Vietnam was delicious, bustling, carefree, and -at moments- magical. We ate our way from south to north armed with chopsticks and a long list of excellent recommendations from bloggers, Instagrammers, and friends.
Stop reading if you want the light version, the Yay! Vacation in beautiful Vietnam! The food was awesome! version (although all those superlatives are indeed true).
Still with me? Ok.
The breezy spontaneity and gustatory hedonism of our travel was in stark contrast to the historical backdrop of the Vietnam War, which is almost possible to ignore as an American tourist, especially for someone my generation and younger. Vivid case in point: slurping up a bowl of crab noodle soup in Hanoi and angling to get a good shot with my big Canon, then making sudden eye contact with a sun-pickled man in his late 60s on crutches across the street; one leg of his soiled trousers was neatly hemmed below the groin. Probably a traffic accident I told myself as I reflexively looked away, but I knew better.
We started in the south in Saigon, where I read Graham Greene's classic novel The Quiet American. Which should be required reading for any liberal-arts-educated, idealistic young pup before they are unleashed upon the developing world. I wish I'd read it long ago.
I plowed through Philip Caputo's staggering Vietnam War classic A Rumor of War as we made our way north, to Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hanoi. We visited the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" where my great-uncle Hervey Stockman was imprisoned and tortured as a POW for six years. Every morning we sucked down our cà phê sữa đá -iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk- among the flirting teenagers and aloof, cigarette'd intelligentsia, and every night we ate our hearts out in excellent, welcoming company in the makeshift sidewalk restaurants the come to exquisite life after dark.
In the margin of our Lonely Planet, next to the starred recommendation for some orgasmic bánh xèo joint (rice batter crepes, I die!), I scribbled "never eaten so well while being so emotionally conflicted & morally dumbfounded at same time." Maybe this isn't the case for most people. I don't know.
One afternoon we rented a motorcycle and tooted along the berms between electric green rice paddies, my arms around my Iraq War vet, my thoughts wandering to the distant jungle hills where Hervey was captured some forty years ago.
"You think our hypothetical kids'll visit Fallujah on vacation in forty years?" I yelled into the wind to P.
He didn't hear me over the clamor of the engine.