Vietnam

Cleaning House

There was a period where I was moving around quite a bit. In nine years, I had eight different addresses that spanned five cities on three continents. The logistics of all of that, of course, meant I couldn't possibly keep a mass of possessions. 

With each move, I would evaluate which things I needed to...

5 Top Tips for New Travellers

5 Top Tips for New Travellers

I am at a cash machine in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Day One of a two-week vacation with my brother. He's just finished getting cash out, and now it's my turn to stock up. 

I put my debit card in, then spend some time doing mental calculations of the currency conversion rates to figure out how much Vietnamese dong I should get out. I take the cash and quickly...

Remember When: The Joy of Reminiscing

vietnam with brock.jpg

My last day in Vietnam was spent walking around the city by myself, as my brother's flight took off almost a full day before mine. As soon as I woke up on my last morning in Ho Cho Minh City and saw my brother wasn't there, I realized how much I liked having family around.

I feel that having a friend or family member with me on my travels validates my experiences, so when I go home after it's all over, I know someone will remember something the same way I do. It means I can say, "Hey, I remember in Vietnam when..." and someone can actually say yes. It brings my two worlds together so I know I was doing something real, it wasn't just a dream, my experiences aren't lost in some black hole somewhere only I can find.

Before moving to Korea, I lived for a year in Ghana, West Africa. Halfway through that adventure, my older sister came to travel around the country with me for two weeks. We hustled our way over the whole country, hitting up national parks, beaches, cities, barseverything we could possibly squeeze into fifteen days. She saw my residence at the university, she met my new friends, she ate the food, she rode in a trotro. Now, when I feel the urge to talk about Ghanaian anything, I know I can talk to my sister and she'll laugh and say she remembers, too.

Sure, new friends met abroad are always available for those reminiscing moments. "Remember when we..." "Remember the time..." And I can write about my experiences for anyone who cares to read about them, and I can (hopefully) describe the experiences well enough to make people feel like they were there with me.

But there, really, is nothing like a sister standing right there beside you as you look at the elephants drinking from the watering hole in Mole National Park, or a brother resting on the lounge chair next to you on a junk in Halong Bay, or a good friend from Ghana living in Seoul and spending her weekends with you and your new friends.

A Tour of the Mekong Delta

The Mekong River flows from China to southern Vietnam, changing its name several times as it flows over four thousand kilometres through diverse environments to the South China Sea. Where exactly this great river starts, no one knows for sure. Between the difficulty navigating both the terrain around its source and portions of violent rapids within the river itself, its absolute beginning is left a mystery. This great river, one of the longest in the world, meanders through China, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to Vietnam, where my brother and I had a chance to dip our feet in.

Our tour of the Mekong Delta started poorly, mostly because we naively assumed our tour would follow our itinerary, even though we had already run into this problem on this trip. After I argued with the tour guide, and after he laid his hand on my shoulder, sighed, and told me his company said they would—wow—give us what we paid for, things started looking up. We switched tours. The new tour bus bumped its way along the roads, passing many green rice paddies the fertile delta region is known for.

Later in the morning, hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived at a muddy-looking river. We were transferred to a boat that was scheduled to follow our itinerary, and as it turns out, it was the nicest boat there. I bought a traditional cone hat, hoping it would look as charming on me as it did on Vietnamese women (my brother would say it didn’t). With that purchase, I was dressed and ready to begin our three-day journey of the Mekong Delta.

The wider rivers were lined with rickety, pastel-coloured stilt houses, while the smaller rivers were shaded by palm trees and overhanging branches. Along the shores, I saw groups of men chatting together, people bathing with buckets along the riverbanks, women cooking, children standing and waving.

The local people usually ignored our large boat of staring tourists, but once in a while, when we were closer to shore, small groups of men would stop their chatter and watch us go by. We would look each other in the eyes, both sides imagining what the other was thinking. All we could do was communicate with a smile on our lips and in our eyes. We cruised the rivers in both our big wooden tour boat and small canoe-like rowboats that were powered by older women with long oars. I enjoyed running my hands in the lukewarm water as the women propelled us down the narrow canals—that is, I did enjoy it until I saw the garbage that was floating along with us.

But we didn’t just cruise the maze of rivers; frequent touristy stops along the way kept us busy. We watched a woman make rice paper, toured a carpentry shop and rice-husking mill, learned how to make a coconut milk and caramel treat, rowed around a floating village, fed jumpy fish at a fish farm, bicycled a small island village, and visited a Muslim mosque in the Cham village. We climbed the stone steps up Sam Mountain in the town of Chau Doc and saw the colourful, Buddha-filled Cavern Pagoda. The views of extensive, vibrant green rice fields near the Cambodian border highlighted the importance of this fertile region.

A tour of the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam would not be complete without an exploration of a floating market, and our tour certainly didn’t disappoint. We stopped at three: Cai Be, Cai Rang, and Can Tho. Here, dozens of buyers and sellers trade their goods from the comfort of their boats. Food items tied to a bamboo stick on the deck of the boat advertises what’s for sale on that particular boat, including anything from pumpkins to carrots to lettuce to potatoes to pineapples. Farmers come from around the delta to “park” at one of these floating markets and sell their goods. Some families live on the boats permanently, travelling back and forth along the river from the fields to the markets. Others have houses on the mainland and only stay on the boat while they’re selling their goods. While life on the Mekong is inevitably slow-paced, I found the energy in the markets to be livelier and more vibrant, even if the speed of the boats was still slow.

The sienna-brown Mekong River provided a quiet but dramatic backdrop for a colourful voyage through the delta. The “river of nine dragons” ends its long, winding journey from China as it enters the sea from one of nine estuary rivers. We ended our long, winding journey from Ho Chi Minh City as we entered the sea on a ferry heading for Phu Quoq.

More:
Phu Quoq Island, Vietnam 
History of Saigon 
Beware the Motos in Vietnam

History of Saigon

Reunification Palace sits in Cong Vien Van Hoa Park in central Ho Chi Minh City. It is the famous site of the end of the infamous Vietnam War, where communist North Vietnamese army tanks smashed through its north gates on 30 April 1975 and sent the Americans running—literally.

Prior to visiting the palace, I was told that the building has been left just as it was on that day, and so I imagined scattered remnants of an elegant palace gate, army tanks lingering on the grounds and, well, some oversized tire marks still cutting deep into the lawn. But it didn’t look quite like that. The outside certainly doesn’t look like the war ended yesterday like I thought it would; the gate is intact, the lawn is nicely manicured, and a single army tank is carefully parked.

Heading inside, I realized it was the interior that had been left remindful of that historic spring day—only a little tidier. I would think that any attack that ends a long and difficult war would have caused at least some furniture to be overturned and left some items scattered as people fled the scene. Instead, chairs are positioned nicely around the tables and phones in the basement’s telecommunications tunnels are set neatly on their cradles.

Taking advantage of a tour guide, I was led through several nicely decorated meeting rooms and lounges before we headed to the rooftop, where outlines of two bombs that fell during an assassination attempt on a South Vietnamese president are still marked on the roof. Next we went to the basement to see the underground headquarters of the American army, where I could look at the maps still hanging on the walls. After the tour was over and I was able to explore on my own, I headed for the museum’s picture room, where hundreds of photos record the varied history of the building.

While viewing the gripping photos of the city’s massive helicopter evacuation and the building’s gate-crashing army tanks, I learned the palace was not only the site of the end of the war, but it was effectively the site of the beginning, too. The history of this building tells the tale of the war from its early origins to the bitter conclusion.

The original palace, called Norodom Palace, was built in 1873 by the French, who captured Vietnam as a colony years earlier. It was the home of the French Governors and Governor Generals, and briefly a Japanese Governor, until 1954 when the French were forced out. Unfortunately, this resulted in a divided country where peace couldn’t continue for long. The building became the residence for South Vietnamese Presidents and became known as Presidential Palace or Independence Palace. Meanwhile, emotions were stirring across the division line. In 1960, the long, ugly war began when the communist north began to form troops in order to accomplish their plans to unite the country. Fifteen tumultuous years later with the Fall of Saigon—or the Liberation of Saigon, depending on your point of view—the building became the Reunification Palace.

After the North Vietnamese army raised their flag on the rooftop of the palace and the South Vietnamese President officially surrendered, there was finally an end to the war. Days later, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the man who led the Vietnamese people through their worst conflict. But at Reunification Palace, time will remain frozen in the last moments of the war and the last moments of the city of Saigon.

Beware the Motos in Vietnam

Vietnam has a way of causing visitors to doubt their ability to cross a street. Guidebooks and locals advise you to break the strict rules your parents taught you as a child. "Don't look at the traffic as you're crossing," we were told. "Just walk straight ahead. If you look at the motos coming at you, you'll hesitate. And that's what causes accidents."

I've been crossing the street safely for over twenty years, and I credit those successes to looking both ways and not stepping in front of a crowd of oncoming motor vehicles. But, well, this is what travelling is about. Breaking rules, stepping out of comfort zones, taking chances, learning new ways to cross a street.

I took this video on my last day in Ho Chi Minh City. Of course, some streets we encountered were busier, some were emptier. Most didn't have traffic lights like this intersection. But it's a look at the traffic game we played everyday.

Photo Gallery: A Visit to My Son

My Son (pronounced me-son), according to our tour guide, means “a beautiful mountain.” It’s certainly an appropriate title, given the picturesque setting it was built upon. It was here, walking on the stone path to the ruins, that my brother and I saw the thick, jungle-like landscape of Vietnam that we imagined after watching Magnum: P.I. and Forrest Gump. Dense tropical foliage covered the valleys and mountainsides and surrounded the historical site.

Even with the crowds of tourists, the My Son ruins still felt intimate and personal. I could easily walk around one of the remains and find myself alone where it was so quiet and peaceful, it was like they were whispering a secret no one but I could hear. Bright green leaves and vines are crawling, creeping around the blackened bricks, saturating the dark, solid bricks with colour and life. Some of the ruins have been destroyed by the war and human interference, but many of the bricks still remained in the spot the Champa people laid them to rest hundreds of years ago. I wondered what they were built for, what purpose they had besides their beauty.

From Hanoi to Hoi An

Hanoi's vibrant energy can sometimes be overwhelming. In Hanoi, my brother and I struggled to cross the crowded streets constantly bustling with motorbike and people traffic. At first, we found ourselves hesitating on the equally-crowded sidewalks before darting across the roads when there was finally a small break in moto traffic. After a few (nervous) practice runs, we finally got the hang of it. Don't panic, don't look, but most of all, don't hesitate. By keeping a steady pace, motos can maneuver around you—at least, that's what we kept telling ourselves.

 Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake

We enjoyed our time exploring the Old Quarter in Hanoi, where the architecture shows its French influence. The Hoan Kiem Lake area is particularly beautiful. The expansive, still black waters of Hoan Kiem reflect the golden tortoise monument in the middle of the lake. The “tortoise” lacks any resemblance to an animal, as far as I could tell, but it’s a charming focal point nonetheless. One night, we took a late night stroll through the dark city park that surrounds the lake. We attempted to let the many affectionate couples have their privacy on the darkened benches as we meandered around the beautifully landscaped park. We stopped and watched a group of women exercise to musical hits from the ‘80s. It was a great escape from the busy streets.

After a short plane ride, my brother and I soon found ourselves in Hoi An. As confusingly similar as their names are, Hoi An felt like a whole different world from Hanoi. Hoi An is a much smaller city, and it certainly feels that way; this city has a enchanting, peaceful character.

Hoi An especially appealed to me because of the hundreds of tailor shops lining the streets. Rows upon rows of colourful clothes beckoned to me from all angles. Storekeepers kept calling out for us to enter their particular shop, as if they could offer something no other store could. Hoi An’s reputation for producing excellent quality garments is well deserved, but it is difficult to imagine that there’s a demand for all those similar clothing shops. Any style of clothing you can ask for can be made by the next day, in your chosen fabric with your personal measurements. It’s a shopper’s dream! Jackets, suits, dresses, tops, skirts—I wanted it all. Luckily my brother kept me in check and I left Hoi An with only two shirts and a jacket.

In addition to the clothing galleries, there were dozens of art galleries, too. As a painter myself, I found the artwork even harder to ignore. And unfortunately the good quality paintings weren’t as easy on the wallet as my new clothes were.

When I wasn’t shopping (or trying to convince my brother to let me shop a little bit longer), a variety of delicious restaurants provided us with a nice retreat. We walked, shopped, and dined in Hoi An for several days, enjoying every moment this attractive and captivating little town had to offer us. We were so satisfied with the city that we forgot to explore the historical sites of Old Town; we just kept to the quiet streets and didn’t realize we were missing noted sites. But we really didn’t miss them at all.

More:
Beware the Motos in Vietnam

Uncle Ho

Back in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, my brother and I decided to check out the Ho Chi Minh Complex, a “holiest of the holies” place, according to my guidebook. It’s a collection of a museum, mausoleum, palace, stilt house, and pagoda, all dedicated to the one and only Uncle Ho.

From the moment we arrived in Vietnam, we were bombarded with images of Ho Chi Minh—every bank note, many statues, several propaganda posters... We kept asking ourselves, Who is this man? And why is he idolized by an entire nation?

uncle ho's mausoleum

Carefully following the crowds of Vietnamese and foreign tourists at the HCM Complex, walking only on the roads (as instructed by the intimidating officials, who are waiting to pounce on anyone, like myself, who attempts to use the sidewalk), we arrived at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This grand cube-shaped building is made of dark grey granite blocks with six square columns on each side, like of a modern, gloomy Parthenon. We left our cameras with security and followed in line. I wasn’t sure to expect when I stepped inside. We were slowly led single-file on a red carpet up some stairs, around some corners, and through some corridors. Finally, there he was.

A peaceful looking Uncle Ho silently sleeps within a glass box, surrounded by a few serious, statue-like body guards. I felt uncomfortable and kept looking away. I felt like we were disturbing him when all he wanted to do was be left alone. We didn’t stay long; the line was forced to keep moving.

Afterwards, I admitted to my brother that I didn't think I could respect a guy who decides to be immortalized, put on display, and idolized in such a way. He agreed. It wasn’t until later in our journey that we learned that, in fact, he has been embalmed against his wishes. He actually requested to be cremated and scattered in the four corners of his country because he says “not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland.” That sounds much more respectable to me.

My respect for him continued to rise after we exited the mausoleum and walked the grounds to his stilt house. It’s juxtaposed by a huge yellow Presidential Palace, the home of the Governor of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh’s residence is small and simple, but still elegant and stunningly beautiful. Stairs lead you up to the main rooms, each with minimal furniture and open spaces. It represents how he lived a simple life for the people of Vietnam and not a life of luxury for himself.

His residence my have been simple, but there’s nothing simple about his life or the war. I’m still reading books and searching online about the complex and confusing life of Ho Chi Minh, attempting to learn more about what he did in and for Vietnam. I learned that Ho Chi Minh is not even his real name; he was born Nguyen Sinh Cung and then changed his name later in life. “Ho Chi Minh” translates to something like “Bringer of Light.” He certainly felt as favourably about himself as the Vietnamese did, and still do.

As Time magazine wrote in their 100 Most Influential People of the Century list, the rebellious and (maybe) humble Ho Chi Minh “married nationalism to communism, and perfected the art of deadly guerrilla warfare”. He wanted nothing more than independence for his country—a desire many could applaud him for—but sacrificed literally millions of citizens to fulfill his ultimate desire. On his attitude about the war, he is memorably quoted as saying, “You [French and American soldiers] can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.”

While I have a variable opinion about Uncle Ho, there’s no denying that he brought a divided country together. The people of Vietnam today are happy and peaceful, and they have Uncle Ho to thank for that.


Watch the Ho Chi Minh Biography from the History Channel