Tag Archives: Vietnam 越南

From Lao Cai to Hekou, Worlds Co-ride

Muang ViIt was an unexpected kind of send-off from Vietnam when we found ourselves plotting how to escape across the border–and out from a packed wedding celebration in a cinderblock canteen, at a dusty little crossroads where the only means of wheeled transport seemed to be the back of somebody’s motorcycle. But let me start from the beginning.
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Postcard from Mau A

Red RiverIt’s a seven-hour overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai on the Yunnan border, starting at 10PM. With a boy who (nominally) sleeps from 8PM to 7AM, and is deservedly a disaster if he doesn’t, this is not an ideal option. Also, on the night train you don’t see anything, apart from the “wooden cabin interior” that is bizarrely advertised by all the tour agencies. But the day train? Eleven hours, starting at 6AM. The manager of our hotel warned: “You will have to sit with the local people.” Concerns about local people cooties aside, an all-day train is also not ideal for a boy needing his stimulation and exercise. The solution: don’t go to Lao Cai.

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Postcard from Hanoi

HanoiHanoi is really the first big city we’ve hit since leaving Hangzhou (our night in a hotel next to the train station in Nanning doesn’t count). And as far as ‘reaching civilization’ goes, Hanoi is a good place to do it. Sixty years after the French left and more than thirty since the last —-American POWs came home, the city caters well to Western (mostly old French and young American?) tourists. The cheap hotels are amazingly clean, the average service industry worker speaks some really decent English, and there are many comforts of home: space, working ATMs, coffee. Owen even tasted his first piece of pizza here!

But after two days, we knew it was time to move on.

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On the Train to Hanoi, Getting Sexed

Plenty of room on this trainA new country, new burning questions on the train from Lang Son to Ha Noi (150 kilometers, 6 hours) about our toddler: 1. Boy or girl? 2. Two or three years old? 3. Can I hold him? Answers determined through pantomime (because of no common language) as follows:

1. Either grab Owen’s crotch, only to find a pesky diaper; or point, very closely, to Nick’s crotch and the crotch of the Nung minority lady seated next to him, then raise hands in a questioning posture. Continue reading

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In Vietnam, Letting Saigons be Saigons

Wide boulevards, baguettes with your soup, numerous cinemas, and a coffee shop on every block. Ah, so this is the ‘Paris of the East,’ the original so-called ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Shanghai claims both of those titles for itself these days, but we’d say they still belong here. In Shanghai, they try to attract Westerners by razing old neighborhoods to build fake old neighborhoods containing centrally-directed boutique malls. In Saigon, nobody’s trying that hard. It’s just a place that Westerners can like. Did we mention that one of the local staples here is baguettes?

We spent two and a half days in Saigon, the first stop on our counter-clockwise loop around the South China Sea. We were interested in seeing a part of that other market-liberalizing communist country in East Asia, and in glimpsing what we could of the city’s overseas Chinese community. The Vietnam War is another interest, but one that I plan to pursue more next year, when hopefully we make it to both Hanoi and Hue.

Our half-day in China Town was great, although nobody we met there spoke Mandarin. Interestingly, English is very much the lingua franca of the city, at least in the service industry, with even Chinese tourists forced to use it. Many of the Chinese shops (along with many Vietnamese shops) were still closed for Spring Festival, so we did a little mingling at a few of the busy temples and wandered into one community center. (As long as we’re carrying Owen, our intrusions are usually considered by those involved as more like strokes of good luck.) Still, we weren’t able to get much past smiles and waves and maybe a little small talk. We did bump into a handful of Chinese tourists at some of the big sights, and one family was even from Hangzhou. Unfortunately, they were entering the restaurant as we were leaving, and we didn’t get to ask about their impressions of Vietnam.

Our impression, of Saigon anyway, was very favorable. No surprise for this group of foreigners, since the city exuded its Western influences everywhere, and felt much more laid-back than just any comparably big city we’ve been to in China. The reach of the government also seemed much more relaxed: propaganda banners were few, the same shops weren’t endlessly repeated (a tell-tale sign of central management), and museums and historical sights were missing that Chinese component of attempting to over-awe visitors. Although China and Vietnam both have nominally-communist party-state regimes seeking to deliver economic growth while maintaining power through market not political reforms, the two countries feel completely different. I’m reminded of Samuel Huntington’s famous comparison of the US and USSR as basically similar governments, given their similarly high level of governance, as compared to states in Latin America or Africa. With China and Vietnam today, the point is perhaps again illustrated: same forms of government, but widely different substances based on how much the governments attempt to do. The roads in Saigon are in need of re-paving, but on the sides of them people are selling Newsweek and Le Monde.

Another positivd contrast: at the War Remnants Museum, where the former USAID building houses a gallery of pictures of brutalities suffered by Vietnamese during the war, usually at the hands of US forces, one room showcased a few stories of US veterans returning home with PTSD or suffering from effects of Agent Orange. While most Americans would probably still find the museum to be a little ridiculously one-sided (and I’d still agree), I was amazed at the relative even-handedness in comparison to China’s Nanjing Massacre Museum. The museum in Saigon portrayed some American troops, particularly draftees, as people swept up in events created by their government and military leaders. Blame for incidents such as My Lai were placed with the officers in charge. Such perspectives stand in stark contrast to the narrative in Nanjing. There, the blame is placed on the Japanese people as a whole, with a not-so-subtle message that that’s just how the Japanese are. The concluding remarks even warn Chinese visitors that the Nanjing Massacre is just the sort of thing that happens when certain countries (Japan) are strong and China is internally divided. We were expecting the same sort of treatment of history in Vietnam, so the differences between these two museums really surprised us.

Anyway, we’ve written too much already, and in trying to put forth a few half-informed observations we’ve no doubt created the most boring blog post about Vietnam ever written. But before we end with the Owen pictures that you all want, we owe an explanation for the post title. Of course our more worldly readers already know, but we were a little surprised to find here that hardly anybody except the government calls the place Ho Chi Minh City. Except on maps, this place is Saigon.

Alright, here’s the good stuff:

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