Friday, July 09, 2010
Usually we head back to the good old US of A in July but we decided that this year we wanted to stick around for the summer so we headed to Vietnam for a week over the 4th of July.
That, in itself, was kind of a strange feeling. Being in a communist country (although they consider themselves socialist) on a day that we celebrate our freedom. Something we as a nation try, many times too often, to impart on others. To be in a country where there was such a recent war, that we lost. All of these things put together made for a bit of an odd feeling. It was definitely the most out of our comfort zone we have been in a country. Everything seemed a bit strange, a bit off and a bit uncomfortable. Much of it, of course, was due to our own perceptions and preconceived notions. It was an interesting study of ourselves if nothing else.
I am from the West. I am from Idaho and in Idaho, and I think the rest of the Western States, we are a friendly bunch. We smile and we assume that a smile is universal. If someone smiles at me, I smile back. It makes you feel good. I also live in the Philippines. The land of the happiest most smiley people on earth. I realize it's not that way everywhere and I can tell you that in Vietnam it is certainly NOT the case. I finally quit trying to smile at people because all we got were blank stares. Even the children, who are usually a hit in Asia, could rarely conjure up a grin from anyone. So very very strange and out of place to us.
We started in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and stayed at a beautiful converted French villa on the Saigon river. Don't get any grand images in your head, there wasn't clean fresh clear water like the Snake River back home. It was more like the dirty Pasig River here in Manila but it was pretty neat all the same watching the tug boats pull large barges of cargo and dirt up and down. The kids loved it and anymore that's all that matters! The hotel had a great feel and it was a nice place to rest in between fighting the traffic and crowds of the city. Motorbikes in HCMC are INSANE. There are thousands of them packing things around. Beds, refrigerators, rugs, huge hunks of ice, glass windows, huge flower arrangements and more were just of the few things we saw being delivered on motorbikes.
We were able to visit Reunification Palace which was the sight for the fall of Saigon which ended of the Vietnam War or as they call it the American War when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through the gates. It is left largely the same way it was on that day so it's eerie especially the war rooms underneath the palace. We tried to visit the war museum but found it closed at the time we were near. It is operated by the Vietnamese government, the museum was opened in September 1975 as the The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government [of South Vietnam]. Later it was known as the Museum of American War Crimes, then as the War Crimes Museum until as recently as 1993. Its current name follows liberalization in Vietnam and the normalization of relations with the United States, but apparently the museum does not attempt to be politically balanced. Understandable I suppose.
We had some amazing food and found out that Pho (a noodle dish that is basically the National food) is pronounced pho as in fee-fi-FO-fum in the north and pho as in that bad four-letter word that starts with an "F" in the south. Important because if you order with the wrong word they have NO idea what you are talking about.
After a few days in Ho Chi Minh City we hoped a plane for the 2 hour flight north to Hanoi. Hanoi has a very French feel and I enjoyed it much more than the south although we were more happy with the food in the south.
We attended a water puppet show. In ancient Vietnam, the rural Vietnamese believed that spirits controlled all aspect of their lives, from the kitchen to the rice paddies. The Vietnamese devised water puppetry as a way to satisfy these spirits, and as a form of entertainment, using what natural medium they could find in their environment. In ancient times, the ponds and flooded rice paddies after harvest were the stage for these impromptu shows. Currently the show is performed in waist deep water and the puppeteers stand behind bamboo screens. Once again, this was a huge hit with the kids who also enjoyed the local music and instruments that went along with the puppets.
We explored the French Quarter fully and enjoyed our opera suite at the Sofitel before heading to Halong Bay where we chartered a private boat to see the thousands of limestone islands jutting out of the water. It was stunning. The temperature is rumored to be between 15-25 celcius yet on the day we were there is was 40! That's 104 for the record! Finnley broke out with the horrific rash, and then while chilling in his diaper, complete white trash style, he proceeded to projectile vomit all over. After the 4 hours it took us to get there, we cut the caves and the trip short and headed back to shore to get him in some aircon and back in the van for the long ride back to Hanoi.
Glad we went, but sorry to have had to cut it short! The ride to and from Halong Bay was amazing in itself. To see rice field after rice field full of conical shaped hats bent at the waist working away with the most basic of equipment that hasn't changed for hundreds of years was amazing. I couldn't help but think of the many potato fields back home and how young a country we come from where farming techniques have become so progressive with huge machines in contrast to the basics in rice farming.
More sightseeing and wandering the following day found us some wooden puppets to bring home and a few gifts for our next trip to America. We headed to the airport the following day and Finn graced us yet again with vomit in the taxi ride. We gifted the driver with an extra $16 for cleaning services and you have never seen a man more happy to have someone puke in his car!
Back to Ho Chi Minh and then a 2 hour layover before heading back to Manila. It was a great trip all in, but not anywhere near our favorite. We were very homesick for America knowing our families were all together celebrating without us. I have learned that travelling is actually hard work. Especially with children or husbands that may have picky food preferences. Or moms who have high expectations. It's not all fun and games and sometimes its pretty stressful. We aren't heading to the beaches of Hawaii or Mexico and most of it is 2nd and 3rd world country kind of stuff. Sometimes its awkward with language and accent barriers and sometimes it feels unsafe and uncomfortable, but it's always ok to feel that way. What more we travel frequently and I feel like we have the right to judge our vacations. Not because we don't appreciate each and every one of them. We are blessed and we know it. We choose to go to these places because they are different and because not a lot of people in the world get to see such places. We choose to take our children regardless of how hard it is because we want them to experience it in their own way and we like to be with them. I have also learned that I don't have to see everything, and we may miss the most important sight there is to see just so that we can spend an afternoon in the swimming pool because vacations to hard places must involve a certain level of chilling out. I have learned that there is nothing more uncomfortable to ME than being in a country that doesn't have McDonalds. Regardless of your views on the golden arches, it's a comforting symbol of America and it makes me feel safe. Strange? I know. But it's true. So don't judge me for writing about my travels "warts and all" because there has to be good with bad and awkward with comfortable and judgements with wisdom for us to learn. We gain a new knowledge about ourselves with every trip we take just as much as we learn about the places we visit. Yet again, I am amazed at how blessed we are to be on this adventure.