“What?! I didn’t know I needed a Visa… dont panic dont panic dont panic dont panic dont pan–I surrendered all hope of my ride to the Dragon Palace Hotel during the two-hour delay in HCMC Tan Son Nhat International Airport to resolve (my) mistakes with visa requirements. It was almost 10pm when I at last entered the area of waiting friends and family, still having not seen an Information Desk with maps and transportation options.
Surprised, I reflexively turned at my name, and there stood my young escort, having waiting faithfully. I’d not seen him in over a year and would never have picked him out of a line-up of 25-year-old Vietnamese men. Thankfully, like in Japan, my face was easy to spot.
When was I last “met” at an airport? And would they have waited 2 hours?
We exited the building, into a sauna! As my lungs fought stagnant water-air in search of oxygen, I realized I’d have never found the bus stop on my own, much less navigated the sim card purchase at a fair price.
Had I at last over-extended my adventuresome inclinations? Quieting my heart against fear, I pressed my lips together, forbidding commentary on the debilitating heat and tightened my grip on my roller bag and finding oxygen in the mist.
Apparitions swarmed the Saigon of Ho Chi Min City
They were at the park, on street corners, riding scooters. Their faces recognizable but unnamed, unbearably hot in fatigues and army boots, shouldering heavy packs.
Most, but not all, were young men, well-loved. Over the years, friends have told me their stories of loss — a buddy, sweetheart, father, brother — ever-fresh losses of decades ago, of a generation.
Women? From the U.S., dying in Vietnam? 67 died in accidents or battle (8 military, 59 civilians) here’s the info http://www.virtualwall.org/women.htm
An Air Force Vietnam vet, my friend for over three decades, told me of waking each morning knowing that mechanical failure of his “MASH” evacuating helicopter or a momentary loss of focus of anyone on his team could end his life. He didn’t mention the chance of enemy’s “lucky” or random hits.
And over half-eaten meals in a build-your-own salad joint in Denver, he entrusted to me The Moment, the seconds-turned-eternal of climbing a hill, and taking a life in defense of his own.
Everywhere I “saw” their precious selves – the pieces of so many whose lives were forever changed in Vietnam.
My young escort, Nam was one of eight Vietnamese graduate students I met while living in the Arava (Israel’s farming region along Jordan’s border). “Why would Vietnamese farmers study in Israel?” is explained by Israel’s astounding success in turning dessert sand into world-class produce, combined with 21st Century technology — management of soil moisture and pests. Students from thirty nations in Asia and Africa compete for Tel Aviv University’s under- and graduate programs.
Nam’s girlfriend took a day-off from her several jobs and he took a day from his farm to show me highlights of Ho Chi Minh City.
40′ C (104 F) compels adaptation to sweat’s glow in the mirror and everywhere,… Adaptation made easier knowing it’s only a week, not a lifetime.
What about Communism?
The conversation I was hoping for happened on my last day in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), at a Highlands Coffee Shop. Escaping into blessed a/c and the last of what had become a daily ritual for outstanding java, I climbed the stairs to the huge seating area — the largest I’ve seen in any coffee house anywhere — filled with comfy wingback chairs and side tables mixed with cafe-style seating.
My wander-search yielded only two available seats beside:
- an animated group of young adults collaborating over laptops and textbooks, and
- a man sitting alone, talking on his phone
The latter acquiesced with a begrudging nod to my pleading expression and gesture toward the empty wingback staged beside his. His story unfolded in bits between phone calls, beginning with immigration to Vancouver in 1982 click here for the story
Option 1: 4-hour dusty, hot bus ride that may or may not have adequate a/c Option 2: 45-minute speed boat on Saigon River
The boat we passed is a “homeboats” – a family lives on them (clean water stored in huge tanks, refilled as needed). We saw many more along the way.
Cu Chi Tunnels
North Vietnam (Viet Cong) built and used an expansive network of underground tunnels to hide from and capture/kill South Vietnam and U.S. forces. To learn more – https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/cu-chi-tunnels
If your knowledge of the war is as fuzzy as was mine, the history-very-lite in this link is an easy read https://www.tripsavvy.com/hoa-lo-prison-the-hanoi-hilton-1629296
“Excuse me, please. I am learning English. Do you have time for a conversation to help me learn?”
Having a tourist-face drew more than invitations to shops filled with postcards and trinkets, or peddlers of Menta mints, lottery tickets, and I love Vietnam T’s.
It attracted the attention of serious English students of all ages, and brought the most fun of the 10-days.
A ten-year-old caught my eye. I smiled, and she approached, her mother lingering… Click here for my Trip Highlight Story
Both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi — the two largest cities — were frenetic. Trash and garbage filled streets and sidewalks that were in gross disrepair, and many private and commercial buildings seemed cobbled together, and yes, they do have earthquakes https://www.earthquaketrack.com/p/vietnam/biggest.
The “Hanoi Hilton” Hoa Lo Prison and Ho Chi Minh’s War Museum the Vietcong and current Communism regime as honorable and benevolent prison and government administrators, as well as the long-suffering and ultimately-victorious victim of the war.
I was told I had little to worry about as a woman alone in most areas of both cities during reasonable hours, but warnings abounded against theft: “Your phone will be snatched from your hand while taking a photo or video!”
BICYCLING THIEF: An American-English speaking man of around 40 stood on a street corner videoing scores of scooters swarming with abandon around cars, when a bicycling man rounded the corner and grabbed the phone. The tourist clutched his phone just long enough for the bicyclist to wobble, and the phone flew and skidded on the concrete. It would be inappropriate to write the words I heard, and it did not appear the phone survived.
DANGEROUS BUSINESS: 10,000 die annually in scooter accidents each year, and 95% of registered vehicles are scooters, which is a reflection of unregistered cars on the road. Plus, police enforcement against drunk drivers is lax.
Modern = could be a descriptor of both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. It was easy and inexpensive to purchase a cover for my iphone, and wifi functioned perfectly in most venues.
Scary = I was cautioned to not consider sampling street food from vendors pushing carts. And after the brilliantly clean toilets of Japan — well, “scary” is an apt description for many public facilities.
ESCAPE to Serenity = Halong Bay
Halong Bay’s natural beauty was sharp contrast to the harsh realities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Serenity abounded in the shades of ever changing gray mist over quiet water with gentle hills staggered in the distance, providing balance and interest. Soul-restoring art.
AND FINALLY, answers to questions from readers:
Thus far, I’ve found Israeli’s in every country — Hebrew is the giveaway — and results in a fun conversation.
English, in all its dialects, has been most prominent in the nations I’ve visited, but is too commonplace to lend camaraderie.