We’d never been so relieved to see falafel on a menu.
My family and I traipsed into the modest Chabad restaurant in Hoi An, Vietnam, famished after five days filled with dietary challenges. We could barely contain our excitement as we waited for hummus, falafel and heaped plates of french fries to arrive at our table.
Eating was a problem for us in this southeast Asian country, where pork and shellfish are the most ubiquitous ingredients anywhere. In the markets we saw gigantic mangoes and mouth-wateringly large avocados, but these fruits were nowhere to be found in the restaurants. “We grow these fruits in our backyard and they’re so common, we don’t want to eat them when we eat out,” one local explained to us.
There are many destinations in the world that offer a highly-polished tourist experience. You know it’s polished when local vendors greet you enthusiastically and make a concerted effort to communicate, when your tourism experiences are trash-free and when you can cross a road without fearing for your life.
Vietnam is not one of these places. Real life hits you in the face here, forcing you to acknowledge the deep divide between first and third-world living, and the still-raw history of war and colonialism on the physical and cultural landscape.
In Hanoi we hired scooter drivers to guide us through the city, too terrified by the haphazard traffic to drive ourselves. At one stop our guide pointed out the remains of an American war plane, shot down 50 years ago. It crashed into a downtown lake and sits there to this day, a massive hunk of machinery slowly rusting away.
We passed street vendors selling the meat of butchered dogs, their mouths open in a grotesque grimace. Later, as we moved north to south through the country and wandered in the night markets we saw Gucci knockoffs for sale right next to vendors selling barbecued frogs, doves, fried crickets, fat silkworms and an eye-openingly large selection of spiny shellfish.
One of our guides was serious on the subject of food. “During the famine of 1945, up to two million of our people starved to death,” he reflected. “So though it might turn your stomach to see dogs, frogs, birds and insects for sale as food, remember, everything has a story. Google cannot explain it all.”
I could write about Vietnam’s gorgeous resort destinations and the warmth of the South China Sea as we floated in the gentle waves. We experienced this, too, and loved it. Tourism is growing in the country and large hotel chains like Marriott and Intercontinental are colonizing the beachside real estate and attracting increasing numbers of visitors.
But as you bask in the waves it’s hard to ignore the trash floating in from the mainland. The island of Phu Quoc is an hour’s flight from Saigon, home to nine million, and with an unrefined trash management system, the quantities of plastic washing up on the beach is disheartening. Our hotel employed three locals who worked the beach dawn to dusk daily, just collecting and disposing of the never-ending stream of trash.
“You owe it to the Vietnamese people to visit the War Remnant Museum,” my cousin stated flatly before we left. So in Saigon we joined the throngs of visitors ambling slowly through the graphic exhibits of what the Vietnamese call the American War on Vietnam.
For sure, the accompanying text, written by the Communist party, was one-sided, but the visuals were at once riveting, shocking and devastating. We saw pictures of rice paddies bombed to bits, Vietnamese farmers being tortured, bodies dead and bloody littering the roadside. The Agent Orange display was even more horrific, with visuals of the physical deformation caused by toxins sprayed on the land in the name of American warfare.
The cleanup of those poisons is still in progress today, and the suffering caused by Agent Orange chemicals persists. One guide described her aunt, a woman in her 50s with the mind of a child, unable to work, marry or live a productive life because of harm caused by chemical warfare. I had come to the country thinking America’s efforts to fight communism in Vietnam were noble. The War Remnant Museum changed my mind completely.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive-resort style vacation, avoid Vietnam like the plague. This country is not for you. But if you can open your mind to another culture without condescension and through your travels, try to understand the forces that shaped Vietnam today, you’ll find it a riveting experience. Yes, you’ll see some pristine beaches, tropical jungle and big-name hotels sporting gorgeous turquoise swimming pools. But you’ll also see a place still wracked with scars from the past, trying hard to deal with its history of oppression while actively reinventing itself to keep pace with the rest of the world.