Travel Vietnam

Travel Books: Vietnam

Rose and I catch a ton of tips, bits, and ideas about where we’re currently travelling and where we’re heading thanks to the widest web in the world and even real people! (Amazing, I know. Don’t believe it? It’s vrai.)

One of these things we’ve both accumulated are books. Not physically, thankfully, because we’d never pass the weight restrictions on airplanes.

Instead we’ve each read a bit on the places we’ve gone or are heading, aside from just run of the mill travel guides. Though, to be fair, Rose’s approach may be more indirect through an aside in a Robert Ludlum novel, a single mention in a Scandinavian crime novel or when Jack Reacher says anything about the Vietnam War.

Nevertheless, the point still stands.

From fiction to non and beyond, I thought I’d add a section related to some of the books about the countries we’ve visited which either one of us found insightful, handy, hilarious, or a comforting read on the toilet.

As we meet people along the way, I find I ask what they’re reading as much for conversation as a recommendation, and thought, well, why not pass along my own.

I recognize all of this is probably delusional, considering my family and Rose’s are our main fanbase, on this thing – but who knows, someone three steps removed from family might crack out of the woodwork, and instead of kind encouragements like: “I’m reading your blog!”- might find something actually helpful.

Also, since most of our posts are about US, US, US, I thought too, it might be nice for a change to lead you to some professional writing that could offer more sustenance. Rather than observations here like: “Hah. We saw a monkey today, and I think it was circumsized!.”

So, with that in mind:

Good books I read about Vietnam on this trip:

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Pho,pho,pho. Plot follows a pho vendor who secretly operates his pho stand outside of Communist vendor bureaucracy. Nice insights into cultural change after the Vietnam War and openings for entrepreneurship after 80s economic reforms. Plus tasty descriptions of Pho inspired us to make it even more imperative to order it wherever we went in Vietnam. And for bonus marks the author is Canadian. Rose suggested I may have given her an easier pass, because of that. Could be. But still a good one.

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Historical background on both Indochina wars, plus insights into why the U.S. carried on from the French when the odds of victory looked dim. Really good- def recommend for background on the Vietnam War and prior colonialism of the region.

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Author was a soldier in Vietnam. He relays stories about his time and impressions of ┬áhis platoon. Book is broken up into different stories, relating to a single event he remembers – written in a way that’s almost an elegy. Found it interesting, and of course, sad to get an understanding of how it looked to someone who at first was on his way to Canada to protest the war, then decided to opt back in. (I know more Canada. I’m making up for lack of CBC coverage here.).

Books I’ve read a while ago that I want to reread after visiting:

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Journalist who covered the War, and wrote this book in 1977, which a lot of authors give high praise. I remember it being an interesting account, but now that I’ve seen some of Vietnam I want to have another crack at it.

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This book was for sale all over the place in Vietnam, including tons of bootleg copies. Plus Graham Greene had huge references in the Embers of War book I also read. Read it before and liked the noir feel of the thing, the fatalism of the older main character, and the idealism of the younger American. Now, time for an encore, I think.

Books I haven’t read but heard good things

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Recommended by someone we met travelling. Based on a Vietnamese guy who left and came back, and finds he doesn’t fit in.

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Only know this is written by a former Vietnamese soldier. Haven’t got to it yet, but hope to at some point when I’m not reading about the next place we’re going. Based on that, the odds don’t look good for me right now. How about you? Are summer blockbusters, going to the cottage, friends, excitement, latin named frothy drinks, swimming and drinking beer poolside and general hopefulness after a brutal winter getting you down? This book might be just what you need.

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And, there you go. The start of my book club.

Good thing you quit yours Oprah, and are safe and sound with a magazine (I think she did, didn’t she?). There’s a new chief in town, and if our 15 viewers a day have anything to say about it, I think we may…we just may have 16 viewers by end of summer.

Believe that.

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Ho Chi Minh: The City 2

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One thing that I hadn’t fully appreciated about Vietnam was that it was at war for nearly two thirds of the 20th Century.

Starting with Communist resistance in the 1930s followed by the First Indochina war with the French in 1945, which was then carried on by the Americans until 1975.

Of all these conflicts, the Vietnam War was the one that had the biggest impact on my imagination as a kid and teenager (known by the Vietnamese as “The American War”). All largely from American films: Platoon, Rambo, Good Morning Vietnam, Casualties of War, Apocalypse now, Full Metal Jacket and Jacob’s Ladder. The list goes on.

I’ve watched them all, repeatedly. Some so much, that their plots soon became ridiculous – like Rambo. I remember watching it with my buddy, Geoff, as a kid, and there was so much mayhem and destruction, we both thought it was absurd – so we’d start tallying up how many people Sylvester Stallone had killed throughout the movie to highlight the point.

The conversation would go like this:

“That was a HUGE explosion. How many you think? 30? – yeah, do we count the pigs too?”

By the end, we’d have some ungainly number like: 700 deaths- completely insane. So, I was howling when Rambo’s killing spree (genocide) was lampooned by another 80’s hero: Weird Al in his classic, UHF:

Of course, as a kid, I’d watch all these war movies as a participant. I’d insert myself into the plot, imagining the fear of being a soldier, wondering if I would be able to hold up in combat. Really the only thought I had then was why are these Vietnamese killing Americans? Never considering the other perspective and maybe wondering what Americans were doing in Asia to begin with?

Only as I got older, and watched films indicting the war like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, along with documentaries and books, did I question the Vietnam War as a glamorous, heroic American pursuit, instead seeing it more as an American tragedy.

I know. Not a unique position.

Regardless, the Vietnam War occupied so much of my early ideas of war, that I really wanted to visit a major exhibit in Ho Chi Minh City: The War Remnants Museum. And the rest of Team Canada, was also game.

Interestingly, the museum was first called: Museum of Chinese and American war crimes, which, despite its subtle ring – didn’t last. The reason, like most of everything else, was money. A lot of it.

In the years after the U.S. rapprochement in 1994, the U.S. represented a massive export market for Vietnamese goods. With its former patron, the USSR, in tatters, Vietnam needed la moulah. So, a little museum name change and poof…Vietnam can now, as part of their exports, make money on t-shirts they send to the U.S with communist symbols all over it. Propaganda was now worth more outside the country.

In the courtyard of the politically correct named museum, there are American tanks, helicopters and fighter jets that Vietnam took possession of once the U.S. left the country in 1975 (I assume that’s how they came by them):

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But the main exhibits were inside. First was a joint U.S. Vietnamese photograph collection put together by a well known American photojournalist, chronicling the years of the War from both an American and Vietnamese photographer’s perspective.

The whole thing, I thought, was really well done. No details were spared on both sides: showing harrowing, graphic shots of women, men and soldiers, and photos that defied any photo stagecraft, like a photo of a plane coming apart in mid-air, plus a duo of shots showing a soldier walking down a path, then a second photo showing an explosion in that exact place where the soldier had been a second earlier.

In these scenarios, I can only imagine photographers pointed their camera in a direction, rhymed off a few shots, hoping to capture something, and wound up with powerful images, entirely by chance.

The exhibition also included, what might be one of the most famous – the prize winning photo of a young girl, after a napalm attack:

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Interestingly, the girl in the photo – Phan Thi Kim Thuc, is now a Canadian citizen. She defected in the early 90s, and is living in Ajax. You’re welcome CRTC – there’s your bit of CanCon.

Onwards from there to another exhibit, it got even more grim (which is why I didn’t take any photos a)because a photo of a photo is a bit odd b)it was one of those things I found I wanted to experience without trying to document it while it was happening).

There was a showcase of the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population, and even some offspring of American soldiers. Sad, and painful to look at.

It also included a deformed fetus in formaldehyde, which I thought was a bit ghoulish and unnecessarily heavy handed, but given the earlier name of the museum, the curators were obviously not victims of subtlety.

Afterwards, I think our whole group was reeling a little from the intensity of the whole thing, and we sauntered out to reset our mood with a bowl of Pho, and a beer.

However, it wasn’t our last War themed site. We also visited the rooftop of the Rex Hotel in downtown HCMC, which was a hangout for wartime journalists in the 60s/70s.

As we traveled our way to the top, the prices climbed with us. Out on the rooftop balcony, we each ordered a drink to linger over and take some photos of the view:

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When we returned, I got the bill and realized that this thing:

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was $10 CDN.

Yeah, I know – not unexpected in any rooftop patio in any major city in North America. But, in Vietnam, the equivalent price for something like this (sans umbrella of course – and tasty waaaa-feer) in a restaurant on the street is closer to $1.50. La horreur!

By the time we reached the lobby, I saw the error of our ways reflected in the buildings around, which were all high end fashion brands. We’d, inadvertently, wound up in Ho ChiChi ville.

Regardless, it was a nice way to see another side of the city, which until then had been Pho joints and market food:

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After a nice meal that evening, care of Matty’s kindness, we toasted our time in Vietnam, and wondered what lay ahead in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Home to Angkor, Apsara and Angelina.

Talk soon

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Ho Chi Minh: The City

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Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) are, in many respects, polar opposites. First the easiest is geography: Hanoi is in the North. HCMC is in the South. Although Vietnam has no geographic divisions any longer, post WW2 (and even earlier) when someone said North or South Vietnam, it was foremost shorthand for a political system.

Hanoi was the epicentre of the Communist movement, that would later, of course, take over the whole country.

HCMC on the other hand, or Saigon as it was known until 1975, was French then American dominated.

So, each area had an entire generation (30+years – (WW2-1975) to cook under their own influences. I think HCMC had enough of an identity before being taken over by Communism from the North that it wasn’t entirely swept away by the North’s more austere values (despite it being renamed for the leader of the Vietnamese Communist movement – Ho Chi Minh).

How this played out in current terms, I think is visible from the number of Western franchises. In Hanoi (at least on our 2 day walks), small business still outweighs Western franchises, while HCMC just opened a McDonald’s.

Yes, it’s the only McDonald’s in Vietnam. But when reading it advertised in one of those free tourist weeklies (that it seems every city has) with the exclaiming headline: “McDonald’s is here!”, it sounded like a wish fulfilled.

After looking around the city filled with skyscrapers, boutique hotels, fusion restaurants, and McDonald’s close companions: Burger King, KFC, and cousin Subway, and maybe the overlord of all – Starbucks – it made sense…HCMC was wide open for business, and like a kid after watching a commercial about toys in a Happy Meal, it appeared it wanted to collect them all.

With such a range of Western choice at our fingertips, you might think we’d shirk them all, walking past with a condescending air, saying: “Pah. I want authentic. I want a cultural experience. Give me something new.”

And, you’d be right. Except for:

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COFFEE! Specifically, espresso.

Juliana, it became clear, though tenacious on our trip so far, really only had her flag raised to half mast. Like a national economy, she was operating at a deficit. However, the good news was that it could easily be remedied – the bad news: we only found this espresso clinic, at the tail end of our trip together:

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Her transformation was almost instant. Where she once had tired eyes and might have been a beat behind in conversation, by the end of her first double espresso (she had two) her eyes glittered with possibility, her speech galloped ahead of ours and she strode down the street as if she was late for an appointment. Witnessing it was like being in a room when someone turned up the dimmer as far as it could go.

Now fully charged, our Team Canada assembled with renewed vigor, stared at the floods of traffic, pouring through the streets:

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And decided, this time around, to see the city on foot, leaving the bikes behind:

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Our first stop was Ben Thanh market, a huge covered building with narrow alleys between massive stalls of food, clothing, trinkets and pretty much every other imaginable souvenir:

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We then grabbed our thousandth bowl of Pho – (it was pretty much a once daily routine. Sometimes more), and headed to other sites we’d heard about, one being a huge remnant of French colonialism – the Notre Dame Basilica:

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Though, strictly speaking, Communism espouses atheism – the church was in full swing when we visited with a service for the 6% Catholic population – an allowance written into the Vietnamese constitution for religious practice with the qualification (as long as it doesn’t grow too big. Translation= too influential).

Right next door was a massive post office, but mail was only the beginning. You could send faxes, parcels, pay bills, use the Internet, get writing services and, of course, buy souvenirs:

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It was an interesting building, designed by Mr. Eiffel himself in the 1890s – it reminded me of a train station, which while there were no vehicles moving around, it still had an atmosphere of activity and bustle – from modem lines zinging out information to the letters getting set for flight:

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Come nightfall, we strolled around some more, seeing things lit up, and walked through parks filled with people hanging out, and once again, skirted some markets:

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Checking out the food for sale:

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And, on the way home, ┬ádid as its done in Vietnam – walked off the sidewalk, allowing the horde to move around you:

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The experience, I found a bit like this:

I realize that’s my third Indiana Jones reference and video so far throughout the blog. I don’t know why, they just seem to be floating around in my head: (INNNDDDYYYYYY! COVER YA HEAAART!). And since we’re heading into the Cambodian jungle after this – I’m pretty sure it won’t be last.

In any case, that brought an end to Day one in Uncle Ho’s Southern ville.