Vietnam, It's Complicated

Admittedly, it was about a week into our journey in Vietnam that I discovered my late grandfather had once been stationed in the central highlands town of Pleiku as part of the 555 Civil Engineering Squadron during the War. After having just navigated the wild streets of Ho Chi Minh City and traveled across the Annimate Mountain Range, peering down on countless rice paddies abutting the South China Sea, I couldn’t imagine how he would have felt—a half-grown tenant farmer from rural East Tennessee with a young family back home—being plopped down in a war-ravaged country in Indochina. This likely disorienting and disheartening experience must have been similar for so many of the men and women who were deployed here during this sad time in the history of our two nations. And I certainly couldn’t begin to fathom the oddly similar feelings the many Vietnamese must have had, losing so much or being torn from families under the cover of night, or by overcrowded boat, in an attempt to avoid the horrors of conflict and hopefully, find a better life elsewhere.

As we spent nearly three weeks traveling from South to North Vietnam, we couldn’t ignore the juxtapositions found in daily Vietnamese life or the arduous relationships between the people and their visitors in this now thriving country. While tourism is indeed big business, it doesn’t come without a psychological price. For instance, our hearts hurt as we observed the awkward looks of despair and stoicism on the faces of adolescent villagers dancing in traditional dress for visitors in Cat Cat village. Yet, it was heartwarming to hear our guide here talk about her ability to give her daughter a better education thanks to the money she’s earned showing tourists the panoramic views and village life surrounding the area’s famous rice terraces. Both of these experiences (among many we encountered during our journey) demonstrate the duality of tourism’s pains and progress in a country looking forward with one eye still lingering on the fears of the past. It is certainly complicated at nearly every layer of life within Vietnam.

In early March, we arrived to the tropical, hot and humid climate of buzzing Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon and renamed after the revolutionary Communist leader. After our time traveling in the less populated towns and villages of Myanmar and Cambodia, this was a city alive, full of noisy motorbikes, bustling activity and commerce, and heaps of street food spilling onto the sidewalks. We stayed in an Airbnb in the less-touristic District 3, above Vietcetera, a cozy coffee shop owned by two young Vietnamese brothers (raised in Seattle) who’ve spent the last year renovating their grandfather’s former family house. The brothers, along with Mark Weins’s Migrationology, provided excellent tips on where locals go for Pho, rice noodles in a sweet beef broth chocked full of green onions and herbs; Banh Mi, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich stuffed with meat of your choosing and pickled vegetables; Banh Xeo, fried rice pancakes with bamboo and mushroom; and even a breakfast dish of fried eggs topped with onion, various pork meats, and tofu. While we, of course, visited the stately towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, the bright colonial Post Office and City Hall, and the soviet-style Independence Palace, it was really the food that kept us satisfied in Saigon.

After a few days (mostly) living like locals, we made our way to Hoi An, a small city on the central Vietnamese coast with an ancient Old Town that’s been well-persevered. Here, we strolled the narrow, meandering streets dotted with historic family chapels, temples and assembly halls that mix Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese architecture. Hoi An is known for its food, so we had to try some of its signature dishes from both market stalls and modern restaurants—and even learned to cook some ourselves! Standouts included the delicate White Rose Dumplings, two small sheets of rice paper filled with shrimp and steamed until the sides close up like a small flower and smothered in crispy shallots, and Cao Lau, pork with soba-like rice noodles supposedly made with the ash of nearby Cam Nam island and the water from Cham well in the Old Town.

We then took a car for the 3-hour drive from Hoi An to Hue, the Imperial Capital City until the mid-1940s, making stops along the way to take in dizzying Marble Mountain, cloud-piercing Hai Van Pass, and tranquil Lang Co Beach. In Hue, we once again found ourselves indulging in the local delights, including Nem Lui, pork skewered with lemongrass and rolled in herbs and dry rice paper; Ban Beo, small steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp; and Banh Khoai, crunchy rice flour crepe with pork and shrimp that’s stuffed with bean sprouts and herbs, such as fresh mint and Thai basil. The imposing Imperial Citadel and Forbidden City, although still with some military function, had until recently been ignored as it had been seen after the revolution as a symbol of the former dynasty. We noticed a hardness and longing of the people here, and we couldn’t help but feel as if Hue was once a company town now without a company.

As we reached northern Vietnam, the complex sentiments were more evident as the locals became somewhat less welcoming and helpful than those who we’d previously met in the South. Once the enemy (and in some ways, maybe still so), we never felt in danger, but there was a certain suspicion and unease of the people. Nevertheless, Hanoi became our base for the next week as we took multi-day trips to explore the jagged mountains and terraced rice paddies of mystical Sapa and sail through the majestic limestone islands of popular Halong Bay. And whenever we were in Hanoi, we ate our way around the alleyways of the Old Quarter, a historically significant area that most recently served as a massive marketplace with streets still named for what would have been found there in shop after shop, from shoes and silk to paper products and lighting fixtures, not to mention meats, fruits, vegetables and grains. As we consumed, we noted the difference in the northern cuisine, which was less spicy and sweet as in the south and used less herbs in its steaming broths due to location and climate. Here, the Beef Pho was cleaner and less heavy, and we loved the layers of flavor in Bun Bo, a beef noodle salad, and Bun Cha, grilled pork and rice noodles in a light broth.

During out stay in the country's capital, we sensed the wealth and power that lives in Hanoi, from the glistening new airport and smooth highway system to the many shiny government cars and stately diplomatic homes found throughout the city. The soviet-style buildings of Ba Dinh Square are beautifully brutalist yet shrouded in secrecy, the many grand tributes to Ho Chi Minh—from his mausoleum with queues extending city blocks to his former stilt home and the museum of his life—showcase the country’s devotion to its founding father, and the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake ringed by Europe's famous fashion houses, five-star hotels and locals jogging in athleisure wear, offer a picture of modern Vietnam far from the tribal villages and overpopulated, grimy urban alleys and passageways.

The difficult history between the Chinese, French, Japanese and Americans in Vietnam over the years has created not only beautiful blends of architecture, food and culture unique within the region but also a reluctant reception to the attention and effects of tourism on the people. As much as we adored our time (and eating) in Vietnam, we also had moments of irritation and sorrow as we dodged continuously honking motorbikes, moved along streets and riverbanks littered with garbage, and witnessed the aftermath of tribal people being pushed out of their family villages. More than 40 years after my grandfather’s stint in Vietnam, I wish I could talk with him to compare our radically different experiences and get his take on the country’s modern evolution and the lasting effects of war. Surely, it’s a conversation that would be complicated.