Dates: December 26 — February 6
Getting in: Flight from Kolkata, India to Ho Chi Ming City (formerly Saigon)
Like many Americans, my thoughts and knowledge about Vietnam have been greatly colored by the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is called in Vietnam). Never before had I visited a country in which I had such strong impressions of a particular time in its history, but such a dearth of knowledge about the country or its history on a whole. I knew that Vietnamese perspectives of the War must differ from those held by Americans; I arrived curious to learn how the war lingers in Vietnam’s ethos. Indeed, while in Vietnam, I was made to contemplate how even hypercritical reflections of the War set forth in American literature, movies, and art, are patently American-centric, principally using the Vietnamese as foils to tell the story of American soldiers and veterans.
This became apparent to me when I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (the former capital of South Vietnam under the name Saigon). Opened in 1975 as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, the museum was renamed as the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression in 1990 before receiving its current name in 1995 after the normalization of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. Despite such efforts by the Vietnamese government to comport diplomatically in the post-cold war era, the museum’s exhibits reveal that the Vietnamese are still very much reconciling the fact of the war in which 2 million Vietnamese citizens lost their lives. One particular moving exhibit chronicles war atrocities perpetuated by American GIs—challenging any presumption that American troops were well-behaved during the war—bespeaks that the Vietnamese, if willing to forgive, will not forget the war that continues to kill and maim Vietnamese in the forms of unexploded ordinances and dioxin contamination (a compound found in agent orange, a defoliant used by the military).
Another great cost of the war was the damage to Vietnam’s historical sites. Moreover, for many years, the Vietnam’s communist government, bitter of feudalism and colonialism, and disinterested in religion, has neglected sites relating to such. Fortunately, things have improved in recent years with more care being taken to at the very least maintain the current tumbledown state of monuments, the most notable of which have been privileged with UNESCO recognition. Huế (pronounced “h-whey”), which received UNESCO recognition in 1993, is a particularly notable locale for tourists interested in antebellum Vietnam. The former seat of the Nguyen Emperor dynasty and national capital from 1802-1945, its key attractions include the vast 19th century Imperial Citadel and Tombs of the Emperors. Hoi An, another World Heritage site a few hours south of Huế by way of a stunning mountain pass, is a historic sea port with 2000 years of history. It’s hard to deny that that, despite being uber-touristic, its historic center known as the “old town” still admits an aura of grace and peace abetted by grand traditional architecture and sea breeze. The beaches, villages, and rice patties in the surrounding area can be easily explored on bicycle, which can be rented for a dollar a day.
Of Vietnams two flagship metropoles, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, I greatly preferred the gritty charm of Hanoi, particular its Old Quarter, where tourists and locals alike can share in the experience of watching street performers while imbibing cheap beer and street food from the vantage point of kindergartener-sized plastic chairs set up on the narrow sidewalks. Both cities are worth spending a few days to visit the monuments and museums, such as the aforementioned War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Temple of Literature—a thousand-year-old university—in Hanoi, among others.
One should not get stuck in the cities as Vietnam’s greatest asset is its natural beauty. The northern provinces, where I spent most of time in the country, feature miles upon miles of extraordinary karst landscapes in which Hmong, Dzao, Tay, Dzay, and other ethnic minorities have ensconced themselves. In Sapa, a quiet hill station founded in 1922 by the French, emerald-green rice patties flow so naturally from the valleys that one forgets the innumerable of hours of human labor they represent. The apotheosis of this topography exists in The Dong Vast Karst plateau, a UNESCO Geopark in Ha Giang Province, Vietnam’s northernmost province, where villagers have carved arable terraces into the near vertical karst bluffs. Equally impressive a relationship formed between people and the space they inhabit are the floating fishing villages of Cat Ba Island in which 4,000 residents reside in floating structures amidst a landscape of limestone pinnacles. Farther south, a couple hours north of the DMZ, Phong Nha National Park houses a system of hundreds of exquisite caves, including the Hang Sơn Đoòng cave, the largest cave in the world at more than 5 miles long. The roads cutting through the park were originally built by the North Vietnamese Army to ferry supplies through the tropical evergreen jungle.
Lonely Planet; Bloom, Greg; Bush, Austin; Stewart, Iain; Waters, Richard (2014-07-01). Lonely Planet Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & Northern Thailand (Travel Guide) (Kindle Location 3154). Lonely Planet Publications. Kindle Edition.