A Travellerspoint blog

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The American War

It had been a while since I had experienced the chaos of a big city. The last month or so had been spent lazing on beaches, exploring quiet Asian towns, and an impromptu booze cruise here and there. I immediately realized I was back in a big city upon stepping foot out of the bus in Saigon, when I was almost hit by a motorcycle. Although by city standards, the 3 inches away he came from hitting me is a pretty gracious distance between high speed vehicles and pedestrians.

In Saigon, it is fast, it is hot, and quite a provocative place to be an American. A quick note for those of you who don’t know me, I am very proud to be an American. I have met a few Americans on the trail who have Canadian flags sewn on their bags, and say they’re Canadian to avoid confronting a perceived global prejudice against America. These people bother me. I understand that America may not have the best reputation overseas, especially in Vietnam, however the best way to change this perception is to be forthright about where you’re from, and to begin to break the stigma of the so-called “Ugly American” on the road. The way to garner respect isn’t to pretend to be Canadian. Treat everyone with respect, and that respect will be reciprocated. I’m not saying that you need to get a bald eagle tattooed on your forehead, but take off the damn patch.

Anyways, sorry about that rant, back to Saigon, although it won’t go down as one of my favorite cities, it certainly had its moments. Just crossing the streets was enough to throw off a westerners comfort zone. If you want to cross the streets in Saigon, be prepared to forget everything your parents taught you. Don’t look both ways, don’t wait for motorbikes to stop coming (because they won’t), just go, keep a consistent pace, and the motorcycles will dodge you. I know, it sounds crazy, but without these rules, you will be standing on the corner for several hours, watching thousands of motorbikes wiz by, and countless children and senior citizens easily succeeding at what you are too afraid to partake.

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Annndddd, go!

The nightlife was considerably less crowded than the roads, although there seemed to be bars around every corner. Perhaps the perceived demand for bars has been slightly miscalculated, or perhaps we just hit the city during a lull. Either way, it didn’t matter, I got my booze fix on the Mekong delta. The star of Saigon would be witnessing the Vietnamese perception of what they dub “The American War.”

There are two sides to every story, and oftentimes these two stories have very little in common. Taking one side of a story as gospel is a mistake, especially when these stories concern something as impassioned as war. My curiosity to discover the other side of this story led me to my first stop in Saigon, the American War Museum.

In the front of the museum were relics from the war, mostly American military vehicles that had been left behind or captured during the war.

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Workin' it

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Inside the multi-tiered museum, the first floor consisted of Vietnamese propaganda posters, along with news clippings of global condemnation of the war. The rest of the museum was devoted to depicting the atrocities of war, including an entire wing devoted to the abominable Agent Orange. The picture collection was powerful, visibly stirring up a range of emotions in the many museum goers. They were quite graphic, so I'm not going to post the pictures, but just google image "agent orange Vietnam" and you will see what I mean.

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It was really, really hot that day, so after the museum our day wouldn’t consist of much more, as we tried to focus more on the air conditioned culture the city had to offer.

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Vietnamese Air Conditioning

Early the next morning we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, an area outside of town showcasing the elaborate tunnel systems and booby traps that made the war a tactical nightmare. It began with a video, written in poor English but read with a perfect British accent. It was odd hearing such a distinguished voice speaking in such poor grammar, especially because the words were also a bit aggravating. The video, essentially, glamorized the killing of Americans during the war, and nothing more. As celebratory music played in the background, they would show a picture of a young girl holding a rocket launcher. “She was an adorable girl, she also loved killing Americans, her favorite thing was killing Americans, she was great at killing Americans, she killed an uncountable number of Americans, war hero.” Look, I get it. I understand the amount of Vietnamese National pride tied into the resistance against the Americans during the war. But glamorizing war, especially the killing, is unsavory at best.

The rest of the day would luckily be more lighthearted. We were in a group of about 30 people, which is generally my cue to break away from the tour. Tim and I wandered around, and channeling our inner groundhog, we climbed in and out of all the underground tunnels around the sight. And as a mechanical engineer, I couldn’t help but be impressed by some of the rudimentary yet lethal traps that were showcased. Simple, cheap, and deadly effective, engineering at its finest.

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Charlies Everywhere...

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Ahhhh!!!

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All kinds of these traps were showcased

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Artist depiction of the traps working

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Logically, at the end of the tour was a gun range. I wasn’t sure if I thought this was misplaced, or perfectly located. Either way, we’re men, we have a weakness for artillery, so we indulged. The long bus ride home lowered my adrenaline back down to pre-gunfire status, and I was ready to please my palate with a bowl of Pho, a noodle soup that needs to be eaten to understand why it can be eaten for every meal of the day.

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Saigon was an intriguing portion of my Vietnam tour. I wasn’t a huge fan of the city itself, however I think their depiction of the war was fascinating, if not teetering on the inappropriate. I wasn’t born yet when the war was going on, and who among us can say they truly knew what was happening behind the scenes. All I can do is gather perspectives, and formulate an opinion based on what “facts” I assume to be more truthful. And, well, you know what they say happens when you assume. All I really know for sure is that I still am, and always will be, a proud American.

Still rolling strong, next stop(s), pristine beaches in Nha Trang, and Tuxedos in Hoi An. Caio.

Posted by dpteitel 01:05 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An, Vietnam

Tuxedos, Bicycles, 20 Cent Beers.

After Saigon, my internal beach clock was buzzing, and I needed to find some sand. I was hoping to find somewhere that satisfied my need for sunshine along with my desire for culture. We started in Nha Trang, a beautiful beach a few hours north of Saigon. Unfortunately, as with so many beach locales this trip, there was no culture to be found. That is, unless Vietnam has a rich history of water parks and electronic music. Sarcasm aside, however, Nha Trang was insanely fun. But you know my beach routine at this point, so I won’t regale you yet again with another beaches magnificent monotony.

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After scratching my beach itch for a few days in Nha Trang, the crew and I continued North to Hoi An. I immediately liked Hoi An the second I stepped foot there. It is laid back, it is beautiful, and is world renowned for its tailors. Now, I am not the type of man who finds himself in tailors often. But with more and more of my friends taking the plunge into holy matrimony, I decided I should own a tuxedo.

Myself in a tailor shop is akin to a blind man attempting to paint. I’ve got an idea in my head of what I want, but actually expressing it is quite the hurdle. They had so many questions: What blend of fabric do you want? How many pockets do you want, and where do you want them? How wide do you want the lapels? How many buttons do you want? Head = Spinning. Luckily, the tailor I had chosen, Mr Xe, was just eccentric enough that I trusted he would transform my gobbledygook of a clothing description into something that resembled formal wear.

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Choose your fabric

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They also custom make any shoe. Any. I saw a pair of knee high Nike high tops

At the first fitting, everything appeared to fit perfectly, at least to my man’s eye. Mr Xe, however, insisted the area under the left armpit wasn’t perfect, and quickly shuffled me over to his motorbike to ride over to his alterations shop. Please for a moment, as I have no pictures of this, just try to picture a small balding Asian man riding a motorcycle through a city with a white guy in a tuxedo riding on the back. Only in Hoi An. Actually, instead of making you use your imagination, I have created flawless artist depictions of myself and Mr Xe.

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After a few more fittings, and a few more eccentric Mr Xe moments, the project was finally finished. The tux turned out great, but the whole process was rather exhausting, why do women enjoy this? Anyways, I am now adequately prepared for weddings, or galas, or to be James Bond. Bring it on, mid twenties.

When I wasn’t being poked and prodded to get the tux to fit just right, I kept myself busy with laziness. I was up for anything, as long as it did not involve what I deemed to be excessive mental or muscular exertion. My mental ceiling was somewhere around a conversation with a local in a café about how the city has evolved in the last 5 years, and my physical ceiling was a jaunt through town on a bicycle. I was truly stretching my limits in Hoi An. However I find that some cities are meant to be enjoyed this way. Generally, the place where I am dictates my energy level, and not the other way around. If you try to force too much out a city, you will miss the true charm of what the city has to offer. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, when it gives you nothing, don’t try to make lemonade out of it. And I suppose if it gives you a small bald Asian man with a knack for suit making, make a tuxedo.

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At night, we would whip out our Dong (Vietnamese currency is called Dong, get your mind out of the gutter) for beers. The going rate at most of the bars on the river was a ridiculous 4,000 dong. Perhaps that seems ridiculous because it is so high, until you realize there is 20,000 Dong to a Dollar. Some complex arithmetic later (remember, brain is taking a break), you arrive at 20 cents per beer. If we wanted to splurge, we would spend around 10,000 dong to sit on the corner and buy bottled beer from a street stand. Here is where the westerners who have made Hoi An their home spend their evenings. It was interesting hearing their stories, but don’t worry, I will not become one of these guys. They all made the move because they were dissatisfied with their life back home. I love my life back home, I just chose to go on a brief hiatus from reality.

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Traveling is incredibly enriching for so many reasons. A surprising one, is that traveling also makes me even more appreciative of the life I put on hold back home. I thought that Hoi An was a wonderful city, and I will always think of it fondly whilst donning my penguin suit. But I won’t get stuck there, or anywhere else, as long as that little place they call Baltimore still exists.

I miss Charm City and all of my wonderful friends and family scattered around the world, but am still so invigorated by the concept of getting to know each new city, and each new person that finds itself in my path. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that even in some of the most beautiful places in the world, with some incredible souls from all over the world, my friends and family from home still stay in the forefront of my thoughts. You guys are awesome, miss you all.

Tux made, good times had, city complete. Another city, and another double digit hour bus ride await me. Next stop, the anagrammatic partner of Hoi An, the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi.

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Posted by dpteitel 05:20 Comments (0)

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