Vietnam Vacation: Comparing Communist Countries

29 04 2012

When friends and family back home heard about our trip to Vietnam, we got a lot of questions on one particular subject: Communism. To be honest, having not lived through the Vietnam War, modern day communism was not one of the things that I immediately associated with Vietnam. However, once it was brought to my attention that Vietnam was, indeed, still a communist country, it dawned on me that I was about to see my second communist country (I had visited Cuba previously), of only a handful left in the world. So, naturally, an alarm went off in my head, telling me it was time to start mentally comparing and contrasting the two places.

When arriving in Cuba for a brief research trip in 2010, I remember that Havana didn’t immediately appeal to me in many of the same ways that Latin American countries had in the past. There was a sense of magic of course– there always is when landing in a new country– but something was missing. I eventually realized that what was missing for me was the energy and the spirit of people in the streets, walking around selling fried bananas, setting up small shops to sell soda, offering you a ride in their taxi. The so-called entrepreneurial spirit that I had witnessed in so many other Latin American countries didn’t seem to exist in Cuba.

Cuba: Oh no! Where are all the vendors selling me stuff I don't need?

Vietnam: Taxis, moto drivers and vendors at the front of the market









Vietnam, on the other hand, is stuffed to capacity with street vendors and shop owners. Private businesses, and especially small businesses, were apparent everywhere we turned. This was one of the things that made me fall in love with Vietnamese cities, Hanoi in particular. You couldn’t walk more than a few steps without a woman wanting to sell you fried dough balls or a man offering to take you to your next stop on a moto. On the few occasions that we felt hassled by the street vendors, we would generally just look at each, laughing at the irony, and say something akin to “Communism in its purest form, huh?”

In fact, traveling through Vietnam, there were very few visual indications that it’s a communist country. Beautiful Christian churches stood next to Buddhist pagodas. User fees were posted outside of public clinics. In fact, the only real indication of communism was the string of stereotypical propaganda posters lining the streets, including many pictures of Ho Chi Minh himself.

This part was very reminiscent of Cuba. In Havana, pictures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are ubiquitous. It’s impossible to take a stroll without seeing some tribute to one of the country’s two most iconic leaders. And, like in Vietnam, every last billboard you would see was a government sponsored billboard, touting the accomplishments of the country or honoring the revolution.

Cuba: The ominous face of Che

Vietnam: Friendly 'Uncle Ho'

Figuring out Cuba was a challenge for me– the ration booklets, the dual currency system,  the government-led tour. It was all mind boggling. Vietnam was less so. The economic reforms the country made in the eighties left it looking suspiciously capitalist, surprisingly familiar. Vietnam didn’t feel  different in the way that Cuba did. I wasn’t able to see the negative effects of communist policy in Vietnam the way I was able to see it in Cuba.

As a tourist, though, I can’t see everything. I can’t provide any insight into what people’s lives are really like– how happy, healthy or free they feel. This is just my perspective as an outsider, visiting these two countries for a short time. Like many in my generation, I’ve never had the gut reaction to automatically categorize communism as being terrible. I’ve always been of the mindset that just as capitalism is not the same in the US as it is in France, Colombia or Saudi Arabia, communism does not look the same in every context. Our recent trip has helped solidify this idea for me. At least on the surface, Vietnam and Cuba looked and felt like very different places with very different governments.


Vietnam Vacation: Learning about the American War

28 04 2012

As we planned for our vacation to Vietnam, I knew a significant part of the trip would be devoted to history of the Vietnam War. First, I am always interested in seeing a completely different perspective than I’m used to. Second, seeing where my Dad served and learning more about the Vietnam context in which he served was important to me. Lastly, I expected the war to be fully on display due both to its impact on the country and because of the communist/socialist tendency to focus on “the struggle.”

As we started in Saigon, we booked a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is a town about an hour outside of Saigon and was a Vietcong staging area for much of the war. As such, it is home to one of the largest tunnel complexes in the country. Going with a tour group had its predictable annoyances, but the entire atmosphere of the tunnel complex was one of a theme park and not a historical site. As we walked along the footpaths, stopping occasionally to see a tunnel entrance, the sounds of rifle and machine gun fire reverberated off the hills. Halfway through the tour, attendees are given the opportunity to fire Vietnam-era weapons, presumably to encourage PTSD flashbacks for visiting veterans. Simply said, this wasn’t my favorite part of the trip.

At the Cu Chi Tunnels

That afternoon, we went to the War Remnants museum. Due to scheduling changes, this all happened to be on Katie’s birthday (thanks for putting up with me). She was a good sport about learning about death and destruction all day. The museum was incredibly well organized and told a much more balanced story than I expected. In terms of language, the war was called the “American War” and the phrase “the American aggressors” was prevalent. There was little to no mention of the South Vietnamese or Russian materiel support for the NVA. The war was very much framed as a united people repelling a foreign invader, with careful wordplay to avoid any impression that a civil war had ever occurred. There was a war crimes room, which made a less than compelling argument for charges against the US. Perhaps most poignant was the Agent Orange room. Even those with the most skeptical eye would have had a difficult time arguing with the pictures of decimated landscapes, blistered skin, and birth defects. Lastly, there was a display given by the commonwealth of Kentucky featuring American journalists’ work who were killed in the war. All of the displays were informative, factually accurate (as far as my knowledge goes) and no more slanted than any museum in the US. Most bias that could be drawn from the experience was from the information that was not presented rather than the information that was.

I still don't know how they get in the air.

As we worked our way up north, we stopped in Nha Trang and headed off for a day trip to Cam Ranh Bay where my Dad was stationed in 1969. We saw the deep water port where supplies were offloaded, the landing strip turned domestic airport, and the amazing cliffs that led to the blue-green water below. There wasn’t much left from the ‘60s, but it was still amazing to see such a historical and emotional, but beautiful place. It filled me with gratitude that I was able to be there because I wanted to be.

Sure was a beautiful place to fight a war.

We stopped not too far north of the DMZ in Dong Hoi as a base to go to Paradise Cave. Dong Hoi was heavily bombed during the war and had the demolished church to prove it. With only a steeple remaining, the sign reported that this was proof of the “American aggressors’ war crimes.” We kept walking.

After we arrived in Hanoi after Halong Bay, we headed off to the Hoa Lo Prison, more commonly known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Where Saigon’s War Remnants Museum featured a foundation of truth with creative storytelling, the Hanoi Hilton didn’t even try to be evenhanded or factual. Room after room showed evidence of Vietnamese political activists tortured by the French in subhuman conditions, until the 1960s, when apparently the accommodations were just lovely. Photos of American POWs attending church, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and playing volleyball adorn the walls, desperately insisting that this was indeed a wonderful place to spend 6-8 years in captivity.

John McCain's flight suit.

From there, I went to the Vietnamese Military History Museum. This is when things really got weird. It featured lots of captured US aircraft, bombs, and tanks. It also featured a bolt action rifle that apparently shot down an American fighter jet. Also, it included the wreckage of American planes that were shot down during the war; a few of 33,068 American planes that were shot down. Once again, that’s 33,068. I had expected some inflation of the stats, but this was a little more than the 2,000 that the US military reports and still considerably more than the 3,100 that the other Vietnamese museums claimed! Another interesting part of the museum was the display about 1975 onward. A small part was devoted to the Vietnamese skirmishes along the Cambodian border in 1975, but not a word was written about the full scale invasion and 10 year occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese. Despite the fact that they toppled one of the most brutal regimes on the planet, the message that Vietnam would invade another country didn’t seem to fit the independence, self-determination narrative and was left out.

Despite some statistics and war stories being utterly ridiculous, this trip had it all: beautiful beaches, enormous caves, and a whole lot of interesting history lessons. Some lessons were taken with a grain of salt, but all of them gave a better look into the politics of information and into the Vietnamese psyche.


Vietnam Vacation: Development by Design

25 04 2012

As we crossed the border from Cambodia to Vietnam, one thing was very apparent: these are two very different countries.

Even as we got our Cambodian exit stamps at the glorified toll booths, we could see the intricate design of the Vietnamese building just yards away.  Now, obviously the design of border offices aren’t exactly the most precise measurement of development, but it was the first of many noticeable differences to come.

Vietnam is clearly (at least very superficially) developed. As the bus accelerated away from the border, the grass was green, the trees plentiful in a kempt sort of way. The center median was carefully manicured with shrubs, flowers and trees that were clearly tended to regularly. For a land previously doused with defoliants, this was one green place.

As we rode towards Saigon, we couldn’t help but notice the architecture of the bridges and the buildings. Vietnamese houses were not altogether different from those in Cambodia, but they seemed to have something extra. A certain flair, you might say. An aesthetic.

For as wonderful as Cambodia is, there tends to be a focus on the functional, with little concern for aesthetics. Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone; function should always be goal number one when building houses, bridges or roads. As a country working hard (perhaps desperately?) to develop, Cambodian architecture is working at the primary purpose of design: function. There is not enough money as it is, so public projects focus on the basic need and little else (rightly so).

Some of you may remember reading a certain ridiculous term paper I wrote in college in which I measured personal success by the quality of toilet paper you use. I couldn’t help but think of this as we hurtled by shrubs spelling out the names of towns outside of Saigon. If “success” at an individual level is having flushable, er, disposable income/resources beyond the necessary, than can we measure development the same way on a larger scale?

Knowing next to nothing about the economy, government, or culture of Vietnam, I’m just grasping at straws here. But isn’t that what tourists do? We so often make sweeping generalizations about a place based on two days and one night in the tourist district. As tourists, we seek out shiny things, tall things, fast things, clean things, new things to tell us to mentally check that box for capital D-eveloped. Tourists don’t pour over education or infant mortality stats before visiting. We will, of course, look for the biggest burger or the cheapest guesthouse or the best happy hour.

So, as our eyes as development detectors, we rode through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. We passed buildings with sharp angles, diagonal facades, and archways to terraces. Groomed greenscapes gave breathing room to the 9 million residents, while art gave them something to look at. Spiral staircases looped delicately up shops and homes of blue, green, and yellow. Fountains adorned intersections; ponds centerpieced parks. If this was the measure of development, Vietnam was doing well.

Throughout the country, the story was the same. On a desolate patch of highway near Cam Ranh Bay, the only people around were the maintenance crews carefully watering and trimming the hedges. At points, it just seemed to be too much. Certainly, the money for all of this could be put to better uses? Or is it all designed as a façade, hiding systematic problems underneath? Perhaps many tourists will visit both Vietnam and Cambodia, and simply remark, “Cambodia is just so stark, so plain, so boring, etc.” Or perhaps there is a surplus to spend both at the governmental level and for individuals, to concern themselves with the “developed aesthetic.” Maybe as lovers of art and architecture, the Vietnamese are happy to spend more on ornamental aspects of their lives. There are many possibilities, none of which are clear.

But the question remains: do aesthetics indicate development?


Vietnam Vacation: The Best of the Best

22 04 2012

Since we skimped on the details from our trip in the earlier posts (who wants to be blogging while on vacation?), Tim and I are going to post several new entries about our trip now that we’re back at site. Today’s topic: the five most memorable experiences from our journey through Vietnam.

 1. The Crazy House

Officially known as the Hang Nga Guesthouse, this structure, located in the highlands of Dalat, has been termed the “Crazy House” because of its unique design. Conceptualized by Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of Vietnam’s second president, much of the house is built to look like a giant banyan tree. When you enter the front door of the property, it feels almost like walking into a Dalí painting, with spiraling staircases leading you through the massive tree trunk, past rooms filled with statues of bears, eagles and kangaroos. At the top, you’re rewarded with a lovely view of the city of Dalat, but don’t look too long or you’ll surely miss another one of the house’s quirky details. There isn’t one predominant style throughout the house so in a matter of moments you can walk by a stark, cave-like room with an oversized built-in counter, only to be greeted steps later by a gigantic, glitter-bombed wall that’s the color of the sunset. The part of the structure that actually resembles a house would still be considered strange on its own. It, too, is covered with glitter, and adorned with a large yin yang symbol and a giant buffalo head. The Crazy House was a wonderful stop for us, transporting us to a place full of imagination and creativity—and perfect for photo ops. It’s most certainly worth a stop, particularly if traveling with children.

 2. “The Original Taste of Hoi An” Food Tour

Before leaving for Vietnam, Tim and I knew our one splurge item would be a tasting tour. When we arrived in Hoi An, we realized that it was the epicenter of these kinds of activities so we took to the internet to research our options. Almost immediately, I came across a page of reviews for “The Original Taste of Hoi An” tour, based out of Family Restaurant, and it received some of the highest praise of any tourist activity that I’ve ever seen so we signed up right away.

The food tour had two parts. The first consisted mainly of a walking tour through the main markets in town, paired with some samplings of dishes sold in the streets. Having come from Cambodia, this part was a little underwhelming. Much of the first hour was used to describe produce and ingredients that, although might have seemed foreign to us nine months ago, had since been incorporated into our daily lives. Luckily, the rest of the tour made up for the slow start. In fact, this might be the one experience that will most stick with me from our trip.

All in all, we tried over 40 dishes, ranging from cassava and peanut cakes (one of my favorites!) to a sesame seed elixir to Hoi An’s version of nachos. We sampled spring rolls, several noodle dishes, a silky smooth tofu porridge, dumplings, rice wine and, of course, the ubiquitous pho. We tried unblended smoothies, sticky rice treats and Hoi An’s chili sauce. I loved almost every one of those forty dishes, proving that Vietnamese cuisine truly is superior to Cambodia’s uncreative and rather bland food (sorry!).

Taking the tour gave us the tools to find cheap and delicious meal options on the street for the rest of our trip. From that point on, we ate very little Western food, sticking instead to the dishes we had sampled on the tour and, at times, venturing out to try new ones based on our new knowledge. I would highly recommend this tour to anyone, with the small caveat that the tour guide, Neville, has such an immense amount of passion for Vietnamese cuisine that it can be difficult to ask questions or muse on the flavors of your last dish. Overall though, a resounding success!


 3. Paradise Cave

Based on a recommendation from a friend, we decided to spend a couple of days around Phong Nha National Park. So for two nights, we stayed in the town of Doing Hoi, located on the long stretch between Danang and Hanoi. From there we went exploring, ending up at Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in the world. Compared with the other cave we visited on our trip, this one was much more exciting. It was beautiful and, thank goodness, relatively untouched in the world of Vietnam’s tourist trail. There was virtually no one else there when we visited and, believe it or not, the neon lights had yet to reach it. The cave itself was impressive but the scenery en route was just as stunning, with narrow roads winding through the hills, almost eerily blue river water, and shining green rice fields. The entire day was a wonderful reminder of how beautiful this planet is.

 4. Halong Bay Cruise

While I’m writing about beautiful landscapes, I have to mention our two day/ one night cruise on the gorgeous waters of Halong Bay. A UNESCO Heritage Site, Halong Bay features more than 1600 limestone islands jutting out of the green-blue waters. The small, beautiful islands are simultaneously home to jagged cliffs and bright green vegetation. As we left the dock, I was a little disappointed by the scenery but at some point later in the evening, as we were surrounded by these islands in every direction, the magnitude and the majesty of the site really hit me.

Included in the cruise was a trip to Dau Go cave. Unlike Paradise Cave, this was not a very enjoyable experience. Dozens of tour guides led drunk tourists through the cave, lit up with weird neon lights, as they used their laser pointers to show the crowds how different formations looked like footprints, dragons or faces. The cave itself was actually pretty awesome, if only the tourism industry hadn’t taken away from its natural beauty.

After the cave visit, we were able to take kayaks out on the bay, weaving in and out of the limestone islands, under archways and through small caves. Then the last activity was an evening dip in the chilly waters, swimming alongside the jellyfish. (I passed.) We spent the rest of the evening on the deck, enjoying the cool air and brushing up on some cribbage.

The cruise included transportation to and from Hanoi (around 8-9 hours roundtrip), four sizable meals and all fees so we didn’t have to worry about anything from the moment we got on the bus. Tim and I had a nice cabin, complete with a hot water shower and a small balcony where I did some early morning yoga. The trip was an incredibly relaxing, the cave visit notwithstanding, and was a great chance to recharge before hitting the busy streets of Hanoi for our last week.

5. Water Puppet Performance

The very last tourist activity we did on our trip was to see a water puppet performance in Hanoi. The art of water puppetry is unique to Vietnam and has been around since the 11th century. Instead of a traditional stage, the wooden puppets perform on top of water, controlled by long sticks underneath the surface, while the puppeteers themselves are hidden behind a rice screen.

The performance we saw featured around a dozen short skits, many centered around fishing and agriculture. Most did not contain dialogue, rather they were accompanied by a live band, playing and singing traditional songs. One of the highlights of the performance, in fact, was a really moving performance on the Don Bau, an instrument with only one chord. The two primary female vocalists were also very impressive, adding moments of beauty to an otherwise slapstick-based performance.

Seeing the water puppets was a chance to see an art form that doesn’t exist in any other part of the world. It was mostly funny and lighthearted, but it gave a lot of insight into Vietnamese traditions and culture as well. Again, this is something I would recommend to anyone.


Vietnam Vacation: The End of Our Journey

21 04 2012

After 18 wonderful days, our vacation has come to an end. Kaija, Tim and I returned to Cambodia yesterday so I’ll catch you up to speed on our last two stops in the spectacular country of Vietnam.

Halong Bay

Population: 1,600 (across four floating fishing villages)

Fun Fact: Over 5 million visitors visit Halong Bay each year, with more than 11,000 visiting on New Year’s alone

What we did: Kayaked under and through different rock formations; toured a cave; swam; relaxed

Loved: The breathtaking views of the countless islands; catching up on our cribbage; sipping on a beer while the bay disappeared into darkness

Pictures: Click here.

The boat's deck

The view




Population: 6.5 million

Fun Fact: In 2010, Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th anniversary

What we did: Visited the visually stunning and informative Women’s Museum; saw Ho Chi Minh’s perfectly preserved body at the mausoleum; wandered through the Temple of Literature; got a look at John McCain’s flight suit at the prison where we was held and tortured; shopped for souvenirs; watched a water puppet performance

Loved: The narrow, European-feeling streets of the Old Quarter, packed with motos, tourists and mobile vendors; the always cheap, always delicious and always available street food; the lovely cafes where we’d rest after a long day of exploring (Avocado and chocolate shakes? Coffee lassis? Hazelnut lattes just like at home? A resounding yes on all accounts!); the colonial architecture juxtaposed with traditional temples and contemporary office buildings

Pictures: Click here. 

Traditional clothing exhibit at the Women's Museum

The Presidential Palace

St. Joseph's Cathedral


Vietnam Vacation: Crossing into North Vietnam

13 04 2012

Since the last post, we have completed two more stops on our journey through Vietnam: Hoi An and Dong Hoi. For now, here’s an outline of those two places.

Hoi An

Population: 131,000

Fun Fact: Despite a strong connection with both the Japanese and Chinese, Hoi An was the first place in Vietnam to be exposed to Christianity

What we did: Went on a street food tasting tour; rode our bikes the nearby beach; admired the customized tailored clothing for sale; strolled through the ancient city

Loved: The avocado smoothies; the regional specialties, including a hearty noodle dish referred to as Cao Lau; the beautiful colonial architecture; the Chinese lanterns throughout the streets

Pictures: Click here

Colonial buildings line the streets

Mi Quang: One of the delicious dishes we tried on the tour

Beach time

Dong Hoi

Population: 116,000

Fun Fact: This was our first stop in what used to be North Vietnam

What we did: Took a tour of Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in the world; rode bikes through the hills and the rice paddies; caught up on sleep and email (both very important things on a three week trip!)

Loved: Paradise Cave (of course); the remains of the Tom Toa Church, which was bombed in 1965; the breathtaking views of the nearby countryside; getting a little further off the tourist track

Pictures: Click here

Caves are so cool

View from my bike

Tam Toa Church

Next up is Hanoi, a stop that we are particularly excited for. We’ll be spending four or five days there, plus a couple of days gawking at the limestone islands of Halong Bay. One week from today, we will head back to the ‘bode.


Vietnam Vacation: Week One

9 04 2012

Tim and I have recently finished the first week of our vacation in Vietnam. We’ve been skipping from place to place rather quickly, in hopes of seeing as much of the country as possible in our 18-day visit. In the first week we managed to see three different towns: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Dalat and Nha Trang. During this leg of the trip, there were four of us traveling together, but one of our fellow volunteers is heading back to Cambodia for Khmer New Year so now we’re down to three.

We’ll post more about our impressions later. There is much to say about the ways in which Cambodia and Vietnam differ and about what it’s like to be in Vietnam as an American. For now though, here’s a quick rundown of what we’ve been up to.

Ho Chi Minh City

Population: 7.4 million

Fun Fact: There are 4 million motorbikes within the city limits at any given time

What we did: Tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels created by the Viet Cong during the “American War;” the War Remnants Museum; the night market

Loved: Seeing an old propaganda video at the tunnels and, more generally, seeing how Vietnam presents information on the war; fresh spring rolls; things like garbage trucks, public parks and separate moto lanes (We’ve been in Cambodia for a long time, okay?)

Pictures: Click here

Bustling street in HCMC

Just doin' guy stuff


Population: 206,000

Fun Fact: Often referred to as the “French Alps” of Vietnam

What we did: Rode a cable car through the mountains; visited a pagoda; sampled Dalat’s wine; rode on swan-shaped paddle boats; visited the so-called “Crazy House”

Loved: The views from the hills; the giant tulips and windmills; the availability of produce such as strawberries, mulberries, avocados, artichokes and asparagus; the crisp, cool morning air; the Jacuzzi in our hotel

Pictures: Click here and here

The view from the top

Giant tulips, of course!


Nha Trang

Population: 300,000

Fun Fact: Home to the Miss Universe 2008 competition

What we did: Took a day trip to Cam Ranh Bay, where Tim’s dad was stationed during the war; met up with some fellow PCVs for a couple of meals; visited the Long Son Pagoda

Loved: The microbrewery(!!); gelato; exploring the secluded beaches en route to Cam Ranh Bay

Pictures: Click here and here


Big Buddha at Long Son Pagoda

Near Cam Ranh Bay

The beach

More to come!