Vietnam: “Returning Home”

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Snaking over a thousand miles along the South China Sea from the Chinese border in the north to the Cochinchina peninsula in the south, Vietnam is a spectacular gathering of dramatic mountains with towering rockfaces, undulating terrace farms, vast river deltas, sweltering bamboo jungles and sprawling urban development. To most people, Vietnam conjures an image of jungle battlefields and swooping helicopters, and to an extent it’s important to understand and remember the history the Vietnamese people have endured. Beyond that, the country has so much more to offer than war memorials and battle sites.

Vietnam bears a long history of attempted domination and assimilation by external powers. A millennium of Chinese invasions and local uprisings distinctly shaped the culture, language and people. The arrival of the French in the late 1800s began over half a century of brutal French colonial occupation until the Second World War. Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, the newly declared independent country was once again returned to its French occupiers and thrust into a bloody struggle for independence. The French were decisively defeated and expelled in 1954 at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ, resulting in the division of the country into communist north and republican south. Peace was short lived as communist forces waged an effective guerrilla campaign against the south, drawing in US involvement in 1965 and starting what is known to most as the Vietnam War. Eventually, after eight years, thousands of casualties, and millions of civilian deaths, the war-weary US withdrew its troops and left the south government to be overrun by the north, reunifying the country on 30th April 1975 at the fall of Saigon.

While modern day Vietnam may still bear scars of past conflicts, its people are friendly, welcoming and forgiving, showing kindness to strangers and tourists alike. Many times, I felt more comfortable and at home with locals in Vietnam than I do in the UK, speaking in my broken, badly pronounced Vietnamese. I’m also lucky enough to have such a large family in Hanoi, including four new nephews and nieces, since I hadn’t been back in seven and a half years prior to this summer. A profound moment was being able to visit my grandfather’s grave: laying flowers, burning incense and seeing his military medals from the French and American wars.

Its people are friendly, welcoming and forgiving, showing kindness to strangers and tourists alike

When travelling to Vietnam, food and accommodation costs are generally low, if sticking to small family businesses and guesthouses. Being such a large country, flights and travel end up being the greatest expenses. Hanoi (north), the capital, and Saigon (south) are the two main population centres and are well worth a week’s visit each. The two cities are distinctly different in feel: Hanoi is older and busier, full of winding backstreets and old French houses, whereas Saigon is larger, more modern and resembles metropolises such as Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, partially due to its role housing US forces during the war. Between the two are many others worth visiting: Haiphong for its colonial relics, Huế for its imperial city, Hội An for its temples and traditional silk shops, Nha Trang and Cam Ranh for their seafood, beaches and resorts. Other sights worth seeing include Ha Long Bay, an archipelago of 1969 limestone islands, with near vertical Karst formations jutting out of the sea; and Khe Sanh: not only a historic battle site but also home to some of the world’s largest caves. Phú Quốc is a tiny island tucked away below Cambodia and is worth a couple of days for its peaceful beaches and mountains, although in more recent years, tourism has somewhat ruined them. Being such a large country with such a diverse geography, areas of natural beauty are spread along the length of the entire country – it’s impossible to see everything in less than a month. Despite its resistance to foreign influence, Vietnam is undeniably a melting pot of cultures, as evidenced by the adoption of a tonal, Latin alphabet in the Vietnamese language which contains much French and Mandarin vocabulary, the food and music, and the architecture.

Every city has its own distinct cuisine, examples including Phở and Bánh chưng from the north, Bún bò Huế and Bánh Mì (Baguette) from the centre, and rice dishes and seafood from the south. More rural areas serve up more varied delights – I was able to try bat and shield bug during my time in mountain villages. Being half Vietnamese, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride when discussing my heritage. Though I’m rarely able to visit, every time has felt like returning home.

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