I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about Vietnam. We had spoken with a growing number of friends, acquaintances, and read various blogger summaries (Nomadic Matt for one) who really didn’t like it here. So it was a pleasant surprise that we have found we absolutely love Vietnam.
A few things may have helped this first impression. For starters, I believe the main reason visitors to Vietnam have a bad experience is because they feel they get ripped off or taken advantage of far too much. But, well, we’ve been traveling for a while, and how should I put it…
We survived Morocco.
In Vietnam, nobody would even think of ‘guiding’ you somewhere you were already walking to, then demanding payment for their service. We are guaranteed to pay more than locals for just about everything, but for us it’s never been more than a few dollars. And though they are aggressive salespeople here, they are not personally offended if you say no, and in the end everyone still has a smile on their face. That’s A-OK in my book.
At any rate, our love for the country started right away with our first full day in Ho Chi Minh City (A place I thought I wouldn’t care for purely because of its size: over seven million people). The backpacker district we stayed in was entirely walkable (though we definitely had to learn how to cross the street….aaaaack!), there was a nearby park we could run in that had outdoor gym equipment, and everyone was extremely friendly to us.
Cale and I went for a visit to the War Museum. It had its own slant towards propaganda, but as Cale put it: “I was taught in school that the Vietnam War was a tie!” So at least this way we got the other side of the story about, as it’s referred to here, “The American War.”
Let me just go on a quick tangent before I continue my love-fest of our first few days in Vietnam. The U.S. has sure done a lot of terrible things throughout the world, and it is extremely blatant as we have made our way through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Cale and I visited the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) museum in Vientiane which had a fantastic overview of the impact the Vietnam War has had in the years following. All my stats listed below were taken from this museum.
COPE provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to bomb victims. Laos was never involved in the Vietnam War but as a neighboring country, Northern Vietnamese were using Laotian land to access the Ho Chi Minh trail to get supplies into Vietnam. To try and plug the supply line, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombies (sub munitions from cluster bombs), of which 30% failed to detonate. Cluster bombs come in may different forms, but the gist is : many are the size of baseballs, and if they don’t explode on impact, they will explode if touched OR if they are exposed to extreme heat. Since bombs don’t just disappear when a war ends, 80 million unexploded bombies remained after the war. 25% of villages in Laos are still contaminated. Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured since after 1974. Of those 20,000, 13,500 lost limb, and 40% were children. There are 100 new casualties annually.
Many of those affected are kids looking for scrap metal to sell. It’s a big gimmick in Laos to buy souvenirs made from bombs; it’s a great idea in theory to make something useful out of something that has resulted in so much destruction, but think about how they get that scrap metal: it just encourages kids to go out and risk their lives searching for it. Many other injuries come from farming. One particularly heartbreaking story told by video documentary was of a man making a fire in his home to cook dinner- something he had done hundreds of times, when a bomb exploded in his house. The heat from the fire had heated up an bombie buried under his dirt floor. He survived but is now blind, leaving his wife to support him and their two kids by rice farming.
Another interview was of a couple telling the story of how their 7-year-old son died. He and two friends followed some older villagers into the forest to look for scrap metal (the first time the kids had followed along). The older villagers passed on some bombies, knowing they were dangerous but the kids didn’t know. The boy’s two friends died on impact after trying to pick up a bombie which detonated. The boy was standing a bit further away and his father found him still alive but badly injured. They rented a ride in a pickup truck to take him to the nearest hospital… which turned them away since they had no blood and no medicine. They drove to another hospital and it was the same story. Keep in mind, many villages in Laos are extremely remote with terrible (if any) roads.The guy with the pickup didn’t want the child to die in his truck so they took him home and he died at home. It’s so heartbreaking, particularly because most of those affected by bombies today are children. Multiply one of these stories by 100 and there you have an idea of what goes on in Laos annually. This certainly highlights the lasting effects of war and makes me even more uneasy about what is happening around the world today.
It’s not an easy feat to clean this up. They figure the contaminated area of Laos is 87,000 square kilometers (over 1/3 of the country). Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearance progresses extremely slowly, at about 40 square kilometers per year. UXO Lao is a government organization, employing 1,000 Laotian staff with a few international organizers. They clear bombies from land (basically by going through carefully with metal detectors and then detonating the area) but it can take 10 days to clear a 100×100 meter space.
Cambodia has a similar story to Laos… they have their own terrible history with the Khmer Rouge in power for so long (we visited the genocide museum at S-21 which was a sickening overview of the terrible history there). Though the U.S. wasn’t connected to the Khmer Rouge, we weren’t blameless in the war here either, and dropped over 2.5 million tons of bombs on Cambodia during the war.
At the war museum in Vietnam we learned that, though many U.S. soldiers and their families that were affected by agent orange have been compensated (as much as one can be) monetarily, Vietnamese victims of agent orange haven’t seen any compensation. This isn’t something that just goes away. Children today are still beinb born without limbs or with mental disorders. This is something that lasts for at least three generations, though it’s unclear when the cycle will end. (Side note- guess who was involved in the making of agent orange? Dow Chemical and Monsanto).
Anyway (sorry- that was a long downer of a side note), Cale and I emerged from the war museum in Ho Chi Minh fully depressed so decided to grab a beer at the minimart and go to the park to sit and drink away our sorrows.
We hadn’t been there for long when an older man came up to us and started talking. We are always a bit wary of this and had our guard up, kind of wondering when he was going to ask us for something. Well, he never did, and pretty soon there was a younger woman who approached us and joined the conversation. The man said – “oh yeah that’s my student.” And that’s when it clicked: I had read somewhere that locals come to the park to practice their English with visiting tourists. Pretty soon we had a crowd of no less than 15 people around us. We split into two groups and talked… and talked… and talked… until two and a half hours later I needed some water!
We had such great time that we returned the next day and stayed for the same amount of time. The group was a mix of students from various schools, and locals who just wanted to practice and improve their English conversation skills. Skill levels ranged from fluent to very-basic English. But they had some pretty great questions, like:
“What is love?”
“How does retirement work in the U.S.?”
“We heard about Ferguson, tell us more about race relations?”
“Why is sustainability important in business?” Oh heyyyy BGI!
I realized later that some of them thought I was legit Ellen Degenerous. And one guy clarified: “no it’s like 70% Ellen, and 30% Miley Cyrus.”
It felt like having fans… and I was OK with it!
I had an equal amount of questions for the crowd about life in Vietnam and the upcoming Tet holiday, what sites I should see, what foods to eat, what towns they were from, etc.
So this was our warm welcome to Vietnam via the park in Ho Chi Minh. What a fantastic first impression.