It’s strange how nostalgic you can get for a nation not your own; one where words remain elusive, along with so much else.
Yet returning to Vietnam from Cambodia felt like a homecoming. Perhaps at this stage of travel, I’ve started clinging to whatever familiarity I can get, no matter how superficial. Or perhaps there’s something about the country that resonates with me, in a way that ensures I’ll go back again. And again.
All I know for sure is, I definitely shed some tears of joy when I saw a bowl of pho advertised outside of Saigon’s international terminal.
That’s where a driver from our hotel picked us up. After loading our bags, he whisked us off in his van toward the twinkling lights of the city in the distance.
The road there, blissfully smooth and pothole-free, was soon choked with motorbikes. The ubiquitous city symbol, they vroomed by our van, their seats sometimes occupied by a generation: dad steering, mom in the back, two kids nestled in between.
They formed part of our caravan as we pulled into a city both ultramodern yet deeply shaped by history—one inextricably linked to America’s own.
The spectacular high-rises and wide highways of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) awed us, as we hadn’t seen anything like them since, well, Istanbul. (And even there, hundreds of crumbling buildings spoke more of a grand past than a dazzling future).
HCMC (or Saigon, depending on your preference) does nod to its own past in restored French colonial buildings and small alleys of shabby yet tidy apartments. But these are often hidden behind its modern towers, from which twentysomethings in suits emerge to take afternoon breaks. They swarm corner stores to buy iced ca phe sua da in the heat–one so blistering, it keeps most of the city indoors between noon and five pm.
Despite this heat, we did as much as we could to experience the city. And over our three days in HCMC, and during the next two weeks (which would have us up North in Hanoi and the nature preserves of Trang An and Pù Luông), we learned even more–and fell even more in love–with Vietnam.
Can you blame us?
First things first: Is it Saigon, a capital draped in romance, rebellion, and colonial mores?
Or is it fast-paced, glitzy Ho Chi Minh, the heart of modern Vietnam?
(We didn’t know either, so we asked Google. Who told us that, officially, it’s Ho Chi Minh City. Either name, though, works just fine in conversation.)
After visiting, though, I’d venture this. The city is both, its essence linked to each name.
The first, “Saigon,” conjures sepia-tinted images of elegant couples in cafes, sipping tea as they watch life pass by in the gauzy heat.
These couples would, for historical accuracy, be French. Indeed, in the 1800s, the city’s colonizers brought–along with brutal repression—a well-heeled European cafe culture to Saigon. It remains strong, but with a more independent and Vietnamese spin).
We indulged one especially hot afternoon, seeking refuge in the cafe apartment building on the popular Nyugen Hue Walking Street.
Formerly housing American officers and officials working for South Vietnam’s government, the units were given to shipyard workers after the war. Rising demand tempted these new tenants to rent out their flats (albeit illegally) to businesses, and the rest is caffeinated history.
For America’s Baby Boomers, and many southern Vietnamese, “Saigon” brings other images to mind as well. Ones that hearken back to the city’s fall on April 30, 1975, to the People’s Army and Viet Cong.
This effectively ended the war. Saigon, after all, was the previously unscathed capital of South Vietnam, which had declared its separation from the communist north in 1954.
An anti-communist Catholic who’d been persecuted by both the Northern Vietnamese and the French, Diệm received U.S. backing as President. That is, until, his corruption and rabid persecution of the opposition–including Buddhist monks–made him persona-non-grata among his own countrymen.
Facing PR nightmares both in Vietnam and at home, the U.S. essentially approved a coup planned by members of the southern Vietnamese military. They overthrew Diệm on November 1, 1963, killing him the following day and burying him in an unmarked grave.
This threw the southern republic, and Saigon, into a thinly-veiled state of chaos. Over the next decade, leadership changed hands three times as the Southern Army faced massive losses, regional unrest, and the eventual withdrawal of American troops.
The troubled southern regime breathed its last at Saigon’s Norodom Palace, when a Northern Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates on that fateful day in 1975. The victorious northern regime renamed it Independence (or Reunification) Palace (and gave it a little cosmetic surgery) months later.
Now a museum, the palace is a spectacular work of 60s modernist architecture–one that a New York Times writer once aptly called “deliriously glamorous, a lip-smacking mix of Turandot melodrama and James Bond cool.” Designed and built under French-trained architect Ngo Viet Thu at the behest of President Diem, the 65,000 square foot building features a movie theater, library, games room, disco bar, and (Greg’s favorite), a rooftop helipad.
In addition to the sundry rooms of bureaucracy and diplomacy, of course. Nixon and Kissinger visited multiple times, hashing out war plans in the palace’s many chandelier and gold lacquered conference rooms.
The palace’s most interesting part, though, would have to be its bomb shelter, with its tunnels, command and comms rooms, war maps, and oh-so-mid-century-modern tiles.
Diem commissioned this part specifically, though he never got to use it: he was assassinated in 1963, three years before the palace was completed.
The palace is perhaps the perfect symbol for the city’s Saigon side. It speaks of a stylish capital attuned to European trends, while at the same time remaining Vietnamese at its core (the building, for instance, is shaped in a T-structure, which derives from the language’s character for “good destiny.”)
Leave the palace grounds, however, and you’re immediately transported to the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) side of things. The streets thrum constantly with motorbikes, their dizzying pace a reminder of Vietnam’s rapid growth (so rapid, in fact, it rivals China’s).
In today’s HCMC, you’re also well aware of who won the war. (The Ho Chi Minh part is evidence enough, and you’re constantly reminded of it by the banners and buildings around town that bear his bearded face).
Visiting the War Remnants Museum also reminds you of who controls the narrative now. Multiple exhibitions detail the gruesome presence of the French and Americans in Vietnam, right down to images of dead families lying under the boots of a dead-eyed American G.I.
These horrifying images speak to terrible truths. Yet those truths are one-sided. For instance, you won’t see any photos here of atrocities committed by the North. (Which include severe torture of American soldiers and the execution of Vietnamese landlords for the purpose of land reform).
Undeniable, though, is the toll wrought by America’s use of Agent Orange. During the war, over 4 million Vietnamese people were exposed to the deadly chemical, which resulted in increased cancer rates, birth defects and irreparable damage to the land.
One exhibit displays the effects of Agent Orange in stark detail–photos of children born without limbs and with cleft palates, requiring round-the-clock care from aged parents. Images of veterans coping with Parkinson’s Disease and prostate cancer are there too.
Even impacted Americans and their families are included in some images, testifying to the devastation of this chemical, and war, across nations and generations.
The war’s legacy is potent. But it’s not omnipresent. In fact, aside from the banners bearing Uncle Ho’s face, there is little (visual) evidence that communism prevails here.
From designer boutiques to roadside food stands, capitalism and entrepreneurship seem to reign in HCMC, at least to the visitor’s eye.
Make no mistake, though. This commerce is still the product of thoughtful, tightly-controlled development with little room for dissent. (Though some erupted last year, as citizens took to the streets demanding an end to certain land-lease programs with China).
Regardless of its name or your politics, one thing you can’t argue with the fact that this city has fantastic food.
Saigon’s markets are teeming with fresh ingredients, from live eels to vibrant greens and pretty much everything in between.
There’s also some great nightlife here. It was thanks to HCMC, in fact, that I managed to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams: singing karaoke while backed by a live band.
While walking back to our hotel one evening, a smiling hostess beckoned us into a small, open-air cafe. In the back, a middle-aged man in a white suit was belting out a tropical melody. His audience of about five or so nodded along approvingly as they sipped Saigon beers. We ordered two for ourselves and got them just as the man finished.
I’d barely taken a sip when the crowd began urging us to sing. Not one to shy away from the opportunity, I googled a perennial favorite (Midnight Train to Georgia) on the speaker-adjacent cell phone, which had been rigged up for the occasion. The band quickly picked up on the melody and I belted away, the onlooking crowd (and my ever-supportive husband) taking photos and videos.
Somewhere in the middle of the song, a toddler waddled up and handed me a fake rose, a crisp roll of $100 VND ($4.50 US) in its center. Graciously accepting it as if it were a Grammy, I imagined covering our future bar tabs with this gambit…before the hostess came over and signaled for me to put the rose–and cash–in the band’s basket. Whoops.
Even though we didn’t cover our bar tab that evening, it was a perfect ending to our brief stay in HCMC, and a nice welcome back to Vietnam.
Hanoi, in contrast, feels a bit sedated, right down to its near-permanent overcast skies and shabby buildings.
Yet it doesn’t take long to feel its charm and allure, which, I’d argue, is greater than that of hustle-bustle Ho Chi Minh.
One reason for that is St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Built in 1886, the stunning Gothic structure serves as daily backdrop for romantic photoshoots.
Another reason to love Hanoi is the abundance of lovely green spaces around the city, as well as its centerpiece, Hoàn Kiếm Lake. We meandered around here a time or two, skirting our way through groups of men playing cards and older women doing tai-chi. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is also quite charming, if chaotic. The former city center, it’s now more of a tourist hotspot, but its winding alleys and street food (and beverage) are reason enough to visit.
You can also shop here, in areas once dedicated to a specific trade or guild like bamboo or copper-working. (That’s why streets here tend to start with the word “hàng,” which means “wares.”)
Old Quarter also houses Dong Xuan Market (and its adjacent alleys of fantastic street food), as well as the train tracks.
It may seem like a strange destination, but the tracks are the place to be–at least, at the five times per day when the train passes hair-rufflingly (and ear-splittingly) close to the buildings on Hanoi Train Street.
Enterprising residents have turned their ‘hood into a tourist hotspot, offering delicious treats and trackside seats for curious visitors. (Making lemonade out of lemons–or, in this case, coffees out of lemons, if you will).
They also give you updates on train delays, which get relayed down the tracks like a game of telephone. Their egg coffee game is also on point.
And can we talk about the food in Hanoi?? Let’s please.
Hanoi is dining heaven, especially if you’re into the street food game.
Our friends Amy and Benny gave us plenty of recommendations on that front. Both U.S. Foreign Service Officers, they were also gracious enough to host us, even in the midst of planning for the Kim Jong Un-Trump Summit taking place the following week.
One dish we tried and loved was cha ca. Made with ca lang, a type of catfish, this Hanoi speciality also consists of bun (vermicelli), basil, roasted peeled peanut, green onion, dill, turmeric, and mam tom (a mixed shrimp paste).
The fish is fried in the paste in a portable burner at your table. From there, you mix it on your plate with the rest of the ingredients to your liking.
Cha ca was incredible. But the meal of our entire trip was a bowl of bun cha. Famously sampled by Obama when he dined with Anthony Bourdain in 2015, the dish is a Hanoi staple. It consists of grilled pork patties, which, along with bun, are dipped into a broth of diluted fish sauce, with some tasty greens, herbs and chilis thrown in for measure. The best part, though, are the nem rán (fried crab spring rolls) served on the side.
In the rare times we weren’t eating, we managed to do some sightseeing. One stop was the famous Hỏa Lò Prison. It’s perhaps more famously known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” a moniker given by Americans held within its walls during the Vietnam War.
The Hỏa Lò Museum takes up a small section of the old complex, which was built by the French to house Vietnamese political prisoners. Most of the museum’s narrative focuses on those prisoners and their deplorable treatment.
One small room focuses on American POWs held captive by the Northern Vietnamese Army years later.
Touring this exhibit, you’d be forgiven for thinking the prison was an actual Hilton, and not an ironically-named detention center where dozens starved and suffered.
Narratives of the North’s kind treatment here made it sound as if John McCain got room service instead of severe beatings and solitary confinement. I could only wonder what U.S. Army vets might think when visiting the prison. (Including the few vets we saw while there).
Regardless, Hỏa Lò is a fascinating place to soak in the history of the times, and marvel at how far the bond between our countries has come since then.
A bond that has come so far, in fact, that Vietnam was chosen to host America’s recent “summit for peace.” One held last month, as you might recall, between Donald Trump and dear leader of communist North Korea, Kim Jong Un.
The summit, by most standards, was an overwhelming failure. But you’d be hard-pressed to believe that in Hanoi. It was decked out for the occasion.
North Korean and American flags fluttered from every lamppost in the city, while nightly showcases of patriotic singing and dancing kept guests entertained. City businesses rolled out themed shirts and specials in the name of peace (and profit).
The excitement was palpable. Even road blockades created local buzz. Who knew when Kim or Trump might drive past?
Instead of waiting around for either, we visited the Vietnam Women’s Museum.
Exhibits mostly showcased intricate, handmade clothing and other tangibles of traditional gender roles. There was one area, though, which documented women’s huge contributions to the war effort. These included serving as spies and heading up militias. For some of the female soldiers, American casualty counts numbered in the dozens.
Returning to the Hanoi streets once again, decked out with American flags, reminded us yet again of how far things have come since then. How we are now welcomed here, despite what we’ve done.
We are so grateful for the welcome here. For the hospitality, and the opportunity to visit places like these.
Get a gander at Trang An.
Its limestone peaks jut out of the earth like resurrected beasts, creating a mouth-dropping skyline. And a thousand photo ops, of course.
A few hours away from Hanoi by train, Trang An is a world apart, with wide, empty streets flanked by fertile green fields and valleys.
We spent three days exploring the area by boat and motorbike. Cuc Phuong National Park is also close by, and we opted to spend one of our days there, tooling our way down its shaded roads and visiting its primate and turtle rescue center.
Our guide to the center introduced us first to the primates. The center houses 180 of them, most of which are endangered species from Vietnam. Many were rescued from marketplaces where poachers were looking to turn them for a profit. The center’s goal is to return them to the wild, which it does through gradual release into semi-fenced areas. For now, though, most are kept in smaller enclosures and fed daily by park attendants.
Most of the turtles, one building over, are also endangered. Mostly because they are eaten to near extinction, due to regional beliefs in their power to grant longevity.
We said goodbye to the animals and headed off to start our two-hour scenic hike to the park’s “ancient tree.”
Much more spectacular than said tree, though, was the massive cave we encountered en route. It was so dark and deep we needed a flashlight to navigate it.
The following day’s boat ride through the Trang An Grottoes gave us a much more relaxed (if touristy) regional vantage point.
We piled into a boat with our rower, a rather quiet gentleman, and a fellow traveler named Kat staying at the same lodge as us. It was a comfortable fit but I can’t imagine squeezing another person in the mix (though we did see groups of six in some boats).
We glided peacefully through the water, snapping photos and ducking when needed.
The boat made a handful of stops, too, allowing us to get out and stretch our legs. And admire a few intricate temples, all the more impressive because of their remoteness.
Trang An was spectacular. But the real treat of the trip was Pù Luông.
Cascading rice fields and stilt homes shrouded in mist give this place a mythical quality. While we’d settled on it as a compromise (not too touristy, nor requiring tons of motorbiking to reach), it ended up being more perfect than we could have imagined.
This was largely because of our digs. We stayed in a lovely one-room treehouse, a part of the aptly named Pu Luong Treehouse lodgings in Don Village.
This was not your “first grade playhouse” style of tree lodging. It was thoughtfully presented and fairly plush, right down to the woven linens and stone-paved bathrooms (complete with hairdryers, no less).
The food was also fresh and delicious, and prepared nightly by Duy, one half of the friendly Treehouse hospitality duo. Nick was the other half: a fellow American who gave us plenty of tips on where to go and what to do during our three day stay.
The treehouse was probably the most unique, and relaxing, places we’ve stayed. (Especially compared to our cabin in Trang An. Which was fine, save for the packrat that woke us up in the middle of the night. Fortunately, the manager was nice enough to move us to a new room).
The treehouse was also an ideal base for exploring the area. Technically a nature reserve, Pù Luông is home to several villages and farms, as well as a growing number of homestays and boutique lodgings.
The region has seen a recent uptick in domestic and foreign tourism, but it was refreshingly quiet during our stay, at least compared to Trang An. Updated infrastructure has also made the roads a bit better than they once were, allowing us to reach scenic spots by motorbike without fearing for our lives (…too much).
Despite the constant mist and occasional rain, we also managed to get in a 5-hour hike. The trail took took us through forest and local villages, where children always greeted us with the extent of their English vocabulary: “hello!” and “goodbye” (and the occasional “money!” while giggling with outstretched hands). We returned the greeting and waved, using our similarly limited Vietnamese (“xin chao”) as we passed by families going about their daily lives: farming, sipping tea, sewing, or laying foundations for a new building.
The latter seemed to be the most common activity. Which makes sense, given the region’s goal of bringing in 30,000 visitors a year by 2020 via community based tourism. Via this avenue, the regional government plans to “reduce poverty and raise income” locally.
Let’s hope that’s what comes to pass, and that it happens sustainably. Pù Luông, after all, is a damn treasure. And yet another place that reminds us of how fortunate we are to have visited Vietnam.
So long, Vietnam. It’s goodbye for now, but not forever.
Thanks to Amy and Benny for hosting us in Hanoi. And to Sean, Nick & Duy for a fantastic stay at Pu Luong Treehouse.
Next up: Taipei & Taroko, Taiwan. xoxo.