“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ― Jawaharlal Nehru
It had to happen eventually…today is my last day in Vietnam. Since leaving the Mekong Delta region, I’ve spent two days in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. It was like going from Kansas to Manhattan. There’s unending traffic, old colonial architecture, street markets, high-end restaurants; Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Catholic places of worship and lots of reminders of US history here.
On the antique street, there are old American GI aviator sunglasses and zippo lighters for sale. There is the Reunification Palace (as its now called) where Kissinger met with the South Vietnamese leadership and the eventual site of their surrender (or liberation according to the current regimes version of history). Yet the the city itself feels like it’s moving forward - refurbishing historic buildings and building new ones like the Bitexco Financial on top of an old colonial building. Maybe this is what Vietnam is…a work in progress.
Before I left, I read lots of things about travel in Vietnam. It didn’t always get great reviews. There are lots of people trying to sell lots of things - even when wearing flip flops you’re fair game for aggressive shoe shine boys. It’s a hard country to navigate. The public transportation system is not well developed and there are lots of scams targeted at tourists. The people can be difficult or unfriendly. Despite all this, the real question is, “Is it worth it?”
It probably would have been easier to sign up for a tour and been driven around the country in an air-conditioned bus or car to avoid some of these pitfalls, but I’m pretty sure I saw some things and met some people I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard - it was. I’m fairly certain I paid more sometimes than I should have, but I’m not going to argue about 50 cents or a dollar or two. I did feel pressure to buy things, but the things I did buy, I’m happy I did. I got where I wanted to go on trains, boats, buses and the back of motorbikes. Along the way I shared meals, trusted in the kindness of strangers (and was not disappointed), learned that there is nothing you can’t load on a motorbike - from a family of four, to a refrigerator, to eight kegs of beer, to 500lbs of rice, to a half a slaughtered pig; saw amazing landscapes and a way of life vastly different from my own.
Generally speaking, the people were hard, but in most cases their lives have been and continue to be hard, in a way most of us will never understand. On the other hand, rarely was a smile not met with a smile. Even when they were obviously trying to con me or sell something, a smile and a shared knowing laugh, seemed to be enough to stop the game. And if we were lucky enough to be able to communicate in broken English, they were willing to talk and share their lives for a brief moment. They are still trying to figure out how to open their country and themselves to all types of travelers and tourists, and while there is still work to be done, I would have to say, yes, its worth the effort.