“Indo-China is a great bay-window bulging from the southeastern corner of Asia, its casements opening on the China Sea and on the Gulf of Siam. Of all the countries of the Farther East it is the most mysterious; of them all it is the least known. Larger than the State of Texas, it is a land of vast forests and unexplored jungles in which roam the elephant, the tiger and the buffalo; a land of palaces and pagodas and gilded temples; of sun-bronzed pioneers and priests in yellow robes and bejeweled dancing girls. Lured by the tales I had heard of curious places and strange peoples to be seen in the interior of the peninsula, I refused to content myself with skirting its edges on a steamer. Instead, I determined to cross it from coast to coast.”
– E. Alexander Powell – Where The Strange Trails Go Down, 1922
I did not quite travel coast to coast, I did not trek across the peninsula on elephant back, nor in a Renault held together with twine and wire. It also was not 1922 and I never felt the need for a .45 service automatic as Powell did when he was making his way through. Below are some words and photos to share in my experiences of traveling Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong over the course of two weeks. It was not nearly long enough, but was one of the grandest trips I have had yet.
“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow. ”
― Lin Yutang
I’ve always found it easy to become inspired, and equally easy to be complacent. It is the complacency that I am always attempting to quell. Sure, my pillow is the best pillow, my Mom’s cooking is the best cooking, New York City is the best city, but what is life without some funk and daring? I’ve been fortunate enough in life to have done a bit of travel. This trip, however, was a true adventure. This was another world, completely unfamiliar, something I’ve only read about. Which is one reason why South East Asia had been on my list for some time. Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong, this time.
“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
― Bill Bryson
This quote from Bryson was in his book on travels in Europe. While I’m sure he was being true to his experiences in crossing the street, my travels in Europe seemed mostly civilized in comparison to my time in South East Asia. Mostly, besides that bank the police had to rescue us from. But when one attempts to cross the street in [Saigon traffic](http://vimeo.com/32958521), it’s a game. There are few traffic lights to assist your panicked journey, just find an open pocket, walk into it with steady confidence and the swarms of motorbikes will engulf you. Keep walking and you’ll make it through to the other side. At times, you’ll wonder how was it possible.
Our trip took us from Cambodia to Vietnam, and then to Hong Kong. From there my girlfriend, Shell, and her family would move into mainland China and explore further while I flew back home. I have broken the posts down by day, if some subject does not strike your fancy I urge you to not skip to the next post as several days had multiple things going on. Just scroll down a bit and you’ll see the story and pictures change.
“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
We woke in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. I had read many of the locals still prefer Saigon, and after spending a day with a guide it does seem true. Saigon has been the city’s name since the 1600s, deep roots to try to pull up, which made me want to look up the history of the city’s name. I learned the region was once under Khmer rule (as much the whole region once was), and legend tells that the region of South Vietnam was given to the Vietnamese as a dowry. But also to stop the constant invasions from the Vietnamese. ព្រៃនគរ as it is in Khmer, or Prey Nôkôr, later became Sài Gòn in the 1600s and westernized by the French to Saigon in the 19th century. This leg of the trip is where Shell,
ព្រៃនគរ as it is in Khmer, or Prey Nôkôr, later became Sài Gòn in the 1600s and westernized by the French to Saigon in the 19th century. This leg of the trip is where Shell, Kalysa and I meet up with our friends Minh and Paul who have also just arrived in Vietnam for a six-week backpacking adventure of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. I’m not sure you can fully understand my envy.
We wandered about in the morning in search of a proper tour company and some breakfast. We found a nice French cafe and promptly downed a bunch of Vietnamese coffees along with some French pastries, sandwiches, and other baked goods. We found a tour company that we had thought would also be able to book us flights to one of Vietnam’s islands like Phú Quốc or Côn Đảo, despite our dates being targeted for a holiday weekend. We did not really find luck with the flights, but we did go ahead and get a tour for the day to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This holiday weekend turned out to be National Day, celebrating their independence from France in 1945 after the end of the second World War. We also walked by City Hall.
The Cu Chi Tunnels take their name from an area northwest of Saigon with a history that is largely agrarian. The area had been resistant to American and other outside forces and was subsequently subject to bombs and napalm that rid their land of any viable subsistence. The people at Cu Chi went underground.
They built a rather impressive system of tunnels and traps to combat their enemy. Multiple levels of tunnels going deep below the earth to protect them from bombs and gas. Sections could be sealed off independently of one another should one be gassed. The people could cook, eat, sleep, and otherwise fully live below ground in the tunnels. The smoke from cooking would be led out another system that would disperse it around, then out through hidden places.
These places might be fake termite hills, holes hidden under leaves – the leaves changed out daily, and other crafty means. The smells would often be masked by the use of the soaps American troops were issued. This way the American dogs only found a familiar scent while hunting the enemy. They were also known for building traps, which many of us probably remember from the news or history class. Bamboo spiked pits hidden beneath trap platforms, other iterations of that same idea, and also ambush sites that were very well hidden and used the tunnels as a means of movement and protection.
On the way to the tunnels, our guide spoke on the history of Vietnam most the way. His insights and perspectives were fascinating to me. He grew up in Saigon and was young during the war. His knowledge of their history, our history and involvement there, and how many of the pieces that made it happen all fit together were quite well informed. He knew the geopolitical games that were at play, the years of history leading into it, and even broke out a quip on how the situation in Syria was reminding him of much the same playbook. (Note that news on that was really hot at this time).
The way he spoke of the history it made me think he was a bit sympathetic to the Western cause, or perhaps was more resentful of the North – hard to know. I have no real way of confirming this since it is hard to converse on such deep subjects with no relationship. However, later on after we were leaving he and I were speaking and he was asking me questions. One question was whether the American Army is a volunteer army. I confirmed but commented that it wasn’t during our Vietnam Conflict. I also commented on some reasons why people join, and there can be a lot more to it than simply ‘love of country’. We went back and forth a bit on that, then he told me that just a couple days prior a very good friend of his left, back to go to where he now calls home. Many years earlier this friend of his left Vietnam and moved to Texas. He joined the Army and served for the United States. He has now started his own business, which occasionally takes him back to Vietnam. My tour guide seemed to be quite proud of this friend of his, cheering him on almost. After years of turmoil in South Vietnam, this guy made it out to the big land of opportunity. I’ll say that it felt good to me to hear this story, but I still think he had more fun telling it. I tell this to provide some perspective on how some South Vietnamese feel. I had read about this sentiment still flourishing in the south, but with such a short stay how was I to have access to such feelings? Somehow they found me. I can’t speak any further or deeper to his feelings on this, and I only hope that my record is accurate. He was a really nice fellow and made for a great tour. His knowledge and perspective were welcome and fresh. At the end of the tour, we had some tapioca. You know, just bite the root. He made sure to let us know that as a child growing up in Saigon this was his breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, for years. We were also eating it fresh.
We went back and forth a bit on that, then he told me that just a couple days prior a very good friend of his left, back to go to where he now calls home. Many years earlier this friend of his left Vietnam and moved to Texas. He joined the Army and served for the United States. He has now started his own business, which occasionally takes him back to Vietnam. My tour guide seemed to be quite proud of this friend of his, cheering him on almost. After years of turmoil in South Vietnam, this guy made it out to the big land of opportunity. I’ll say that it felt good to me to hear this story, but I still think he had more fun telling it. I tell this to provide some perspective on how some South Vietnamese feel. I had read about this sentiment still flourishing in the south, but with such a short stay how was I to have access to such feelings? Somehow they found me. I can’t speak any further or deeper to his feelings on this, and I only hope that my record is accurate. He was a really nice fellow and made for a great tour. His knowledge and perspective were welcome and fresh. At the end of the tour, we had some tapioca. You know, just bite the root. He made sure to let us know that as a child growing up in Saigon this was his breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, for years. We were also eating it fresh.
I can’t speak any further or deeper to his feelings on this, and I only hope that my record is accurate. He was a really nice fellow and made for a great tour. His knowledge and perspective were welcome and fresh. At the end of the tour, we had some tapioca. You know, just bite the root. He made sure to let us know that as a child growing up in Saigon this was his breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, for years. We were also eating it fresh. His was hard and old. Food supplies in and out of the city were scarce.
The tunnels themselves were tiny, and we were being taken through the part of the system that had been heightened and widened for tourists. I will not lie to you and talk as though I’m in good shape. I sit for my job and my commute, which takes up 13-15 hours of each day. It doesn’t leave much time to make sure I can scuddle my ass across the ground for 50 meters. (My inseam is longer than the height of the tunnel). My quads took it hard. I felt it for days afterward. I know I’m approximately size giant in comparison for who the tunnels were built for, but that doesn’t change the fact that these people were scooting through these things with some sort of swiftness. It was eye-opening, to say the least.
The people at Cu Chi were celebrated war heroes by the regime in the north. We were shown propaganda films as part of the official tour. Our guide seemed to have skipped out on having to watch. These films were full of footage of Cu Chi and the people before the war. There was one female from Cu Chi who had a number of kills, skilled with a rifle and small enough to move very quickly, she was attributed with doing the country a great service against the great enemy. I realize some of this may be hard to consume for some of my readers, but this is what we saw. There will be a couple more snippets to come that will be tougher. War has sides that I think most Americans choose to forget. We wage war across the globe like a
I realize some of this may be hard to consume for some of my readers, but this is what we saw. There will be a couple more snippets to come that will be tougher. War has sides that I think most Americans choose to forget. We wage war across the globe like a full-time job and spin it to be of benevolent causes. I think most miss out on what is actually going on since we are so lucky to have not seen war on our turf for generations, and our news does not show much of what really takes place. Personally, I don’t find this to be civilized in nature, I think if we are waging war then the people responsible for it should be seeing its destruction. Not crumbling buildings from afar, but gruesome images of what is happening on the ground. I say this
Personally, I don’t find this to be civilized in nature, I think if we are waging war then the people responsible for it should be seeing its destruction. Not crumbling buildings from afar, but gruesome images of what is happening on the ground. I say this having never participated, I’m merely an interested student, but have also found that those who have participated are usually those most opposed to it.
This was probably my favorite touristy thing we did in Saigon. Touristy isn’t the right word, something more along the lines of official sites and historical interests. I still think this is largely due to our great tour guide. He made it, and I enjoyed his commentary, banter, and insight. It gave great color to what I knew of our history with Vietnam, and also much color to the opinions and feelings of today. It would have been equally enthralling to have had such an experience in the north to contrast.
I have a couple pictures of our tour guide, but I wish not to publish them. Not that I think I should truly be concerned or that what is written here is anything more than my own interpretation, but Vietnam has been jailing dissenting bloggers and writers. This guy was awesome and real, not dissenting. I hope he gets to continue doing what he does and he gets to continue seeing his Vietnamese-Texan friend. Being real with us is exactly what I want out of these trips, and in some places on our Earth that is all it takes to get in trouble. The Internet is easy to scrape, so it wouldn’t be hard to pull keywords off of here and trip a watchful alarm.
After Cu Chi we were taken back to Saigon and we sorted out further travel plans. We booked flights to Da Nang with plans to get to Hoi An. Which turned out to be a good decision. Paul had somehow already burned an image of the map of Saigon in his head and we followed his lead. The best way to get to know a city, according to Henry Rollins, is to grab a bottle of water and start walking. We had a couple good walks through Saigon.
This one took us past Tân Định Catholic Church and Notre-Dame Saigon Basilica. We made our way to a great restaurant and took a load off. It was such a cute place with kitchen staff visible in the back cutting up fresh vegetables and chatting with each other. There was a small courtyard of sorts with a Koi pond and lots of colors. Some employees would step out there to do some of their work. The staff was very friendly and we ordered a large assortment of flavors. Vietnamese food is among my favorite the world has to offer that I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. I have to thank Minh for getting me hooked on it in New York, but now that I’ve had it in Vietnam it’s even higher on my list. We ordered some Saigon Red beer, enjoyed ourselves for a couple hours and let our mouths indulge.
We later headed back to District 1 where we were staying. A couple of us got a massage, and then cleaned ourselves up back at the hotel hoping to take in a little nightlife. District 1 seems never to be lacking in buzz. The streets are chiming with life and movement. We walked out of the hotel and were coaxed to sit down in some chairs basically in the street. My feet were not resting on the sidewalk, but instead, the street gutter. Motorbikes, taxis, solicitors, food carts all whirring by us the whole time. It became rather entertaining and we stayed a while. I took a few videos of the mess in front of me, I didn’t take the time to edit it but I still think it does a decent job of showing you maybe 50 degrees of my field of vision while we sipped on beers in the hot sticky night.
We took in more history today by going to the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, otherwise known as Independence Palace. It had been renamed after Saigon fell to North Vietnam, much like the city itself. We start with Independence Palace where the the president of South Vietnam had his headquarters, living quarters, war room, and held diplomatic events. I got the feeling there was much more to the building than the public is able to access.
Both Soviet and American tanks were on display off the front lawn, the building has a grand lawn and circle entrance and the whole complex is encompassed in fences and gates. The rear of the complex has cafes and playgrounds. American leaders were also often found here during our stint in the war. The US Embassy and CIA Headquarters were very close by, but the buildings no longer stand. A new US Embassy now stands in the same area.
The famous image of the last Huey leaving Saigon evacuating Americans and South Vietnamese with some of those Vietnamese hanging on to the skids as the helicopter ascended was taken very close by to the Independence Palace. Due to there being a model Huey on the roof of this building I had begun to wonder if this was the building, but not quite. The palace is still used today for stately occasions such as welcoming a Secretary from Russia, the Prime Minister of Japan, and many other dignitaries including some from the US. However, it is mostly a timepiece.
The interior has not been updated since its days during the war and will be evident in the photos. It still looks beautiful, and dare I say has elements that are coming back in style. Some mid-century pieces in here would fetch several hundreds of dollars at a shop in New York, historical value aside. The basement is stark and bare with communication and recording devices, maps, switches, and other unknown electronics from the war. The presidential war command room was on display, the kitchen, and a couple replica cars in which the president would have been driven. There were hallways and stairways further down that were off limits, doors, odd shaped and sized doors that were locked. Curiosity piqued.
While we were standing on the roof and enjoying a beer with the views there was a small group of Vietnamese, early twenties or maybe teens, that were having a look around too. I didn’t realize it but one girl had walked up behind me, hoping that I wouldn’t notice while her while a friend took a picture of us. Paul and I are freakishly tall in Vietnam and had heard many comments along our trip to such effect. But this was the first time I was going to be used as a novelty. I turned around just as, I think, they were getting the photo. We all smiled and laughed as they attempted to tell me I’m tall. I suggested we get a proper photo together, but the giggling didn’t stop. It was too funny to both our groups. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a copy of any of these photos. But, to make sure our legacy lives on Kalysa photobombed their group picture.
I turned around just as, I think, they were getting the photo. We all smiled and laughed as they attempted to tell me I’m tall. I suggested we get a proper photo together, but the giggling didn’t stop. It was too funny to both our groups. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a copy of any of these photos. But, to make sure our legacy lives on Kalysa photobombed their group picture.
In between stops we got lunch at The Lunch Lady. Made popular by Anthony Bourdain. Much recommended.
After lunch we trekked over to the War Remnants Museum.
The two photos just above here are of a simulation at the Museum of the Tiger Cages at Con Dao. Prisoners would be shackled inside these barbed wires cages that I would be hard pressed to even fit in. These would have largely been political prisoners.
“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
Propaganda was on strong here, but not like old German, Russian, or American propaganda. This was not a tour full of nationalistic, patriotic, motivating posters with warnings of a great enemy. This was tug on the heart strings, compassionate, evidence of the destruction of war.
If I were to call the War Remnants Museum something not to miss if you find yourself in Saigon, that would be hyperbolic. The simulated Tiger Cages were interesting, the old American military equipment is something I’ve seen time and again, this all would not be hard to pass over. However, when you step inside the museum and take a walk through all the photographs and stories you get to feel the human side of the wars fought. As an American, with close ties to people who spent whole swaths of their life fighting for South Vietnam, I was able to consume and ponder the messages and images from the other side.
This is an historical look, this was put together after the war had ended. This propaganda is not made to move a people to war or justify one. If anything, it moves you to hope one never happens again. It is wise to know thy enemy, but my observations always make me think the American public chooses to forget the other side is human at all. Perhaps it is a symptom of the frequency at which we wage war, while the only tangible connection is a one-sided body count and depleted treasury.
Keep in mind where the message is coming from and who wrote it. Keeping with that perspective, I still was shocked and moved by what was on display. Not just images of the effects of Agent Orange, not just soldiers burning villages, or phosphorous bombs destruction of humans, but also their use of Western ideals against our very actions. When your own principles are able to take down our moral standing, that’s when the defense rests. We did not start it, but we certainly escalated it and took the lasting memory.
Caption reads: Budget percentage allocated to police activities and jail management compared with that of reserved for education funds in South Vietnam (1967-1973)
We stir early for an AM flight from Saigon to Da Nang. From Da Nang we hire a taxi to take us slightly south to Hội An. We had already scouted a couple B&Bs before getting there, and luckily the first place we chose to inquire, La Tonnelle, had room for us. A three room place, it is super quaint and beautiful, just like the town it’s in.
It is a rustic old town, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an old port town and has a very long history involving different peoples, powers, spice trades, etc. Today it is mainly a tourist destination as Da Nang has taken over most of the port business in the area.
Tailoring has become a big attraction here too, good and bad sides to it, and I wish had done more research on the subject before arriving. I did have some clothes made, which was a fun experience at Bebe. The staff at La Tonnelle were helpful through the whole stay. They helped us manage bike rentals, suit tailoring, my haircut and ear cleaning (yes), as well as sourcing and cleaning a large amount of Mangosteen seeds.
We explored a bit at night too while out looking for food and drink. It’s all just too pretty.
“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
― Marthe Troly-Curtin
Beach day! We trek over by bike to An Bang Beach. It was a great and sunny bike over to the sea, and we basically just sunbathed, relaxed, swam, read, breathed. It is beautiful for sure. What was most bizarre was arriving on bikes we saw some older women in the streets ushering us into their competing parking. We paid and parked our bikes, then as we walk onto the beach we see the same thing. Ladies rushing out chirping at us to move towards their beds and umbrellas. I am not painting the full picture for you, but it was humorous to later watch the other beach goers as they arrive and try to ward off the onslaught.