Vietnam makes you walk along its spine as you move through the country. You can go up or down. I went down. Starting in the misty, drizzly capital of Hanoi, an ancient town with the scrappy charm of a lived-in city. Giant, grizzled trees grow through sidewalks sheltering street food merchants. Gimcrack houses sit nestled among silent alleys. Tiny red and blue plastic chairs lay scattered along each corner. It’s a busy city with a mixture of hustle and relaxation. The population is either going or arriving. They arrive and watch the rest keep moving. The city bears many visible scars of age and strife which only adds to its charisma. The French influence apprises itself within the architecture, wide, tree-lined boulevards and cafes. The centerpiece lake, Hoan Kiem, gives off a flavor of tranquility among the commotion. The best food lives in Hanoi.
I slept on a night bus for the 13 hour drive south. Hue, the old capital, is rather indistinct apart from its massive ruins and tombs dedicated to king worship. The grid lined streets work well for sightseeing, as I wandered making three sided squares of exploration. A few days spent looking at old bricks and concrete and moving south again.
The silken, quiet town of Hoi An permeates a vibe of innocuousness. Walking lantern lined streets of oppressive cuteness, quiet cafes offering nickel beers, flashy tailors displaying their flamboyantly attired mannequins, tiny restaurants backlit in tasteful orange and red hues, it screams, “You can feel safe spending money here!” The UNESCO cultural heritage town will continue losing its historic spark as more foreign money continues to pour into the pockets of local merchants. Until then, we can enjoy the relaxing pace and historical significance.
Leaving the decorous realm of Hoi An behind, I pushed on to the seedy, sleazy, sparkling Nha Trang. It’s a beach town, a port of call for Russians, and a party stop for backpackers. Besides the standard resort style fare of watersports, spas and high rise hotels, there isn’t much to see here. Luckily, I found the smiling faces off the main drag to be a fun diversion to photograph. Here, travelers make the decision to visit to the mountain highlands of Da Lat, or the sandy duned beaches of Mui Ne. I opted for the former. The bus climbed through fog and mist up challenging mountain passes and as my ears popped I caught my first elevated vista of Vietnam. There is something glorious about mountain fog, untroubled, placid in its silent repose, like a blanket for the weary hills.
Da Lat reminded me of a place in Europe I’d never been. It’s familiar in a foreign way. It isn’t a great walking town, with steep hills, crumbly sidewalks and an expansive city center, but it had a gentle banana shaped lake planted within its belly that provided ample strolling space. The weird, Gaudi-esque “Crazy House” was a nice day trip, followed by the self-controlled roller coaster to the bottom of Datanla Waterfall. I began suffering traveler’s stomach here, and the cuisine of the city, being bland and boring, didn’t help matters. I could feel the sun flexing its solar muscles as the bus meandered down from the highlands.
Ho Chi Minh City/HCMC (Saigon) contains, in equal amounts, the elements heat and desire, mixing into a melange of laziness and lust. Food on every corner, drinks at every shop, coffee in every window, windows being washed, vegetables being peeled, bustling markets, honking buses, cars and bikes, neon lit high rises, the NEVER-ending murmur of a powerfully prosperous city creating the incompatible feeling of cognizant ignorance. You must allow in certain sensory images and sounds while becoming oblivious to others. Horns keep you apprised of speeding maniacs behind you, but you cannot allow each and every horn to rattle within your auditory frequency lest it permeate into a cacophony of permanent distraction. Each bar, grill, hostess cafe, massage parlor, eatery and lounge have a card proclaiming a promotional special for you. Your inner voyeur will be over-loaded with side-long glances into the cozy homes along tiny, damp alleys. Scavenging dogs trot about the streets, with flappy testicles or nipples respective of gender, looking both ways before crossing. Black hair is everywhere. Soggy sidewalks, messy bathrooms, warm beer; the glaring, bold heat and humidity of the south reaches its zenith in HCMC. Glistening bodies in the daylight hours presage the sticky, grime covered masses of the evening. It’s not a soothing city. It’s a busy city that doesn’t have time to notice how uncomfortable it feels.
The country is unrelentingly green. The mountains are sharp and covered with a mass mixture of evergreens, swampy cypresses and paradisiacal coconut trees. The ramshackle houses, some built with palm fronds and discarded sheet metal, seem perfectly congruous among the roadside environment of rotting trash, mysterious fires and mangy mutts. Small, filthy restaurants line the dusty, country streets advertising soups, rice and overcooked meats.
The people have a surprising mix of faces with great variety in skin tones and facial features. Their mouths move quickly to match my smile and most seem to sell something; trinkets, clothes, fruits or services. They catch your eye and say, “Buy something.” “Hey, you.” “Excuse me.” “You like?” “Very good, very cheap.” “Come on, help me out.” They all have something you desperately need. They possess pushy but rather effective sales techniques, and continually out haggle me. The motorbike drivers offer you rides as though it were drugs. Late at night, or even under the noonday sun, you can hear their whispers as you walk past crowds of shoeless men lounging atop cushioned seats in various stages of sweaty relaxation, “Hey, man, hey.” “Taxi.” “You need motobike?” “Where you go?” “You wanna go motobike?” “Very cheap.” “Oh, there. Very far, motobike is better.”
I have trouble picturing the Vietnam my father’s wartime generation would have known. It was only 50 years ago, but the cities have moved fast. On the long bus rides, I caught some rare sights of rural and tourist neglected places. The Vietnamese fought so hard for so long for their freedom. The War Remnants Museum in HCMC is a devastating, penetrating, albeit one-sided, look into the century long battle against the French and Americans. They dug the longest tunnel system in the world and some lived underground for a decade. They continue to suffer from Agent Orange and forgotten mines. They came out of a brutal civil war and somehow are managing to work together to heal. Money helps the healing; tourists bring the money. It’s a puzzling socialistic republic they have here.