Without planning it, I ended up spending almost a month in Vietnam during this little trip o' mine. It could just be spending $60 on the visa made me determined (initially) to get the most out of it. And I'm (mostly) glad I did, although towards the end I could have sped things up a bit and headed on to Singapore sooner. I also could have shaved off nights in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An to make the whole trip a bit more compact.
I liked a lot about the country, and then found some aspects to it kind of annoying. Before I dive into this, I would like to say that I think there is a big misconception with travel that we either have to love everywhere we go or we've failed somehow as travellers (or the destination has failed us as tourists!). The more I'm on this trip, the more I'm reminded that a big part of travel isn't being wowed every five minutes but just showing up in a place and seeing how it runs and operates, how life is lived daily. We'll probably always have some places that feel more "at home" to us right away, or intrigue us more for various reasons, or that we find more pleasant or charming or adventurous or whatever the "thing" is that we're looking for. I just definitely seems to fall out of our consumerist mindset that we go to places to "consume" them and if they're not up to our standards or expectations, they've somehow failed us. A lot of travel blogging seems to approach it from one of two points-of-view: either everything is AMAZING and you've got to try zipling in Costa Rica and meeting monkeys in Bali and every single minute is packed with awe and joy and happiness (basically just like an extensive travel brochure), or, evaluating everything up to some set of criteria (was the town convenient for walking? Was the food inexpensive? Were the people nice?) Both of these approaches are probably a little fundamentally flawed; the underlying logic seems to be trying to sell you a place (or sell the idea of travel-as-lifestyle) or letting you know how a place lived up to the hype. So, hopefully my thoughts about Vietnam can just be read as my personal, highly subjective opinions and impressions about a place.
Overall, I liked Vietnam. I think especially as an American, it's a really important place for us to visit and to confront a lot of the very ugly past that is the result of direct American involvement. Yes, there are many Americans who fought in Vietnam and have suffered its scars in many ways, but as a nation, we've simply never had to confront the widescale destruction it caused "over there." Yes, the North Vietnamese Army killed plenty of civilians and soldiers, too; it's not the one-sided story you see at the museums and monuments in Vietnam that basically says the US was the big bad imperialist aggressor and all the nice NVA wanted was to just have one big happy country! Clearly there were loads of Vietnamese refugees fleeing the North and the country during the war, not just for safety, but because they really did oppose the agenda of the Communists in the north. Was the South Vietnam president as much of a "U.S. Puppet" as the write-ups at the War Remnants Museum or Khe Sanh Museum would have you believe? Probably, yes, to some extent, but you can't help but feel at the sites in Vietnam that you're getting a very one-sided take on history that is riddled with hyperbole and over-the-top patriotism. (Then again, we have some stuff in the US about our own history that can often be rife with hyperbole and over-the-top patriotism, so we're hardly innocent in this regard.) On one hand, it was very sad to take in a lot of the history that had happened and to look around and know it has impacted so many individuals in the country. Most people don't go around choosing war, it tends to be something that happens to them and they're forced to engage somehow (to join a side, to flee, to try to go on living a semi-normal life in abnormal conditions). The effects of Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam and its environment is just devastating. The number of unexploded ordances still lying around streams and jungles that blow up every year is horrific (on my National Park Tour in Phong Nha, we were told about a little boy who had recently been playing a stream, picked something up, got scared, and threw it up river -- only for it to explode and him to lose a leg). So, yes, while we have some vets around who we honor here and there, as a nation we've simply never had to deal with the ongoing aftermath of war in our own backyard, at least not in over a hundred years. Visiting felt like a good way to learn more about the war, respect those who fought in it (on both sides) and come to terms a bit more with a chapter of history that often barely gets more than a few sentences in the high school textbooks.
However, despite really enjoying learning more about the war, I did find that the super one-sided captions/take on history got a bit tiring after a while. A tour through the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi makes it seem like he is literally the Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, the bravest soul willing to fight against the "evil" capitalist oppressors. If anything, it feels a bit dated, like propaganda language that died out long before the USSR died its swift and permanent death. You wander around hoping for a little more nuance and insight into things -- for example, the aftermath of the Tay Son Uprisings in the mid-1850s were to sever the country into three 'parts', the North, Central and South. It was because of the weakened Vietnamese state that the French were able to move in and take over. But the party line only wants to discuss that the French were evil imperalist oppressors ... what about the weakened nation-state as a result of the Tay Son Uprisings? Did that have nothing to do with it?
(Sidenote: what frustrates me about some of this is that I find a "victim/victimizer" outlook to be very flawed, and very aggravating to deal with. We're all participants in history, of course to varying degrees, and history is usually filled with all sorts of complicated relationships, agendas, perspectives, and, of course, people making decisions without knowing what the consequences will be or what the future holds! To oversimplify your whole history into just battles of great heroism or episodes of victimization by the "other" seems like you're failing to observe that life itself is a multi-faceted thing -- like you get to be responsible for all the good stuff that happens (winning a battle against the Mongols) but not responsible for the bad (the French taking over and calling the shots). I digress.)
Because of this long, hard history, I found myself having a great deal of respect for the Vietnamese people. They work hard -- very hard. They supposedly look down on Cambodia for not using every square inch of land, because in space-squeezed Vietnam, it's a necessity. Every bit of land that can be used for agriculture is being used to grow something, especially lots and lots of rice. People live in tight quarters; on my street food tour in Hanoi, we ate at one small place where our guide pointed out that the family slept on this sort of shelf raised up off the floor of the main room of the building. They'd push the plastic chairs and tables out of the way, and, if needed, also roll out mats on the floor. At the very opening of the building, they could park a motorbike or two. Space is at an absolute premium, and people are definitely living with a lot less than we do as far as creature comforts are concerned. And, especially given the hardships the country has been through, they are remarkably friendly, nice and helpful. They haven't harnessed a deep grudge against the U.S. or the West, and they haven't allowed bitterness or being dealt a rotten hand in previous years of history to become justification for active hatred against their old enemies. The prevailing attitude seems to be, the past is in the past, let us move forward with optimism and enthusiasm (a similar attitude is definitely seen in Cambodia, which has had their fair share of pretty awful history in the past fifty years, too).
There are some things I can say I think would make an improvement for the country. There are so, so, so many motorbikes. While I was relieved to see sidewalks (an improvement from Phnom Penh), it can be almost impossible to walk on them because so many bikes use them as parking. Then you're forced to walk in the street, dodging out of the way of motorbikes. Some of the most beautiful parts of the country would be much more fun to explore on motorbike so you can escape the clutches of the tour groups (more on this later). But, the country does not want foreigners riding around on motorbikes, for some pretty obvious reasons. Maybe if you are a skilled rider going around a mountain. But it would be a disaster to hop on a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi without a lot of experience. So, you don't want tourists coming and doing that. So, what is the solution? Perhaps making the cities a little bit more pedestrian friendly would be a good thing overall. (Not sure how that is done.) There's also a real lack of easy-to-use public transportation; I never figured out how to take a bus anywhere, and there's no subway/light rail (although to be fair, HCMC has broke ground to build one). This makes enjoying the cities a bit of a hassle (you're either dodging motorbikes or taxi-ing everywhere), or at least kind of exhausting. The other reason I would hope these two main cities can get more pedestrianized (and hopefully increase their public transportation) is that if these cities are already so crowded with motorbikes (and all the accompanying pollution), what is it going to be like in twenty years with even more population riding them?
The only other major thing I found tough about Vietnam is going to sound kinda silly, but bear with me. They have tourism down. Like, really down. Like, so down that it's hard to actually get off the beaten path and feel that you're getting some kind of unique experience that you stumbled upon by turning down a random corner. I found myself missing the days of Cambodian motorbike adventures a lot. Sure, you can ride a motorbike through the Mekong Delta for two weeks and have a more authentic time. But for those of us who don't know how to ride a motorbike and would be kind of intimidated about the idea of riding one around solo (especially since we don't know how!) this way of accessing the country is basically off-limits (I am envious of people who can travel through Vietnam this way!). I enjoyed my overnight trip to the Mekong Delta, but it was touristirific. It was like someone handed depictions of Vietnamese life to people at Disney and said "have at it." The people ferrying us around the canals or trying to hawk coconut juice didn't seem particularly overjoyed at our presence, more like we were there to provide some much-needed income and take in a "Vietnam Experience." I felt similarily on my day trip to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc in Ninh Binh province. Getting off a tour bus, shuttled into some specific restaurant for lunch, then shuttled on to boats, where we can have people hawk bananas and sunglasses and pictures at us for an hour. The scenery was gorgeous, and I get that people are trying to earn some money, but it makes the experience feel way less than special. After a few weeks, I found I was getting worn out from all the incessant hawking.
Ultimately, though, I'm glad that people are going to Vietnam and loving it. I certainly had a good time. It was so easy to get around (every hotel, guesthouse and hostel wants to be your travel agent and will book literally anything and everything for you if you let them) and I found most people there to be very friendly and nice and interested in hearing that I was from the U.S. (and especially from the SF Bay Area, represent!). It's my hope for the country that it continues to develop and flourish, and being a (good) tourist there will play a role in doing that. So on that note, I say, cam on, Vietnam, for all the good times!