Vietnam is not a place I thought I would visit after my father’s stories about the war. I can’t imagine what he would say to me if I told him I wanted to travel here. I just know that he would probably not want to join me. Whether I want to realize it or not, I have been affected by the war and its long running aftermath even though I was born the year the war ended. But the after affects of war are rarely discussed and don’t end when the fighting stops as most people believe, but continues as an internal struggle against the sights, sounds and horror of memory in those that were affected by it.
A silent war rages on in the heart and mind. For me it was the mental and emotional anguish of PTSD that my father lived with his whole life, and so I lived with it as well. In many ways you can say that America has not entirely recovered from the war – called the “American War” by the Vietnamese and rightfully so considering that many countries have historically occupied or tried to take over. When you visit Vietnam you get to see the other side of the story.
The effects of the war for those that stayed may be different than we realize. The country has gone through many changes and has become modernized in ways that can take a foreigner by surprise. On the streets are the people and images you associate historically with Vietnam. The iconic triangular, straw hats of women balancing vegetables on both shoulders as scooters zoom by. Bamboo boats rowed by hand on the misty shore is an image which looks like it has gone unchanged for centuries except look a little closer and you can see that underneath the traditional hat, they are wearing torn jeans and a puffy jacket that’s in popular, brand name fashion. In fact most modern fashions you buy in the western stores of American Eagle, the Gap, the North Face and many other popular brands are made in Vietnam.
It’s extremely disorienting to walk past a woman squatting down and chopping raw meat for sale on the sidewalk and then walk into a mall with Gucci and Dior shops, the images of famous actresses holding hand bags that the people on the streets of Hanoi could never afford but most likely made. There is a culture clash of wealthy business men and diplomats mingling with locals and foreigners all squatting on tiny plastic chairs and eating “pho” or drinking “bia hoi” – a cheap, local beer sold at corner shops all hours of the day and night.
In fact Hanoi seems like the real city that never sleeps. From early morning until late at night the streets are alive with people moving and shaking, hawking everything you can imagine from the back of a bicycle, scooter or bamboo scale on their shoulders. If you need to buy something you may not need to even move, just wait a few minutes and someone will come by selling it. There are plenty of tourist sights you can see, but the best is just to plotz yourself at a corner cafe or bar and just watch Hanoi living their lives. It’s totally fascinating and absorbing.
It is only fairly recently that Vietnam has entered into a free market, capitalist system. In fact the politics are one of the most disorienting factors to try to understand about the country. They are technically a socialist republic operating under a one party, communist party. One of the most popular sights is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, free to citizens to visit, but foreigners have to pay a small fee to enter. The only thing you wonder is if the people are healthy, happy, and able to live freely. But no one is really able to discuss politics freely it seems and it almost feels dangerous to get into conversation about it. However our guide to Halong Bay made mention to it and described some of the conditions. There is a fee to attend school in Vietnam, yet most people value education and can speak better English than most Asian countries we’ve visited. Yet, their economy is mostly agricultural and the health care system is over-crowded and not so great, they also have to pay for good healthcare. It is not the type of Communism or even socialism you typically imagine.
The people from Vietnam seem mostly concerned about their present and future state. They are clearly joining the modern world at their own pace. In the eyes of the Vietnamese, the war with America was one of many from outside aggressors trying to take control of their country. The long French occupation of Vietnam can be seen in the language, cuisine and architecture today. The buildings in Hanoi which are in the French colonial style inhabit most of the interior of the city. There is a thriving bohemian cafe scene full of musicians, artists, writers and local artisans which is exciting to see. Not to mention the wonderful taste of ginger tea and Vietnamese coffee which has a very distinct preparation and depth of taste that can become addictive. It’s an exciting and inviting atmosphere.
However in the back of my mind, the war lingers like a proverbial elephant following me through the streets. Although I can’t really speak for him, my travel partner and long time friend Lam escaped the war when he was very young and carries many painful memories of the war that tore his family apart for most of his youth. This is his first trip back since he escaped on a boat after the war ended. Between the both of us we were both apprehensive to come to Vietnam and carry the after shocks between us from both sides of the war.
Many people have asked me, “why are you going there for?” Many people are still horrified by the past. I think in part we are here to squelch our fears in hopes to make peace with our painful memories. Sometimes travel is not about going to a beach and getting a tan in a place where things are easy. Sometimes it’s about going to a place that teaches you something deeper about life. What I take away is what I learn about myself too. That despite the harsh realities of war and economic divides, I have faith in humanity. I believe the world is mostly a good place filled with people who are just trying to survive and take care of their families by putting food on the table any way they can, full of people who just want to be healthy and who want to learn and better themselves. These seemingly simple, basic needs are surprisingly hard for most people to obtain, even in the United States, which is what upsets me deeply.
From the moment we landed in Hanoi, people have been incredibly kind to us, helpful, smiling, courteous despite their hardships. Their sense of warm-heartedness and hospitality has surpassed many places we’ve stayed in Asia. Not to mention a high quality of communication and professionalism. People on the street will smile and say hello, in some cases walk and talk with us and shake our hands.
In conflict with feelings about the war, and the history of Vietnam, I have always felt a sense of admiration for the Vietnamese people and their sense of resilience and resistance. We just hope that the people are happy and well taken care of instead of manipulated and taken advantage of by corporations and the government. It’s hard to know for sure. But we suspect, just like the rest of the modern world, that there is a corrupt divide between the have and the have nots. Between the corporate interests and the people’s welfare. This is not a purely Vietnamese problem, but a global problem that also affects the United States.
As they move into the world market there is something interesting about seeing the Vietnamese people wearing the big, global brands that they actually make and knock offs of them too. It gives a traveler the sense that the world is getting smaller and now we’re all wearing and using the same stuff. But mostly I am hoping they are making enough of a living to take care of their families. In Hanoi we see everyone zipping around on Honda and Vespa scooters and talking on LG and Apple phones. Luckily though, we have not seen a Starbucks yet, maybe because Vietnamese coffee is so good and so tasty. Thank goodness.
Out in the countryside, outside of the cities you see a different world. The people are working the land in the iconic rice paddies. Luckily there is an abundance of fertile land and a variety of agriculture. Most of the work in Vietnam is in the agricultural trade. The food is fresh and delicious. There is an awareness by the local people of organic produce versus industrial manufactured produce. On a cooking tour they confessed that they prefer to spend their money on organic fruits and vegetables when they can, not only because it’s healthier, but because it tastes better. In some places, like around Hoi An, you can see farmer’s using organic and archaic methods of farming such as plowing the land using a water buffalo instead of a tractor that we’ve seen. The rice is also in some places, grown by hand and attended to every day. We had the opportunity to shell rice using some old machinery. It makes you appreciate the process that goes into one little grain of rice.
Everyone is working very hard to get by. In most cases without days off or vacation. Which makes someone like me feel very grateful to have this time and ironically to have been able to work hard and have enough to come here. I wish the same for the Vietnamese people, that they can grow to have enough for themselves, their families and to soon be able to take some needed time off. In that sense perhaps Vietnam is still catching up after the war. Whether we realize it or not, the effects of war linger, long after the fighting stops.