We sat in Mrs.Duong’s courtyard sipping tea, as Na helped translate the seventy-five year old’s life story to us. After politely enquiring about her children, her husband’s nine siblings, their association with Uncle Ho and the ornate shrine in their small living room, we took the plunge. “Is it ok to ask her about the American War?” Na nodded. “So what was it like? Where were you? And what did you need to do to take care of yourself?”. Mrs.Duong matter-of-factly waved her hands. “There were sirens during the air raids, and we had to scurry to the bomb shelter nearby till they went silent”. We looked at her expectantly for more. “War isn’t good, we really need to learn to set our differences aside and live together.” We backed off at this first platitude. For so many possible reasons, she did not want to relive the hardest time in Vietnam’s modern history, and we didn’t want to dig deeper into the unspoken divide that exists on both sides of this horror.
Every time I’ve heard Vietnam mentioned, my mind has automatically attached the suffix war. I’ve unconsciously paired these words for a decade, even though I didn’t know a whole lot about what happened and what the outcome was. Only last month, as I began to plot a weekend in north Vietnam, has the enormity of this unconscious pairing hit me. And it’s left me reeling in its wake. It isn’t just one war. Really, Vietnam? This is what you went through? For someone who is still figuring out what loyalty to clan and country really means, Vietnam’s history is a thumping exhibit of all faces of both.
And here I’ll stop pontificating. Because this entire century has been eventful in more ways than one for this resilient little country, and it will probably take me just as long to digest it all.
Bai Tu Long Bay
Halong Bay was what lured us into north Vietnam this time. The dreamy karst formations rising out of a blue sea had been calling for a while, but the only way to poke into these corners was on a two day boat ride. I don’t particularly like the idea of a luxury cruise, but I figured if I was going to ever try one before saying no, two days seemed about right. As to why we were in neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay, see the last section.
The landscape was as haunting as I had imagined. From boat rides (I do regret not being brave enough to kayak) to mini-beaches and micro-hikes, these strange islands in the sea had it all. I particularly liked the morning tai-chi on the ship’s sun deck, where peaceful music and a lovely breeze enveloped our slow kung-fu moves as the karsts slowly passed us by.
So will I redo a cruise? As of now, not unless it has a great USP or something unreachable by any other mode of transport like this one. Sure, activities are important, but I felt like I could’ve used more time on the deck by ourselves. I was torn between lounging on the deck and FOMO of the other activities, including the large buffets and sit down meals at which we were overfed like foie gras goose. But there was this one post-dinner “entertainment” show that B pulled me away from to hang out on the deck under the moon and deck lights, and for that private deck experience under the stars, I am very grateful!
Yen Duc Village
We spent a half day at Yen Duc village on our way back, one among a group of villages being developed with a few activities for visitors to look around a typical Vietnamese village. The whole enterprise employs villagers and pumps the tourist dollars right into their hands. Sure, there was initial resistance, isn’t there always? And as usual, it melted away in the face of evidence that this indeed improves their quality of life. We watched a water puppet show, cycled around harvested rice fields, met Mrs.Duong and learnt about rice and papaya salads. Now if only I could find a good green papaya in the supermarket back home!
Read this wonderful piece by Cameron Hewitt on what a museum’s purpose is, and I won’t have to say a word why I was a tad torn about the Hanoi Hilton. Sure, a country needs to glorify its path to independence and honour its martyrs, but how truthful should it be to what happened when it was the aggressor and not the oppressed? Should historians tell the stories in museums or the government?
I’ve ambitiously named this post Part 1 in the hope that we’ll head back to this area sometime. Sapa Valley, other museums in Hanoi and Backstreet Tours still beckon, as does the ever elusive pho. Oh the Vietnamese food, I didn’t mention any of that now, did I?! Because well, that’s a post by itself 😉
Look up KOTO here.
An attempt at conscious travel
Halong Bay, like its sister Maya Bay in Thailand, is in bad shape. A beautiful but small area is very quickly overrun with people and boats with no regulation, and what’s left behind is, well, precious little. We’ve refused the boat ride to Maya Bay when in Phuket, and spent many hours looking for a responsible option at Halong Bay. The only one we found (after minimal replies from many operators about their responsible travel practices) was Indochina Junk; an entire page of what they do in the area is here and it includes the development of Yen Duc village. They have the only permit to neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay till date, which means our line of sight had only the towering karsts and the water, no other ships. And that’s a bonus treat I’m willing to pay extra for, as also for their many initiatives in the region.
Our plastic footprint – a couple of takeout boxes for our really early flight out. Here’s a huge shout out to the hotels in old town Hanoi and also the Indochina Junk cruise boat, there were water coolers and bartenders ready to refill our bottles whenever we wanted. My heart leaped in such joy at not a single plastic water bottle used on this trip!
Look up Zo Project here.
Book read on the trip: This time, I bypassed books; instead we binge watched the ten-part documentary “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns. A sweeping account of the thirty-year war, it delved deep into major battles and personal stories on both sides of the battle lines. As the final credits rolled against the backdrop of the stark Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., I was left wondering (again) about the intricate equation between colonial rulers, local systems of government and the people they rule in this complicated little geography termed by the west as South-East Asia.
All Photos: Courtesy B