Vietnam, November 14, 2002
My friends are cooler than yours!
|My friend & fellow Peace Corps Russia Volunteer, Stetson went to Vietnam recently and he amazed me with his tales, of which I share this one with you now:
Vietnam - Photos and impressions
I wasn't sure what to expect in Vietnam. I knew it was poor and rapidly changing. I know of the anguish our war has caused people of my parents' generation and the impact on social politics of the 60s and 70s. But I wasn't sure what that would mean for a young American visitor.
Vietnam is the 12th largest country in the world and also one of the very poorest. It's a young country with nearly two-thirds of the population under age 25. That might explain why the Vietnamese have had a much easier time getting over "The American War," as they call it.
Over my two weeks there I found the people to be incredibly warm and friendly and surprisingly curious. There are enough foreigners walking around that I wasn't a complete anomaly on the streets. Still, people would ask me where I was from, perhaps just to practice their English or see if their guess matched the truth.
But during runs around Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, school children and young couples would strike up conversations. Some of the younger ones even chased me and tried to run with me!
As I walked around those two cities and saw the French and Chinese influences on architecture and roads and art I began to get the sense that, for them, the war with the Americans was just the last part of a much longer, much bigger struggle for independence and their own identity. And the country is exciting right now.
There is a hum and buzz to the city much richer than the 100cc motors of the scooters that are *everywhere*, making crossing the street at once Zen experience and sport.
The guidebooks I read warned that even a well-traveled Western tourist would be surprised at the lack of traffic codes and constant din of traffic that might include several hundred scooters - some with three or even four people piled on - a few bikes, an old lady carrying her groceries, a water buffalo and a group of school children all in the middle of an intersection with no lights or lines.
During my entire time there I couldn't get over it. And, unfortunately, I couldn't capture it on film.
Ho Chi Minh or Saigon (both are used) is reputed to be the business and cultural capital of the country. We felt we explored the entire city in two days. There is a lot of shopping and plenty of good restaurants.
But Hanoi, the official capital, is where most of the fun and action was. Flying up North allowed us to see the delta, the beautiful white sand beaches and lush hills.
I didn't see any evidence of the dense forest that I had expected, but a more clearly agricultural land division. Apparently the approximately 45% of forested land in the 1950s was damaged by the ecocide of U.S. chemical warfare and now stands at approximately 16%.
Hanoi is an incredibly busy and often crowded but extremely vibrant city. "Ha Noi" translates as "River Exterior" and there are several pretty lakes and manicured avenues dotting the activity of everyday life. In fact, water is a huge part of the country's identity. The word "country" in Vietnamese translates literally as "land-water".
Most of the photographs are street scenes. The yellow building that says "Maison Centrale" is the remaining part of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" where American POWs were kept during the war. Before that the French used the prison, which is as a large city block, against Vietnamese prisoners.
For three dollars a friend and I got a private tour in the evening. The small section about the American POWs consisted of a few photos of notables such as McCain and Peterson and a lot of propaganda photographs of the soldiers preparing chickens for dinner and writing letters and attending church with captions like: "The benevolent Vietnamese captors allowed the Americans healthy meals, contact with their relatives and freedom of religious worship".
The much bigger part of the museum is dedicated to "the French atrocities" with truly gruesome photos, old shackles and cots in cells and even one of the original guillotines the French used. In the background of the attached photograph you can see the new "Hilton Towers" which house international businesses and visitors and which dwarves the remaining part of the original structure.
The photographs of Uncle Ho's mausoleum and Comrade "Le Nin" will be appreciated most by anyone who spent time in Russia or the FSU. Still, they show the Soviet influence on architecture and design, if not on mood.
The photograph with the schoolgirls occurred as I was walking down the street. I heard giggles and discussion and finally one brave girl, with encouragement from her friends, asked me in English, "Where from?" At my answer they all looked at each other and screamed "American!" and ran toward me with their English homework. It was totally hilarious. For the next 10 minutes I helped them cheat on their grammar assignment.
The remaining photographs are of my drive and vacation in Ha Long Bay. The region, which translates as "Descent of the Dragon" derives its name from the legend of a gigantic creature which awoke from a long sleep and thrashed its way to heaven, creating myriad rocky islets in the process. In the South
China Sea covering 930 square miles there are some 2,000 jagged islands of limestone ranging in size and vegetation. For a reasonable amount of money I had a private car take me the three hours to the Bay where a great wooden ship hosted me for two pleasurable days and nights.
Though it can accommodate up to 25 guests I was joined only by a charming French couple and a staff of eight who never stopped cooking fresh fish for the entire trip.
The interesting islets and islands mean that every 20 feet or so you have a completely new view. The moon was high and bright and the Bay was *completely* silent. In the mornings we woke up on the Sea and went swimming in the warm water and took a smaller boat through the caves and crevices to innumerable hidden ponds and reservoirs.
It was fantastically stunning and I recommend it to anyone traveling to the region.
I'm told that the word "impossible" does not exist in Vietnamese. Though the most abject poverty is in the villages and agricultural communities, the pace of life seems to indicate an optimism and resilience that create a dynamic feeling in the country.
The infectious smiles, great food and pretty scenery make it an absolutely wonderful trip for a few weeks....if not longer...
Warmest regards to all of you,