Prior to telling you about our holiday, we feel it necessary to provide a brief bit of background information about recent Vietnamese History (i.e., the last 150 years), and in particular, the Vietnam War. During our visit to Vietnam, and after talking to numerous people, it has become very clear to us how the war has left emotional and physical scars on those people who were either directly or indirectly effected in some way by the tragic events that occurred during this time in history.
Brief Background – Vietnamese History – the Last 150 Years
Vietnam is located adjacent to China. Consequently the country has a strong cultural and historical connection with China that has being going on for thousands of years. This Chinese influence is very evident today. Politically, Vietnam, like China, is a communist country. Culturally, the Chinese influence is apparent in the architectural style of many of the buildings as well as the numerous shrines, temples and pagodas that have been built to pay respect and tribute to eastern religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism.
In the mid 1800’s, France occupied Vietnam. The Vietnamese people will tell you that their country was invaded by France; whereas our western history lessons and accompanying indoctrination of imperial domination has North American culture believe that the French were merely colonizing the country. During the French occupation of Vietnam, many of the country’s citizens were openly opposed to French domination and were subsequently thrown into jail. As you will read later in this blog, one of our tours was a visit to the “Hanoi Hilton Prison” which served as a jail for both Vietnamese resistance forces fighting the French, as well as American Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. For approximately 100 years up until the Second World War, Vietnam was under French colonization. During this period, European style public squares and tree-lined boulevards became part of the cityscapes. Many of public buildings were also constructed with a strong European architectural influence. Hence as one travels through the country, you will observe many sights having either an Oriental or Occidental architectural style.
During the Second World War, Vietnam was over run by the Japanese. Following the war, the French attempted to re-establish colonial occupation. Understandably, the Vietnamese people were opposed, but were of two views as to how to address this “French Problem”. Some sought cooperative resolution through peaceful non-violent actions, whereas others felt that the only resolution was through armed revolt. As a result, two Vietnamese factions evolved. North Vietnam sought resolution through armed conflict and received support of arms and supplies from communist China. South Vietnam sought compromise through peaceful means. Ultimately French colonization failed and in 1954 under the Genera Accord, Vietnam was partitioned into two states with the 17th parallel being the line of division. The State of North Vietnam represented communist political interests whereas the State of South Vietnam embodied democratic interests. It was understood that at some time in the future, elections would be held to re-unite the country. Unfortunately or fortunately depending upon one’s point of view, the North Vietnamese people under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh never signed the Genera Accord and consequently did not recognize South Vietnam as being a separate entity.
Rather than a peaceful reunification of Vietnam, the partition of the country led to the Vietnam War. With the backing of the South Vietnam Government, the United States sent troops into Vietnam in 1965. It was feared that if Vietnam became a communist country, then other countries in Southeast Asia would soon follow. Other United States allies, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Thailand also sent troops to South Vietnam. Canada did not officially participate in the war effort, although many young men went south to enlist in the US military.
In 1973, the United States suspended their military operations in Vietnam. Under intense public pressure and protest against the war in the United States, combined with the fact that American intervention against the communist forces in Viet Nam was not successful, America suspended their military operations in Vietnam in 1973. The South Vietnamese people continued on with their struggle with the aid of military arms and supplies from the United States. This support was not enough. In 1975, the war ended when North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon and gained control of the entire country. After over a hundred years of struggle and conflict, the country was finally unified once more.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, the country has enjoyed substantial economic growth and political stability. Because of a low-cost and hard working labour force, it has become a major manufacturing center for multi-national companies involved in the textile and electronic businesses. Agriculturally, Vietnam is now the second largest exporter of rice in the world. In the early 1990’s, a new and vibrant tourist industry was created as visitors were allowed entry into the country. In 2006, it was reported that tourism contributed approximately $2.4 billion dollars into the Vietnamese economy.
We hope that this brief history outline will help you to understand or clarify some of our comments as we describe our observations and our experiences while visiting one of Asia’s gems. Now – let us tell you about our trip!
After a night lay over in Singapore, we landed in Hanoi, the capital of Viet Nam. Hanoi, located in the northern part of Vietnam, was our first experience in an Asian city. There were people, people, people everywhere! Cars honked and HONKED either alerting other drivers of their presence or urging the traffic to move. Scooters zoomed in and out of traffic, barely missing each other with only inches to spare! Yet in all this chaos, drivers of bicycle rickshaws pedalled in a manner that seemed oblivious to traffic. We were truly experiencing the Ying and Yang of Asia.
Crossing the street was an adventure. The cardinal rule to remember when crossing the street is to keep moving forward and pick your spots as you dart in and between traffic. There is no turning back once you are on the street because traffic swerves behind you so as to avoid hitting you. After a couple of tries, it is not as daunting as it seems or looks and one becomes quite adapt at it. However, a word to the wise – it is best to wait for a local to cross and make sure that you stick to him or her like fly paper. When the local goes, you go; when the local stops, you stop.
It was also interesting to watch people come out of their homes onto the streets in the evening after the stores had closed. The store is the bottom level of their home. While they cooked their meals on small one-burner stoves in the street, they would sit and socialize with their neighbours after a busy day at work. In and amongst all this activity, twice a day, around 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM, loud speakers posted on virtually every corner would ring out government messages to the masses. Our guide explained that the messages would address topics ranging anywhere from government propaganda to useful messages that addressed communal health issues such as aids, inoculations, and hygiene.
In summary, the entire city was alive and in constant movement. In response, every one of your senses, whether it be sight, smell, touch, or taste, was equally alive and alert to the stimuli. Your sensory responses ranged the entire gamut from extremely pleasurable to ghastly horrible. But one thing was certain; you felt a part of the city and you knew that you were alive.
While in Hanoi, some of the highlights of our visit included:
- Visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Memorial Complex
Ho Chi Minh is highly revered in Vietnam because he is considered to be the main driving force behind the unification of the country. His body has been embalmed and lies in state at the mausoleum for visitors to pay their respects. Numerous honour guards are present throughout the complex to watch over the body and ensure that the sacredness of the area is respected by everyone. For example, visitors entering the mausoleum must ensure that their knees are covered, headwear is removed, no photographs are taken and there is total silence.
Visiting the complex was truly a moving experience as you immediately recognized that you were visiting what could arguably be Vietnam’s most important national treasure.
No Photographs are allowed inside the Mausoleum. Outside guards ensured that visitors could not get close to the building, with the exception of the viewing line.
- Visit to the Hanoi Hilton Prison
The Hanoi Prison, named “Maison Centrale” by the French was used as a prison for Vietnamese resistance fighters and political prisoners. Later it was used by the North Vietnamese to harbour American Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. It was during the war that the prison sarcastically became know as the “Hanoi Hilton”, in reference to the luxurious Hilton Hotel chain. In reality, the prison was a hell hole where tortures and beatings were routinely carried out regardless whether it was during times of French incarceration or North Vietnamese imprisonment. Perhaps the most well know westerner who was captive at the prison was Senator John McCain who you all know recently ran against Barrick Obama for presidency of the United States.
It was during our visit to the Hanoi Hilton that we experienced our first of many differing viewpoints with respect to the Vietnam War. Of course, one’s perspective on the war comes from a number of things such as what you have been told in history classes, read in books, experienced first hand, or seen through American media such as television and movies. We found some comments interesting and appalling. On the interesting side, we were told that Vietnam does not think of the war as the “Vietnam War”, but rather it is thought of as the “American War”. Similarly the North Vietnamese army is referred to as the “Liberation Army”. On the appalling side all the photographs of the prisoners of wars showed American soldiers well dressed, eating turkey, and happily playing games in the court yard. There were no pictures of emasculated individuals who had been mistreated, beaten, starved, and tortured. Similarly many examples were provided of statements made by American prisoners that criticized the United States’ conduct of war and praised how the North Vietnamese treated them. There was of course no mention that these prisoners had been coerced through torture and other means until they signed the statements. This just goes to show what our friend Bill has told us, “If you win, you can tell the story anyway you want.”
Life-size statues showing prisoners shackled in leg irons while sleeping at night. As a mild form of torture, the prison guards would place the prisoners upside down in the shackles and leave them there for days on end. Eventually excrement would flow downhill, with no escape, towards their heads.
The Killing Machine with bucket at the bottom to collect the head
- Visit to Ha Long Bay and Sung Sot Caves
Ha Long Bay is an UNESCO world heritage site and popular destination for tourists. It has been nominated as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The bay features thousands of multi-sized and shaped monolithic limestone islands rising dramatically from the ocean. The islands are a karst formation, whereby erosion and rising and falling sea levels has created a number of islands that have been evolving over millions of years.
We had the good fortune to be able to cruise amongst the islands in a traditional wooden boat enjoying both the rugged rocky shoreline and emerald coloured waters. Our tour consisted of a four hour ride and on board lunch. It was a memorable relaxing afternoon that we will not forget.
Part of the tour included a stop at the Sung Sot caves. As the pictures show below, the area is a must see for tourists.
Hard to believe that we are inside a cave!
- Bicycle Rickshaw Ride Through the Old Quarter of Town
We must warn you; a bicycle rickshaw ride is not for the faint at heart. We took a ride through the heart of the old quarter of Hanoi. It was better than any ride at any carnival. You must completely submit and recognize that you are putting your life in the hands of your driver; but WHAT AN EXPERIENCE!
As you commence your journey, yours eyes open as wide as saucers as you immediately realize …oh oh…. One moment a car darts in front of you, only to immediately break as the driver squeals to a stop as the light turn’s red. As you wait at the red light, you can reach out and touch the scooter drivers who are positioned on either side of you. You are so close; you can even guess what they had for lunch. Once the light turns green, you immediately smell exhaust. No sooner is that revelation over when next you feel on your leg the exhaust of the scooter that has just cut in front of you and accelerated past you. And we are only describing the beginning of the ride! Once you get accustom to your surroundings and get over the fact that this ride could be hazardous to your health and life, you start to sit back and actually enjoy the experience. You start waving at pedestrians and shop keepers. The shop keepers wave back and try and entice you into their store. You smile at other tourists walking by. You tell your driver that there is an extra $5 if he will catch up to your wife and pass her so that you can ask her if your dust is getting in her eyes. When the ride is over, you are exhilarated and thankful at the same time. Of course, the ride wouldn’t be complete without swapping stories over a beer at the local watering hole.
Gail getting set for her ride. At this time she doesn’t know what lays ahead
Where’s Waldo? We think that Gail is in front of the scooter and car.
Da Nang and Hoi An
An hour and fifteen minute flight via Vietnam Airlines took us to our next destination – Hoi An. Hoi An was the final destination for this leg of the trip, but because it does not have an airport, we had to land in Da Nang. Da Nang is a city with a population of about 1 million people that is located approximately 30 minutes from Hoi An. While en route, we marvelled at how “slow” and “spacious” Da Nang was compared to Hanoi. It’s funny to think that a city with a population of 1 million will give you that slow, laid back feeling. Da Nang is home to China Beach, the beach made famous in the American TV series of the same name. The beach is several kilometres in length and was used during the Vietnam War (or is it American War?) as a place were American GIs were sent for rest and relaxation. Of course, the Vietnamese people don’t refer to the beach by this name and if you were to ask them where it was, they would have no knowledge of same.
As we were driving towards Hoi An, our guide pointed out the derelict remains of the American Air Base at Da Nang. The guide then proceeded to point out a Viet Cong strong hold that was located approximately 3-5 km from the air base. She noted that the Viet Cong lived in tunnels and caves in the area, with the Americans having no knowledge whether the people were actually Viet Cong supporters or South Vietnamese allies. This observation made us immediately think of the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What is different now than what happened during the Vietnam War? Once the military leaves its base, do they know who their enemy is and who is their friend? You can’t win anyone over unless you win their hearts. Are we winning any hearts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
We arrived in Hoi An for a couple of days of relaxation and SHOPPING! The old town of Hoi An was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 because it is a well-preserved example of 15th to 19th century commerce. The old town of Hoi An was a joy to visit because no motorized vehicles (including scooters) are allowed on its streets during the day. The town is filled with arts and crafts shops, and most notably a tailor and garment industry that makes made to measure clothes for a fraction of the prices normally charged in Canada. After being measured, fitted, and treated like royalty, we scooped up a number of silk shirts, blouses and shorts which we ordered one day and picked up the next. Talk about service! We also took the opportunity to get a pedicure and manicure. Gail’s toes are still sparkling two weeks later. She noted that she needed a pedicure to go with the new shoes that she had specially fitted and made. While Gail was happily shopping, Rick was content to just sit in an outdoor café, enjoy the local beer, and watch people go by.
Hoi An is definitely a place to visit while in Vietnam and if we are ever to return, we will ensure that our stay is much longer.
While we were leaving Hoi An to travel to our next destination – Ho Chi Minh City, we experienced a most tragic event. We had left our hotel in the early morning and while travelling en route to the airport, our bus driver hit a pedestrian. To those who saw the event, it appeared as if the pedestrian was inebriated or under some kind of medication as he was completely oblivious to his surroundings as he was crossing the street. The driver took all possible measures to avoid hitting the pedestrian. In what seemed like minutes, the pedestrian, who was seriously injured, was carted off to the hospital and another bus arrived to take us to the airport in time so that we did not miss our flight.
Our guide explained what happens in the event of an accident. It doesn’t matter who is at fault, the larger vehicle always pays. So if a bus hits a car, the bus pays. If a car hits a scooter, the car pays. If a scooter hits a bicycle, the scooter pays. If a bicycle hits a pedestrian, the bicycle pays. In our situation, the bus company would have to pay the family of the injured man for the hospital fees, lost time at work, or in the event of a death, the funeral. Not only would the bus company pay, but all the drivers working for the company would chip in and donate money as well. In addition, the driver involved in the accident would be required to pay. In our particular circumstance, all of the passengers on the bus also chipped in and donated money to the bus driver. After we left the accident site, we were informed that the bus company would also have to pay the police to come out and investigate the accident. If not, it was not unusual for the bus to sit at the accident site for days until the company finally capitulated and paid a fee to have the police complete the investigation. When we finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, we talked to our new guide about the tragic circumstances. He made two comments that were quite sobering. He observed that it may be better if the pedestrian died because the costs to be paid to the family would be far less than if the person was in hospital for an extended period of time. He also implied that the pedestrian may have been attempting to commit suicide and thereby provide needed money to the family.
One of the many tailor shops ready to make made to measure clothes
Ladies selling their wares on the street
Ho Chi Minh City – Formerly Known as Saigon
An hour and ten minute flight via Vietnam Airlines took us to our final destination – Ho Chi Minh City which was formerly known as Saigon prior to the North Vietnamese Army (or is it the Liberation Army?) capturing the city in 1975. Many of the local people still refer to the city as Saigon. The communist government has allowed Saigon to retain its commerce with the western world, with the result being that Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant bustling city with an abundance of manufacturing centers surrounding the city core. It is a beautiful modern city, and as we were rapidly learning, typical of Asian cities. This of course means that there is an abundance of scooters, and crossing the street is not recommended unless you travel with a local.
In addition to visiting the local market, a number of Pagodas and Temples and European architectural style buildings constructed during the French occupation, our visit to Saigon primarily focused on visiting sites associated with the Vietnam War. Perhaps one could refer to it as the “War Tourism Industry”. For example, we visited the “Reunification Palace” which was formerly the government house for the South Vietnamese Government. For those of you who are old enough, you may recall the famous newsreel that showed this building being stormed by North Vietnamese tanks in 1975, signifying the fall of South Vietnam. We also toured past the former American Embassy, again the site of another famous newsreel that showed Americans evacuating the embassy via helicopter on the roof of the building during the fall of the city. The most interesting and disturbing attraction in Saigon is the “War Remnants Museum”. It is our understanding that the museum had previously been known as the “Museum of American War Crimes”, but has subsequently changed its name. In the museum, you are surrounded and engulfed by a catalogue of horrors shown through photographs that depict the tragedy and heartbreak of war. Photographs illustrate the atrocities that were carried out by American soldiers on the Vietnamese people. Photographs showed people being executed, beheaded, and tortured. Photographs showed deformed people as a result of chemical defoliation (Agent Orange) and napalm bombs. Again we found it ironic that the museum did not show similar carnage that had been carried out by the North Vietnamese Army or Viet Cong. Rather they are viewed as being heroes and patriots. As we left the museum, we knew that war was hell, and it doesn’t matter what side you are on, it brings out the worst in humans.
Saigon Market - Where's Waldo?
Hint - Look directly beneath the left side of the sign
In addition to our tours inside the city, we were fortunate to be able to go on two tours outside Ho Chi Minh City. We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels and Long Tan.
- Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are located approximately 80 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City and is the site of some of the most intense fights in the war. The tunnels, dug by hand starting at the time of French occupation, stretch over 200 km in length and are an incredible network of underground command posts, hospitals, shelters, living quarters, weapons factories and caches. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots and to ambush their enemy. As troops would pass overhead, the Viet Cong would move underground and surround their foes. The tunnels were essential in resisting American forces, extending the war and eventually resulting in American withdrawal.
We had the opportunity to travel down one tunnel, view the various types of booby traps that were constructed for jungle warfare and appreciate the daily living conditions of the Viet Cong.Entrance to a tunnel
Guide about to enter the tunnel and starting to cover his tracks
Guide holding up the entrance cover
Gone – Hope this gives you an appreciation of how difficult it is to also find the Booby traps
Example of Booby Trap with bamboo spikes
- Long Tan
Long Tan is Australia’s most famous battle of the Vietnam War. It is reported that eighteen Australians, one New Zealander and 245 Viet Cong died during the battle, which took place in a rubber plantation. Our tour took us to the battle site and while touring the area we learned the following facts from our travelling colleagues and tour guide:
i) Our tour had to receive special permission from the local district because Long Tan is not in one of the well travelled tourist areas. It was feared that an unwelcome bus of Caucasians travelling in the area may stir up undesirable memories of the war amongst some of the older community members.
ii) Australia has erected a memorial to its fallen soldiers on the battlefield. An enemy placing a memorial on Vietnam soil is considered to be of major significance. It demonstrates the good relations that have since been formed between the two nations subsequent to the war.
iii) Proportional to its population, the Australian Government sent just as many soldiers into Vietnam as the American Government. There was also a similar proportional loss of life.
iv) Like the Americans, Australians were conscripted into military service. Every month the government would have a “marble lottery”. The lottery consisted of 31 marbles, each representing a day of the month. In each lottery, a number of marbles were drawn. If your birthday fell on one of the days of a drawn marble, you were drafted for service.
v) Like America, the country had numerous war protest marches that proved to be quite divisive amongst the people.
vi) The treatment of war veterans returning home mirrored that of the United States. The veterans were abandoned by their people and their government. It wasn’t until 1987, that the veterans received a “welcome home” parade.
As part of our trip to Long Tan, we visited the old airstrip that was constructed to provide supplies to the Australian servicemen. A two room school is now housed at the end of the airstrip. An elderly childcare worker there told us that she was a secretary at an American military base during the war. Her husband was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. When the war ended, her husband was placed in jail for five years because he was an officer in the South Vietnamese military. As a further consequence, her two oldest children received no formal education because they were too poor while the father was in jail. Our guide stated, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat”. He then proceeded to tell us that his father, who was also in the South Vietnamese Army, died during the war. His uncle was much luckier and managed to escape to the United States. He noted that after the war, all the well paying jobs went to those people who were loyal to North Vietnam.
It is evident that the country still has scars with respect to the war. Regardless who was right or wrong, people died for the right to defend their beliefs. As humans, we try and put the past out of our minds so that we can enjoy the present. We shouldn’t and won’t forget the past; however, as predicted, our drive through the country side immediately brought us back to the present as we soaked in the beauty of seeing workers and water buffalo in the rice paddies. As our bus drove around the corner, we were stunned to see rice spread and drying on the road. We were even more astonished as the driver just drove over the rice and continued down the road!
Rubber Plantation at the site of the Battle of Long Tan
Latex-like sap being collected from a rubber tree
Kadina Memorial High School tour participants laying roses at the Australian Memorial for the soldiers who lost their lives during the Battle of Long Tan
Bus driving over rice placed on the road to dry
Sorry – We couldn’t help it and had to show you this photograph. Gail enjoying a body massage?