Ah Vietnam. We wish we had more time with you. A mere 12 days was not enough. Due to flights for China visas and some playing around with our schedule, we ended up with far too little time in this fascinating and delicious country.
We started in Saigon, where we had to stay a few days to obtain our visas to China. (Saigon is officially Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone in Saigon calls it Saigon. So we will too.) After appeasing the powers that be in the local consulate to the People’s Republic of China with incredible minutiae, including our bank statements, we enjoyed soaking up the food, and the food, and a few sights.
In Saigon, we also had to face some ugly truths of the Vietnam War, or the American War, as they call it. We visited the Chu Chi tunnels, an incredible system of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong during the war. Although we had been advised not to admit our American nationality at the tunnels, we took a chance and admitted our heritage. Luckily for us, our tour guide had fought with the Americans during the war, and we became his favorite tourists. Between expletives, he explained his story: he had fought alongside the American GIs, where he learned the curse words first and forgot them last. After the Americans abandoned the Southern Vietnamese, he had been thrown in a prison camp for three years. Once he was released, he was not a favorite of the Communist Regime, and life was not easy. Eventually, after Vietnam opened more to tourists in the 90’s, he became a tour guide. “I love American people. But I hate your government. Makes f#@&ing war everywhere.”
The War Remnants Museum was an even tougher pill to swallow. While the museum was partially filled with propaganda, it also had a powerful exhibit on victims of Agent Orange. The entire bottom floor of the museum was a multi-room argument OF “no one in the world supported your invasion in the first place” with photos of Vietnam War protests from almost every country in the world (including the U.S.A.). A notable plaque included donated metals of honor including a Purple Heart from a U.S. veteran with an inscription, “I WAS WRONG. I AM SORRY.”
The most heart-wrenching part of the museum was the exhibit on victims of Agent Orange. Entire rooms of photos of children through adults with horrible disfigured bodies. It was clear that the effects of Agent Orange reverberate in the lives of many Vietnamese, as they do for American Veterans and their families. We were caught in the rain with some American veterans of the war, and they explained to a curious Spanish teen that they had no idea at the time that Agent Orange was so toxic; they were lifting water into their canteens after it was sprayed. One veteran’s daughter had a disfigured limb as well. Like any regrettable decision, most Americans would rather forget and ignore our history in Vietnam; for many in Vietnam, that is not an option.
We still had good food and cheap local beer as a solace to our sad reminders, and so we continued to stuff ourselves with delicious food. We learned how to cook some simple Vietnamese dishes in a cooking class. (Yes, you are invited over for dinner!) Our chef, The, even invited us out for food and drinks the next day!
We took an overnight bus to Nga Trang, a gorgeous beach town up the coast. We were surprised that the town was filled with Russian tourists; even the signs were all in Russian rather than Vietnamese or English. An enjoyable beach pastime was to watch Russians do elaborate photo shoots with their beach babes. We spent two days in Nga Trang for beach time, pool time, seafood, and a few craft beers (heaven!), including one that really did have the aroma of passion fruit, as promised.