Going to Vietnam isn't easy and getting the visa is even harder. Cambodia and Laos visas can be received upon arrival, they are smiling and friendly and it costs $25 each, but Vietnam must be done in advance, it costs about $100 and must be done through Mexico City. In our case, we gave them a month which was the recommended time, then a week before our trip they said the embassy had a week vacation coming up so if we wanted our visas on time we had to pay another $50, so reluctantly we did. Like it used to be in USSR, they put a paper in your passport and never stamp your passport, even if you ask them to, and the guards NEVER smile...
We first flew to Bangkok and stayed by the airport since we were flying to Hanoi, Vietnam, the next day. The traffic in Bangkok is even worse than LA so the Best Western near the airport is a good choice and cheaper than the Amari hotel at airport entrance. We flew Thai Airways to Hanoi which is about an hour and very comfortable. It was cool there, 70 degrees, as compared to 95 in Bangkok, they say everyone gets a cold when they go to Hanoi and we both did!! For 2 American girls in Vietnam it's incredible, we had so many feelings going there. I can remember it so well from TV when I was growing up and while I did not have any relatives who went there, certainly many friends or friends' older brothers went and I also knew many who would not go. So to be in Hanoi was astonishing.
We went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (we had been to Lenin's in Moscow and it is very similar in feeling), we went out walking and it was very interesting, people are very curious about you and one museum was full of school children and WE were the center of attention with our cameras. The guide said the children had never seen Westerners before, especially with cameras, they were so cute and smiling and saying "hello,hello" the only words maybe they knew in English!! Hanoi is rather small but there is a lot of traffic, not from cars but bicycles and motorbikes and constant blowing of horns! There are no traffic lights either so even crossing the street is very dangerous. They also have cyclos which is a rickshaw in front but a man on a bicycle in back, we rode in one and I have incredible video of crossing streets in one, how close everything comes to hitting you but no one ever does!! They know exactly how to do it but we could never drive there!! We went to some museums, the market, very crowded, the streets are named for what they sell like cotton, shoes, food etc. so everything is on the one street.
We also saw a water puppet performance which was fantastic, puppets in the water and the puppeteers are women!! Vietnam is famous for this and the group has performed all around the world. We went to the lake there and the war museum, which was a lot of airplanes and American things shot down in the war. It's interesting that depending on where you are and who you talk to, it was either called the Reunification War, the Liberation War, or the American War--of course we called it the Vietnam War... everyone has memories of the war, or bombing, depending where they were or how old they were, not only the Americans but in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge time where so many millions were killed, most didn't want to talk about it very much and we respected that, and most want to forget and move on, especially in Vietnam they wanted diplomatic relations and to move forward, in fact things are much more modern now, with working phones, fax machines, clean facilities, naturally they need a lot more help. We liked Hanoi very much and people were very welcoming.
Then we flew to Danang, visited the city and went to the Marble Mountains and China Beach--it was incredible to look over and see the sea and China Beach and the road that looks just like the TV show. We saw the tunnels in the mountains that were used as a military hospital for the Viet Cong and now is a religious shrine. The museum in Danang is amazing, with many artifacts many centuries old but I was concerned on how many are out in the open, exposed to the elements and people touch them, unconcerned about the consequences...As we go further south the weather was warmer, and also we are in an area where several friends had been stationed during the war so we took pictures of the former American base and American Consulate, also the tunnels the Viet Cong built to fight us, they were very clever, you could see bomb damage made by both sides.
We then flew to Saigon, now officially called Ho Chi Minh City; it is a very big city and I didn't feel quite as safe there though certainly no one bothered us. Some children beg and it's very sad but they are also very aggressive and so it can be a little scary when there are a lot of them. We met one guy there whose parents worked for the Americans during the war so they were imprisoned for several years, and people were very friendly, some would say privately that they missed having Americans there.
It was a very intense experience being there, though, they also have a museum that was very, very difficult, of American war crimes, and of course they did awful things to us (we had taken pictures of the POW prison in Hanoi which was called "Hanoi Hilton"), but it was very, very emotional. We also went to the Mekong River which flows all through Southeast Asia and was very interesting. We saw the Presidential Palace, the former US embassy that was so famous for the helicopters taking off the roof in the last moments of the war, it was incredible, amazing to see those things personally.
We also walked through the markets, saw the famous square with the big hotels and also several temples. The hotels still have American food and I had my only chicken & dumplings with mashed potatoes in Asia with Diet Coke!! Then we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels which were the most famous made by the Viet Cong where they lived to escape bombing, in 3 levels, with operating rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, offices, an entire city underground with 100 miles of tunnels built all the way to the sea. They've widened some so you can go in them (since Americans and Westerners are bigger than Vietnamese people) which was also the reason we couldn't destroy them, they'd be mined and even dogs didn't discover them because they'd put American things outside the entrances or the airholes, like a t-shirt or toilet paper or something, the Vietnamese are VERY clever!! This was really, really good, even though there are bats in the tunnels which get in your hair, to get insight of how they lived was great!
Afterwards we also went to Cambodia which was fantastic, and met people who have lived through more than we could ever imagine, so I am particularly sad to know about their latest revolution and wonder how they are getting along. We also visited Laos which is quite interesting but also still recovering, still with a lot of Soviet-style influences.
Southeast Asia is rewarding and fascinating and led to a lot of soul-searching for me; I would encourage anyone to see the changes and learn about our history firsthand by such a trip.
- Travel Library's Asia Pages
- Hanoi Sights
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