May 2004: Ironically it was the Vietnam war movies I grew up watching like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Forest Gump, ….that inspired me to visit Vietnam as one of the first countries in my quest to see the world. I wanted to learn more about the horrible war that had not only plagued the people and landscapes of Vietnam, but I also wanted to learn more about it to better understand the misery and horrors that American servicemen like my uncle faced when they fought in the war of Vietnam. Visiting Vietnam was a high priority for me because it only became possible for foreigners to travel freely in Vietnam 7 years before my visit.  It was a country that wasn’t ruined yet by mass tourism like Thailand was becoming and I wanted to see it before it was too late. As part of a larger two-week trip that included the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar, and Thailand, I spent a week in Vietnam visiting Hanoi, Ha Long Ba, Nha Trang and its inland mountains via a motor taxi.

 

 

About Vietnam

My Route across Vietnam

For much of the 20th century, Vietnam was inflicted with war with the French, Americans, Chinese and then the Khmer Rouge that left millions of Vietnamese dead, approx. 50,000 Americans, 50,000 French, 20,000 Chinese and another 20,000 Cambodians killed. Despite decades of conflict, communism and untold human misery that condemned Vietnam to being one of the poorest countries in the world, Vietnam has somehow managed to crawl its way back not only to the surface but also into being one of the economic powerhouses of Asia. Vietnam has seen peace, and stability since the 80’s and it continues to thrive and despite a long-drawn-out vicious war between America and Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s, few countries I have visited have treated me as well as the people of Vietnam did during my trip there.

 

Hanoi

My first stop in Vietnam was Hanoi. I immediately loved the city. It was humid, and chaotic and I stayed in the atmospheric French Quarter of old French colonial buildings dripping with moss and mildew. The streets were choked in the chaos of motorbikes, while old women in iconic wide brimmed bowl hats carrying heavy pots of food on both ends of a bamboo pole balanced over their shoulders and street food eateries compete for every last inch of sidewalk space. The city, a mix of drab communist brutalist monuments, memorials to the Vietnam War, lakes, Taichi practicing mobs of people, French architecture and old decaying churches, is one of my favorites in Southeast Asia.

I stayed in the French Quarter in a family run guest house. Compared to Thailand I was surprised by the lack of tourists in Vietnam and the attention that I was receiving from locals that were unaccustomed to foreign tourists especially Americans. This was a feeling I would become familiar with throughout my week of traveling in Vietnam. The people despite the war with the USA seemed to harbor no grudge against me and to the contrary were some of the kindest I had met anywhere in my travels.

While in Hanoi for a few days, I walked everywhere and when I found myself lost which was often, I would show a rickshaw driver my hotels business card. Without this card and since no one spoke English in some places, I might still be lost. I walked to the lake where American Senator, John McCain was once shot down in his fighter jet during the war and subsequently kept as a POW. I saw hundreds of elderly people doing group Taichi in morning and hundreds of young kids dancing in unison.  I would stop at small hole in the wall eateries and order cheapo noodles and eat them on a plastic kindergarten sized chair on the sidewalk that I was worried would break under my much larger than average sized body. But the highlight of Hanoi was the water puppet show with Vietnamese traditional music and the incredible water puppets which is also unique to Vietnam.

I also had a few bizarre events that happened to me. In one guesthouse I stayed at the local family invited me to dinner and was very inviting and friendly to me. When I left to visit the city at night, I counted my money and left some of the hundred-dollar bills in a sealed and signed envelope in their safe. When I returned one of the hundred bills was missing but my envelope was still sealed and signed but the signature appeared to be different leading me to believe the family stole the 100 bills from me. This led to some very uncomfortable questioning on my part and the acceptance that I would just have to live with losing the 100 bill and find a new place to stay.

My new place in the French Quarter happened to have a lot of prostitute girls working the streets at night and when Iwas walking home from a bar, they swooned all around me on their bicycles and starting to invite me in a scene out of a Vietnam War movie to boom boom, suckie suckie, with very strong Vietnamese accents. I refused and went to my room in my hotel. After 20 minutes of getting settled into my room, I heard a knock on my door, when I opened it one of the prostitute girls barged in again asking if I wanted sex. I removed her and went downstairs to advise the door man not to let anyone in again. He apologized and dubiously claimed that he thought she knew me.

 

 

Street scene Hanoi

Ha Long Bay

From Hanoi I organized a day trip to Ha Long Bay. The trip started out via two-hour long bus ride to Ha Long Bay stopping at a shop where victims of Agent Orange, mostly children with birth defects and adults sold handicrafts that they made to passing tourists. Agent Orange was a defoliant chemical used by American panes to kill the foliage in the jungle making it harder for the Vietcong to hide. Agent Orange is a carcinogen and highly toxic chemical that caused many birth defects in subsequent generations.

Once in Ha Long Bay, I boarded a boat, visiting a few of the islands with dramatic karst topography. There are hundreds of mushroom shaped limestone, jungle studded islands in Ha Long Bay.

 

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

A cave used as a bomb shelter during the war on one of the islands

Local villagers selling goods from their boat

Nha Trang

I flew to Nha Trang via a domestic airline from Hanoi. I chose Nha Trang because it is located in Southern Vietnam and represented the quintessential American Vietnam war movie. It was a beach city where a giant American base was once located. I stayed in a hotel located on the beach and the city was everything I imagined it to be. It was like the Vietnamese California. The beach was similar but more tropical. Young Vietnamese people constantly invited me to eat and drink with them and I found it almost impossible to eat alone. I would drink Vietnamese beers, eat noodles with my new friends while consuming an endless supply of peanuts and throwing the shells on the ground of every place we visited. Through my hotel, I arranged a motor taxi driver to take me into the mountains for a few days to explore the Vietnamese countryside.

 

Nha Trang Beaches

Old Champa Civilization Temple from the Culture that the people of Vietnam came from

 Motor Taxi Ride Into the Mountains

For the next 3 days I was a giant man sitting on the back of a small motorbike holding on to a little Vietnamese man, my taxi driver. I hovered over him, and I imagine the spectacle of us driving down the roads was probably pretty ridiculous looking to other Vietnamese people. I selected some places I wanted to visit in the interior, battlefields and jungles and outside of Nha Trang, it didn’t take long for me to notice how badly the war impacted the countryside. Vast patches of land are still barren from destruction of American bombs. We drove passed colorful indigenous villages and stopped to visit some on occasion and I met many friendly locals.

 

Destruction from American bombs 

Tribal lady riding her bicycle 

Girl in a village helping her mom assemble 

Young kid working in family brick factory

Waterfall where I drank rice wine with some local village kids

We visited Boun Me Thuot and some of the battlefields in the area. Boun Me Thuot saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war and there are many Vietnamese war monuments in the city. One of the monuments is of an American tank that is positioned before a huge monument to the victory of Vietnam. When I took a photo of it, a young Vietnamese couple saw me, and the man asked if he could take my photo. I said yes but he wanted his wife to be in the photo with me too and he wanted us to pose in front of the American tank. This was a little weird but sure I said. Then he unbuttoned the top button of my shirt to make my chest show more in the photo, which made things even more weird.

 

Boun Me Thuot American Tank from Vietnam War

Vietnam War Monument in Boun Me Thuot

 Drinking Beers with a Viet Cong General at a Brothel 

It was getting late, and my motor taxi driver and I needed a place to stay, and we stopped at a rural guesthouse surrounded by rice patties. Once we walked into the guesthouse, we realized there was a bar and brothel girls. It was a guesthouse too and so we stayed the night. it was a surreal experience to be sitting outside drinking beers with my driver while loud Vietnamese rock music blasted from the brothel inside and girls in small miniskirts and their customers walked around us. An old man sat at the table beside me, who claimed to be the owner of the brothel. He was cheerful and didn’t speak English, so my driver translated. He appeared to have severe burns on his face. he explained that it was from napalm that the Americans dropped on him when he was a Viet Cong general fighting in the jungle. The man asked me where I was from and when I said American, he didn’t flinch and welcomed me to Vietnam and poured me another beer. He was also weirdly enough enamored with my leg hair and kept brushing the hairs of my leg with his hand. This was something that happened to me on a few occasions in Vietnam, where evidently leg hair is uncommon.

 

Yok Don National Park

In oursuit of my obsession to see wild tigers, I selected a national park on the Cambodian border that protects a large forest wilderness. I had no plan for my visit other than to go into the forest, camp and look for tigers. My motor taxi driver and I drove through some pretty rough dirt roads to get to the park headquarters and I was exhausted after a long day of traveling on Vietnam roads sitting on the back of a motorbike holding on to my Vietnamese driver.  There were several tribal thatched houses in the area and we visited some of the indigenious families living in them with their pot bellied pigs. Then I arranged to trek into the forest and sleep there for the night. I didn;t have a tent so the plan was for my indigenious guide and I to sleep somewhere in the forest. We set off by crossing the river on by elephant back and hiking into the forest as the sun set. After an hour of hiking in mixed forest, the skies unleased on us and it poured rain.  The rain gave no indication of slowing and it seemed like slepping out in the open in the Vietnamese jungles was a poor idea. There was only one option and that was to turn back. So my guide and I ran through the jungle returning to the river and we paddled across to the park headquarters where I booked a small bungalow for the night. 

 

Indigenious village

Indigenious people living in a thatched home 

Praying mantis inside one of the indigenious homes 

Sharing locals foods with an indigenious family 

Hiking through the forest at night looking for a place to sleep before the rain came

Sunset in the forest

Naughty Monkey 

In the morning I wondered around my guesthouse in Yok Don national park looking for insects and snakes. While waiting for breakfast that the cooks in a thatched hut were making for me, I noticed there was a monkey in a cage just a few feet away. The cage was closed but unlocked. For whatever reason I decided to release the monkey from its cage and the moment I did one of the park rangers saw me and screamed no00000.” It was too late; the monkey was free and embracing his freedom. The monkey it turns out was a wild one that was found injured in the reserve and he was being kept in the cage until he could return to being healthy and then released. He was also kept in a cage because he was extremely naughty. I discovered quickly why, and I couldn’t help but to laugh as the scene of chaos unfolded before me. The monkey ran into the kitchen, and I heard a woman screaming, and pots and pans clattering. One of the women cooks tried to run away but the monkey chased her with an erection on full display. The park ranger stood next to me waiting with his broom to wrangle the monkey back into the cage. The park ranger muttered the monkey really likes girls. The woman ran into another hut and the park ranger chased it in circles, but t climbed up into the rafters and hid and then it saw me sitting in my hammock relaxing and it latched on to my head at the foot of the hammock and started to pick on my scalp and eat whatever it was picking. If I tried to move, the monkey would grab me with its sharp claws keeping me in place. When the ranger approached the monkey would get closer to me and sit behind my head while hissing at the ranger as if the monkey was under the assumption that I would protect him. I allowed the monkey to sit next to my head and pick on my scalp for a few moments and asked the ranger to take my photo. Soon afterwards, the monkey was distracted long enough for the ranger to successfully shoo it back into its cage and peace resumed.

 

The monkey picking on my scalp as I sat in my hammock 

After visiting Yok Don, and on the way back to Nha Trang on the motor bike, I came down with a bad case of food poisoning and had bad diarrhea. I had to stop at public restrooms that were places of nightmares and after 10 hours of pure hell sitting in discomfort on the back of the motor bike, I arrived at my hotel in Nha Trang. I was feverish and felt terrible. Then the electricity went out at my hotel, and I woke up doused in sweat. When I finally managed to gather enough energy to walk down to the front desk and inquire about the electricity being out, the manager saw my condition and called a doctor to visit me in my room. Within an hour at night for 20USD, a doctor visited me, prescribed me medicine and by morning I was healed. It was fantastic. From Nha Trang I flew back to Hanoi and continued home back to San Diego via Bangkok, Thailand.

 

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