An Educational Experience in Vietnam

Written by George Trumbull.

Trying to condense the most rewarding and educational experience Jan and I have been blessed with, into this capsule summary for a web page is like trying to cram whale blubber into a sardine can. But since Jan and the writer have always had the highest regard for Joy and Tom—“Don’t leave home without them”—we will try.

I realize that one should never sell on the “negative” but this in NOT the time to travel to Vietnam or, for that matter, anywhere in Southeast Asia. The SARS scare and the fact that many Vietnamese yet today harbor a hatred of Americans for causing what they refer to as “the American war” and not the Vietnam War as we shamefully describe it.

When you are able to travel, we suggest splitting your trip into three segments: (1) Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon); (2) Hanoi and particularly Ha Long Bay; and (3) Central Highlands, particularly Hue and Da Nang. The book says the autumn and spring are the most suitable for traveling in Vietnam. It was hot in HCM City in March but bearable. Hanoi was slightly less humid but we did see our first rain.

Jan was on a teaching assignment for Michigan State University (College of Education) so our base in the South was Cantho University south of HCM City. Be apprised that we taxied everywhere, even for our 5 a.m. exercise. Walking was a ticket to suicide as was riding motorbikes, the principal mode of transportation.

What to visit in the South: 1) Ho Chi Minh City (huge, 5 million, go-go-go pace, and polluted by the crazy unregulated traffic). 2) In the morning charter a canoe-like boat and visit the Floating Market (suggest a guide for this and most attractions) Eat at our favorite eatery (don’t show me a bowl of rice again!) the Nam Bo, beneath the majestic silver statue of “Uncle Ho” and be amazed at the age and infirmities of the panhandling beggars. 3) The Reunification Place but be tolerant because the film you’ll watch calls us “American lackeys.” 4) Have tissues and visit the morbid War Museum 5) Pray at Notre Dame Cathedral and marvel at those worshipers who remain outside on their bikes. 6) Have taxi stop in front of monument to Buddhists who torched themselves because they didn’t like America. 7) Look carefully for well-hidden statue of Vietnamese mother cradling her dead infant killed by B 52 bombs. 8) Stand at a busy intersection with plenty of film and see for yourself the craziness we saw 9) Pray and enjoy.

What to do in Hanoi: First, fly by Vietnam Airways to this capital of Vietnam. The travel booklet identifies Hanoi as “famous for its charm and peace.” Less humid and two million fewer people. Our hotel was the Heritage. It’s no Somerset but walk through Hoan Kiem Shopping District. 1) Hire guide, driver and new car for 3-hour drive to Ha Long Bay 2) Visit the Hong Ngoc Humanity Center where your hearts will bleed with compassion for the deaf, mute and orphans doing embroidery and wood carvings. 3) Charter the 87-foot Mien Bo 4) Dock and visit the Magnificent Caves 5) Traverse the lake and be sure to pull aside one of the many house fishing boats which is also the school for those youngsters living on the boats. 6) Arrange for guide and driver to visit Muong Village and tell those charming people “hello” from Jan and George.

Tips from Jan and George

  1. If you are an “ugly American”, stay home.
  2. Don’t travel now.
  3. Start your inoculations in sufficient time.
  4. Plan your trip well in advance… with Joy, of course.
  5. Go only if you are healthy and mentally tolerant.
  6. Keep your ears and eyes open and mouth shut.
  7. Pack wisely and in small rollaway cases.
  8. If you drink, do it sparingly and wisely.
  9. Pack comfortable and not fashionable shoes.
  10. Leave your U.S.A. lapel pins and T-shirts at home.
  11. Hire dependable guides who speak English reasonably well.
  12. Do not drive or motorbike.
  13. Each should have flashlights.
  14. Do not attempt to exercise on city streets.
  15. Don’t try and see too much too fast.
  16. Eat only cooked Vietnamese foods, no raw or produce.
  17. Take your medications and vitamins with you.
  18. Take plenty of film (I took 44 rolls of 36 exposure at 200 speed).
  19. Get plenty of rest.
  20. Take multiple packages of handiwipes.
  21. Drink bottled water until you drown.
  22. Have fun and enjoy!
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