Day 1 of my Vietnam Journal
So, I am actually writing this on Tuesday, but I will tell you about the events on the trip yesterday and Sunday. I left for Vietnam at 3:30 AM. I woke up around 2:30 and was anxious to get going. Saturday evening, I ate a steak for my last American meal. After picking up some people, we flew to Chicago, then to Tokyo, and finally down to Ho Chi Minh City. The twelve-hour flight to Tokyo was not bad, but the seven-hour flight to Vietnam was grueling. I only managed to sleep for two hours on the flight to Ho Chi Minh City from Tokyo; I didn’t sleep at all on the flight to Tokyo. After getting to Vietnam, I rode a red and blue fluorescent bus to my hotel.
After finally getting a couple of hours of sleep, I ate some breakfast. I have never seen a breakfast this extravagant before. Chicken sausage, rice, noodles, bread, cheese, pineapple, and dragon fruit made up my first day’s breakfast.
From there, we headed to the Chu Chi Tunnels. The Chu Chi tunnels were a base of the Vietcong in the Vietnam War, and the tunnels played a huge role in the Tet Offensive in 1969. However, before I went to Chu Chi, I stopped to eat lunch. After a westernized breakfast, I was ready for a change. I ate rice cakes, crab, and fried basa fish.
At the park, the Chu Chi tunnels had a lot of exhibits dedicated to rifles, pistols, and booby traps used during the war. It was interesting seeing the glorification of booby traps and tunnels in action, and I cannot imagine what fighting on either side of the war was like.
After an entire afternoon traveling through the expansive park, we headed back toward Ho Chi Minh City. Dinner consisted of more fried food, which slowly has been making my stomach upset. I try to avoid eating fried food at all costs. Then, we ventured back to the hotel. While in the hotel, we saw a massive congregation of people down in the square. There was a soccer game going on! We decided to join the crowd on the street for the remainder of the game.
P.S. – One thing I found out today was locals still call Ho Chi Minh City by the name Saigon.
We ventured outside of Ho Chi Minh City into the Mekong Delta. It was about a two-hour drive, but we arrived at the wrong place (oops) and we had to go further than we originally thought. After arriving at the right place, (Yay!) we took a river cruise into the delta and I saw ships filled with coconuts and hay.
After stopping at a coconut plantation, we headed for a late lunch. Lunch was great: fish, rice wraps, cucumbers, and pineapple. Also, the ambiance of eating in open huts made of straw made the experience exciting.
We rode back to the city on a tuk-tuk, and I then traveled all the way back into Ho Chi Minh City. For our last night, we rode around on Vespa scooters which were driven by women wearing ao dai. We visited Chinatown, ate something fried and wrapped in lettuce, and embraced the atmosphere. After getting back, we packed up. Tomorrow, we are traveling to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
We arrived in Hanoi around midday and traveled to the Hoa Lo Prison. Known to American prisoners of war (POW) as the Hanoi Hilton, the Hoa Lo Prison has had a storied past. The French originally built the prison when Vietnam was a part of French Indochina, and it served as a symbol of hatred towards the French. However, after Vietnam’s independence in 1954, the prison did not hold any inmates until 1964. The first POW in America’s Vietnam War was Everett Alvarez Jr. After being destroyed in the 1990s, the Hoa Lo Prison is just a shell of its former self. It is primarily dedicated to the Vietnamese independence movement against the French, and it hardly mentions any information about the nine years American POWs spent at the prison. While touring, I had the opportunity to hear from two American POWs who were captured in 1966 and 1967. They were F-4 Phantom pilots and were eventually released in Operation Homecoming in 1973. Their hallowing stories are what nightmares are made out of.
After that unique experience, our motivation and energy crashed, so a group of us went to get coffee. (Actually, they bought coffee; I just sat there.) One of my friends started to not feel well, so we walked back to our hotel for the evening. While walking down a backstreet next to shacks and shops, B (my sick friend) interrupted the ordinary conversation and said, “Doesn’t this all seem fake? We live in luxury in the United States while the rest of the world is just struggling to survive.” That topic dominated the rest of the trip back to the hotel. We talked about the American way of life, the materialistic mindset, individualism, and the perceived arrogance of Americans. The “We’re Americans so we can do what we want” attitude.
After dinner, I ended up riding around on a cyclo tour. Although slower than walking, this allowed me to embrace the atmosphere that was Hanoi.
Unfortunately, our stay in Hanoi was only for one night. After eating an omelet for breakfast, (I don’t think I have ever eaten as many omelets as I did on this trip before in my life.) we drove to Haiphong to board a cruise ship. I was surprised as we boarded the boat, as I had never been on a luxury cruise ship. After the opening festivities, we headed into a place of jaw-dropping limestone islands and islets.
The beauty of the Halong Bay reminded me of a Hollywood movie. Surrounded in awesomeness, my afternoon consisted of writing for another blog. (Surprise..Surprise.. At least I got to enjoy it a little bit. BTW, there is no internet or cell phone reception in the Halong Bay.)
However, we stopped around 3:00 for a wooden boat excursion. One hour and one monkey sighting later, we headed back to the big boat and were treated to a fabulous dinner. This dinner contained another first for me: lobster.
After waking up early for taekwondo, we headed to a cave system. Because of the unique limestone structure, the Halong Bay islets are filled with caves.
Although I was wearing slide sandals, I did some crazy things. I climbed a rock face that was twenty-feet tall, barefoot. (Looking back on this… I really shouldn’t have done that)
The group I was with crawled up, down, and around every surface that we could find. Our guide was amazed at our adventurous behavior and at one point he said we were going into a new area of the cave. He didn’t squash our excitement, but instead, lead the charge to make sure it was safe. After coming out of the cave, I realized I was cut and covered in bat guano. A small price to pay for a morning adventure.
Eventually, I wandered back to the boat and took a hot shower. The cruise ended, and we headed back to Hanoi for an evening flight to Hue. After arriving at our hotel, Vietnam beat Malaysia for the AFF Suzuki Cup and scooters lined the streets, honking their horns into the night.
Day 7-8… I kind of forgot to keep a record…
A peaceful morning awaited me after a long night. After sleeping in, a group of us decided to ride bikes around the area. Interestingly, there was a clear biking path because of the large scooter population. Scooters in Vietnam are the equivalent to cars in the western world; almost every household has at least one. As we ventured to the outskirts of town, we came upon a rice paddy. We saw workers toiling in the field and water buffaloes chewing cud. The people worked while a sole speaker on a twenty-five-foot wooden pole motivated them. After more biking, we stopped at a small, organic vegetable garden. They showed us how they plant and grow their vegetables, and they even let us eat some.
By the time our bike ride was over, it was late afternoon. To end the day, we traveled to the beach that was right across from our hotel. However, we did not stay long…. probably about ten minutes.
We walked for a while and looked at various seashells; however, as the sun set in the west, we headed to the Hoi An markets for one last evening under the lanterns.
The next day, we woke up early to travel to the hamlet of My Lai. Just a warning, the next paragraph is the history of My Lai…
My Lai is a small hamlet in Central Vietnam. On March 13, 1968, Lieutenant William Calley and his unit were traveling through the area shortly after the Tet Offensive. (The Tet Offensive officially began on January 30, 1968; however, fighting occurred prior to the larger offensive attack at a special forces camp known as Khe Sanh.) When the soldiers arrived at the village, a majority of the men that were of service age were gone. It is not clear what caused the first gunshot, but the US soldiers began to shoot into crowds of Vietnamese civilians. The soldiers executed women, children, and the elderly indiscriminately. Some were pushed into a ditch and
Depending on the reports you read, the estimate ranges from 300-504 deaths. The massacre stopped when Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, noticed that a previously marked group of civilians had been killed. He landed in-between the Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers. His machine gunners pointed their weapons at U.S. soldiers while the Vietnamese civilians boarded Thompson’s helicopter. Thompson’s testimonies would prove to be paramount in the war crimes trial that would ensue.
After this tragedy occurred, the U.S. Army attempted to cover the incident up. However, Sgt. Ron Haeberle, an official army photographer, released his color photographs of the event in 1969. (Haeberle’s black and white photographs were confiscated by the US Army because they were shot on an official army camera.) After the photos were published in 1969, William Calley’s trial was expedited. Calley was charged with a life sentence in prison and subject to hard labor; however, he ended up serving only three-and-a-half years in house arrest.
While in the area, I had the opportunity to listen to a woman who lived through the My Lai Massacre. Although she was a small child (no older than ten), the atrocities continued to haunt her. She cried as she spoke, listing names of family members and friends who were killed. Before the My Lai Massacre, she supported the American soldiers, and she believed the United States was there to protect them. However, after that ordeal, she became a member of the Vietcong.
I ended up flying where I began my trip, Ho Chi Minh City. We had a twenty-four hour layover, so we explored the city for one last day. We saw the Presidential Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral, an Old Post Office building,and finally McDonalds. Anytime I am in a new country, if available, I always try to stop at the local McDonalds. I never eat there, but I look at the menu. It varies from region to region, and this particular McDonalds happened to be serving fried chicken legs.
Vietnam is a country filled with awesome cuisine, people, and plenty of things to do. However, my biggest takeaway was their obsession with history. The Vietnamese government encourages their people to become educated on Vietnam’s history with countries such as China, France, and the United States. From talking to my scooter driver to cruising in the Halong Bay, I had a lot of fun. However, like any developing country, there were sad moments as well. I saw a smog-filled Ho Chi Minh City. I visited a city that still calls itself Saigon even though it was renamed during the reunification process in 1975. Bomb craters were a constant reminder of the atrocities of war. The shacks and stray dogs made Americans appear as if they lived in a penthouse. I saw desolate mountain areas and starving children. I saw people who I know will do nothing more than work in the rice paddies of Vietnam. This trip was a reminder to be fortunate for what we have.