Last updated: 03:00 PM ET, Wed March 02 2016

The Truth About Modern Life in Vietnam

Destination & Tourism | Chris Owen | March 02, 2016

The Truth About Modern Life in Vietnam

Photos by Chris Owen

After growing up during the Vietnam War, I had an idea in my head of what the place might look like. I was a bit too young to be drafted, and then too busy chasing carrots on sticks in the world of business to enlist.

Decades later, I enjoyed connecting with veterans on a Princess Cruises "Cruising For A Cause" sailing to benefit Operation Homefront and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The last batch of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff and a bunch of good military speakers were the headliners. 

I was reminded of when Vietnam veterans were on the way back home, advised not to wear their uniforms to avoid harassment and being called “baby killers.”

Those were the sorts of thoughts that would soon be changed after visiting Vietnam on a cruise.

READ MORE: Wyndham Chooses Halong Bay for its First Hotel in Vietnam

Vietnam was much like I thought it would look, lots of jungle-like heavy brush to hide in, as I remembered from news reports filed in the ‘60s. But there wasn’t anyone sinister lurking there. This up-and-coming Southeast Asian nation has caught on to tourism and the benefits it can bring.  

In the Halong Bay city market, we saw regular happy people going about their business, selling fresh fish and vegetables along with packaged items from around the world.

Communists, it seems, have no problem fully mastering similar bartering and sales techniques to ours. Interestingly, on a visit to Russia last summer we saw much of the same; people going about their business selling goods and services to tourists. 

But that’s about where the similarity to our lifestyle ends. Try asking a cab driver about the procedure for deciding which job each person in Vietnam will have — as Communists do — and none would talk about it. 

Obviously used to getting questions such as “So what is it like to live in a Communist country?” locals shut down really fast, engaging us in just about any other topic — like how when the electricity goes out here, it doesn’t come back for a long time.

An interesting difference compared to most other places we have visited around the world: there is not a whole lot of emphasis on locals trying to speak the language of visitors. Just about any other place we have been, an English-speaking local can be found with relative ease. In Vietnam, not so much.

Still, little was said when disembarking a cruise ship. Passing through immigration involved a cursory inspection, sort of like visiting Cozumel. Once we went off and on the ship a few times, the uniformed Vietnamese Immigration Control officers were quite comfortable with us being around.

Today’s Vietnam is a modern, bustling place with an economy largely driven by the invasion of tourists who receive quite a different welcome than those of the ‘60s war era. Street vendors hawk souvenirs, restaurants vie for our lunch business and the closer we got to iconic landmarks, the more that activity increased — similar any other popular travel destination.

Stopping at a school for the handicapped, we spoke with injured Vietnamese women who had been trained to make beautiful handcrafted works of art.  Some of the elderly ladies had been alive during the Vietnam War and while friendly, the cold horror of war could be seen deep in their eyes.

To get a better idea of daily life in Vietnam, I hired a local driver to tour Saigon, then another in DaNang for the same purpose.  In both cases, their initial plan was to visit places made famous in news accounts of the war; places where battles were fought, sites where American forces might have died and other commonly requested locations. 

When traveling, I like to go to places that don’t pop up in a Google image search by the thousands.

When I instructed, “Let’s just drive around.  Show me some of your favorite places”, not one of them was a battleground or site where people had fought and died. Instead, the driver took me to modern, relatively new locations, buildings, parks and beaches where locals were enjoying the warm summer day, going and coming from school or work and living their lives.  Waving at friends, cursing other drivers and pointing out where his home was, it was much like a tour of anyplace else — war element removed, daily life continuing on.

VIDEO: A trek through Hanoi, Vietnam

It took a while to get past the war focus of visiting Vietnam but I’m glad I did. Like the Germany of today, this once-notorious Southeast Asian nation shares a permanent place in history books, but it’s just that: history.  I’ll tuck that lesson away and appropriately remember visiting the place where so many brave Americans died. Going forward when the topic of Vietnam comes up in the future, I’ll remember my new friend in Vietnam, a nice summer day and the time we spent touring his home. 

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