|Xin chau & Good Morning Vietnam!!!
We arrived into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, Saigon) in the south of Vietnam with warm weather and a bustling airport. We began our trip towards the city and were shocked by the traffic. It was the afternoon and it seemed like rush hour. We soon realized it's always rush hour in Vietnam. If I had to guess, there is no other place on the planet with as many scooters in a city. It was like a swarm of bees!
The normal rules of the road that we know to be "the law" exist in Vietnam, but simply aren't followed. Stoplights and signs are mere suggestions. If you want to cross the street you begin by walking into traffic, very slowly. The trick is to never stop just keep moving slowly across the street. Just like the game of Frogger. People on scooters will just go around you...or you hope they will. It is hard to believe that few accidents happen. When traffic gets really bad scooters just go on the sidewalk, so watch out. I tried to capture the traffic in a few pictures.
Our first few days were spent exploring HCMC. The military museum is listed as one of best anti-war displays in the world. The museum is not limited to the American war (as they call it), but to the wars that Vietnam has been involved in for several hundred years. There are visible signs of war everywhere. It's amazing what the Vietnamese people have been through...seems like they have been at war most of their existence. The museum was an eye-opening experience. It was hard to stomach what we as Americans put the Vietnamese through for freedom....and in the same sense it was so hard to know what we subjected our men who went over and fought this war. They did what was asked of them and were treated with no respect upon their return. In the end there were no winners of this war.
There of course is fall out from the Vietnamese war. "Cyclo" drivers, which are three wheel taxi drivers, used to be government officials, doctors or professionals during and before the war. During the war they fought against the communist regime. When the war was over people who once held professional or official positions were fired by the communist party. Their punishment was to be sent to "re-education camps" where they were forced to work hard labor and then released years later. Upon returning to "normal" life after this education they found their jobs filled and had to make ends meet anyway possible. They have no residency documentation needed for employment, renting/purchasing a home or any of the previous credentials they once had. Many drivers live out of their cyclos, and sleep on the sidewalks hustling work for a few dollars an hour ($2-4 USD will get you an hour tour of the city). We were told these cyclo drivers no longer officially exist.
The next few sentences will be hard to understand if you have never been to Vietnam, but important lessons we learned about the Vietnamese. In one sense many of the people we encountered as tourists, were hustlers looking to sell you anything or just "rip you off". They saw you as a way to make money for themselves. In another aspect we were left humbled by the amount of forgiveness shown towards us (Americans). As Americans we had the preconceived notion that there would be malice, resentment, hostility (the list could go on) towards Caucasians. This was far from the truth. We were met with incredible generosity, curiosity, and friendliness. More so from the younger generation as is understandable. A great learning experience all around.
As with many parts of Asia, Vietnam has proven to be a wonderful place to buy artwork, clothes... just about anything. The difference here is that instead of copying western designers the Vietnamese have a style of their own. The French influence can be seen in their designs. Jen had a wonderful time shopping for clothes and accessories. We found two French artists that have been living in Saigon for thirteen years. The husband uses traditional Asian calligraphy to paint street scenes and the wife paints oil on canvas scenes. We picked up some fun pieces of art for our collection.
After a few days in Saigon we headed to Hanoi, the capital of the country. Hanoi is located in the north not far from Laos and China. Hanoi is definitely colder than Ho Chi Minh City, but nothing like the winters in the US. The French influence is much easier to notice in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. We met up with some of our friends and were treated an incredible experience. We had several meals at people's homes trying food we would have never thought of eating. At one dinner we were offered half hatched duck eggs. These eggs are incubated for a two weeks (maybe 21 days) and then hard-boiled. Our friend Mike said the last time he had the eggs there were feathers and crunchy pieces. Jen and I weren't going to touch these eggs no matter how much a delicacy to the Vietnamese. They didn't mind because that was just more for them to eat. We also had several versions of Pho, Ga & Ba (chicken & beef noodle soup). You could find monster bowls at street vendors for $.75 - $1. Thanks to Noelle & Rob for introducing us to Pho in San Francisco.
We took a day boat trip to Halong Bay. It's about four hours from Hanoi. The area is compromised of a few thousand little limestone islands. We had a boat ride with an enormous lunch and visited several caves. One of the caves was found in the late 1990's when a villager was climbing around this one island seeking shelter from a cyclone (hurricane that spins in the opposite direction). Vietnam is home to the largest cave in the world.
Jen and I have been humbled and educated with our visit to Vietnam.