Vietnam Ventures

My only prior visit to Vietnam, in 2007, was limited to Hanoi and Halong Bay. Both were fabulous, but I didn’t really feel like I had seen enough of Vietnam, so I booked myself a two week trip there, stopping in 4 new-to-me cities.

Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s second largest and the former Saigon, occupied by the Americans until their ignominious retreat in April, 1975. The American War (what we refer to as the Vietnam War) is recalled here in the War Remnants Museum. I was greeted by a sign promising “ the honest story” about the war.

Well you know the saying “history belongs to the victors.” It was fairly evident in the museum, with the Viet Cong referred to as martyrs and patriots and the US as imperialists and propping up a puppet government. US interests in the region were scarcely mentioned, but in retrospect, other than a vague desire to uphold democracy and stop the spread of Communism, I’m not sure the motives are much deeper.

The museum identifies the key events leading to the war and the players, but then focuses on the horrors committed by the US – the My Lai massacre where US military killed 500 civilians for no apparent purpose, the Napalm attacks and the effects of Agent Orange. Two exhibits were devoted to photojournalism; one on the many journalists who lost their lives during the war and another showcasing their work. Finally, I returned to the courtyard which was decorated with US hardware; taking selfies beside a tank seemed to be a thing but I managed one picture without getting photo bombed.

Continuing the war theme, I embarked on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong dug an elaborate series of tunnels near US bases to smuggle both arms and soldiers and to attack the Americans. There, the guide showed us the many booby traps used to capture US soldiers and the ingenious entrances to the tunnels:

We could walk through some tunnels, enlarged to accommodate fat tourists and try our hand at shooting AK-47s on the conveniently located firing range. I passed on both, but left with the sense that the Vietnamese were proud of the ways in which they seemed to outsmart the Americans at every turn.

Having had enough of the War, I joined Qwi for a Vietnamese cooking lesson. It was held in the kitchen of a high rise apartment block; she had lost her restaurant during the pandemic. She was a great teacher and we made spring rolls, Vietnamese pancakes and the iconic Vietnamese dish, pho. All were delicious.

Travel sometimes entails leaving one’s comfort zone and in Ho Chi Minh City, I left mine far behind when I signed up for a city tour with a student on a scooter. I’m basically petrified of motorcycles and have never been on one in Canada, but a scooter in Vietnam, where they are so ubiquitous, seemed sensible.

Timothy, my guide/ driver was an English literature student who spoke with a proper BBC accent. After giving me a helmet, we proceeded to scoot around the city, joining the other 4 million scooters zipping in and out of traffic, deftly missing pedestrians and giving way to honking trucks and buses. I was enjoying the wind in my face and thought I could get used to this until I read a few days later that Vietnam has a very high fatality rate amongst scooter riders:

From Ho Chi Minh City, I flew to the central city of Hue, the formal capital of the newly unified Vietnam between 1802 and 1945, when the French exiled the last king.

The kings were famous for building tombs, most of which survive today. I visited two, the serene yet fantastic tomb of the 4th king, set in a park like setting and the more ornate, nearly gaudy one of the 12th king:

I also signed up for a street food tour. Led by Ruby, we scooted around Hue in search of the best local street food. I indulged in a Banh Mi, Pho, a dry noodles dish and a jellied rice dish. All were good, but I’m getting tired of Asian food and dreaming of fajitas.

In addition to the tombs, Hue is famous for its Imperial City. Modelled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, it was a walled, planned city for the royalty to live in. Some of the buildings were destroyed during the war, but many still remain or have been reconstructed:

From Hue, Hoi An is a two hour taxi ride. It started as a trading port, attracting Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese mariners and merchants and their history is evident today in the many Temples, Assembly Halls and old houses I visited in the Old Town. The most famous landmark is the Japanese Covered Bridge:

It was basically impossible to get a photo of it without a ton of tourists; Hoi An has done a good job of marketing itself as a tourist destination and the crowds were huge. Walking around the Old Town felt like shuffling through a crowd at a baseball game:

The lantern festival, held monthly on the first night of the lunar calendar, was dreamed up by the Hoi An tourist board. Basically, you buy a lantern for about $1, light the candle, make a wish then set it on the water and watch it sail away. I, along with thousands of others, couldn’t resist:

It’s quite beautiful but hard to photograph all the lights in the dark.

If you’ve made it this far and aren’t completely bored by all the history, jump with me to the 21st century and my visit to the Bana Hills. Originally developed in the mountains outside DaNang by the French seeking relief from the heat, it lay abandoned until about 1991 when it was developed into a theme park.

The French used to be carried up there by the Vietnamese; today the world’s longest single rope cable car whisks you up in about 10 minutes and the newest attraction- The Golden Bridge- comes into view:

Another short cable car ride deposited me in the French Village, complete with a Cathedral, European garden, of course, a Loire Valley inspired castle:

It’s very busy with both local and foreign visitors, a testament to the skills of the marketers. Despite the craziness of walking through a French village in Vietnam, the imagination of the Golden Bridge designers or the indoor theme park, my favourite part of the day was the cable car ride. Despite being basically terrified of cable cars, this one started in the misty plains, then went through the clouds before stopping in glorious sunshine. From atop, I was able to photograph the clouds below:

Mother Nature trumped mankind!

And so ended two weeks in Vietnam.

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