Monday, December 28, 2015

North Vietnam

Vietnam – a country that is best known for its war.  What a great claim to fame!  Vietnam was part of China for the first millennium CE but gained independence (for the most part) after that.  The Vietnamese fought and conquered the Champa kingdom which controlled all of South Vietnam a few hundred years later, and were then invaded themselves by the French.  Japan took over during World War II, and after the war was over, the Vietnamese fought against the French when they tried to re-colonize.  When the French were expelled in 1954, communist guerrillas had gained control of the north while loyalists maintained control of the south – splitting the country into two.  Basically, a bunch of shit went down and the communists attacked the south prompting the Vietnam War, which turned out to be a complete shit show.  We all know that.

The problem with all of this is that the north (communists) won the war.  And despite the fact that we all know that, this fact is constantly reiterated to visitors at every opportunity.  In any conflict, each side tells their story and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  In this situation, however, the propaganda machine is strong.  So strong, in fact, that it really causes visitors to lose all belief in what they are saying.  According to every museum in Vietnam, everyone loved communism but then the USA invaded South Vietnam so North Vietnam had to fight to liberate the south and everyone was happy to be reunified.  Not so fucking fast, Vietnam.  That is not what happened.  Not even close.  Vietnam – you didn’t mention how one million North Vietnamese fled to the south to escape communism.  And you failed to mention the two million refugees who fled South Vietnam after communism was forced upon them.  And what about all those people that you killed?  While I appreciate that the US and its allies did a lot of shitty things with a lot of stupid motives, the way the Vietnamese government describes it is so far from reality that it actually ruined a lot of the museum experiences I had in Vietnam.  It was not the “liberation of Saigon”.  It was the fall of Saigon.  And this is the problem with communist governments:  they control everything.  Even today, the Vietnamese government controls all media and censors the internet.  Political dissent is not allowed (because heaven forbid someone speaks their mind or speaks the truth).  Because of this, everything is very one-sided and none of it is believable after a while.

After the communists won, they pretty much shut themselves off from the world for the next decade and a half, but slowly opened up to foreign investment in the 1990’s.  Since then, the economy has soared and tourism has boomed.  The old South Vietnam has leaped well ahead of the old North Vietnam, mainly because the South Vietnamese diaspora that fled when the communists took over is now pumping money back into the south.  Saigon is growing way faster and has a lot more money than its northern counterpart, the national capital of Hanoi.  And it makes me wonder:  what would have happened had the communists lost?  Would South Vietnam be as prosperous as a Thailand or Malaysia?  Or maybe even as prosperous as a Taiwan or South Korea?  We will never know.  What I do know is this:  this place has a ton of potential, and travelling in Vietnam – despite the bullshit – was actually rather easy and very enjoyable.  Yes, there were a lot of dodgy characters (I’m looking at you taxi drivers), but as with the other countries, if you’re smart about it, you’ll avoid any major mishaps.  Just make sure to check your pockets.  Constantly.

I spent sixteen days in Vietnam and can’t possibly fit that all into one blog so I’m going to divide it up into two blogs based on the old division between North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

A few highlights of my time in North Vietnam:

Hanoi is the national capital of Vietnam but only its second biggest city.  The biggest city is the much larger and much more modern Saigon in the south.  Despite that, Hanoi is still a huge city with quite a lot of sights to see, though none of them were all too interesting.  I only had two full days there, so I had to cram in a lot and cram it in quickly.  I started with temples – because that’s the big thing to do in Southeast Asia as I’ve mentioned before.  I saw a handful of temples in Hanoi but the most interesting was the Temple of Literature, which was overrun with graduates taking photos.  It was definitely one of the more interesting temple experiences because of that, but the actual temple itself was… not that different from other temples, despite the educational theme.  I’m a bit over temples.  Then there were museums.  The National Museum of Vietnamese History talked a lot about how the Mongols were never able to conquer Vietnam and about how terrible the French were.  The Vietnamese Women’s Museum talked about the role of women in Vietnamese society including their part in the war.  The Hoa Lo Prison Museum (also called the Hanoi Hilton by the American POWs that were kept there) talked about how the French were so terrible to Vietnamese inmates but how the Vietnamese treated the American inmates so nicely.  Right.  All three of these museums had a ton of propaganda (and, let’s be honest, some outright lies) about the Vietnam War, so I’m going to have to rate them low on the museum scale.  Even the Fine Arts Museum had paintings glorifying reunification of the north and south.  I decided to skip the Ho Chi Minh Museum as I was fearful that the propaganda machine there would be enough make my head explode.  The only museum that seemed void of any noticeable propaganda was the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology where I learned about some of the smaller ethnic groups that inhabit the country.

Aside from that, Hanoi was full of dodgy taxi drivers, lots of touts, some scammers, and of course the thing that Hanoi is best known for: crazy traffic.  I must brag that I pretty quickly mastered the art of crossing the street in front of thousands of oncoming motorbikes (and a few cars).

Halong Bay:
I reunited with a fellow traveller that I had met in Laos and we booked a 3 day, 2 night tour of Halong Bay – one of my 103 Things.  The bay is famous for its limestone rock formations and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We arrived to meet twelve other travellers – Germans and Scandinavians – who would share our boat for the first night.  We cruised around the gorgeous bay, explored some caves, did some kayaking, and took a short hike.  The second half of the tour was on land at Cat Ba Island – the biggest island in Halong Bay.  There we did a longer hike, had some beach time, and enjoyed a few beers by the water.  This was a nice escape from the hustle of Hanoi and I only wish I had more time on the relaxing boat.

Phong Nha:
After Hanoi and Halong Bay, I took an overnight bus south to Phong Nha – home of the largest cave system in the world.  This backpacker experience was just a bit too real for me.  After a few days with lovely German and Nordic travellers, I was thrust onto a long bus ride with about a million 18 – 22 year old Brits.  “Would you rather pull out six teeth with pliers or cut out an eyeball with scissors?”  These people are stupid and probably all have scabies.  The chain-smoking driver didn’t help the situation, and the wake-up music sounded like a Vietnamese Kermit the Frog struggling to sing bad karaoke.  Then I had a loud hostel.  I’m too old for this shit.

But it was all worth it:  Phong Nha National Park is gorgeous and the caves are incredible.  Paradise Cave is over 31 kilometres long, though tourists can only go in the first kilometre or so.  Dark Cave, however, was the highlight of the area.  After zip-lining across the river, our group swam into the cave.  Once inside, we proceeded further into the cave where the water became browner and browner, finally turning into mud.  Pure mud.  I was submerged up to my neck in mud.  It was the strangest feeling:  a weird combination of floating in space and not being able to move.  And the reason it’s called Dark Cave:  it is pitch black inside.  While you’re in the mud.  It’s trippy.  After a rinse, we kayaked out of the cave.  The whole experience was awesome.

The scenery in North Vietnam was beautiful, but I had heard South Vietnam was nicer.  I was excited to go!  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in North Vietnam, follow this link:

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