Have you ever tried to put together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing the completed picture? That’s what Vietnam feels like to us.
When we left home, Vietnam wasn’t on our radar of places to go. I thought we’d spend most of our time in SE Asia in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. The first time Vietnam came up was when our travel doctor suggested doing a loop from Thailand, down Vietnam, through Cambodia and back to Bangkok. I sort of dismissed that idea at the time.
However, as we travelled, we kept hearing how beautiful Vietnam is and how we had to work it into our trip. Jody, in particular was intrigued so we made the family decision to substitute it for Malaysia on our itinerary. No travel decision is ever a bad one, but I have some serious mixed feelings about Vietnam. Jody and the girls might have different opinions, but hey, I’m writing this post!
We flew from Chiang Mai into Hanoi. Our drive from the airport into the city centre was a gong-show. We’ve experienced crazy traffic before but Hanoi’s level of chaos was something else! Motorbikes in the thousands doing whatever they want, tuktuks, bicycles, cars and trucks all competing for the same space. Somehow they seem to make it all work as we were surprised to have only seen two car accidents and a man get knocked off his motorbike in the 20 minute drive from the airport. Welcome to Vietnam!
We checked into the hotel and the staff were welcoming and helpful. As it was only mid-afternoon, it was suggested that we head to the nearby water puppet theatre. A great idea, we grabbed tickets for the five o’clock show and wandered around the area before it started.
North Face has a few factories in Vietnam and you can find clothes, jackets and bags for sale everywhere at prices we couldn’t even dream of at home. I picked up two pairs of shorts and we contemplated getting the girls winter coats to be shipped. Everyone we interacted with was friendly and appreciated our efforts to communicate in our mispronounced Vietnamese. This included the persistent bicycle tuktuk drivers who were stationed every few metres asking if we needed a ride. A polite no thank you and the standard ‘maybe tomorrow?’ from the driver (followed by the compulsory ‘maybe’ from us) and all was good.
The water puppet show was amazing. A traditional live performance art, it included musicians, singers, puppeteers and their helpers. Adapted for modern audiences, the show included a jumping water display, lights, smoke and fire. Unlike the puppetry we’re used to — where artists work the puppets from above — Vietnamese water puppets are controlled from below and behind. A pool acts as the stage for the puppets to perform. At the back of the pool there is a screen from behind which the artists use long poles to move the puppets across the stage. We never saw any of the performers until the end of the show when they came out for a bow. There were times when I couldn’t quite figure out how they made the puppets move and dance across the water. We imagined the sight of the performers working behind the screen would be almost as entertaining as what we saw in front of it due to the potential acrobatics required!
At the end of the show, we took some time to admire the puppets on display in the foyer. Colourful and ornate, these are also works of art on their own. We were approached by a young man who worked for the company. The girls asked some questions about how the puppets moved and how many people there were behind the screen. He said it varied from show to show as they put on several different performances throughout the year. We also commented we were impressed by the use of fire in the show and wonder how that worked. He joked that he couldn’t say but said they can do all sorts of things with the puppets. They have one show where a puppet bomber aircraft is shot down in one of the scenes. Sheepishly, he said that is more for a Vietnamese audience as it can be offensive to Americans. Seeing he thought we were from the US, we showed him our backpack and maple leaf and said we wouldn’t be offended as we’re Canadian. He joked that he has a hard time telling westerners apart but said people in Vietnam really like Canadians - with a pregnant pause, you can guess why…
It was a great conversation which, combined with our interactions with people at the airport, hotel and shops, left us with the impression that Vietnam has generally moved on from the American War as they call it. This, in literary terms, is called a foreshadow.
After the show, we walked around a little bit more before getting some dinner and headed back to the hotel. We knew Vietnam is a communist country but I was struck by the number of Cold War-esque statues, government buildings and public monuments celebrating the worker and proletariat. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I suppose the rest of the world has moved away from the Communism vs. The West narrative but here, it is still something articulated in public spaces. Fascinated by these displays of ideology and nationhood, Jody and I thought it would be interesting to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum the next day.
We woke up early as we heard it can get quite busy. Being a few kilometres away, we decided to take two bicycle tuktuks to the mausoleum. We got to the entrance in about 20 minutes and Jody made the move to get out. The driver said ‘no, no’ as he was going to drive us to the end of the line. Two-blocks later, we eventually stopped and proceeded to walk another block in search of a place to join the queue. As we walked, we were struck by how few foreigners were there. There were families, school groups and regular citizens who had all lined up for hours to pay their respects to the man they identify as the father of modern Vietnam.
The girls said they liked walking the line because they felt like royalty walking down the street separated from the crowd by portable metal barriers. Our presence seemed to be a mild novelty, especially for all of the school-aged kids who were standing in the queue for at least two hours. One kid reached out to me, so I shook his hand. He was thrilled and showed all of his friends and the girls found this equally entertaining. Lots of hellos, pointing and giggling, all in good fun by the local kids as we navigated the side of the road between traffic and the sidewalk where the line was located.
About 30 metres later, we had to make our way around a large truck and as we got to the other side, I looked up and saw about a dozen Vietnamese veterans. One of them called out to me so I engaged with him.
Saying hello as I walked by, he barked something at me again. I hesitated and said sorry, I didn’t understand. This time he raised his voice so all of his friends and the people in the immediate vicinity could listen. The men he was with in military garb started to laugh.
Again, I apologized, I don’t understand, but he continued and I suddenly realized what was going on. This man, along with his friends, were in their early 60s and clearly retired from duty. The military outfits they wore were, at one time, their dress uniform but were now only worn for occasions like this when they wanted to be identified as veterans of the war. Their shirts were untucked and they had mismatched trousers and sandals. So this was an impromptu gathering organized amongst former comrades-at-arms. The particular individual who was giving me an earful had four stars across each of his shoulders. Clearly, he was the leader of these men and was taking the opportunity to ridicule a foreigner who had the audacity to visit the tomb of their esteemed leader.
This was one of those really awkward moments when you don’t know if you should walk away or further engage. Being totally surprised and bewildered by this exchange, I tried to explain that I didn’t understand and that I was Canadian, again, using my backpack to show off the flag. It didn’t matter to this gentleman as he continued to cut into me for the benefit of his friends. I have no idea what he said but imagine it was along the lines of “How dare you, American, come here. You have no reason for being here other than needing to pay respects to the man who defeated the US military.” Something along those lines or worse…
This person was getting a bit of an audience by this time but the only people laughing were his men. The others around were watching in wonder to see what would happen next. I think his men were a little taken aback too, but the old guy was on a roll and there was no stopping him. As I stood there dumbfounded on the receiving end of his blast, a police officer jumped in-between me and the veteran and said that I had to move on (it felt like the officer was intimating this exchange was my fault).
I backed off while he turned in triumph to his men as they started to move forward in the line. One of his men seemed to be a bit uncomfortable by the exchange and attempted to make amends by shouting to Jody to see if we were in fact Canadian. He asked if we spoke French, and she responded in French that we did albeit a little, as we walked away.
It was an entirely unsettling and humbling experience. This person didn’t know me but presumed to attack me simply based on what I looked like. To him, I appeared American and that made me fair game. It was shocking and, honestly, I was quite mad once I was able to process what had just happened.
By the time we eventually found the end of the line, I was seething and we decided to give a visit to the mausoleum a miss. I had to calm myself down as the girls had a lot of questions and I had to talk through what happened with them. This incident provided fodder for our conversations for the rest of our time in Vietnam. How do you explain his behaviour? What’s his perspective on the war? What did he witness? Think about others who experience this kind of treatment on a regular basis - women, people of colour or different religions. These conversations were as beneficial for me as they were for the girls. Needless to say, I didn’t start to feel better about Vietnam until we reached Hoi An 5 days later.
I’m still probably not 100% on Vietnam yet. We were told that it is a beautiful country. That wasn’t particularly obvious to us in either Hanoi nor Ha Long Bay. The city is dirty and polluted and the air quality is the worst we have experienced anywhere on our trip. We used Cat Ba Island to explore Ha Long Bay but the town is hard and the days were overcast which contributed to my perspective. However, Hoi An was a beautiful, sunny spot. Fantastic beaches and an amazing old town. If you’re on a budget, Vietnam is an excellent place to stretch your shilling.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Vietnam in the next few years. It appears that anyone under the age of 40 has completely moved on from the war. Our interactions with people our age or younger were fantastic. As a nation, they celebrate when they defeated a world super power (in their view). Every country deserves the right to feel patriotic and celebrate national achievements but as time moves on I suspect the allure of defeating an ‘imperial power’ will likely be replaced by other more current/relevant national feelings (i.e., what it means to be Vietnames vs. seeing the world through a military lens).
To me, it appears as if Vietnam is in a period of transition. The population seems to be very young and the borders are becoming more open. Younger cohorts will feel less connected to the wars of the past and exposure of the general population to increasing numbers of foreigners will have an impact on the Vietnamese world and self-view. All along the waterfront between Da Nang and Hoi An, there are hotels and beach resorts going up. There are thousands of new hotel rooms that will need to be filled. We got the sense that tourism is about to explode in Vietnam in the next few years.
If people asked me whether or not they should visit Vietnam, I would say yes - but maybe skip the mausoleum.
We're the Danchuks - follow our explorations and family adventures in a wide world (2018).