Like an extremely tall man standing on the far side of a football field, Vietnam doesn’t feel that big when you’re looking at it on Google Maps from your apartment in New York. So when I and my comrade-in-arms Aroop Mukharji booked our flight into the country, we paid little attention to which city we were flying into. We figured we’d just go, bike our way around this bite-size lozenge of a Southeast Asian country, and see, in ten days, just about everything there was to see in the place.
In fact, Vietnam is far from bite-size. The country stretches more than a thousand miles up the coast of the South China Sea—so far that its ends experience considerably different climates, with the North being, at this time of year at least, cool and misty, and the South hot and muggy.
When I first told my parents I was going to Vietnam, their reaction was one of bemused nostalgia—in the same way you might feel to be reminded that the song Wannabe, by the Spice Girls, is now eighteen years old.
“You know what that country means to us, right?” my Dad said.
My first reaction was, of course, to immediately dismiss this as some pointless attempt to get me to relive forgotten history.
“Obviously,” I scoffed.
Of course I knew what Vietnam meant to them. It was about, you know, the war, and stuff.
I don’t think the naiveté of my reaction really hit home for me until I was standing in the War Museum in the center of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), perusing in horror the relentlessly varied and copious photographs of the atrocities that occurred in this stricken region over the course of the years leading up to the eventual fall of Saigon in 1975. Both sides of this gruesome war participated in, and were subjected to, horrible things. Practically every photographer featured in the museum was eventually killed; that was the price they paid to capture these images—images, which, by the way, have arguably changed forever the way the United States, and for that matter, the entire world, thinks about war.
It was images like this that made Aroop and I come to the following realization fairly early on in our ten-day trip: the Vietnamese, by all rights, should hate us. Into this torn-up region we inserted ourselves and escalated an already-brutal conflict; eventually we lost, and the thing we wasted so many lives (fifty thousand Americans; millions of Vietnamese) trying to prevent happened anyway.
It was against this backdrop of history that Aroop and I enjoyed some of the most fascinating cultural experiences of our lives.
Incredible things happen on the sidewalks of Vietnam. As you'll see in the photos I've posted, there's a guy who's set up a barber stand, a guy who has lit a bonfire, and there are tiny little stools that seem built for six-year-old children.
We ate banh mi. We explored the rice patties of rural Sapa. We swam in the turquoise waters of Ha Long Bay (Indeed, this place captured our theme song, which was set to the chorus of Drake’s “Hot Line Bling”: I’m going to Ha Long Bay-ee! Only there to see one thing.
Overall, Vietnam proved the perfect combination of adventurous/pamperous. When we wanted some risk, we hiked along waterfalls streaming into misty gorges. When we wanted to relax, we got $10 massages.
We also had some eye-opening cultural experiences. For instance, one night we went to a hopping local bar in Saigon. The first thing we noted was the diverse crowd.
“My my,” Aroop said, “Look at the eclectic mix of people in this establishment. What a lovely setting, with young doe-eyed Vietnamese girls rubbing elbows with older Western gentlemen.”
It took us about fifteen minutes to realize that this bar was not exactly the paragon of diversity we originally believed. No; the women were, of course, sex workers.
I should add, though, that I ended up having a lovely conversation with one of them, who worked as a travel agent during the day, and who didn’t entirely lose interest in my company after I told her I would be declining her offer of $200 for the night.
That was Vietnam in a nutshell: fascinating and humane, just not in the way you’d expect.