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.

Why Travel?

I was walking in the village of Te Van, Vietnam working my way to the start of my trek through the muddy hillsides covered in rice patty fields when I looked over at the man walking next to me. We started a short conversation because he heard me speaking English with a typical American accent. I found out that he was from Chicago, and even though he was surprised that I lived in Seoul, South Korea it didn’t take long to realize that I really was from Colorado. He and his family had been traveling through Vietnam for the last couple of weeks and remarked that we were the first people from America that he had come across. I told him that it is not an unusual thing to experience when traveling the world. Rarely, do I run into other Americans, and as of late, if I do, they usually happen to be part of the international teaching community like me. Americans do not typically travel outside of America.

Part of this is because America is a vast land with so many amazing places to visit that it shouldn’t be a big surprise that they wouldn’t think to visit places so far away. Proximity plays a big part in the equation too. It takes a long time stuck in the cramped spaces of an airplane to get to the place where you are going and then when you get there you get to experience jet lag for a few days before you can truly enjoy yourself. Americans have been known to travel to Mexico, Central America and the islands in the Caribbean because they are closer, and I have not run into many Australians or New Zealanders while traveling through Europe for pretty much the same reason. Lastly, there is this aspect of being comfortable. When you go to a different country, there are many cultural and language differences that you have to overcome in order to truly enjoy yourself. It causes a lot of stress for a moment that should be relaxing. Why would anybody want to do that to themselves?

Most of the time when people think of vacation they think of the moments when they can get pampered and leave their troubles behind. They want to find that expansive beach that looks out over the ocean so they can bask in the sun with a good book. They want that neon colored drink with the fat straw, heavy pour, and plastic umbrella. They want that soft bed with the towels folded into a swan and covered with rose petals. This way they can forget about their complicated lives for awhile and truly enjoy themselves. Why complicate things by learning about a new culture at the same time?

Actually, that is the thing that excites me the most with travel. I want to experience new things, and see a new perspective on the world. As the world moves closer to hiding themselves behind their secure borders, I would prefer to see how the rest of the world is living, and try to gain a different understanding of the people from different cultures. Yes, I do enjoy being pampered from time to time, but that is not the main focus of my travels.

Many Americans will find the all-inclusive places along the beach in other countries that allows them to enjoy this carefree life, but is that really getting out of their comfort zone. It is just another representative of America on a distant shore. In order to really experience that culture, the people need to leave the confines of their safe hotel and walk out on the streets of the place where they are visiting.

This can be a very scary endeavor. The streets on Ha Noi are a great example of this. People in this great metropolis need to get from one place to another just like in any other city, but they do not usually do it by car. Instead, many of them purchase motorbikes to trek across town. They don’t only take themselves, but they will load up their whole family on these bikes. There were many times that I saw a dad guiding the bike through the busy streets of town with the mom sitting sidesaddle on the back while holding on to a new born baby as the younger brother bounces up and down on the father’s lap. They weave their way through the traffic that is not dictated by any traffic lights, so there is always a blending of hundreds of bikes, cabs, cars, and trucks at every intersection with each one of them vying for the position that will allow them to get to their destination, and they let others know of their presence by continuingly honking on their horns. It creates a crying cacophony of music that lets people know they are in Ha Noi.

But one must look beyond the traffic if they really want to see the heart of the place they are visiting, and Ha Noi really has a heart to it. Once I ventured out of the streets of the old quarter, I found Hoan Kiem Lake. This is probably the most touristy place in the whole city. Restaurants and bars circle the lake, and if you are really adventuresome you can check out a water puppet show. I decided to visit the temple on the small island in the middle of the lake instead.

This is the place where I was able to put the noise of the city behind me and find some peace. The tranquility here allowed me to collect myself and really start to understand the culture of Vietnam. It was also the place where one of the country’s greatest myths played out. The name of the lake translates to “The Lake of the Returned Sword”. The legend goes that in the 15th century, Le Loi, on his way to becoming the emperor of Vietnam, was gifted a great sword named Heaven’s Will by the turtle god that lived in the lake. Le Loi used the sword to defeat his enemies and gain control over Vietnam. He returned to the lake and was once again visited by the turtle god asking for the sword back. After thanking the turtle god for the use of the sword, he returned it to him and the turtle brought it back under the lake where it is supposedly still buried today.

I had never heard of this story before, but it showed me that no matter where I travel in the world, the people have great stories that help give their culture shape and depth. It also showed me that no matter where I went, the stories might have their own unique twist to them but essentially they are the same. This story reminded me of Excalibur and the lady of the lake. This story reminded me a lot about the world. Though we may wear different clothes, pray to different gods, and eat different foods, we still value the same ideas held up with our heroes, and when we dig through all the superficial stuff, we are still the same underneath it all. It is easy to forget this when we stay safe in our home clutching on to our national pride.

I have started to realize that this is one of the main reasons that I travel.

But there are other reasons as well.

My travels also takes me to some of the most amazing sites this world has to offer. I have traveled to many National Parks in the United States. I have roamed over the vast fields filled with animals in Africa. I have studies the great cathedrals in Europe. And I have been to many of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each time I visit one of these places, I am awed by the natural beauty, and Halong Bay might top the list as one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen. Any visit to the northern part of Vietnam has to include a cruise on this bay, and I would recommend going for at least three days and two nights.

This bay supports almost two-thousand tree clad islands. Some of them are so small that they will only support one or two people; whereas, others are so large that they have oyster farms, or beaches, or hidden caves on them. The cruise I went on took me to some of the better ones while giving me the opportunity to swim in the ocean, kayak to a hidden hideout of the Vietcong soldiers during the Vietnam war, and take a hike to the top of one of the tallest islands so I could survey the expanse of this wonder. This best part of this adventure was I got to do it from the comfort of a small ship that served amazing meals next to a well stocked bar. During the night, they taught us how to squid fish, and in the morning they showed us some Tai Chi.

With all of these experiences and views that are offered on an excursion like this why would I want to sit at home and see the same thing over and over again? I once had a student of mine tell me that a trip like this was not worth it because he could go online right now and experience the same thing through the free pictures that he found there, but I know from experience that these pictures do not do a place justice. Going out there and seeing the majesty of these islands and enjoying them from the comfort of a patio on a small ship is completely different from scrolling through pictures on Google image. I get to breathe in the fresh air. I get to taste the salt on my lips. I get to hear the gentle waves crash against the ship. It is the whole experience that makes it amazing, not just the view.

But this isn’t the only reason I travel.

Hidden in the clouds next to the border of China is the small mountain town of Sa Pa. This place shows the diversity Vietnam has to offer and reminds me a lot of the smaller towns in the hills of Colorado. There were a couple of streets where all of the restaurants situated themselves, and a market place was built, dedicated to creating and selling various handwoven items. It is an amazing process to actually see. Women, living in the hills, will gather hemp which they will constantly be threading together to make into a durable thread. This thread will then be dyed with a color created from the flowers growing all over the hills. It will then be woven together to turn into bags, pillowcases and shirts. They are beautiful pieces of art that are a huge part of the economy of this small town.

I learned even more about it when I ventured out of this small mountain town and spent a night in the village of Te Van. Many travelers will come out to these villages to stay at a home stay, and then hike between the villages to stay at another home stay. When I first heard about this cultural experience, I was really excited. It sounded like a place where you would stay with a family from the village, learn how to cook their traditional foods, and enjoy their company for as long as you stayed there. But this was not the case.

It felt more like a hostel that was built around somebody’s home. They supplied us with a bed in the corner of the house that was sectioned off from the rest of the people by a blanket tied to a rope. They did cook a nice meal for us, but it was not the most memorable one I had on this voyage. The thing that made it great was the company I got to share it with. I met a nice family from Switzerland, and a happy couple from Australia, but once again my friends and I were the only ones from America staying there for the night.

Even though I did not get the experience I wanted from the home stay, it does not mean that I did not enjoy my time there. I did get to go on a long hike through the hills. It started on day where the rain had pounded the fields early in the morning, and we each had to pay ten dollars a piece for a guide. At first I thought the price was a little steep, but I soon learned why it cost that much to make the hike through the mountains.

The path through the rice patty fields and bamboo groves was carved from the mountains, and because of the rain had turned into mud. This would not have been a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that we were not traveling on a flat road. The path took us up through the hills only to bring us back down again. The guide was able to navigate these paths without too much difficulty to get us to the next village with ease.

Each one of us also found a companion hiking with us. At first, I thought that they were just ladies who were being nice to hike with us through the hills as they made their way to wherever it was they were going, but I soon noticed that every time we stopped to take a break, they would stop with us. Eventually they helped us move through the muddy trails by holding our hands, especially when it got steeper. They carried this big basket on their backs and never slipped once which made me feel like a total scrub, considering I grew up in the mountains and usually have sure footing when I am in them. This is when it started to dawn on me that this is where our money was going to. After I considered that, the price of the guide did not seem that outrageous.

Of course, when we made it to the next village, before we sat down to lunch, the ladies convinced us to buy some of their wares they were lugging on their backs. How could I say no, after all they did to help my friends and me make it through the mud. I do have to warn others who might want to make this voyage though. As soon as I bought one thing from the kind lady that helped me, it signaled to all others in the area that I had money and they swarmed me with requests about buying their wares as well. It is really hard to tell a ten year girl who is holding up a bracelet she supposedly made that you don’t want to give her any money, but in the long run, she will never be able to improve her lot in life if she continues to peddle products on the street instead of being in school where she belongs. It broke my heart to see it but I knew it was the right thing to do. The older ladies trying to get me to buy things didn’t get the same kind of sympathy, plus I didn’t have enough money to buy something from all of them.

We eventually got back on the path and it took me to one of the most beautiful spots I had seen on the whole trip, a waterfall that wove its path down the tall mountain. An outcropping of rocks allowed for a relaxing spot where I could lay out and listen to the rush of water as it passed by. It allowed me to clear my mind and absorb all of the things I had experienced and comes to terms with it as it related to my life. Sometimes, I get so wrapped in my daily duties that I completely forget about my place in the world. I start to think that I hold a greater importance than I really do, but there is a whole world of people out there believing the same thing, and we can’t all be right. Sometimes I should just decompress to recognize that my problems are smaller than the ones that others are experiencing and the little things that I make a big deal about, I have no control over and they should be rushed away like the water pouring over that outcropping I found on that sunny day. I just need to enjoy the moments as they are presented to me.

This is the real reason that I travel.

So I respect my fellow traveler from Chicago who took his family out on an adventure far from the comforts of the United States. He came to the same realization that I did that there is more to this world than what can be found in the confines of the country we grew up in, and it is important to see them. It gives a true perspective of the world we live in and to our own lives. My hope is that more people take this risk so the world we live in becomes a smaller place, and we can start to heal the wounds that are dealt between us.

Go Travel.


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