“Like oil on water, my memories resurfaced all the time. Today in Vietnam, one can feel a secretive, inward life that is not visible on the surface and yet is there, all around us.” – Pierre Schoendoerffer, French film director and Vietnam war photographer
I have to be honest. I did not expect to love Vietnam as much as I did. I imagined it the way many travel bloggers depict it — a tropical place with abundant and extremely cheap street food, and nearly as prolific and parsimonious backpackers. This was probably colored by my most recent experience in South East Asia last summer when I visited Siem Reap, an otherwise sleepy town that is dominated by the tourism trade due to its proximity to the Angkor temples.
I admit I am wary of comparatively affluent, Western backpackers using South East Asia as a marching ground for their wanderlust and self-appointed mission to ‘find themselves’ in a mode that can feel exploitative. But everyone, and especially young people, should feel free to explore without the burden of judgment; their experiences shape what kinds of people they will become. Who am I to judge? I belong to this category too. I hope that contact with Asian cultures grants a broader perspective and shapes cultural sensitivity, rather than encouraging hit-and-run tourism due to its relative affordability. But really, I do judge you if you visit a place for the first time and your only memories are from the inner organs of bars. There is more to a place than its booze (even if that is sometimes a significant part of a place).
Vietnam seems deeply affected by the memory of war and the scars of foreign intervention. Agent Orange seemed horrible in history books, but the reality of it was even more gruesome when faced with pictorial evidence at the War Remnants Museum. After seeing this, I declared in my own mind my intent pacifism. And yet, I question myself even on this platform. Is it enough to disavow war? Can a passive pacifist change the course of future armed conflicts? How do you honor pacifism while respecting those who sacrificed themselves for a conflict imposed by higher powers?
I’m grateful to have visited at an age too where I have learned some measure of critical thinking, because I think as a younger person, I might’ve missed the strong propagandist tone of some of these same museum exhibits. The two narratives of national defeat and reunification in Vietnam post 1975 seem equally present depending on who you ask and it wasn’t always clear whether people preferred the pre- or post-war regime.
But, aside from the heavy historical introspection, I am happy to have discovered Saigon is a metropolitan city full of young people chasing dreams. I am grateful I came into contact with Vietnamese peers of my own age group who helped me to see it from the perspective of the ‘New Vietnam’; an emerging economy with a creative and entrepreneurial class. Thanks to my friend Dan, I met supremely kind people with an appreciation for mixed media, literature, and music. Having a connection with young people from far flung places makes your experience seem not that dissimilar.
Since a couple friends have asked, we enjoyed Piu Piu for dancing, The Lunch Lady for the bomb-est streetside noodles (featured on Bourdain’s No Reservations), Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa (beware the light green chilis though!), and this Phuong spot for phở (conveniently around the corner from the Lunch Lady).
feat. Caitlin Franswag, Dan QT, and Molly
optimal hangover food phở real! now I knowit was phở-nomenalbeautiful cotton candy pink Tân Định Catholic Church
banh xeo, one of the greatest food revelations I had in Vietnam. it’s a sizzling rice pancake whose golden skin is christened with turmeric powder, then stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts, wrapped in a big leafy green blanket and bathed in chili sauce // we made half day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnel system, about 45 km north built by Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam Warwe were there on April 30, the 42nd anniversary of the Fall of Saigon April 30, or the Liberation of Saigon, depending on who you ask; in modern Vietnam it’s celebrated as ‘Reunification Day’, a national holiday poised just the day before ‘Workers Day’.We crashed at Bunker Bed, Breakfast & Bar, with the dopest host Mike Pham, an entrepreneurial renaissance man who worked with Dan to film a series of videos featuring cultural aspects of Hanoi. Check it out here on CNN! In addition to being a really chill dude, I was inspired by his lifestyle and all the nooks of his place stuffed with all sorts of literature and art. I’ll follow up with posts from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay as well, the respectively quaint historical and natural wonder legs of the trip. (Actually I took the least photos in Saigon. There were much fewer tourists in the city so I felt goofy brandishing my DSLR even if it is small hanging fruit compared to the cameras I’ve seen out and about.)
xo your friend alice
Location: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam