Impressions: A Brief Trip to Vietnam

Motorbikes in VietnamMotor­bikes flow like min­nows in a fast-mov­ing stream around and through the choked traf­fic of Vietnam’s cities. As pedes­tri­ans we step out into the brief inter­ludes of traf­fic and watch the stream shift in front of us. As pas­sen­gers in cars, we catch our breath as the stream of cycles parts and comes back togeth­er again in front of us. Horns blast a con­stant cacophony.

Despite being clutched by this mad­den­ing scene, no one yells, shakes a fist, or oth­er­wise threat­ens vio­lence. They are the oppo­site of hos­tile. They have mas­tered the chore­og­ra­phy of this chaos and go with the flow. 

Bob and I saw oth­er evi­dence of this chore­og­ra­phy, of going with the flow, as well. We were mere­ly tourists who dipped in and out of Vietnam’s long span of land and his­to­ry. As such, I claim no deep knowl­edge; still, I expe­ri­enced many mov­ing moments.


I was struck by the resilience I wit­nessed. Hoi An, a small city of about 150,000 peo­ple, sits on the Thu Bon riv­er. It charms tourists and res­i­dents alike with its many-col­ored lanterns sus­pend­ed across streets, bridges, and door­ways. Our guide, Antho­ny, invit­ed us to his home for din­ner, where he intro­duced us to his wife, to his spunky six-year-old daugh­ter who liked show­ing off her Eng­lish, and to his three-year-old son whose autism has inter­fered with his abil­i­ty to speak. The living/dining room opened wide to the street and offered a small table, a refrig­er­a­tor, and their altar.

Our first course was crick­ets served in small pan­cakes, the lit­tle girl’s favorite. Antho­ny knew it would be a unique menu for us; he got a good laugh as he set the plate on the table. But his daugh­ter didn’t get the joke. Her hand kept dart­ing out for more. The pan­cake soft­ened the crunch so we didn’t find it dif­fi­cult to eat a cou­ple of them.

our guide and his daughter

Over din­ner, Antho­ny explained that the city floods every Novem­ber for sev­er­al days and water ris­es in their house at least sev­er­al inch­es, some­times high­er. The city cuts pow­er in antic­i­pa­tion and they move their small amount of fur­ni­ture upstairs. The refrig­er­a­tor can’t be moved but has sur­vived the floods. And the motor­cy­cles? They suf­fer. Antho­ny shrugged, said they sim­ply bring them to a mechan­ic to have the silt removed from the engine each year. 

He and his wife also face the chal­lenge of pay­ing to send their son to a spe­cial school. In addi­tion to work­ing as a guide, Antho­ny and his wife raise crick­ets to sell to local restau­rants. The tiny crea­tures scam­per around four bins about the size of portable cribs lined with fab­ric in their back­yard. They also sell the lanterns that hang every­where above the streets and in doorways. 

The tiny kitchen is a sep­a­rate room in the back­yard as is the bath­room, and the win­dows are with­out glass. “If I won the lot­tery,” Antho­ny said off­hand, “I’d buy a bathtub.”

The tun­nels in the DMZ (demil­i­ta­rized zone) left­over from the Viet­nam war also shout resilience. The entire vil­lage of Vinh Moc essen­tial­ly lived in this under­ground war­ren as pro­tec­tion from the mas­sive Amer­i­can bomb­ing fifty years ago.

The U.S. believed the peo­ple of the vil­lage were sup­ply­ing food and ammu­ni­tion to the North Viet­namese mil­i­tary. They car­pet-bombed the vil­lage to force it to relo­cate. Instead, the vil­lage peo­ple dug two miles of tun­nels at least thir­ty feet below ground. Today they are open to visitors.

The tun­nels twist and turn and occu­py mul­ti­ple lev­els. We saw small nich­es carved out of the sides where fam­i­lies ate and slept. Kitchens were ven­ti­lat­ed in such a way that smoke would not betray their loca­tion. There was even a room for a “mater­ni­ty hos­pi­tal” where sev­er­al chil­dren were born. They lived this way for years, emerg­ing for peri­ods of time to work in their fields.

Bob and I came of age dur­ing the Viet­nam War and had dif­fi­cul­ty imag­in­ing how the Viet­namese peo­ple would accept us; we won­dered what kinds of feel­ings would arise with our pres­ence. It was, of course, the younger gen­er­a­tions who guid­ed us dur­ing our trip, but they held no grudges against Amer­i­ca. In fact, one guide even cau­tioned us that the War Rem­nants Muse­um in Ho Chi Minh City shows the war from the vic­tors’ eyes. He assured us that, while its his­to­ry is accu­rate, it is not the only his­to­ry to be told. He seemed to be let­ting us know he did not see Amer­i­cans as “the bad guys.” We are aware that there were atroc­i­ties on both sides as well as many hon­or­able peo­ple on both sides, but that did not stop us from feel­ing dev­as­tat­ed at the pho­tographs of what our car­pet-bomb­ing and expan­sive use of Agent Orange had done to the people.


I hail from Min­neso­ta, the land of “nice,” but we hold noth­ing on the Viet­namese peo­ple we met. They were con­sis­tent­ly kind, wel­com­ing, and unguard­ed. A hotel serv­er took time to explain how she would bal­ance her work with help­ing her fam­i­ly in Tet, the Lunar New Year cel­e­bra­tion. Our cook­ing class teacher took time to vis­it with us, telling of the years she had been work­ing and about her fam­i­ly. All of our guides shared their per­son­al and fam­i­ly his­to­ries, their dreams and their challenges.

As with their resilience and kind­ness, I was also struck by their ded­i­ca­tion to their fam­i­lies. Son­ny talked about his old­er broth­er giv­ing him mon­ey to go to school, and how he, in turn, gave mon­ey so his younger broth­er could mar­ry. Kim, the youngest and per­haps the hippest of our guides, said it is cus­tom­ary for the old­est son to receive the par­ents’ house and care for them as they age. This involves main­tain­ing the altar as well, which can be a big job. Will you do that? we asked him. He said he would prob­a­bly move back to the small vil­lage where he grew up when his par­ents need him, or he might give the house to his broth­er but con­tin­ue to main­tain the altar.

Even in two short weeks in a coun­try, there are things one can learn. I have a bit more under­stand­ing now about what resilience can look like. I was gift­ed with gen­eros­i­ty over and over again and admired the beau­ty of the peo­ple and the land. Just as impor­tant, I was made aware, once again, of the priv­i­lege I and many Amer­i­cans live with, that even some­thing as basic to my life as a bath­tub can be a lux­u­ry to oth­er populations.

Share this post