The last part of our month vacation was a few days in Vietnam. We spent four days there, crossing the border from Cambodia, staying a night in Can Tho on the Mekong Delta, and then two nights in Ho Chi Minh City. I was really looking forward to Vietnam, and it didn’t disappoint. The food was awesome, and the country was beautiful and friendly. There is definitely a difference between Cambodia and Vietnam and you can see it as soon as you cross the border. Those who live in the cities though are generally better off. The landscaping is a little nicer, houses and land are better maintained and the driving is a lot crazier. Our guide said that in Thailand they drive on the left side of the road, in Cambodia they drive on the right, and in Vietnam they drive on both sides. That’s true. They’re supposed to drive on the right side of the road, but there were multiple instances where we passed traffic all the way on the shoulder of lane going the opposite way.
Our first night in Vietnam we stayed at a homestay in a little village near Can Tho. It’s run by the family who lives there, and they cooked a delicious homemade dinner for us.
In the morning, we took a little walking tour around their village. The village was really interesting – people live in tiny little houses, and a lot of them have their kitchens outside because there’s no room in the house.
After the village tour, we took a boat out into the Mekong Delta to visit the floating market. The market was really cool – it happens every day and all the local vendors come out on their boats to sell produce, fish, meat, and other stuff. There are also boats that have coffee, sandwiches, and other food that you can buy and eat right there. The boats all have spots that you can tie yours up to while you shop.
Our next and final stop on our trip was Ho Chi Minh City, where we spent a couple days before flying home. Ho Chi Minh is a proper city, with big high rise buildings, shopping, and lots of traffic. Our guide said that 12 million people live there, and there are 5 million scooters. They even use the sidewalks as lanes during rush hour.
We spent a lot of time walking around Ho Chi Minh City, but the two biggest things we did were visiting the Cu Chi tunnels outside of the city where the Viet Cong hid during the war with the US, and visiting the war museum.
I’m not quite sure how to write about the experience of visiting the tunnels and the museum. The Vietnam war is such a controversial, personal, and emotional thing for so many people, and seeing it the way it was presented in Vietnam was hard, even as someone who wasn’t even alive during the war. I’ll just give the information as I saw it, but with a big disclaimer that this was presented by the communist government of a country that American attacked. That phrase that “history is written by the winners” definitely applies here. A lot of it was obviously propaganda, but a lot of it was also very true.
Most of the war sites I’ve visited are from WWI or WWII, and I haven’t really been anywhere that America lost, especially so recently. I should have been prepared for it, but hadn’t much thought about it, and it took me quite a while to adjust. In all the places we visited, they were the heroes, and the Americans were the enemy.
We took a bus in the morning out to the tunnels and had a guide to walk us through the site. The tunnels cover an area of 150 sq km, and are 250km long and three levels deep in the earth. They were dug by hand, and the Viet Cong hid in them during the war. The whole area is full of trap doors, booby traps, and secret entrances, and is of great pride to the Vietnamese. As an American soldier, I can see how it would be hell fighting out there. The Viet Cong would spring up out of secret doors, attack, and then retreat back down the door so you never knew when someone was behind you. They also had horrific booby traps full of spikes and other awful things. They were really clever – they used clothing and soap from American soldiers to put near the vents to the tunnels so the dogs sent to search for them wouldn’t smell them. They had vents in their kitchens that dissipated the smoke, and would only cook early in the morning when it would blend in with the fog. They wore sandals backwards, so if you were tracing their footprints you would think they were walking in the opposite direction of where they really were.
Life in the tunnels was hellish as well. They were so small that people had to crawl or walk in a squatting position. There were larger rooms inside, but the majority of the tunnels were just a couple feet tall. They actually had to widen the tunnels for tourists. Air circulation was bad, and there wasn’t enough oxygen. Rodents and insects filled the tunnels, and sicknesses like malaria were common. People would stay down there all day, or sometimes for days at a time when they were being bombed.
We went down in the tunnels and walked maybe 50 feet, after which I’d had more than enough.
The stuff shown at the tunnels wasn’t super anti-American, but it definitely glorified the Vietnamese. The war museum we went to, however, was really anti-American and very shameful to see. It is set up in different rooms detailing the French and American involvement in Vietnam, the escalation of the war, and the final American withdrawal. There were also multiple galleries of photos of war crimes committed by Americans, and the effects of Agent Orange. A lot of the verbiage they used definitely crossed that line into propaganda and it was extremely one-sided. They was a lot of stuff that they omitted, and the whole museum focused on the war crimes and attacks committed by the Americans, but completely left out the similar crimes committed by the Viet Cong, both during and after the war. However, that doesn’t make the majority of the information they did present any less true.
The outside of the museum was kind of cool, because they had all sorts of US planes and tanks and guns and helicopters that were shot down or taken during the war. In the US they would have some sort of protective rope around them, but here they let you go up and touch them and do whatever you wanted.
Inside, the story of the American involvement is told. Now, again, these are definitely one sided, but I think it’s just interesting to read about the way the museum described events during the war. The descriptions were full of references to the Viet Cong as “liberators” that were trying to unify Vietnam and free the south from the invasion of the Americans. I do think they could use a little lesson in at least trying to make it sound unbiased.
The last gallery was really sad and awful. There were photos and stories of hundreds of people who have been affected by Agent Orange. The defoliant was spread over a lot of Vietnam, directly affecting the people, as well as the food supply. A large amount of their crops were destroyed, but worse were the diseases and birth defects that resulted from it. The Vietnamese government claims 3 million Vietnamese are affected by it, including children of those exposed. The Red Cross estimates a smaller, but still staggering, 1 million.
Both Americans and Vietnamese were severely affected by Agent Orange, but the gallery focused mostly on the Vietnamese. They’ve received little, if any, compensation or help from our government or theirs. The photos in the gallery were heart breaking.
Again, I don’t really know how to write about the museum. A lot of the information and pictures were really overwhelming. You kind of had to put a mental filter in and realize the source of the information, but, at the same time, to automatically discredit anything that doesn’t fit with what you want to see would be wrong. I know that the Vietnam war isn’t exactly seen in a positive light in the US, so a lot of what the museum said isn’t new or groundbreaking, but it’s still a good reminder of how important it is to see how the other side presents things.
The last thing I’ll say about that is that I think it would be easy to think that the whole country has really strong anti-American sentiments, but I found that to be 100% not the case. I never felt that I was at any risk being American, most people had family or friends in America and didn’t seem to have any animosity toward us.
Our tour ended that day, and Sean and I had one last day in Ho Chi Minh City to enjoy the sights and some Asian food before returning to Italy. Our flight home was surprisingly nice. We flew Etihad Airways, based in the UAE, and they’re pretty fancy-pants, even riding in coach.
And now, we’re back home in Sicily.