Morocco, the sights, the sounds and the ambience of North Africa were still filling my head when the time for my next adventure, Vietnam was almost here. I had submitted my application form for the trip to Vietnam, with, I must admit, I did not have much expectation, indeed, even hope, that I might actually succeed and get the opportunity to visit this corner of south east Asia. Just the very name Vietnam conjures up so much for someone like myself, born in the 1960’s and raised on a never ending diet of war imagery and propaganda. Some of the most horrific images that remain even to this day. A naked 9 year girl with her skin being burnt from her body by napalm, and that never to be forgotten expression of such suffering on her dirt and tear streaked face. Captured in a single photographic image that would later win the photographer Nick Ut a Pulitzer Prize, an image so powerful it travelled across the airways, no nation’s border’s or authorities censorship could resist the raw power and anger it aroused. And then the following decades, where the country, the war, the demonstrations and riots it provoked across the world were given the full Hollywood treatment, from the sickly angst of the Deer Hunter, to the madness of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and even, the ‘let’s play it for laugh’s’ of Good Morning Vietnam, this little corner of southeast Asia, it seemed had been imprinted on my brain without ever having received so much as a post card from there. To say my perception’s of Vietnam had been somewhat tainted is somewhat of an understatement.
So, it was with a sense of trepidation, and more than a little excitement I boarded the aircraft.
I had done some recent background research, Vietnam’s troubles had not started with the good old US of Chinese expansion, French colonialism had all chanced their arm. America came in last and left with its tail between its legs. I was not expecting legions of regimented black pyjama clad Viet Cong soldiers all marching along patriotically belting out Ho Chi Min tributes. True, Vietnam was still officially a Communist country, but decades of USA led embargo, I mean, fancy a small little nation wanting the right to have whatever type of political system it wanted, even having the audacity to take on a world super-power and defeat it !! Oh the sheer impudence of these people, along with the onslaught of globalisation Vietnam had, in recent years opened itself up and was finding for itself, economically, a place for itself in the world.
So, from Confucius to Communism, I wondered what awaited this wide eyed and excited traveller .
There was, a program, an itinerary that came with this trip and it began with an excursion back into the past and the Vietnam War, an outing to the Hoa Lo Prison, which has the more infamous title as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. Built during the French colonial period, the colonialists used it to intern and brutally interrogate political prisoners. its crumbling walls would have decades of blood sprayed across them, right up to the Communists forces using it for American POW’s. Thankfully most of this edifice to man’s cruelty and sadism to his fellow man has largely been demolished, but the original gatehouse still stands testament to darker, more evil times.
It struck me, that the older generations who lived, fought and survived the Vietnam War, the suffering, the deprivations, they wear that tumultuous time and what they experienced on their faces. They rarely had a smile for foreigners, who, apparently are ever growing in numbers, but I found, that once engaged with, the elderly Vietnamese were actually warm, forgiving and welcoming. They have pride in what they achieved, what and who were sacrificed, all of this can be seen in when a smile breaks across lined and weary faces.
One thing that struck me immediately was the inconsistency of the landscape, old Chinese and French colonial architecture fights for the skyline against the post war Communist tower blocks that border the many paddy fields, in which the odd piece of war detritus pokes through the soil, at first it seems odd, but with time you realise its part of the many faces of Vietnam. The old and new, and all the bits in the middle, the old man, traditional conical shaper straw hat keeping off the sun, driving his oxen powered plough through the knee deep water logged paddy’s while alongside a young couple wearing designer attire cruise in an open top Mercedes, travelling to the beat and melodies of Lady Gaga.
The previously mentioned conical straw hat has become something of a class badge, the poorer, more rural born arrivals into the metropolitan Hanoi still wear the straw headwear where as the younger, middle-class regard it as a symbol of someone else’s past.
Having mentioned Hanoi, then its traffic must be mentioned, its everywhere, from newly constructed multi lane roads to the winding back streets, it is ceaseless, manic, without rhyme or reason, its almost a life force. The pavement that border this noisy snake is for anything and everything else, parking, extending one’s store front, food and beverage stalls, street vendors …And king of the traffic is the motor-cycle! It reigns supreme the snarling deafening labyrinth of moving vehicles. Very soon after arriving in Hanoi, and Vietnam in general I came to two unshakable truths, the first being that there is nothing man has ever invented that a Vietnamese cannot and will strap to a motorcycle. The second truth is that such inconveniences as street signs, traffic lights or the like have any chance of defeating the logic defying laden motor-cycle riders of Hanoi.