HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON)
My first day in Vietnam set the tone for an amazing experience in a wonderful country. When I first got off the shuttle bus from the ship to the post office in the city center, my friends Tori, Sophia, Erika, Yumei and I exchanged USD for Vietnamese Dong. One American dollar is equivalent to about 23,000 VND, so when we each exchanged 100 USD, we basically became multimillionaires. The jokes didn’t stop for the duration of the trip (i.e. I never thought I’d get so much Dong!).
Newly rich, we bought matching rice hats and made our way to the market areas. Along the way, a man carrying a bamboo shoulder pole full of coconuts and snacks decided I needed to carry his goods on my own shoulders. I thought this was a very peculiar strategy to get us to buy from him, but we all ended up leaving him with freshly cracked coconuts in hand. Although it was a brief and random encounter, the cheerful man’s spirit affected me immediately, and from that moment, I knew I would fall for Vietnam.
Tori’s mom and friend flew in to visit from California, so we walked to their hotel and got to know each other before going out for massages. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little envious of the family reunion, and for a little while I wished I could see my own parents’ faces and take them with me through the streets of Saigon. I brushed the nostalgic feelings aside as I made my way back out into the world to meet our friend, Willy, down the road.
A quick note on motor bikes in Vietnam: they are absolutely everywhere and there is no way to cross a road without feeling like you’re about to die. During our pre-port lecture on the ship, my higher-ups’ best advice was to walk without every taking your eyes off the other side of the road no matter how many motor bikes you see barreling toward you. Do not make eye contact, do not change your pace, and for the love of God, do not try to dodge them because you will probably end up getting split in half or smushed like a bug.
I consider myself a thrill-seeker, and even I can say that crossing the road in Vietnam was one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of my life. On one occasion, I crossed blindly (as I was told), and when I reached the middle of the street, I felt the hair of a rider whip my face in front of me while the heels of another clipped my calves behind me. I later learned to trust the process of the recurring near-death experience, but I had no other choice. I continued on to our appointment.
I had no idea what I was getting into before this massage, so hopefully what I am about to tell you can serve as a warning in case you ever decide to do this in Vietnam. I began the experience by changing into bright orange shorts and a T-shirt with buttons down the length of the back. I looked like a little boy and a prisoner all at once. Fully changed with my neon jumpsuit and woven sandals, my group filed upstairs to begin the massage.
The eight of us split into two dark rooms of four chairs, spiritual-sounding music floating through the ceiling speakers and four very small Vietnamese men beaming at us in the dim light. They began their routine by putting strips of cucumber on our faces and rubbing our feet for a good 20 minutes. This was nothing too extreme and really very relaxing.
Next, they flipped us over and unbuttoned our prison shirts in the back to begin the real deal. I have never gotten a massage from a dude, and I don’t like anyone touching me anyway, so I was a little more squeamish than usual when he started straddling me and pouring hot oil all over my back. The indecipherable chatter and bursts of laughter from the little men didn’t make matters any better. The four of us girls had no idea what they thought was so funny, but it made us uncontrollably laugh the entire time.
As I sat there with this tiny man grinding his elbows into my back knots and more parts of me exposed than I preferred, I couldn’t help wondering when the experience would end. All of a sudden, I felt four limbs on my back instead of two. At first, I couldn’t figure out what was happening, but then I realized he was bear-crawling all over me from by toes up to my neck. I could hardly breathe with the full weight of another human body on mine, and when I lifted my head for a split-second glimpse of my friends, I saw the other three men climbing all over them like balance beams, reaching at hand-rails on the ceiling for support. The sight made me cackle, and then I really couldn’t breathe.
Just in time, my masseuse hopped back onto the floor and asked me to lean forward. He sat behind me and put me in a headlock, then lifted my entire body over himself with his feet. My back cracked so many times it sounded like someone stepping on a bag of potato chips.
“All done!” the little man said merrily as he hopped back down in front of me. I felt like I had just been run over by a semi-truck, but I thanked him nonetheless. My friends and I had no words. I still have no words. It was the weirdest experience of my life. I can’t say that I will ever do it again, but I certainly will not forget it.
Feeling sorer than ever before, we left the massage place dazed and exhausted. We got food at a market nearby with about 25 different food stalls. Starving, I bought a plate of fried noodles, the best sweet potato fries I have ever had, fried spring rolls, and two Vietnamese 333 beers all for under $10. This meal alone made me realize that I could thrive in Vietnam; the people are kind, the food is delicious, and the beer is cheap. What more could you need in life?
After dinner, half of us wanted to get pedicures and the other half wanted to explore. I was a part of the explorers, and after walking just a few blocks, we came across a festival celebrating Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. We paid less than a dollar for admission into a bustling park filled with homemade jewelry stands, acrobatic dancers, aquariums, and delicious-smelling food. The place was alive as can be, and according to locals, these kinds of Tet celebrations occur for several weeks before the streets and parks return to normal.
Rejoining our group after about an hour, we walked a few miles back to the boat and called it a night. I needed a decent amount of sleep before my field program the next day.
I slept in the morning of my field program and woke up just in time for lunch. The buffet in-port is a hundred times better than when at sea, so I indulged in a tableful of pasta-bar stuffed rigatoni and a mountain of the elusive SAS brownies before meeting my group.
I signed up for a field program – an all-inclusive Semester at Sea trip – that would take us to North Vietnam to the rice terraces of Sapa, a picturesque landscape far from city life. While my friends were all flying off to Halong Bay to get wasted on booze cruises, I was off to hike six hours a day through humid jungle terrain. At the time, I was a bit regretful because I thought drinking on a boat with my friends at one of the natural wonders of the world would be better than exerting myself with people I had not yet met, far from any paradise beaches. However, the experience was so much more than I thought it would be.
My group consisted of five students (including myself), the media coordinator, Megan, and our trip liaison, an older man named Rich who had a knack for having long-winded conversations with himself. We took an afternoon flight to Hanoi where we met our tour guide, D.
That evening, we bussed around the capital city to see some of the typical sights. An important note about driving in Vietnam is that it is complete orderless insanity. To understand just how bad these conditions are, there are two motor-vehicle-caused fatalities in Saigon per day and only one every other day in New York City.
From the high window of my bus seat, I watched as families of five zoomed by on one single scooter, babies dangling from handlebars and toddlers bringing up the rear with exhaust pipes burping on their legs. There were no lanes, and the bus driver used our size as an advantage by simply holding down the horn and going wherever he so pleased. There were times when we cut off a dozen cars and scooters with no regard for their direction. I wasn’t afraid for myself so much as I was scared we were going to flatten an entire family, but we somehow made it through the ocean of insane drivers and arrived at our restaurant without racking up a death toll.
Dinner was a six-course traditional Vietnamese meal, all of which was delicious. I swear I did not have a single bad meal in this country and the food got better by the day. After eating, we drove to the train station to board a night train to Lao Cai, the small town not far from Sapa. This train would take nine hours, a duration that didn’t seem so bad considering we would be sleeping for most of it.
The train was surprisingly comfortable, each room equipped with two bunk beds and a little side table loaded with snacks and water bottles. I prepared for sleep, content with the accommodations, when I heard the air conditioner turn off. At first, I though this was normal, that the thing was meant to turn on and off throughout the night. However, an hour passed and the room started to heat up. At this point it was close to midnight, and my superiors were surely sleeping in the next railcar. There were no train workers in sight when I peered out of my room.
I tossed and turned in my bed, praying for the cold air to return, but more hours passed, and the heat continued to rise. I searched the length of my car for any kind of thermostat, but all I found was a thermometer by the bathroom door that read 87 degrees Fahrenheit. My roommates were somehow able to sleep through the hellish temperature, a blessing I was outrageously jealous of, meanwhile I laid in a pool of sweat for the rest of the night.
By the time we arrived in Lao Cai at 5:30 a.m., I had not slept for one single minute. Good thing we were about to hike six hours! I was crankier than ever before, and when Rich asked how I slept, I snapped, “I didn’t.” That was all I said until we got on our bus to Sapa. In a dinky hotel by the train station, we were given an hour and a half to “freshen up” before embarking for the mountains. I collapsed on a rock-hard bed with sheets of questionable cleanliness and slept until it was time to leave.
Our little bus was clearly not made for mountainous terrain, so we crept along the rocky roads of the Vietnamese countryside for about an hour and a half before reaching our starting point at the top of a tall mountain. The scenery was beautiful, and although I was horribly sleep-deprived and a little nauseous, I couldn’t help my excitement for the place. Being from Arizona, I freak out at the sight of a tree, so the miles and miles of rice terraces really got my heart racing.
When we finally got off the bus to begin our trek, we were greeted by a huge group of Zao tribal women with no eyebrows and their hair tied back with red head scarves. They swarmed around us as soon as we stepped foot outside, demanding that we buy their homemade purses and miscellaneous jewelry. The tour guide gave us no warning of this factor in the journey, and we were especially surprised when all the women followed us to the trail head.
A lady named Mei Lee walked beside me, holding my hand and asking me questions about my life and relating everything I do to her son who just so happened to also be 20 years old (I’m not sure she really had a son at all). Although she was very sweet, I had no need for what Mei Lee was selling, so after I turned her away about 14 times, she finally gave up on me and made her way back to the village.
The hike began downhill, which wasn’t hard at first, but my shins and quads started to burn about an hour in. The weather was mild, far cooler than Saigon, which was a blessing given the treacherous terrain and heavy backpack on my shoulders. Despite my minor discomforts, the scenery was incredible, and the cool breeze and sight of staircase mountains gave me a sense of elation I cannot explain.
The next couple days were filled with hiking and sweating and taking a million photos and eating the best spring rolls of my life. On the first day of the trek, a local family made us lunch and, holy hell, it was outstanding. Although we didn’t interact much with the couple, their generosity and time was much appreciated by all of us. Because of them, I will never feel the same way about any other spring roll for the rest of time. They were just that good.
That night I stayed in a stilt house in a little village called Sin Chai. The dinner was incredible again, consisting of lemongrass chicken, ginger pork and, you guessed it, more spring rolls! I drank half a liter of Ha Noi beer as I wandered the village at sunset, taking in an environment I was so unaccustomed to. Children played in the dirt with sticks and half-deflated soccer balls, chickens and cats occupied the same spaces in harmony, and the village men enjoyed time away from their wives in a small congregation by the corner of a convenience store, talking and laughing and singing until darkness fell.
I was so content with the day and so full of appreciation for my life on that night. I don’t recall ever feeling quite the same way, but I sincerely hope I feel that again someday. It was an enlightening time. After all the excitement, I returned home to crawl into my floor-mat bed surrounded by a mosquito net cocoon and slept for 11 hours.
The next day consisted of a long hike back to civilization. Along the way, we stopped to swim in a beautiful river where mothers were carrying their children on their backs as they washed their laundry along the banks. I found out that Rich is an avid swimmer and watched him go nuts for the water, repeatedly diving from jagged boulders as the rest of us nervously watched for fear of him slipping and us having to carry his injured body through miles of rice terraces.
Rich made it out alive, and when we finally arrived at another village in the valley we had driven through the day before, we all enjoyed homemade pho before getting a ride back to Lao Cai. After lunch, I was thrilled to finally take off my worn hiking boots and kick up my blistered feet in the air-conditioned bus. According to my phone, we had hiked 24 kilometers and over 250 flights in just two days.
Back in the main town, we had dinner at the same hotel with the brick mattresses before taking yet another night train back to Hanoi. You’ll be pleased (or unamused) to know that while the air conditioner did go out again for the trip home, the weather was considerably colder that night, and I was able to sleep soundly for a few hours.
HANOI (Pt. II)
We arrived in Hanoi at 4:30 a.m. and promptly bussed to a hotel near the city center. This one was ten times nicer than the previous, and I got my own room to relax in for a few hours before my last day of the tour. It dawned on me that that was the last time I would have a room to myself for the next three to four months, so I lived it up by blasting my music and having a conversation with myself for about an hour before sleeping soundly.
For the final day with D, we visited several spiritual sites and the Ho Chi Minh Complex. When we first arrived at the HCMC, I didn’t even really realize where I was or what we were supposed to do there. I was caught off guard by the soldiers marching robotically beneath massive communist flags all around the grounds and felt a knot in my stomach every time I walked by them. The place had very strange vibes.
In the enormous mausoleum, I viewed Ho Chi Minh’s dead body entombed in a glass coffin illuminated by glowing orange lights and guarded by four very bored officers. He was so perfectly preserved that I half-expected him to pop up and ask who the hell were all these people? I don’t know about you, but I think there is something very unsettling about having someone’s corpse stared at for 50 years, and it’s a fate I would never desire. Nonetheless, it was very intriguing to see the beloved Vietnamese father of communism.
The tour finally came to an end at the Hanoi airport. Although I had only been traveling with the group for 72 hours, it felt like a month. I mean that in the best way possible, but that trip was so non-stop, and my exhausted self was excited to get back to my familiar life on the ship. The seven of us hugged D goodbye and flew back to our southern port.
WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM
On my last day in Vietnam, I visited the War Remnants Museum with some friends in Ho Chi Minh City. Previously named “The American War Crimes Museum”, the place was filled with heart-wrenching stories and appalling photos from the Vietnam War. From gunned-down families to terrifying displays of the affects of Agent Orange, the museum had no shortage of terrors to present to a crowd of previously clueless visitors.
Although the museum was incredibly powerful, I had an issue with the one-sidedness of it all. In the four stories of viewing rooms, I did not see one single mention of the Viet Cong’s atrocities, nor did I read anything about the slaughters conducted by the North Vietnamese after the Americans went home. What was shown was obviously brutal, but it did not tell the full story, and that is something that, as a novice journalist, I cannot appreciate.
I overheard half a dozen students talking about how terrible America is, how “we” are blood-thirsty savages, and how they dreaded returning to the country after seeing what the museum had to offer. I couldn’t imagine how they wouldn’t even question the other half of the story, how they truly believed that the Vietnam War only consisted of atrocities committed by Americans and no one else.
I think we can all agree that that war was particularly violent and tragic, but I feel it is so important to know the history behind these events to avoid jumping to conclusions or believing the first things you hear. I, too, do not yet have enough knowledge to have a sophisticated conversation about the events that occurred then, but I recognize that and choose not to spew my forming ideas until they are accurate and precise. I would love to know your feelings about this, dear reader, so leave me a comment below if you want to have a conversation or donate some of your knowledge to me. I sincerely appreciate what you have to say.
I wrapped up Vietnam on a solemn note that day, but the museum still added to my incredible experience in the country. I sailed away feeling like I could have spent a lifetime there, but I know that my strong connection to Vietnam will bring me back someday. The people, the food, and the scenery far-exceeded my expectations, and I am so excited for the day I get to experience it all over again.