was a unique experience, traveling during a holiday, as, like most of Asia during the Lunar New Year, you go home to see your family. So the city was relatively quiet. I do mean relatively, though, as there were still a crazy amount of motorbikes carrying things they should not be. Like plate glass, or haphazardly balanced wooden crates with chickens in them.
I can’t say I was a fan of Ho Chi Minh City. I kept wanting to call it Saigon because of the musical Miss Saigon I saw on Broadway when I was younger, but I checked the impulse, as I’m sure it would have been less than appreciated.
We also went to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which was absolutely surreal. Seeing the way the soldiers hid and the traps they set…was hard. Especially with my mother there, and knowing her rather intimate experiences with US soldiers and the war (more than what I’ve said here – but it’s not my story to tell).
From a historic standpoint the guerrilla war they waged is interesting, from a human standpoint I couldn’t help but be dismayed this was all preserved for people to come and visit, made an attraction out of.
My father and I capped off the tour by having a shot of snake-infused vodka (or maybe tequila), which made me that inch more disconcerted.
From Ho Chi Minh City we moved on to Cambodia, which I was much more a fan of than the former Saigon.