Vietnam, too long known for all the wrong reasons, is a beautiful, hospitable and relaxing place to travel, once you get out of the cities. Spend as much as you can afford on your hotel in Saigon or Hanoi – and don’t stay too long in Saigon.
The city side of the ‘Pearl of Asia’ mainly consists of hellish traffic in stained concrete jungles. Due to the endemic corruption many buildings were built with weak concrete and are as a result leprous structures, off which chunks periodically fall. The waterways fizz and bubble under toxic crusts of garbage, in cities occupied by hard people. Whilst it’s easy to understand why these people have become hardened by their century of adversity, urban Vietnam can make for tough travelling. If you are of a nervous disposition and can’t afford a luxury hotel to retreat to, bypass the cities.
If you stray from the heritage trail and wind up in an urban disaster like for example Dong Ha near Hué, expect any fantasies you harbour about Indochinese romance to be crushed. Dong Ha seems to consist of nothing but roads.
When I ventured from my Dong Ha lodgings in a bid to slake hunger and banish boredom, I found nothing but a smelly, scruffy stall equipped with a scattering of decrepit plastic seats. Beside the stall stood a mannequin that a teenage boy began punching soon after my arrival, giving me the impression that he’d rather be punching me. I tried to sweet-talk him into taking my American dollars, which were okay in Hanoi, but eventually walked away with nothing and was reduced to necking the contents of the mini-bar in my place (I won’t grace it with the label ‘hotel’). I then killed the light and prayed for dawn and the arrival of my bus to the lovely and historic town of Hoi An.
Quite why anyone would hang around to fight over this incomparably horrible transit town is anyone’s guess. But, during the Vietnam War, they did. Ferociously.
An American unit called Task Force Robbie sustained 40 casualties and had four tanks knocked out over ownership of Dong Ha. Most of the dead were immolated inside their vehicles. And that was just the start of the battle, which went on to epic proportions of brutality and ended up with much hand-to-hand plunging of bayonets into bellies.
If, like many visitors, you have an appetite for the military and macabre, you’ll love Vietnam, as there has been so much mayhem here. It’s impossible not to recoil in vicarious horror at the barbarities inflicted by and on the Americans, Cambodians, Chinese, French and Japanese adversaries. None of these nations prevailed against the Vietnamese. Before taking the Vietcong on, the Americans should maybe have studied what happened to the French at Dien Bien Phu, where the Vietnamese dragged artillery pieces to the tops of the surrounding mountains and then used their bodies as cannon fodder to soak up the French bullets so that their suicide bombers could make it through to the French HQ.
Essentially, à la Afghanistan, anyone who messes with the Vietnamese regrets it. It’s not just a modern phenomenon either, even Kublai Khan came a cropper here, his ships spiked in Halong Bay and his crews drowned or eviscerated.
Maybe it’s thanks to Hollywood that so many visitors are fascinated by the war. In films like ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Platoon’, the American nation’s humiliation in Vietnam has been portrayed more vividly than any other war before or since. All those ghastly yet beautiful images, lingering like retinal burns behind so many Western eyes, maybe account for the enduring obsession with the war. The Government actively promotes war-tourism, maybe as it focuses attention back on their glory days and away from a present that is slipping out of their control. It seems however a shame that tourism in Vietnam is so obsessed with the war, as the country has much else to offer.
Top Three Destinations
If you would rather avoid the dark side, then head north and swan around the sublimely beautiful Halong Bay in a junk. Set in a landscape that evokes an Oriental painting, this is still one of southeast Asia’s most romantic and magical trips.
Alternatively, become engrossed in the heritage towns of Hoi An and Hué, which have more history than you can shake an AK-47 at – and not all of it gory. There are four UNSECO World Heritage sites within day-trip range of Hoi An.
Phu Quoc is an up-and-coming destination and, for travellers who are looking for 5-star comfort on empty and unspoiled beaches, is arguably southeast Asia’s best tropical island beach destination.
Be careful what you drink. Lots of visitors to Vietnam fall prey to ‘broken guts’. Unless you are really desperate to lose weight, stick to bottled water and only eat fresh fruit when in an expensive (by Vietnamese standards) restaurant.
Don’t forget to bring your sense of humour with you – especially if you like beer and it shows. Someone will likely rub your belly and say the word ‘baby’. These gibes are usually accompanied by Thai-style impish smiles that you just might find funny, unless you are a bit touchy, as this writer was, due to his excess weight having been only recently acquired.
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