PHOTO ESSAY | Vietnam: The Reunification Express

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When I boarded my Shanghai Airlines flight to Saigon, it was with a great deal of ambiguity. At the time, I was unsure as to whether I would return to Shanghai as scheduled, or continue traveling north through Vietnam with my friends Amber and Kale.

Although I spent the first several days of my trip wrought with indecision, it became clear to me as we traveled up the coast — by bus, mind you, and not using the far more comfortable “Reunification Express” train service — that Shanghai wasn’t the place I needed to be.

Vietnam will forever hold an important place in my heart: during the three weeks I spent in this magical country, I mapped out what ended up being the path to my wildest dreams.

I’m not sure anymore what I imagined Vietnam would be like before I got there, but what I saw when I arrived in Saigon was far from it. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you — it just emphasizes how little I truly knew about Vietnam prior to my arrival. I suppose the most alarming characteristic of urban Vietnam is the sheer quantity of motorbikes everywhere, a huge figure magnified by how crowded the place is. In spite of the fact that Vietnam occupies a sliver of land which spans no more than 500 km at its widest point, more than 80 million people call the country home. I can’t speak to specific population density figures, but Saigon seems significantly more sardine-packed than anyplace I’d been in China. Still, there is something exhilarating about trying to cross a road as a dozen motorbikes zoom by in front of you — without stopping.

As an American traveling in Vietnam, I was curious as to how I’d be perceived in light of the war that still gets mentioned almost daily in our media. A visit to the Vietnam War Memorial Museum in central Saigon the day we arrived quenched much of my curiosity. Although the exhibits didn’t paint the most flattering picture of my country’s military — and indeed, were abject and explicit regarding the tactics we used, particularly with regard to Napalm, Agent Orange and other biotoxins — the majority of outwardly displayed emotion came from Canadian college students born more than a decade after the conflict ended, but who still felt entitled to pass judgment RE: their country not sending troops. A trip to the famous Cu Chi tunnels, a complex network of underground burrows the Viet Cong used to protect themselves from enemy fire, confirmed this: the tour guides — and the unintentionally hilarious information video, which had clearly last been updated in the 1970s — sought only to provide factual information, not to judge or convince. In fact, not a single Vietnamese person I encountered my entire trip seemed anything less than fascinated upon finding out I was American.

Shortly after we arrived in Saigon, Amber, Kale and I had visited the infamous Sinh Cafe tour company, where we booked a sequence of buses that would take us all the way up to Hanoi over the subsequent three weeks. Following the first several days of our trip, which were uniformly rainy, the three of us were ready for some beach time. Accordingly, our first stop post-Saigon was Mui Ne, a tiny beach community located about five hours east in Bình Thuận province. Mui Ne is unique for two interconnected reasons: its beach has been paved thanks to decades of erosion that have endangered the town’s very existence; just 12 kilometers south sits a complex of massive red and white sand dunes. I would guess that the local government lacks the infrastructure to transport the sand to the beach. Mui Ne was an exceedingly beautiful place to spend a few days, in spite of its awkward coastline — and, to an extent, because of it.

The next stop after Mui Ne was the crowded tourist trap of Nha Trang, a large coastal city located roughly eight hours northward. Following an extremely late night arrival, the three of us set out early the next morning to explore what the city had to offer. After finding the only place in town that would exchange my remaining Chinese yuan for Vietnamese dong — a black market gold seller, go figure — we headed into a nearby market, preferring to leave the beach for later in the day. Without a doubt, what most fascinated me in Vietnam is how expressive and beautiful its people are. The flower seller pictured above illustrates this trait better than probably anyone else I photographed. In spite of how much I enjoyed Nha Trang, I spent much of my time there in mental anguish, unsure as to whether I should head back to Saigon and catch my flight back to Shanghai, or bravely press onward.

Each of us had paid approximately $36 for a sequence of five bus tickets that would take us up the entire coast of Vietnam, so I didn’t delude myself into thinking the buses would be comfortable. The outward journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An, the subsequent destination on our itinerary, was a literally painful reminder of this: partly because of the hard plastic “beds” with which the bus was equipped and partly because of the sad state of Vietnam’s road, the 18 hours we spent aboard were mostly miserable. In spite of this Hoi An, a small and extremely touristy community near the larger city of Da Nang, proved to be enjoyable. I awoke extremely early the morning after we arrived to watch the sun rising over the river that runs past the center of the city. It seems I wasn’t the only one — or the most enthusiastic. It was in Hoi An that I settled upon — and booked — the westbound itinerary that would eventually take me back to Austin.

The longest of our bus journeys, however, was from Hoi An to the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. This was chiefly because the Sinh Tours schedule hadn’t afforded us a long stop in Hue, located close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that once existed between North and South Vietnam. We spent about five hours exploring Hue’s old citadel prior to boarding the 18-hour leg to Hanoi, making for a total of about 30 hours of 48 spent onboard a bus. We arrived in Hanoi early the morning of day three. Aside from the plentiful motorbikes, Hanoi was extremely different from Saigon or anywhere else I’d seen in Vietnam — it was extremely green and tree-filled.

Ever since enjoying my first cà phê sữa đá at Saigon Airport while waiting for Amber and Kale to arrive, I’d wanted to pick up several bags of the country’s famous coffee to bring back to Austin as gifts. Hanoi was the first city I visited after deciding for sure that I’d be heading back to Austin, so the three of us headed to “Coffee Street” — in Hanoi, many streets are named after the primary products sold on them — and picked up several pounds of it. If you were one of the friends who received some of this coffee, you know what this means: I literally hauled the shit in my bag for more than three months, across nearly a dozen international borders and without enjoying any of it for myself. You are very welcome.

A trip to Vietnam, they say, isn’t complete without a visit to the country’s iconic Ha Long Bay UNESCO World Heritage site. By the time Amber, Kale and I got far enough north to visit the famous limestone karsts, however, we’d had enough of the traditional tourist trail. Instead, we headed to nearby Cat Ba Island, a less crowded starting point for cruising to the otherworldly rocks. For me, a short walk into the nearby town proved to be the most interesting part of the trip. Most of the people I encountered here seemed never — or, at best, only rarely — to have encountered a Western person before. Tested and weary from more than three weeks spent primary in unairconditioned hotel rooms and cramped buses, their outpouring of happiness and enthusiasm provided me with a needed burst of energy and and positivity. And I’d soon need it: After we finished up in Cat Ba, we began an almost uninterrupted, 72-hour sprint for the Vietnamese-Lao border. As the first phase of my long journey home drew to a close, I let go of wishing that I’d gone the easy route and hopped on board the Reunification Express and channeled my energy instead toward reuniting the part of myself I’d discovered since flying over the Pacific with who I used to be before I departed.

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