I ended my visit to Vietnam with mixed emotions. Probably the same as many Americans viewed Vietnam 50 years ago. The country possesses an abundance of naturally beautiful sites, the country’s industrious people and entrepreneurs have built a modern economy out of the ashes of war, and many of the people are friendly and curious about us.
But there is also a darker side. There is still latent resentment and outright hostility from some toward America – especially around Da Nang. And, sadly, there are continuing casualties from the war from unexploded landmines and genetic abnormalities in the children and grandchildren of both soldiers and civilians affected by our use of Agent Orange
And the official propaganda was enough to turn my stomach if it weren’t already in distress from something or many things I ate and drank in Cambodia. Come to think of it, maybe part of my negative impression of Vietnam is a result of being violently ill for the entire seven days I was on the ground there.
Ho Chi Ming
My visit began in Ho Chi Ming City. With a walk from my hotel over to the Old Colonial Post Office Building and old Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral. While there I was fell upon by the world’s most friendly and aggressive rickshaw driver and his sidekick. After a lengthy back and forth about not wanting a ride I finally gave in for what began as a short ride to my next destination that quickly turned into an entire morning of site seeing by rickshaw.
And, to my surprise, I totally enjoyed the effortless open-air travel as well as my toothless rickshaw peddler’s excited patter. “There, there – American Embassy, “Good Morning Vietnam” as we passed one building, Jade Emperor Pagoda over there, Thien Hau Pagoda very good photos, and half a dozen other temples not on my list. The most interesting part of the morning was when he accompanied me into one of the temples and explained what was happening.
At one point a priest like official was blessing people one at a time and waving a smoking stick over an outline of their bodies. My snaggle toothed rickshaw man explained he was protecting them from ghosts.
Later as we were leaving the main temple there was a separate room where the idols were all in black and red with sinister and angry faces. Turns out if good gods aren’t your thing you can always pray to an evil gods – and people were.
Last stop was a very small smoky room with an old woman holding court with a half dozen younger women praying and making offerings at her feet. Turns out the old woman has the power to find a single woman a husband and get a barren woman pregnant. I had no idea that’s how things work in this part of the world.
And if you might wonder who took all the photos of me in the rickshaw – snaggle tooths sidekick peddling an empty rickshaw. The final price we had agreed upon ended up being four times the original deal but the entertainment value alone was worth the few extra bucks.
And armed with this new bit of useless trivia I returned to the hotel, collected my bags and caught the next flight out to Da Nang. And the worst four days of my trip so far.
The only thing good I can say about the Hell Hole of Da Nang is that I had used my Marriott Points to stay beachside on the 31st floor in a very nice Marriott Property. And as a Titanium member, I received an upgrade to a suite and was treated like a king. Beyond that Da Nang SUCKED!!! My diet was limited to dry toast, black tea, Imodium, and a ZPAC of antibiotics. But, I was determined to soldier on with my schedule until I met the tour guide from hell.
My tour guide for the My Son Sanctuary turned out to be a hard-core Marxist that hated America and All Americans. I had to listen to four hours of all the wicked things the American Imperialists did to the people of Vietnam. After the 5th time she told me how American War Criminals destroyed over 60% of the Sanctuary with bombs – I finally asked her “what was the purpose of bombing this site? Was the Viet Cong using the UNESCO site as a base?” Finally, she admitted the U.S. troops believed there were Viet Cong using the temples to hide.
And I finally, got her to admit there actually were Commie bastards hiding in the temples. Turns out the little bitch hates Chinese as much as Americans. She says never do business with a Chinese person or you will lose fingers. The only saints in the world according to Da Nang’s Jane Fonda were the Soviets and now Russians.
I was scheduled to go on an 8 hour Hue Imperial City Tour the second day but when the tour operator showed up in fricking clown car designed for Asian Midgets – I said hell no. I won’t go! Seriously, the small SUV had three rows of seats and they had already filled the first two rows with midgets leaving the rear seat with 4 inches of leg room and no head room for the 6 foot 3 inch American imperialist devil.
Three hours out and three hours back with my head crammed into my chest and my knees over my ears and in intestinal distress – not my idea of a good time. I would strongly warn anyone visiting this hell hole against using the local Viator tour group. They are adamantly anti-American and their customer service sucks.
And I couldn’t get out of Da Nang soon enough!
The good news – Hanoi is a very interesting city and the people seem to be fine with American tourist dollars. In fact, my favorite day in all of Vietnam was a day-long tour to visit the Halong Bay Islands and Sea Caves. The trip required a 4-hours motor coach ride to and from the wharf where our traditional wooden Chinese Junk was docked then a 4 ½ hour seafood lunch cruise past Stone Island, Dog Island, Duck Island, Finger Island, Incence Burner Island, and Fighting Cocks Islands then into Thien Cung (Heavenly Palace Grotto) where we switched to small bamboo boats propelled by middle-aged women.
Lunch was great, the tour guide was great, the folks seated at my table were great and the scenery was fantastic. But the highlight was the hour in the bamboo boat drifting thru the grotto and small coves. The oarswoman spoke excellent English and had a great sense of humor.
And the 8 hours on the bus was even interesting. As I started out my bus window, I had the opportunity to see rice paddy after rice paddy, corn fields, and even lotus crops being cultivated and worked. We passed thru industrial towns, small villages and miles, and miles of farms.
The most interesting part of the entire trip though was what was billed as a rest/comfort stop but was actually an excuse to prompt us to buy souvenirs. Normally I resent these contrived efforts to force me to buy crap from a tour operator’s friends or someone they receive a kickback from. But not today!
The place we stopped is called Chan Thien My and it is a nonprofit business established for the sole purpose of providing vocational training and jobs for disabled people. Our guide explained that the company was founded by an American Vet and a North Vietnamese Veteran to help people disabled due to landmines or the genetic effects of Agent Orange.
Since they opened shop in 1996 the organization has trained over 600 disabled people free of charge in the arts of embroidery, clothes making, fine carving, lacquer, ceramics, gemstones and jewelry making. The facility we visited isn’t just the store with finished products. The disabled artisans were all busily working on their next creations.
It was heartwarming to see these people hard at work creating beautiful clothing, paintings, and jade jewelry. No hands – no problem. They simply worked with their feet. Bodies twisted and deformed by the ravages of Agent Orange hasn’t affected these people’s ability to create beautiful art or smile with pride in their work product. I don’t normally pimp for charities but I would encourage you to Google Chan Thien My and read about their story and if so inclined, contribute to a very worthy group of deserving people.
My second day in Hanoi was devoted to visiting temples and paying homage to a great American – Senator John McCain. I visited the lake where he was captured and then the Hanoi Hilton – his prison for the rest of the war. Turns out, he crashed within walking distance of the prison. The propaganda bull shit dispensed at the prison was pretty hard to take. The Vietnamese version of history is that local freedom fighters shot down over 6,000 American Imperialist War Criminals Planes and then treated the undeserving criminals with dignity and kindness.
They claim the prisoners were fed better than Hanoi residents, were provided clean fresh laundry weekly, encouraged to play basketball and soccer, and given total access to care packages sent from their families. I have read Senator McCain’s book and have known several other POWs who survived the Hanoi Hilton and they tell a far darker and crueler story about their captivity.