For a Communist Country, There is Sure A Lot of Capitalism Going on Out Here – Vietnam

I knew I was in a different country when I was riding in the bus from the airport to my hotel, and our tour guide started to point out some of the landmarks that give the people of this country great pride. The first was the grave sight of Ho Chi Minh, sitting behind a large field of grass where he first declared independence of his people from their oppressors, the French. The second one was a statue of Lenin as he proudly strode out to bring the people of this world the idea that would once and for all destroy the class system that kept people in poverty all around the world. I was no longer in the Capitalistic societies of the West. I was in Vietnam, the bastion of the Communist people that would eventually topple other great Democracies of the East. Or at least that was the lesson I learned when I was back in high school. I am wondering if that is that same story holds up today.

Those lessons always had me picturing a war torn country filled with grimy streets, and hot treks through dangerous jungles. It was a place that nobody in their right mind would want to go to visit. There was some truth to those images that I conjured up in my mind during my high school days. Vietnam had been ravaged by war for over 50 years, and at that time was just getting over a conflict with China in order to maintain their independence. It was in economic ruin, and had a long way to build back the country that got displaced during these conflicts.

But the Vietnamese people are resilient, and they put together a plan to put their country back on track. It involved a Communist view of the world around them that was closer to what China was doing rather than the Soviet Union, even though they built their country with the help of both of these superpowers. It meant returning to a simpler kind of life, but one where the people were in control of their destiny, and not some foreign government making bigger decisions for this smaller country. It didn’t look impressive at first, but it was a move in the right direction.

Vietnam also had a rich traditional history to fall back on. Though this is rooted in the principles of Confucianism, it has its own take on it. The deep rooted belief in Buddhism was repressed during these years, but hints of it can still be found around the country, and the practice is starting to appear again in the more remote parts of the country.

And let’s not forget about the food. I was sitting in a meeting once, and somebody who never had eaten the food before was trying to describe it. They claimed that it was very similar to Chinese food, and that is not at all correct. Though it does have this feel, there is a big French influence to it as well. And then it uses these spices that you cannot really find anywhere else in the world. It creates its own cuisine that you can only find in Vietnam, and its influence is spreading to many places around the world. It is becoming almost as ubiquitous as Thai, or Korean food, and it just adds to another choice for those of us who love meals from this part of the world.

All of these things combined together to punch a hole in the philosophical understand that guided the economic vision of this developing country, and opened them up for the wonderful world of tourism. And for those of us who have traveled anywhere in the world, it is impossible to prevent Capitalism sneaking into the mix when a place is opened up for tourism. There are sights that need to charge people to visit them. There are stores that need to sell souvenirs for those visitors to take back home with them. There are restaurants needed to feed them, and transportation experts to get them to all of these things. This only can run on the principles of Capitalism.

But it has also created one of the most beautiful destinations in the world. There is so much to see and so much to do in Vietnam that it is taking over as the number one destination sight in southeast Asia. Even the small villages are taking advantage of this fact by creating homestays where visitors can find a comfortable place to lay their head, eat wonderful home-cooked meals, and enjoy some of the local traditions. The last time I was in Vietnam, I went to one of these homestays where I was given a bed hidden by a curtain, and asked to join the family’s evening ramen meal. They have since grown into more elaborate experiences where it gets harder and harder to book during the busy tourist months because of the increased desire to stay there.

There are also natural wonders to explore. The one that attracts more visitors is Ha Long Bay in the north. In this cove among the various islands, people can be found enjoying cruises, hiking to the top of the islands, exploring caves, fishing for squid, and kayaking between the islands. They also harvest pearls in specific locations, and have many docks built so people can stop by to enjoy a quick bite to eat, or find a souvenir to bring back home with them. Even though this is a natural wonder, there is always a place where you can see money be exchanged.

It is in the heart of the cities that this really becomes evident. The last time I was in Hanoi, tourists flocked to the Old Quarter to learn about the history of the country at one of the various museums there, and to eat while sitting on a small plastic stool at one of the many restaurants that inhabited its labyrinth. The Old Quarter is still at the heart of Hanoi, but after coming back, those restaurants have upgraded their furniture, and raised their prices. Some of them have even extended their offerings by teaching visitors how to make some of Vietnam’s signature dishes by offering cooking classes. All they ask is that those tourist bring their money so they can enjoy these experiences.

Vietnam is still a developing country, and is still run by a Communist government. It is pulling from the spirit of its people, and a rich cultural heritage to pull itself into the realm of being a developed first world country, and I do believe that it will happen in my lifetime. I think back to those history lessons of my youth that talked about the dangers of Communism, and how it would eventually bring about the destruction of the world. My teachers told me the story about how the United States involvement in Vietnam was key to making sure that this did not happen though they do not like to admit that we lost the war. Communism won, but it did not spread to the rest of the world like it had been predicted. At the same time, I do not believe that the growth of Vietnam is dependent on Communism. It is its bizarre blend of economic policies between Communism and Capitalism that has turned it into the country that it is today. It is this strange blend that will allow it to continue to grow into what it will eventually become. I can’t wait for my next visit out here to see what that will look like.

Until next time, keep on finding those experiences.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

If it is not on your bucket list, it should be added to it. Ha Long Bay is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I have liked it so much that when I was given an opportunity to make it back there again, I jumped on that chance. It was just as amazing as it was the first time, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to go back.

Ha Long Bay is an expanse of water coming out of northern Vietnam over 600 square miles in area. The main feature of the bay is the collection of islands. I am told that there are 1963 of these limestone giants jutting out all over the bay. Some of them are large, and hold caves that you can explore; whereas others as tiny little rocks that could hold maybe ten people if you were lucky enough to put that many folks on one of them. Each of them is a marvel to look at which makes this one of the places that many people travel to every year.

There are many different way to enjoy the bay. You can hang out in the city along the shore, relaxing on one of the beaches, but you are better off getting on a boat. There are many different kinds of cruises that you can take. Their is a one day cruise that will show you some beautiful places, but won’t get you very far into the bay. You can also take a large boat with fifty cabins that will take you far through the islands, and provide a variety of activities to enjoy. They also have smaller boats that have eight cabins per boat that will allow you to plan your trip with the people running the ship. Both of the cruises can take place either with two or three nights.

The first time I went out, I enjoy a two night cruise and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. This time, I just did the one day cruise. It was still a lot of fun, but I did not get to see a lot of the bay. I was taken to a cave close to shore that I got to explore with a bunch of other people.

We also got to get out on kayaks for about an hour. This is a must do if you find yourself in Ha Long Bay. This is the only way to explore some of the more exciting islands. It will take you under caves, and around tight corners that the bigger boats will never be able to make it around.

It only scratched the surface of what can be done in this bay. I would recommend spending the money to stay a couple of nights out there, but if you can only stay for one afternoon, the day cruises are still a wonderful way to experience the bay. I am glad that I have gotten to experience this place twice in my lifetime, and if given the opportunity to go back, I will easily take it. I hope you do the same.

Until next time, keep on having those experiences.

Building a House – Mai Chau, Vietnam

Some of the schools I have worked in have always had a program where students collected money to help a poor family in a part of the world by providing them a home. The great thing about it is that they don’t just buy these people a brand new home, but they also travel to that part of the world so they can build that home for them. The program is named many different kinds of things such as Habitat for Humanity or ETR Educational Travel, but the goal is the same thing, bring people together through kindness.

It is a different kind of charity. Instead of just recognizing a problem in the world, and then collecting money so a person can throw that money at the problem and then go to sleep at night thinking that they have done some good in the world, it forces people to go an experience the people who are actually affected by the problem, and do something to fix the problem.

But it is not only meeting the people in the world who you are helping out, but it also taught me the hard work that goes into building a traditional house in Vietnam. Though there were a couple of power tools on the sight, we were not given access to these tools. The material also came from the hills of Mia Chau, so the family whose house we built could have fresh bamboo floors and a roof of palm leaves. I worked mainly with a rusty machete and a block of wood that became a club to unfurl bamboo to eventually turn it into a floor.

I still got to witness the progress as we went and added to many aspects of building the house. I also got to interact with the people of this small village as they showed their appreciation for what we were doing for one of their community. They gave back to us as much as they could, cooking sticky rice for us, and giving us advice when we needed to adjust the way we were building the house.

It was amazed at the progress we made in such a short amount of time as well. We only worked on the house for a couple of days before the family that was going to be living in it could make it their home. Every time I made it up the path from where I was working on the floors, I could take pride in that progress.

And after a couple of days hard work, we were excited to gift the house to the new family. To be fair, the house was not completed, there were a couple of things that needed to take a longer time to finish such as the wood used for the walls, and the stairs which take skilled labors to do correctly, but the structure, the frame, the floors, and the roofs were completed by my students and me. It was an intensive couple of days of labor, but the final product was worth it. I enjoyed the fact that I was able to contribute positively to the world by doing something like this rather than just contributing to charity. If everybody took time out of their busy days to contribute in such a fashion than we would quickly make the world the better place that we are always hoping to live in.

Until next time, keep on living those experiences.

A Place in the Valley – Mai Chau, Vietnam

I have been told that Vietnam is a developing country, and it is hard to see that aspect of the country when visiting one of the bigger cities. Sure, they do things a little differently than I am used to growing up in the United States, and life may be lived simply, but it is still comfortable. I thought that when I got out of the cities I would be able to see what people were talking about. Going a little over a hundred kilometers to northwest district, traveling through the windy, mountain roads, I arrived at the more rural part of the country and the town of Mai Chau.

I thought I was going to leave the comforts of big city life, and the throng of the tourists by coming out here. When I saw all of the views, I started to think that I had found some hidden gem in the country side of Vietnam where I could experience the more traditional way of living. I did find that in this valley, but I was foolish to think that I was the only person outside of Vietnam that I had found this place.

The natural beauty of the valley brings the tourists here as well. Among its farm houses and fields of rice there is a charm that makes for the perfect place to wander around, either walking or biking, with a camera, capturing the beauty to take back with you. It is not overrun like the touristy places in the cities, but there are enough visitors out here that it does not feel like you are the only person outside of southeast Asia to have visited this place in years. Still there is enough space in this valley where you can get the true feel for the place.

It is a small little village in the middle of rice fields, and I was able to get off the beaten path rather quickly to find that moment of peace. The people I did encounter who are from this little village were always welcoming with a friendly smile, and as long as I stayed to the beaten paths through the rice fields, I could wander anywhere I would like.

Though those paths were windy, I never lost my way back to my home stay. These are the perfect places to stay at when visiting the smaller communities in Vietnam. They have comfortable rooms and wonderful common spaces. They fed me both breakfast, and dinner every day, and the meals were large and varied. It was the perfect home base on my three days that I stayed here. I hope to come back some day with a larger group because it is the perfect place for that kind of vacation.

The Old Quarter – Hanoi, Vietnam

There are few places in the world like the Old Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam. Two distinct cultures come together here to create its own flavor and demonstrates a place where the West can meet the East. It is one of the oldest parts of the city that grew because of its proximity to many lakes, but as the city grew, so did the design and flavor of this area.

At one time, the French came into this part of the world, and controlled it. The stories about their rule are not always kind, but they did leave some things behind which have made Vietnam what it is today. Many of the buildings that were built in the Old Quarter have more of French architectural design to it. This is the reason that balconies hang over the crowded streets, but there is still another altogether feel to this section of Hanoi.

Even though the architecture is French, the flavor of the city is distinctly southeast Asian. From the shops on the ground level to the lights that hang from the roofs, you will know that you are in Vietnam. It is the reason that this part of Hanoi is always packed with people.

And if you wander far enough, you will come across one of the many lakes in the middle of this maze. This is where the people really congregate to drink egg coffee, stroll around its shores, listen to various bands playing, some traditional, some with western influences, and to enjoy the authentic Vietnamese experience.

No matter what part of the world you come from, the Old Quarter is one of the first places you should visit if you come to Hanoi. It does not matter if you feel more comfortable in a western or eastern setting, you will find yourself home in its cozy streets.

Back in Southeast Asia

I left Thailand almost two years ago during the height of the Covid pandemic, and it was easily the most unceremonious departure I ever had from a location. There was no friends saying farewell; we didn’t have to drop off keys to a landlord; and our cab to the airport arrived a little early, so we rushed out the door without really saying goodbye to the place where we had lived for over two years. I did not know if I was ever going to get to come back to this part of the world, and at the time of departure, I did not know if I really wanted to come back. It had been a hard couple of years as we were stuck in a small house on the outskirts of Bangkok. The friends we had made had already left at the first chance they could so go back to a home they hadn’t been to in two years. In the end, it felt more like an evacuation than a goodbye.

When I was given the opportunity with my current school to come back to the region to a place that I wanted to travel to but couldn’t because of the pandemic, Vietnam, I was excited. I thought that I was done with the region, but as this trip loomed closer, I started to think back to the things I loved about this part of the world, the food, the people, and the culture. It is easy to dismiss a part of the world if you have a bad association with it. Sometimes that association is justified, but sometimes, it comes from something that was out of your control, and that association is not really about that part of the world, but instead that other thing.

Even though I was eager to leave Thailand, I now have a different perspective on the region. I am looking forward to exploring Vietnam again. I know its culture is different from that of its close neighbor, but I feel like I have come back to a place of the world I really do enjoy, so over the next couple of days, join me as I come back to Southeast Asia.


There are those that search for a great, big home
Filled with bookcases, shelves, and cabinets
Where they can catalogue every tome,
Memento, and knickknack they went to get.
They will huddle down in a tattered chair
Gazing out upon their great collection,
Bragging about how no cupboard is bare,
And about the choice of each selection.
As night creeps on, they will look at their things,
And wonder what stories they have to tell.
Is there importance in toys, clothes, and rings?
Why be entranced by the powerless spell?
To obtain a life that will really please
The best things to collect are memories.

My Scottish Heritage

It wasn’t until the end of my trip when I was asked if I had a little Scottish heritage in me. The question came from a driver who was taking us from where we dropped off our car rental to our hotel for the evening. The way he said it sounded as if he asked any tourist that he was in a car with the same question. I am sure he got an answer from many of those people that was the same as my answer, “Yes, I got a little bit of Scottish in me.”

Scotland is one of those countries that becomes a pilgrimage for many people because it tugs on something from within. They can hear the allure of hazy skies, whiskey tastings, history, kilts, highland games, and the occasional fish and chips. It promotes a lifestyle that they have only heard of in the books they have read as children or the stories told to them by an elder generation. They are curious about whether or not they can find a home in a land that was a home to their kin for so long.

Despite the rugged landscape, and the various castles, there is a sense of home that comes with traveling to Scotland. No matter where I went, I was greeted with a warm smile, and a friendly ear. Community was everywhere I looked. People would put down their phones to meet each other at the pub, or spend a day exploring the vast landscape that was offered. It is hard to come out to Scotland, and not fall in love with the land, the history and the people. For that reason, it feels like home.

The history of Scotland is one of rebellion, and national pride. It tells tales of victory, and defeat and how the land and the people were shaped by these moments. It boasts heroes whose exploits have been slightly altered to share national pride in other nations, so they can believe in the same fights that the Scots have fought for generations. It brings together nations under one banner while keeping its unique flavor for who they are and what they believe in. The history of Scotland is a fascinating one, and wherever I went in the country, I would run into a reminder of how rich and powerful that history was.

Scotland does not just offer the world a rich history and wonderful story to tell. It is also one of the hearts for intellectual thought in the world. Many great writers and philosophers have called Scotland, or more specifically Edinburgh, their home. Names such as David Hume, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Burns, and J. K. Rowling all have connections to this great city, and many people from across the globe have been affected by their works in some capacity at some point in their lives.

Scotland’s impact on the world does not only stop at philosophy and literature, but extends into the sciences as well. There were great medical discoveries that came from Scotland including the discovery of the first anesthesia, chloroform. They were also the ones who cloned the first animal, Dolly the sheep. Their contributions to medicine has influenced the common practices so much that we would still be in the dark ages without them.

Scotland may be a small island off in the distance to so many people that they would never consider it a part of their lives, but if they look closer, there is a part of their lives that have been touched by the Scottish. In a way, when that man asked visiting guests whether I had any Scottish heritage, their answer should all be the same. Their is a little bit of the Scottish heritage in all of us. We may not be able to claim a clan as our own, but we can talk about how their history and culture has affected us in some capacity.

I am really glad that I was able to take the trip out to Scotland. It is a beautiful country, and I felt instantly at home in it. I suspect that this would be true for anybody that travels there. It should not be a must see destination for the ones who have a tartan hanging in their closets and they want to see the land where it comes from; rather, it should be for anyone who has ever been enthralled by its literature, learned a lesson from its history, or been saved by its contributions to science. It is everybody’s home.

I hope that someday, you can take the trip to Scotland and have the same kind of experience that I did. It is really worth the pilgramage.

The Isle of Skye – Scotland

It doesn’t always look like this. I was constantly being told that on my trip to the Isle of Skye. My travels through the island was accompanied by sunshine and a cooling breeze wherever I went. We were also able to come out in April before the crazy summer rush of tourists invaded this idyllic setting. I couldn’t have asked for better conditions to check out this part of the world that I wanted to get to for a long time, and it exceeded all of my expectations.

The Isle of Skye is an idyllic island a short ferry right in the northwestern part of Scotland. It only has a couple of towns, and the rest of it is pastureland, old whiskey distilleries, even older ruins, and a few one lane roads to take you to these places. During the summer months, it becomes overrun with tourists, and not enough places to support the people who would come out to go on long hikes, take pictures, and enjoy a night out on the town.

One of the bigger towns that attract people is Portree. It is the perfect jumping off point to see a lot of the sights, and get to the long hikes that take people to stunning scenery. I am told that in August it reaches the height of the tourist season as people flock out here to watch the Highland Games. I was also told that it doesn’t always look like this. In April, the people are just starting to come in, and there are still sidewalks that are navigable, restaurant tables available, and pictures still looking like I was the only one there.

I guess that is the joy of being able to come to a place like this during the offseason. Yes, I did run into tourists at the sights, but for the most part, I had them to myself to explore. I went to the old fort one morning, and the parking lot to the sight was basically empty. A couple of people were wandering down the grassy slope back to their car, and a couple of people were up exploring the fort. But if I took my time, and waited a minute, I would be able to get that picture that I wanted where it looked as if nobody has been there for ages.

The tourists were still out there. We were turned away from a restaurant once because they were fully booked and we did not have a reservation. I had to step off a path every once in awhile to allow a person to pass on through. And they were at the distilleries, but that just added to the experience when we went on a tour of the Talisker distillery and tasting room. The funny thing that we heard from our tour guide though was “It doesn’t always look like this.”

I did not need them to tell me this though. When I came to Scotland, I had a certain image in my, and when I got there, I was not treated to what I thought I would see. I was expecting gloomy skies with clouds hugging the tip of mountains, foggy hikes where I could barely see in front of me, and rain, lots and lots of rain. What we got instead were cool days without any stormy weather. We were extremely lucky to have this experience of Scotland that I don’t think many other people get to have.

So I do not know if I am the person that you should talk to if you are considering visiting Scotland. I will tell you that the hikes were fun, the people were friendly, the sights were amazing with their historical perspective, and, out of the norm, the skies were always blue.

Scotland is an amazing place with a new treat waiting around the corner, and the Isle of Skye was my favorite place that I visited on this trip. The scenery was beautiful, the people were friendly, and the experience is not one that will fade from my memory soon, or ever.

But remember it is not usually like this. My experience might not be the typical Isle of Skye experience. Not everybody who travels out to this small Northern island gets to enjoy the weather that I enjoyed. I don’t think that if it was the typical weather it would be any less dramatic. It might be something I would enjoy even more giving the land a completely different character. Still, I will just have to live with the experience I have and think of the Isle of Skye as this sunny and amazing place to visit. I hope if you choose to go there that you have a similar experience, whatever the weather may be like while you are out there.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, get out there and enjoy those opportunities when they are given to you.

The Hogwarts Express – Glenfinnan, Scotland

Sometimes we think that when Hollywood makes it movies, it builds these elaborate sets in order to make the worlds they are creating come alive. We are amazed at these elaborate set pieces, and wish that if it were possible, we would go visit them. What we do not realize is that these set pieces have sometimes been around much longer than the stories that they inhabit. One of these places was used in the Harry Potter series, the Hogwarts Express, and it has become quite the tourist destination sight.

Every morning on the hillside outside of Glenfinnan in Scotland, a group of people will gather to watch this steam-powered train take a ride over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a bridge that spans across a valley and over a river. The train, whose real name is the West Highland Railway Mallaig Connection, is actually a passenger train that will take people from Fort William to Mallaig, the port city for the ferry that will take people over to Isle of Skye. Of course, this train has been running for a lot longer than the Harry Potter series has been around, and has always been a tourists attraction, but since it has been featured in the movies, it has gained in popularity.

If this is something that you wish to do, you will need to be there in plenty of time before the train arrives. Not only does it take about fifteen minutes to hike up to the hillside, and find a good viewpoint away from all of the other tourists, there is also the problem of parking nearby. There is a pay to park lot which costs four pounds, and there are limited spots, so it can be hard to find one.

The scenery out there is spectacular, and there is a gift and coffee shop connected to the parking lot. It is worth seeing, but the train is a little bit of a disappointment. The train does not go over the viaduct fast enough to make it as exciting as it is in the movie. It will stop for pictures, and to allow the passengers to wave at the people on the hill. It will blow the smoke once, and it was only a little plume, so it didn’t make that great of a picture. But that does not mean you should skip the sight. The viaduct is cool, and worth the time out there, but if you go when the train does not come by, it is not as touristy.

There is another historic sight right across the street from the parking lot as well which does not attract as many tourists, the Glenfinnan Monument. This is the spot where Prince Charles Edward Stuart started his campaign to take the crown of England and where he gained support from 1,200 Highlanders. The significance of this place is just as great to visit as the viaduct, but most people skip coming here when all they would have to do is cross the street.

Both sights are worth your time if you are in the area, and should be made a part of your itinerary before going off to other places in Scotland, and I hope that you get the chance to make the voyage.