You know it’s polished when local vendors greet you enthusiastically and make a concerted effort to communicate.
When your tourism experiences are trash-free and when you can cross a road without fearing for your life.
Vietnam is not one of these places. Real life hits you in the face here — forcing you to acknowledge the deep divide between First World and Third World living and the still-raw history of war and colonialism on the physical and cultural landscape.
In Hanoi, we hired scooter drivers to guide us through the city, too terrified by the haphazard traffic to drive ourselves.
At one stop, our guide pointed out the remains of an American war plane, shot down during the Vietnam War, some 50 years ago. It crashed into a lake, in the downtown and remains there to this day, a massive hunk of machinery rusting away.
We passed street vendors selling the meat of butchered dogs, their mouths open in a grotesque grimace.
Later, as we moved north to south through the country and wandered in the night markets, we saw Gucci knockoffs for sale next to vendors selling barbecued frogs, doves, fried crickets, fat silkworms and an eye-openingly selection of spiny shellfish.
“Here in Vietnam, we eat anything that moves,” one of our guides declared with a laugh.
Another was more serious on the subject of food. “During the famine of 1945 up to 2 million of our people starved to death,” he reflected. “So though it might turn your stomach to see dogs, frogs, birds and insects for sale as food, remember, everything has a story. Google cannot explain it all.”
I could write about Vietnam’s gorgeous resort destinations and the warmth of the South China Sea as we floated in the gentle waves. We experienced this, too, and loved it.
Tourism is growing in the country and large hotel chains like Marriott and Intercontinental are colonizing beachside real estate, attracting increasing numbers of visitors. But as you bask in the waves it’s hard to ignore the trash floating in from the mainland.
The island of Phu Quoc is an hour’s flight from Saigon, home to 9 million people, and with an unrefined trash management system, the quantities of plastic washing up on the beach is disheartening. Our hotel employed three locals who worked the beach from dawn to dusk daily, collecting and disposing of the never-ending stream of trash.
“You owe it to the Vietnamese people to visit the War Remnant Museum,” my cousin stated flatly before we left for our trip.
So in Saigon we joined the throngs of visitors ambling through graphic exhibits of what the Vietnamese refer to as the Resistance War Against America.
For sure, the accompanying text, written by the Communist Party, is one-sided, but the visuals were at once riveting, shocking and devastating.
We saw pictures of rice paddies bombed to smithereens, Vietnamese farmers being tortured, and dead, bloody bodies littering the roadside.
The Agent Orange display was even more horrific, with visuals of the physical deformation caused by toxins sprayed on the land in the name of American warfare.
Cleanup of those poisons is still in progress even today, and the suffering caused by the chemical.
One guide described her aunt, a woman in her 50s with the mind of a child, unable to work, marry or live a productive life because of harm caused by chemical.
I had come to the country thinking America’s efforts to fight Communism in Vietnam were noble. My visit to the museum changed my mind completely.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive-resort style vacation where you can turn your brain off, this country is not for you.
But if you can open your mind to another culture without condescension and through your travels, try to understand the forces that shaped Vietnam to what it is today, you’ll find it a riveting experience.
Yes, you’ll see some pristine beaches, tropical jungles and big-name hotels sporting gorgeous turquoise swimming pools.
You will also see a country still wracked with scars from the past, trying hard to deal with its history of oppression, while actively reinventing itself to keep pace with the rest of the world.
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