Vietnam? Why Are You Going There?
Tom and I took three trips to Vietnam over a period of almost ten years, 2008-2017. In this set of posts, I’ll try to describe the country as we saw it, plus some of our experiences. We were able to cover the country pretty completely, from the Mekong and Phu Quoc in the south, to the Central Highlands, to Hanoi, Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bays and the mountains of the northwest. Altogether, we’ve spent 10-11 weeks in the country.
Tom’s actually been to Vietnam four times, but the first wasn’t voluntary. He spent much of 1972-1975 on aircraft carriers off the coast, plus a six-month stint at the air base in Da Nang. Our first trip back in 2008 was hard for him, as he learned that all that stuff he was taught about Vietnam and the Vietnamese wasn’t completely true. Just one example: the US lost almost 58,000 military members, the South Vietnamese military lost 200,000-250,000, but the country as a whole lost over a million people. There are very few old men in Vietnam.
Da Nang Air Base Today
A little background:
· Vietnam is very long and narrow – only about 30 miles wide at its narrowest point. Its coastline is about 1000 miles long. Vietnam’s neighbors are China to the north, Laos to the northwest, and Cambodia to the west. Our three trips taught us about the country, its people, its recent history, and let us make friends we hope to have for the rest of our lives.
· In Vietnam, the war lasting from the early 1950s to 1975 is regarded as a reunification effort and is called “The American War”. Vietnam’s history includes “occupations” by the Chinese, the French and the US-led forces. As one man told us, “It took us 2000 years to get rid of the Chinese, 200 years to get rid of the French, and 20 years to get rid of the Americans.” Many of the people we met were children of North Vietnamese soldiers or Viet Cong, but we very rarely met with any dislike. Politeness in Vietnam is flavored with friendship.
The Staffs of Life: Pho and Coffee
· 2008: we toured the country for about two weeks with a group led by Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com). Vietnam was one of four countries we visited on a 40-day loop trip through southeast Asia. We started in Bangkok, Thailand, and traveled through Cambodia before reaching Vietnam. We left Vietnam on a river boat, traveling up the Mekong to the border with Laos, then returning to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. We saw most of the tourist “musts” in Vietnam, but went quickly by train from the area around Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. We made some good friends among our fellow travelers, especially two young men from Denmark who were traveling the world for two years. (They stayed with us in Tennessee for a month later on in 2008, but that’s another fun story.)
· One highlight was a 2-day stay in the city of Hoi An, were we met a family with whom we would become friends. Cam Thach, whose name means “Jade”, operates a tailor shop, but not one in the tourist-oriented old town. Her small shop was near our hotel and we stopped to investigate buying some custom-made clothes. The first evening, we sat politely and chatted, though the language barrier was high. The second evening, Hieu, Cam Thach’s husband, appeared with a red, plastic, one-gallon gas can full of rice whiskey and invited Tom and other friends from our group to partake. Party! Before we left, Cam Thach asked if they could give their 18-month old son the English name, Tom – a great honor. Of course, our Tom agreed, and we’ve been friends ever since.
· 2012: We spent six weeks, beginning in Ho Chi Minh City, traveling south on the Mekong River to the delta, then flying to the western highlands. After returning to HCMC, we took trains up the coast to Hanoi via Da Nang and Hoi An, spending a few more days with Cam Thach and her family. From Hanoi, we traveled to the northwest mountains that surround the city of Sa Pa, very close to the Chinese border, and to Ha Long Bay. After our time in Vietnam, we crossed into China for a further six weeks of exploring that country and then went to Japan for a month. I hope to be able to post highlights of those trips in the near future.
2017:On our third trip, we explored the coasts, starting with the island of Phu Quoc off the west coast in the Gulf of Thailand. We traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi mostly by train (unusual – most tourists travel by private luxury bus) and explored the small coastal cities. We were also able to see one of Vietnam’s famous caves, though not Hang Son Doong, the largest cave in the world. And this time, we spent two rainy days in Bai Tu Long Bay.
Where do I start? I posted details of our three trips on a website called travelblog.org. If you go to that site and search on “Alisandra”, you should be able to find the journals for our 2008 and 2012 trips. If you search on “Tellico”, you should be able to find the journal of our 2012 trip. Note the word “should”, please. Under those two names, you’ll also find journals from trips to China, Japan, Spain, and Panama. Sorry about that!
After dithering, I’ve decided to organize this journal of highlights by geographical area:
Southern Vietnam and the Mekong River
The Central Highlands
The Coast and Caves
Friends in Hoi An: Tom and Tom!
The Northwestern Mountains
The Northern Bays: Ha Long and Bai Tu Long