I’m still trying to remember. It seems that I have about ten pictures from my time in Vietnam. Partly due to lack of memory card space, but partly due to a serious case of traveler burnout. Vietnam was country number four. It fell at the end of month three. And after two solid weeks of plane flights and visas and finding places to sleep, I was Done.
There is the kind of traveling where everything is planned out and done in groups and organized for maximum efficiency. This kind of travel might involve matching hats. Then there are two nineteen-year-old girls with four sets of plane tickets and a lonely planet guide. This kind of travel is done in survival mode. I had done my research. I knew all the safety stuff, all the scams to look out for, all the emergency numbers. But getting on a plane, or a bus, or a train always felt a little bit like jumping off a cliff: trusting in the parachute of tenuous plans, and maybe an extra credit card.
I was tired. I had been tired for months. I didn’t even realize how tired I was all the time until I got home and rediscovered a life not burdened by constant exhaustion. And Vietnam sure knew how to kick me when I was down. Vietnam has energy. It never stops lighting up and making noise. Car horns were made to be pushed. So much loudness all the time.
You know what you shouldn’t do when you are already annoyed with a country? You should not visit the Museum of American War Crimes. Okay, I get it, we did a lot of awful crap. Agent Orange, well, yes, that was probably a bad idea. Destroying the forests for generations to come, brutally murdering women and children, that is some horrible stuff. But I have to say, Vietnam, I still think your slant on the war is a tiny bit biased. At first I balked at every display, shocked at the pictures of destruction. But soon enough I had to roll my eyes at the over-the-top nature of the photo captions. Let me sum it up: “Here are some more evil American soldiers doing more evil things to innocent Vietnam victims.” Followed by a day at the Cu Chi tunnels, my indignation only increased. Yes, let’s celebrate the slaughtering of “American devils.” Let’s glorify the horrible injuries inflicted on US soldiers by jungle traps involving large metal spikes.
I don’t believe these extremist views have any representative ties to the actual beliefs of actual Vietnamese people. It’s government propaganda, and I’m sure that Vietnamese citizens have a wide range of feelings surrounding a very painful war. Mostly I was tired and grumpy and in need of a snack. And then I fell down a war tunnel. The cave was dark. There was a hole in the floor. I fell hard, catching myself on my left ribcage. Then I was choking back tears, climbing out of a hole covered in dirt, breaking into painful little sobs as my face burned with embarrassment and fury. One of the Australians in the group handed me a wet wipe. The tour guide made a joke about catching an American in one of their traps. “It hurts…really…bad,” I whispered to Blaine. “I know,” she said, pushing me along with the group as she helped me wipe the dirt from my wet cheeks.
I know it's a little bit crazy, but I still want to go back. Even though the next day I walked for blocks and blocks with a broken-ish rib just to get to the most disappointing tourist attraction I have ever seen. (“This is the Jade Pagoda? Seriously?” “Ya, I was definitely expecting something more jade. Or pagoda-like.”) Even though I wanted to cut the wires to every horn in every Vietnamese car and bus. Even though it was scary, and overwhelming, and more of an “experience” than a vacation. Because I tasted pho from an open market in Ho Chi Mihn city. I listened to a Vietnamese taxi driver quietly sing to himself as if there weren’t two other people in the car. I watched dozens of teenagers play hacky sack for hours in a city park. I crawled through a war tunnel.