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How to Travel Through Vietnam . . . By the Book

By Connie Berdan | Published: February 18, 2020

Vietnam is a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time because of its history, culture and, of course, food! I got the chance to spend 10 days exploring Vietnam recently with my family, and even though we backpacked, we were able to stuff in enough books to help us better understand what we were seeing. 

French colonial architecture of the Presidential Palace in Hanoi
The Presidential Palace in Hanoi, a prime
example of French colonial architecture.

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and were off and running. As Bill Hayton writes in Vietnam: Rising Dragon, Saigon is the industrial and economic hub of Vietnam. It has experienced explosive growth in the past two decades, made most apparent by the skyscrapers, crowds and traffic—especially the millions of motorbikes. Motorbikes slalom around cars, run lights, and transport entire families. From talking with locals, we learned that three-quarters of the residents are transplants from all over the country seeking economic and educational opportunities. Hayton’s book is an excellent source of information explaining the evolution of the economy, including the role of the Communist Party and capitalism, as well as insight into the people today.

A big part of the culture is street food, which maintains a lore far beyond Vietnam’s borders. I was happy to sample a plethora of cheap eats, starting with a delicious banh mi, before spending the afternoon at historical attractions. The Reunification Palace received its new name when the North Vietnamese Army’s tanks rolled through and crushed the gates of the former Independence Palace. Bao Dinh’s novel, The Sorrow of War, describes this day through the eyes of its main character, Kien, a Viet Cong soldier. Though jubilant for his side, he also feels pain and sorrow as he sees the ruins of Saigon, the desecration of corpses, and the fear in the eyes of his Southern enemies.

An American UH-Iroquois
An American UH-Iroquois "Huey" helicopter.

Bao Dinh describes the atrocities of both the Americans and South Vietnamese in his novel, and the War Remnants Museum illustrates these horrors of war. This three-story building, with its collection of aircraft and weapons outside, contains harrowing exhibits on the war depicted through photography, narratives—often in the words of American soldiers and photographers—and a replica of POW prisons. This museum is a must-see for American youth since it conveys a very different story of the war than that taught in many history classes.

Seeing these images of destruction provided context as I tackled the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Author and New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan gives a comprehensive chronicle of America’s involvement in Vietnam, mostly through the actions and words of John Paul Vann, an American Army officer and later civilian advisor in Saigon. Vann heavily criticized the South Vietnamese regime for its corruption and incompetence, as well as the U.S. command for counterproductive strategies. He describes how the war wasn’t winnable after 1965, and its prolongation was brought on by failing to adequately understand the situation, resulting in civilian population deaths and social and environmental destruction. We saw for ourselves how committed the Viet Cong was to infiltrating the South on a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. Though long, this is an important book to understand what went wrong and why. 

A portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging in Saigon's old post office.
A portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging in 
Saigon's old post office. 

We glimpsed the genesis of those mistakes when we stepped further back in time to immerse ourselves in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. A literary classic, it tells the story of an English journalist and an American agent during the decline of the French colonial period and the beginning of U.S. involvement. Much of the lovely French architecture described in the novel can still be seen, such as the old post office, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Opera House.

In Hanoi, we used Carol Howland’s Hanoi of a Thousand Years to guide us around the Vietnamese capital with its Chinese and French influences. Hanoi’s old quarter is a maze of streets near Hoan Kiem Lake, each one named for what used to be sold there, anything from silk (Hang Gai) to roasted fish (Cha Ca). We visited Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, the Imperial Citadel and the Opera House. Howland provides a walking narrative of the streets, buildings, culture and history; it’s a comprehensive guidebook. She describes in great detail tiny pho stands lining the streets and historic landmarks such as the Temple of Literature, a beautiful place where, hundreds of years ago, high-achieving students would take their exams to determine who would become mandarins—public officials in the monarchist days of Vietnam. We saw students continue the tradition as they made offerings to Confucius, giving thanks for passing their exams.

Students making an offering at the Temple of Literature after passing their exams.
Students make an offering at the Temple of Literature
after passing their exams. 

Hanoi serves as the base for trips to beautiful Halong Bay, a UNESCO site with 1,600 islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. We slept on a junk (traditional Vietnamese boat), went kayaking, visited a pearl farm, and even took a dip in the sea. I was grateful to have the time to read A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, by the celebrated travel writer Norman Lewis. Writing almost 70 years ago, Lewis describes his extensive travels through the mountains, jungles and deltas of the region, learning much about its ethnic minorities while being hosted by the French. I enjoyed the vicarious voyage into the past, which made me wonder about Vietnam’s continued growth and economic expansion. Vietnam is a country that should be experienced. And these books helped bring the history and culture just a little closer to see.

About the Author

Author Connie Berdan, white young woman with curly blonde hair, wearing a white outdoor jacket, headlamp, and glasses, and holding a lizard.

Connie Berdan is a second-year mechanical engineering major and Spanish minor student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Outside of academics, she loves to explore the world, whether through overseas travel, or local hiking, surfing and camping adventures. She spent two summers at El Lago del Bosque, the Spanish Language Village.

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