The S shaped South East Asian country of Vietnam may not always be on the list of many travellers. Despite its 2000 miles long coast, wonderful beaches, historical relics and geographical delights, it’s only recently that tourism has actually started kicking in to boost the country’s economy. One of the reasons may be the established stature of the neighbouring Thailand as a tourist destination, notwithstanding its dubious reputation. But tell me about a country the citizens of which believe they are the descendants of dragons, where 80 percent of the population would rather watch the Football World Cup than go to work, where 16 percent of the world’s species of animals can be found and where snakes are drowned in wine and the liquid drank for vitality; and rest assured I’ll make it a point to visit it. (The country also has the cutest, fluffiest kids and the cutest, fluffiest dogs but I got to know that later).
I have a temptation to bore you with Wikipedia facts here like Vietnam is the fifteenth most populous country in the world, and it is about South East Asia’s fastest growing economy, but I think I’ll leave that up to you. When you run a google search on Vietnam, you’ll also discover that the most often asked questions about the country online are if it’s rich or poor, if it’s safe for tourists, and why did the US attack Vietnam. If you’re done with the basics, let’s progress to the juicier parts of my story…
The Legacy of War
I’m something of a sucker for war histories. Even though we have known since Auschwitz what man is capable of, and since Hiroshima what is at stake, the ignominious cycle of war and peace is eternal to our history. My visit to Vietnam was heavily influenced by the war that characterises the country so much. I have this very vague memory from my childhood of watching a documentary on the Vietnam War. I remember a kid running, unclothed, alone and in tears because his country had been attacked; and the ending shot was a red flag with a yellow star fluttering across the screen. Those visuals just stayed with me. The Vietnam War lasted about 19 years and resulted in some 13,00000 casualties. The best way to experience the war now is to go to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The picture gallery of the war there pulls a smart trick. It starts with the American declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This is followed by a pictorial display of the unspeakable violence inflicted by the US troops in the country that leaves you shaken to the core. Another great way to experience the sorrow of war is the Cu Chi tunnels.
Located in the south of the country, these are the 250 km long network of tunnels that the Viet Cong used against the US forces and South Vietnamese government during the war. Divided into different levels underground with indigenous ways of ventilation and escape, life couldn’t have been easy in the tunnels. Disease outbreaks were common, so were venomous centipedes and scorpions. Even now, many prefer not to visit the portion of the tunnel opened for the tourists, as it’s dark, suffocating, narrow and you have to hunch to walk through (I owe my back big time). Some portions are so cramped that you have to lie down and squeeze yourself through (pretty sure I looked like a cross between a human and a jelly while doing so). My first reaction after finally coming to the ground: “Man, you really have to believe firmly in a cause to tolerate all this on a daily basis”. The Vietnamese did so for 19 years! And finally, there’s the Reunification Palace/Presidential Palace. In 1975, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates and that resulted in the Fall of Saigon. That’s when the Vietnam War ended. That’s how North and South Vietnam became one and have lived happily since then. That’s how cheesy I can get at will.
The Mix of Mythology
As you traverse downwards through the country (via domestic flights that don’t offer you as much as a glass of water), you notice small, birdhouse like things before most houses in the country. Attracted by their vivacious colour and make, I entered the periphery of a house to have a closer look at one. (It’s interesting how I have never been arrested in a foreign country despite doing what I do). The structure had pictures of some people, marked evidently by the ravages of time and memory, and a lot of other stuff: flying horses, burning incense, candies, cigarettes, etc. On enquiry, my visa agent revealed that those were altars, erected in the memories of the ancestors. Many houses in Vietnam have dedicated indoor altars to the ancestors, where blessings are sought from those who’re gone. It’s interesting how these altars serve as a conduit between the living and the dead. The influence of being under the Chinese is also evident elsewhere in Vietnam. All sorts of alleged heavenly creatures, from dragons to turtles and other things you’re at a loss to name, can be found everywhere. There’s a variety of religious rituals and beliefs in the country that you cannot neatly label. Even Buddhism in Vietnam is a lot more complicated than you can easily understand. The largest Buddha statue in Vietnam with a height of 67 meters and 17 floors, sits atop the Monkey Mountain overlooking the beautiful city of Da Nang: and it’s a Lady Buddha. Some say it’s not the Buddha Siddharta Gautama himself but another sage, some say that it’s the Buddha when he took the form of a female to understand the problems of that gender, some don’t say much, and no one believes what the others say. From the Confucian temple in the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, to the numerous Laughing Buddhas that dot the length of Vietnam, the country is shrouded in complicated mythology. The stupas are replaced with pagodas in this part of the world, and some are exquisitely made. However, the Vietnamese are laxer with their attitudes to religion than some. You can get a bit cosy with mythology in Vietnam and get away with it, but try flouting the rules for Buddhism in Sri Lanka! Just a poetic expression though, don’t seriously try that. You may get deported. Or worse, arrested.
It is always interesting to see how the people of other countries relate to Pakistan. I am lucky that even after visiting some parts of the world, the notorious “green passport insults” have never come my way. While the experience of being a Pakistani has been overwhelming in some countries, (Sri Lanka, Turkey) Vietnamese play the indifferent card here. Many do claim they know what Pakistan is, but their expressions leave a lot of room for doubt. One hotel owner in the centre of the country knew Islamabad, though, and said he read about it in a book in his school (As if their 95 percent literacy rate isn’t impressive enough). There are other instances as well that I marked to relate; the first day first surprise in the country was a Vietnamese daily lying in the hotel lobby eyeing me suspiciously, carrying the news of how deadly the smog in Lahore was. I was half-tempted to carry the paper, but it seemed like an incriminating thing to be boasting about. The second experience was the War Remnants Museum. There’s a section there where they have displayed clippings from the countries that supported Vietnam during the war. There is a picture of some student protest of Karachi in 1964, for Vietnam and calling for an end to American imperialism. They may not know that during those times socialism was quite an idea here, too, and that we have come a long way since then (how exactly, is open to interpretation), but even the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is quite capitalist now, so I think we’re even. The third instance was spotting Malala’s book in a town’s local bookstore as well as at an airport. This was particularly strange because finding English books in Vietnam isn’t always a breeze, and the collection is always limited. May not be much, but my visa agent in Vietnam also visited Pakistan recently. If this is not some bilateral diplomacy done right, I don’t know what is.
Of the Natural and Supernatural
Conde Nast Traveller lists Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, “the wonder that one cannot impart to others”, among the fifty most beautiful places on our planet. It sits off the country’s North Eastern coast, and a cruise trip will have you cover the various caves and about 2000 limestone islets that are present in the bay. So pretty is the place that we went kayaking in the waters, never having done it before but who thinks logically when mesmerised by nature (also known as peer pressure)? However, there’s more to the bay. Local legends claim that the islets were formed by dragon fire. Vietnamese dragons: 1. Khaleesi’s dragons: minus. Geologists might not find this very believable but the islets are said to be a blessing from the supernatural creatures, so as to protect Vietnam from foreign invaders. (Some may point out that this didn’t prove to be a very effective strategy against Vietnam being invaded, but haters gonna hate). This is typical of Vietnam; there’s an outrageous story always as a side order with natural sceneries. In the capital of Hanoi, there are so many lakes that you lose the count very early on, and more often than not they have some supernatural associations.
In the centre of the country, South East Asia’s most modern and longest cable car flies above waterfalls, forests and mountains to take you to Ba Na Hills. I believe there’s an outstanding theme park located here, but I couldn’t be sure as it was too misty for visual clarity and I was too busy bumping into other people (some of whom shouted something in Vietnamese, I’m sure they said they were sorry). Another cable car takes you to the claim to fame of Vietnam on Instagram: the Golden Hand Bridge. Since the bridge is very busy with tourists, you’ll be hard pressed to get a good picture here; all of mine were photobombed by others. The beaches, the mountains, the countryside, the lush green forests … Vietnam teems with natural beauty everywhere.
Photos by: Muhammad Asif Nawaz
Follow Asif Nawaz on Twitter: @asifnz
Photos by the writer