Vietnam: From Ho Chi Minh City to Ho Chi Minh’s Body

It feels like a lifetime ago but on my first post back in June I said that Vietnam was one of the countries I looked forward to visiting the most. While traveling with my parents and sleeping in five-star hotels was not how I initially envisioned my time in Vietnam, it was an incredible way to see it.

We started our Vietnam journey in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), renamed for the father of Vietnam after the Vietnam War, or American War, as they refer to it here. I’ve had nearly three months to adjust to the way traffic works in Southeast Asia, the disregard of traffic laws, incessant honking, lack of sidewalks, and constant flow of motorbikes, but even I was blown away by the level of traffic in HCMC.

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A couple of years ago in my book club we read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It’s a fictional story about a communist spy living in Los Angeles among Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War. I remember feeling quite ignorant as I read it realizing I knew close to nothing about either the Vietnam War or modern-day Vietnam. Like for instance, which side America fought with, what the two sides even were, that the war lasted twenty years (including pre-American involvement), that Vietnam was still a communist country today, or why America was even involved to begin with…so I was anxious to learn more.

In HCMC we visited the War Remnants Museum, which originally opened as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes” and in 1990 was changed to the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” before being changed again in 1995 to its current name. I had been warned by friends and fellow travelers, and further warned by our hotel staff, that the museum is very anti-American with a lot of communist propaganda. So I was surprised to find the museum to be strongly fact-based with very little of what I would call propaganda. After having been through so many similarly depressing tours and museums on my trip (from Munich, to the Balkans, to Cambodia), it was an odd feeling to walk through a museum displaying the atrocities performed by America, my own country.

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Though detailed, the museum really only scratches the surface of Vietnam War history, so I’ve been reading a book called Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. I’m finding it pretty fascinating and highly recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about the Vietnam War.

What may hold as our favorite experience on the trip was our night with the XO Foodie Tour, where we rode around HCMC on the back of motorbikes driven by some young Vietnamese women seeing the sights and sampling local food, including bún bò Huế (beef noodles from Hue), jumping chicken (frog), and hột vịt lộn (fetal duck egg)…the food was good but that’s not really what this foodie tour was about. The best part was getting to ride around HCMC on motorbikes and chatting with our tour guides/drivers/body guards. Watching the traffic in HCMC was one thing, but being in the middle of it was just crazy. There is really no way to describe it that would do it justice, it’s just something you have to see for yourself.

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In Hoi An (Central Vietnam) we were lucky to get to connect with mom’s nail technician’s family. Yes, you read that right. As most of you know America is full of Vietnamese-owned nail salons. My mom has been going to the same technician, Vy, for about fifteen years and she’s originally from Hoi An, where many members of her family still live! So one night we showed up at the art studio where her brother-in-law and niece work and the following night we got to meet the rest of her family. They were incredibly generous, picked us up from our hotel via motorbike, took us to the house where Vy grew up (and where her sister, brother-in-law, and niece’s family, including the cutie below, still live), brought us to a local restaurant and treated us to dumplings and wontons, and walked around the ancient city with us. Only one member of the family spoke English so the conversation was a bit slow but we really got a sense of Vietnamese hospitality and it was really special to get to meet Vy’s family, who she hasn’t even seen in person in over 20 years.

In coming from south to north we kept hearing that the traffic in Hanoi was so much worse than HCMC, that the people were a bit rude, that it was cold, etc., etc. I think I may have also held a sort of subconscious bias against Northern Vietnam prior to coming. Whether that’s because we fought against the north in the war, or because I unfairly associate Northern Vietnam with North Korea, I thought it would feel a bit more…communist?

But what a pleasant surprise Hanoi turned out to be! The streets were nice and wide, the crosswalks had actual pedestrian signals which stopped nearly 80% of the traffic from going through the red light, a beautifully manicured lake was circled by families pushing strollers, toddlers being driven around in remote-controlled cars, scooters, and US army tankers(?), joggers (mostly foreigners, but still), middle-aged women dancing, break dancing circles, some Vietnamese version of hack-e-sac (jianzi), the teens seemed a lot more fashionable sporting dyed hair and tattoos, and dogs that appeared to actually belong to people as they were leashed and well-maintained.

We were lucky to have hit Hanoi on a weekend, as the streets around Hoan Kiem Lake are closed to traffic and provide nice wide streets to walk almost entirely void of the risk of being hit by a motorbike, car, or cyclo. The streets became full of live music, dance classes, traditional Vietnamese games, and night markets.

Aside from some propaganda in the museums and the fact that no one has any interest in politics in this country (they can’t vote, so why would they…) nothing about Vietnam, in particular its insane capitalist economy, feels communist.

By far the most interesting thing we did in Hanoi, on recommendation from my XO foodie tour motorbike driver, was pay a visit to Ho Chi Minh himself. Against Uncle Ho’s desire to be cremated and scattered across the three regions of Vietnam, he was instead embalmed and laid to rest in a giant mausoleum. While seeing his body was interesting, and to be honest he looks pretty good thanks to annual maintenance trips to Moscow, the real attraction here may have been the nearly four hour wait we endured for our 30 seconds with Vietnam’s founding father.

We found ourselves in the middle of countless Chinese tour groups, war veterans, local families, ladies selling baguettes, and a handful of Westerners, among thousands waiting for a chance to pay their respects. The rules are strict – no cameras, no phones, no hats, no food, no water, no chewing gum, no hands in pockets, dress appropriately, no backpacks, etc. While the Mausoleum could benefit from doing a bit more in the area of waiting line maintenance, the experience was absolutely worth it and it was eye-opening to see how important and influential Ho Chi Minh was and still is to Vietnam.

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Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

We finished our travels onboard a junk boat cruising around Bai Tu Long Bay, an area just east of the far more well-known and far more crowded Ha Long Bay. This area was unlike anything we had seen before – 1,969 limestone islands among the cleaner-than-most-water-in-Southeast-Asia-but-still-pretty-dirty emerald colored Gulf of Tonkin. We enjoyed some wifi-free time to relax, eat several ~10 course meals, kayak, and explore a floating fishing village.

Of course being without wifi for two days meant we had a few things to look up when we re-connected: yes, King Kong: Skull Island was filmed in Ha Long Bay, Singapore is a city and a country, and HCM died in 1969 (same as the number of islands in Ha Long Bay), not 1973 like we had previously thought.

Here are some more pictures from our adventures:

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Mom getting her hair straightened after our amazing Saigon hairwash/head massage.
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For months leading up to their wedding Vietnamese couples will have photographs taken of them all over the place and then guests will view the album at the wedding. We saw couples taking pictures everywhere.
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Independence Palace in HCMC. Previously French HQ, South Vietnam HQ, Japan HQ, now a very informative museum.

Cu Chi Tunnels:

Exploring the Ancient City in Hoi An:

Marble mountains near Danang:

We had a blast at Gioan’s cooking class in Hoi An – Vee Na took a special liking to dad AKA Daddy-Boy!

Day trip through Hai Van Pass and Lang Co fishing village:

We visited Hanoi Hilton (the prison where Vietnamese were held during the war with France and where Americans were held during the Vietnam War, including John McCain), the Temple of Literature (site of Vietnam’s first university), the Vietnam Women’s Museum (Vietnamese women really do it all!), and attended a water puppet show:

We ate SO MUCH FOOD:

Some personal notes on travelling with my parents:

  • I realized traveling on my own for so long has turned me into a bit of a stubborn traveler. Being tied to the morning routines, eating habits, and sight-seeing preferences of others is not something I’m accustomed to, though I feel I got my way most of the time anyway 🙂 .
  • Seeing their reactions to certain things made me realize how I’ve become numb to many elements of SE Asia. Like seeing two parents, two toddlers, a baby and a dog on one motorbike – how else would they get to where they’re going?
  • I was a lot more stressed than usual. I was always concerned with whether some food might make my parents sick, or if my mom was enjoying the hair wash/massage we were getting, or if they were happy with a tour we were on. Right or wrong, I felt in charge of not only their survival but also their happiness which at times made it difficult for me to fully relax.
  • That being said, this felt like a vacation from my…whatever it is I’m doing. The fancy hotels, all-you-can-eat buffets, exceptional service, and personal tour guides were very out of the ordinary for me on this trip. Now that my parents have left I feel my vacation is over and I am returning to normal life (hostels, carrying my own bags, self-guided tours, cheap meals, buying water…).

My welcome back to reality was quick – my first night I was back on the top bunk of a room on the sixth floor of a hostel with no elevator – punishment for doubling my weight in the last few weeks. It feels weird being on my own again, in fact I haven’t really checked into a hostel on my own in nearly two months. I find myself looking over my shoulder to see if mom and dad are still behind me or if they’ve been taken out by a motorbike. But I’ll get back into it. I really only have three weeks before I’m due in Busan, South Korea at the language cafe, so I’m going to try to treat this like another vacation from my vacation, but with a smaller budget this time : ).

I want to end this post with a huge thank you to my parents. I know Cambodia and Vietnam were unlike any place you had been before but you took it all in stride (often with eyes wide and jaws dropped) and battled through colds, migraines, stomach aches, aggressive market saleswomen (no boat ride! no massage!), techno-taxi rides, and wild tuk-tuk rides all to spend a few weeks with me! Thank you so much for coming to visit me! And happy birthday mom!!

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3 thoughts on “Vietnam: From Ho Chi Minh City to Ho Chi Minh’s Body

  1. Armen Aghajani

    This looks amazing. We absolutely loved HCMC and am so glad you experienced the motorbikes. You’re correct in describing it as a “have to experience it to know it”.

    _______________
    Armen Aghajani
    Transaction Advisory Services
    aaghajani@bdo.com
    (818) 434-9277

  2. Emily, We had an incredible time visiting Vietnam and Cambodia with you. Sorry you felt so stressed in your concern of our welfare. I guess you now have a taste of parenthood and how we have felt for the past 34 years with children. You shouldn’t have worried because you did an amazing job guiding us through a wonderfully, unforgettable adventure. I personally will never forget this trip, especially riding side saddle on the motorbike through Hoi An, our motorbike foodie tour in Saigon, canoeing with you through the gorgeous Ha Long Bay, sharing the not so private bathrooms and bedrooms, dangerously crossing the streets of Hanoi, our shampoo & head massage, and watching you negotiate our taxi and tuk tuk fares. But my biggest thrill was seeing my amazing, confident daughter navigate her way in unfamiliar surroundings completely away from her comfort zone. I love you so very much. Keep enjoying yourself and stay safe. Mom

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