Cu Chi Cu Chi Coo!
By Claire Brownell
My friends and I started this trip with very few concrete goals or plans. Those we did have included (1) buy a monkey and name it Korel the Warrior, (2) frequent an opium den (not even necessarily to smoke opium, just to, you know, hang out), and (3) go to Vietnam so we could start stories with “back in ‘Nam.” So far, #3 is the only one I’ve really followed through on. Unfortunately, Vietnam has been my least favourite place to travel so far. My experience can regrettably be summarized as “Back in ‘Nam, I had a constant low-grade anxiety attack.”
At first I couldn’t figure out why. There were the obvious factors: it’s loud, it’s hectic, people hassled me to buy stuff or marry their sons all the time. In Vietnam, the only traffic laws are as follows: small yields to big, honk your horn as much as possible, and survival of the most aggressive. This was a huge culture shock coming from Laos, which is the most chilled-out place on Earth. The other obvious factor is that Vietnam is not very backpacker friendly. There tended to be a lot more older travellers with money, and consequently the activities and hotel prices were geared towards them.
This still didn’t explain my perpetual uneasiness, though. I couldn’t shake this paranoia that made me feel like I was being watched, judged, monitored; that there was a file on me and my movements in some underground office in Hanoi. The longer I spent in Vietnam, the more I realized my paranoia wasn’t entirely unfounded. The tourism industry there is very tightly controlled by the government and the police. In places I visited in Thailand and Laos, there was usually a street or district where the guesthouses and bars were, but there were generally others scattered around, with locals and travellers mingled together throughout most of the town. In the places I visited in Vietnam, the hotels were all in one distinct area surrounded by plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops. If I ventured out of the district, I would unfailingly be the only non-Vietnamese person I saw. People would stare and point at me, huddled in groups. The message was clear: you don’t belong here.
A good example of this is Nha Trang, a city a bit south of halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). Nha Trang is one of those party towns like Vang Vieng where people spend way longer than they meant to because they keep accidentally getting drunk and missing their morning bus out of town. The tourist district in Nha Trang could be taken right out of the coast of the United States. The beach is immaculately groomed, garbage is meticulously picked up, and the nightlife has a distinctly Western feel. This was a big change from Danang, the city I crossed the border into, which is slightly off the standard tourist trail. Danang is covered in dirt and garbage and smells like sewage, but I felt like a local celebrity because I stuck out like a sore thumb and everyone went out of their way to talk to me and practice their English. My friend Sadie and I spent a day handing out fliers for a bar in Nha Trang in exchange for free drinks and food, which gave us a feel for just how tightly controlled and monitored the tourism industry is by the police, government, and Vietnamese business interests.
We were warned sharply not to flier in front of certain bars and restaurants. A coworker stopped in for a drink at a certain establishment, and we found out two hours later that rumours had been circulating that Sadie and I were there, too. Later that night, Sadie was talking to a guy she had met who worked at a different bar and one of the staff pulled out the chair from underneath her. When she got a little miffed about it, the manager told her that it was because the staff did not approve of the company she was keeping. We heard from another traveller we met that foreigners working long term in Vietnam often have their phones tapped. His friend’s would unexpectedly cut out when he switched to speaking German from English, presumably because whoever was tapping the phone could no longer understand what he was saying. This is all hearsay and speculation, of course; but I can say with confidence that the Vietnamese tourism industry is very tightly structured, and doing things that are off the beaten track is regarded with suspicion and disapproval. It’s the structure that creates gaudy tourist districts that are completely cut off from the rest of the local area and tries to keep people on guided tours instead of exploring on their own that I had a problem with.
I went on a couple of these guided tours, which I normally avoid like the plague, but as I’ve mentioned it’s always the cheapest and easiest option in Vietnam. There are some islands off the coast of Nha Trang, and some friends I had met were going on a boat tour to see them, so I gave it a shot. It soon became apparent that the only real exploration of the island that was going to happen was some snorkeling with busted equipment in cloudy water, and an hour spent lying on a beach. The rest of the tour was a “floating bar” (sitting on tubes and drinking sangria), lunch, and some really hilarious live entertainment. A group of Vietnamese guys with a guitar, a microphone, and a drum set made out of plastic bins played a bunch of covers and tried to coax people on stage to dance. Against my better judgment I found myself being pulled on a table to dance to “Yellow Submarine” in a bikini. I’m not saying I didn’t have a good time — it was fun, in a kitschy kind of way. All I’m saying is I wish there was an affordable way to see the islands without someone pulling me onto a table to dance in a bikini.
A more serious example is my experience at the Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City. The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of underground passageways where people hid during the Vietnam War. Once again, the cheapest and easiest way to see them was to book a tour, so that’s what Sadie and I did. Unfortunately, no one told us that a war memorial where people had to live underground to avoid being shot to bits had been turned into an appalling tourist circus. It was eerily similar to Black Creek Pioneer Village — except instead of learning things like “this is how they made potpourri and candles,” we got “this is how they made the bombs and hidden traps to impale people.” Everything was displayed by these creepy mannequins in tableau, doing things like making mortars and cleaning guns. Every once in a while there would be a photo op. Here’s a hole where soldiers hid and fired when they heard footsteps, climb inside and smile for a picture! Here’s a tank where four soldiers were killed, climb on it and smile for a picture! The icing on the cake was that they had — excuse the caps lock and profanity — a FUCKING SHOOTING RANGE where you could pay to fire a gun. I guess the idea was to get a feel for what it was like to be a soldier, or satisfy some latent blood lust, or something. That meant there was this sickening background noise of gunfire while we were being taken on the tour. During the shooting range part, Sadie overheard two parents say to their son, “Alright lad, would you rather shoot the AK-47 or the hand held?” Worst of all, no one but Sadie and me seemed to be bothered by this. No matter what people’s opinions are on the Vietnam War or gun control, I would have hoped that humanity could at least have agreed that a place where a lot of people died should be treated with respect. I’m not sure who I should be angrier at — the people who turned the Cu Chi tunnels into a tourist trap, or the tourists who created a demand for it.
Even though I had a problem with the Vietnamese tourism industry, I really loved Vietnam itself. The best times I had there were when Sadie and I rented a motorbike and just drove around. I’m developing a destructive passion for motorbiking. Motorbikes are the main method of transportation in Southeast Asia. They’re not quite as badass as a proper motorcycle, but more badass than a scooter. Despite (or maybe because of) the constant risk of death or serious injury due to the traffic anarchy in Vietnam, I think motorbiking would be the way to see the country. One day, when I have more money, I want to start in Ho Chi Minh City and bike up to Hanoi and through China. I feel like that would be the way to really see the beautiful parts of the country that I only caught glimpses of out of bus windows — forests of palm trees, rice paddies, mountains, sand dunes. Of course, by the time I can afford to do that, I probably will have grown out of my death wish. But I can always dream.