If Vietnam is a country, not a war – then Vietnam is not just a country but a diverse mix of different people and places and ways of life all bound by the same national borders. After all, North and South Vietnam were not even that friendly towards one another for a few years there…
Traveling from Hanoi and some rural areas in the north, to Hue and Da Nang and Hoi An in the central part, and now to Saigon in the south – the distinctions between these regions of Vietnam are inescapable. Dialects, geography, aesthetics, cultural history all transform as one travels the country.
I have to wonder what places in Vietnam are the target of most tourism… and I have to wonder if the type of tourism varies from place to place. In Hanoi, we saw many European (and a few African) visitors wandering the streets, with their hip travel gear and chic backpacking attire. In Hoi An, a town devoted to tailoring, we came across tourists who were there especially to shop. We made friends with some fabulously eccentric older Australian visitors who were more than ready to stock up on their tailored wardrobes. Some of them were veterans from the 60s and 70s, coming back to wrap up the hurt loose ends and see Vietnam in a different light.
The impact of the American War, and Vietnam’s civil war, is certainly seen differently as we have traveled the country. Stopping at My Lai in the central part of the country and going through the demilitarized zone reminds us of the reality that the ground on which we walk was literally under attack, from one power or another throughout the years. In Saigon today we visited an incredible war museum, reminding us much of the fighting between the Viet Cong and the Americans happened in the south. It’s tempting to hold the theory that the 17th parallel divided the nation neatly in half, with a bad side on one and a good side on the other – and if we are capitalists, the bad side is the northern Communists. But the reality is that South Vietnam was home to many Viet Cong fighters, and many more civilians not willingly involved in the struggle, so the South sees the effects of war through a different lens.
But the war of years ago seems, at least on the surface, to be irrelevant to the minds of people in Saigon today – especially the young people. Western, modernized, and very very chic, the city is marked by a fashionable and romantic generation who are fond of frequenting a spot that our group has affectionally labeled Motorbike Makeout Alley.
This city is definitely no Sapa.