Vietnam: War & Peace

Never in history has a country been so defined by a war. It struck me on arrival that I probably knew more about the war than the country itself. Also, western film has played such a strong role in our perspective of Nam’, that I wondered how far removed the movie tropes were from reality. Sadly, most of the atrocities and destruction shown is only a fraction of what occurred, and after a total of 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers, 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, 58,000 American soldiers and 2 million civilians lay dead, the country’s landscape was irreparably changed both physically & figuratively. A new conflict has emerged since, as the Vietnamese both try to boldly move forward, as well as profit from the undeniably huge amount of tourism drawn purely because of the war. You can be both delighted and uncomfortable as you enjoy traditional Vietnamese food, whilst in a café which is decorated with remnants of the war – like rusted deactivated (I think) rocket launchers and helmets with bullet holes in. You might excuse the Vietnamese of being distrustful or tired of westerners in their country, but they came across as some of the friendliest people in South East Asia.

We took a bus from Vang Vieng in Laos, to Hue in central Vietnam. The bus took about 20 hours – but was comfortable enough. After so many long bus rides, my standards have lowered enough that as long as I have my own seat and air-con, any length of journey seems bearable. We did have a few issues in Laos however, as the driver was treating the bus like a rally car. We sped down small track roads, overtaking all other cars and taking corners so fast that the whole bus would lead an uncomfortable amount. No sooner than we decided to communicate our fear of death to the driver, he pulled the bus over and disappeared into a dimly lit wooden shack/bar/restaurant/house? Assuming this was a toilet break, we got off the bus and followed to find that the bar was full of Vietnamese watching football. Turns out that Vietnam was in the final of the AFF Suzuki Cup, and the driver wanted to catch the second half. He drove more sensibly after watching Vietnam win.

At the pub with the lads

We stayed in the Vinh Ninh area, a few streets away from the banks of the Perfume River. This is the artsy heart of the city, filled with quirky bars and cafes linked by tight streets. Living in ‘Sunshine Hostel’ seemed ironic considering how much rain we endured here – but the rain didn’t seem to slow down the city at all. The streets were still packed with thousands of mopeds transporting anything from animals to construction equipment. We had seen the popularity of motorbikes/scooters across South East Asia, but nowhere is this more evident than Vietnam. We were told that there are 92 million people, and 45 million registered motorbikes – but another estimated 45 million bikes unregistered (mainly used in the countryside where rules are more lax) – meaning that the country has more bikes than people. I romantically imagined the popularity of bikes being due to the (mainly) good weather, but the truth is that cars have high import tax and are financially out of reach for the majority of the population.

It’s not a competition

Huế is in fact the ancient capital of Vietnam, back when Emperor Gia Long unified Vietnam in 1789. He ascended the throne and ordered thousands of workers to build the walled citadel and ringing moat, measuring some 10 kilometres long. The city was reinforced a number of times over the years until the ramparts were two meters thick. Hundreds lived within the walls (including the Vietnamese Royals) among the courtyards and gardens of the isolated settlement. The entire complex was the seat of power until the imposition of the French protectorate in the 1880s. Thereafter it existed mostly to carry on symbolic traditions until the monarchy was ousted in 1945. Since then, the city has been the focus of many armed conflicts, first in 1947 when it was recaptured by Vietnamese from the French, and subsequently badly damaged by a counter attack – and then again in 1968 when it was at the centre of the infamous ‘Tet Offensive’ in which it was captured by the Vietnamese from the Americans. During the initial phases of the Battle of Huế, due to its religious and cultural status, US troops were ordered not to bomb or shell the city for fear of destroying the historic structures; but as casualties mounted in house-to-house fighting these restrictions were progressively lifted. Out of 160 buildings only 10 major sites remain because of that battle. It’s a beautiful place to visit – but seeing the bullet holes in the walls and watching the rain fall in empty space where temples once stood was a chilling experience. 

The Entrance of the city
The Center of the Citadel
The Bonsai Garden

We had originally planned to rent bicycles and follow the paths along the river down to the temples further south, but the rain and my bad knee (from a trekking in Nepal) prevented us. Instead we enrolled ourselves in a group cooking class – which turned out to be a private class as no one else showed up! The class was run in the Kangaroo restaurant, by the owner Tony Chuong. He was a very friendly guy (although he lost his friendly tone when speaking to the staff in Vietnamese), and was clearly passionate about his work. He explained that his mother had taught him to cook, and he used those skills to open his own restaurant, and now is happy to share the skills. I had pictured the class to be at work spaces in the restaurant’s kitchen outback, however we were set up on gas burners right by the entrance of the restaurant – which made us the diner’s entertainment for the evening. I couldn’t help but think that some tourists were disappointed to come for traditional Vietnamese food to see that it was being cooked by a couple of Westerners. Thankfully we ate all the food we made ourselves.

On the menu:

  • Nem Cuon Tuoi (Translucent spring rolls packed with greens, coriander and various combinations of minced pork, shrimp or crab.)
  • Peanut Sauce (More complicated that you think. A little sweet & a little spicy.)
  • Bun Bo (aka Pho – Vietnam’s national dish, consisting of a light beef or chicken broth flavoured with ginger and coriander, to which are added broad, flat rice noodles, spring onions and slivers of chicken, pork or beef.)
  • Banh Beo (A steamed cake made of rice jelly, topped with crushed shrimp.) 
  • Fish Sauce (Very simply mixing seasoning, sugar and water into a dark concentrate)
Long ‘Cooking’ Chopsticks!

We made more food than Gabs could eat (I don’t have those limitations) and, without blowing our own horns too much, it was some of the best food we had eaten so far on our travels. You could tell that the ingredients were quality – and each dish wasn’t especially complicated, but very moreish. As we took off our aprons Tony gave us a recipe book, and told us to email him if we needed any help making it back home. Overall, a great experience that I couldn’t recommend more. Thank you Kangaroo.

Our next stop in Vietnam was Da Nang. A once very popular spot with Americans taking a break from the Vietnam War, De Nang has since fallen out of favour with travellers, and is used more as a stop gap between the more cultural and historic Huế to the west and the natural beauty of Hoi An to the south. Da Nang can offer something that these two locations can’t however, and that is some of the most picturesque beaches in Vietnam. My Khe Beach boasts a 20-mile stretch of white sand just to the east of the city. We found a hotel a couple of roads away and spent the next three days going from beach to bed to beach etc. To be honest, there isn’t much else to do in Da Nang. It’s subject to a huge amount of Chinese investment & development which is leading to most of the quiet spots being drowned by the construction of hotels and casinos.


My Khe Beach. Not yours.

Our final stop in Vietnam was its largest city, Ho Chi Minh City. (Vietnam is one of the few countries whose largest city is not its capital. Hanoi is the capital, and the second largest.) Ho Chi Minh City was formally known as Saigon until the Americans were driven out and the Vietnamese named the city after the man who led them to victory. The city is a sprawling urban mass of noise and traffic. It’s got a lot of character, but also a lot of tourist traps and pollution. To take a break from the bustling city, we took a tour of the Mekong Delta, which is a vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands, home to floating markets, Khmer pagodas and villages surrounded by rice paddies. Unfortunately the stretch of Mekong we sailed on was no less polluted than the city – and the trip consisted of a tightly organised tourist tailored excursion from one sales pitch to another. We saw local honey bees, coconut sweets being made in the original style, got serenaded with traditional music, took a short trip down a river in handmade longboat, and finished with our guide doing Karaoke on the bus ride home. It was a good experience, but none of it felt as ‘traditional’ as it was said to be.

My Christmases have always been very traditional – the most we have ever varied on the theme was to skip the Turkey one year. Even spending it in Lithuania with Gabs was the predictable cornerstones of lots of food, family, drinks, Christmas music. Spending it in Ho Chi Minh was an altogether surreal experience of Asian Santas in flip flops and loud techno remixes of Christmas classics. We planned to go out for drinks on Christmas Eve, but a couple of streets were so busy that we got trapped in the middle of a crowd. The bars had extended themselves so far out on the road that it left a narrow corridor down the centre for the thousands of people to squeeze though. Throw in a few street vendors’ carts trying to force themselves past and some motorbikes ignoring the Pedestrians Only signs and it didn’t take long for everyone to come to a standstill. Bartenders stood on chairs next to the crowd trying to shout the drinks offers over the noise of Jingle Bell Rave – and a street performer who decided that he wasn’t going to wait for the crowd to disperse, starting to breathe a large column of fire into the air, which panicked those stuck closest to him. I’m not an anxious person, but this was enough to fry the toughest of nerves. We escaped eventually to a rooftop bar to observe the madness from above, holding some restorative overpriced cocktails.

Gridlock in the background.

Christmas day was a much more civil affair of restaurants and Champagne. And it’s not that I didn’t like Ho Chi Minh City, it’s just that we had been to a lot of noisy, busy, dirty Asian cities already – and we just happened to go to one of the biggest on one of the noisiest days.

We wondered through some much more scenic streets on Christmas, and saw the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon as well as the post office designed by Gustave Eiffel – who later went to design the Eiffel Tower.

One of my biggest regrets of Vietnam was that we never saw the north of the country. The logistics worked out in such a way that we entered in the centre of the country, and left in the south. However, everyone we have spoken to since are shocked that we didn’t go north to Hanoi and beyond. We’ve been told that the north is much more relaxed and has a much more traditional feel.

Looking back on it, the south definitely has been influenced by the west, sometimes for the better, but usually for the worse. A country of past conflict, now contrast – and I’m eager to return to explore the other side of the 17th parallel, but for now we move onto a country more untouched by the west than any in South East Asia – Cambodia.

RHYS AND GABS’ VIETNAM HIGHLIGHTS

  GABS RHYS
Food Fresh Spring Rolls
With Peanut Sauce
SAME!
Drink Coffee & Condensed MilkSnake Whiskey (because of it’s looks,
not taste)
People Lizzie! Who came and
spent Christmas &
New Years with us! x
SAME!
Place French Restaurant on
Christmas Day.
The Citadel in Hue
Experience Cooking Class Visiting the war museum. (It’s where the photos of tanks and helicopters are from)
Culture shock Mekong Delta. Can’t
believe how touristy it
is.
Heading to a restaurant for brunch
surrounded by bombs.

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