Happy Water, Happy Vietnam
I didn’t really understand what Vietnam would be like before we arrived. In the US we don’t learn a ton about Vietnam in school (or at least neither Ben nor I did). The bits of history we did learn were taught in the context of the Vietnam War. I had stereotypes in my head. I am sad to think just 6 weeks ago my idea of Vietnam consisted mostly of landmines, wilderness and a war with the US. I could not have been more wrong.
From the moment we landed in Hanoi, people were so friendly. They were excited to see us, excited to learn we were from the US, and excited that tourists were visiting their country. In Hue we had an older man stop and regale us of his time being a US air force member during the war. In every city children ran up to say hi, waved excitedly from the backs of motorbikes, and eagerly pleaded for high fives!
But, in Ha Giang, the pieces started to fall together. We went on a 3 day/2 night motorbike tour of the surrounding villages. Ben and I both rode with a staff from QT Motorbike and were treated to some of the best days of the trip. Over the course of 3 days we stopped along the way at my driver’s grandparents’ house. On night one we drank “happy water” (they say it’s rice wine, but it’s more like Vietnamese moonshine) with our group and then promptly had to recover from happy water the next morning. Ben and his driver, who didn’t speak any English, learned how to communicate about exciting photo ops and beautiful views. We drove through towns and villages and received loud and happy “Hello”s from the kids we passed. On the last day, we arrived back in Ha Giang and arranged our bus for the return to Hanoi that night. During our dinner, we were invited to drink some happy water with the owner, staff, and other guests. We figured it was a good way to kill time. We joined everyone on the ground outside the hostel and the owner handed us shot glasses and gestured to the bowl in the middle. The happy water was back! We dipped our shot glasses in (making sure they were full to the brim, as customs mandate). Before we knew it we were laughing, drinking, being handed free beers, and being told to skip our bus. We were offered a free room in exchange for spending more time with everyone (we took the offer, gladly!).
Our final day in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) was spent at the war remnants museum. We toured the Vietnam war through the eyes of Vietnam. It was here that Ben and I learned about the care of Vietnam’s prisoners of war--imprisoned pilots remarked that it was better than the Vietnamese poor. It was here that we saw examples of America’s treatment of Vietnamese soldiers--some being kicked out of helicopters, waterboarded, and hunted. It was here we learned that the Vietnamese don’t call it the Vietnam war, but the war of US aggression. It was here we heard the term “America’s Genocide” for the first time. We saw and read about Agent Orange and its effects on the land and its people. We saw pictures of children born 4 generations later that are still dealing with the effects of chemicals our country dumped on them and their land.
Yesterday, we learned a more balanced version of history. We learned another side to a dark time in American history, and a darker time in Vietnamese history. By coupling that with the friendliness of Vietnam, I started to realize what made our time here so special.
Vietnam is not the only place with friendly people. We have met people along the road that were just as friendly and just as genuine. But, with our last day in mind, the weight of it all sank in. The people in Vietnam have good reason to be mean to American tourists. The people here could only remember being attacked by America. The children here are still born with birth defects from Agent Orange. There are special organizations you can call to remove active bombs when you find them. The land, the animals, and the biology of Vietnam have not recovered from the war. But, we never felt reproach, or anger from anyone. And, that made their friendliness that much more impactful.
Our time in Vietnam has shown us a diverse, loving, and beautiful place. A place full of vibrant people that love each other, love to show off their country, and love a good time. It’s a place that Ben and I will hold dear to our hearts and we will make a concentrated effort to return.
With love, from Vietnam.