Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


So, I was in Vietnam last week. Yes, Vietnam. I spent a week in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. I think it was everything I expected, but a lot more than that in every way. Lots to explain here.

OK, so. As I’ve mentioned before, I have this situation where I find out I have a week I can take off, and with very little notice, I have to plan something, and I always rush to Expedia and do something asinine. The last few trips like this were Sweden, Iceland, and Poland. This one was a bit more stupid, given the travel time, but I had to do it.

The usual question is, “Why Vietnam?” A few quick answers:

  • I’ve read way too much about the war and wanted to see how the country had transformed itself since 1975.
  • My dad was there fifty-something years ago.
  • Cheap(-ish).
  • I wanted to go somewhere I’d learn something.
  • It’s way out of my comfort zone, and I need to force myself to do things way out of my comfort zone.
  • Anthony Bourdain would not shut up about how great it was.

The idea of visiting Vietnam has come up in the past, but I’ve always shrugged it off because I felt like I could not deal with it at all: the foreign language barrier, the accommodations, the safety aspect. It’s easy enough to pop into Canada where 99% of everything is the same except the speed limit is in kilos and Canadian bacon is just bacon. But getting turned completely upside down and backwards is something I didn’t think I could grok. After spending time in India last year, I figured I could probably get by with no major problems. So I booked my stuff, bought a couple of books, did my usual plan by marking pins on my Google Maps, and away we go.

Friday/Saturday/Early Sunday

I was scheduled to leave SFO at 11PM on Friday night, which meant it was actually midnight. I upgraded to economy plus or whatever it’s called on United. The week before, I burned a lot of cycles figuring out what to put in which carry-on bag, and ended up having to put both of them overhead, pocketing my phone and headphones, but nothing else. The first leg was about 15 hours, and I’d been awake since four in the morning. I can never sleep on planes, and with the aid of three different sleeping pills, I got maybe three hours of fretful sleep right after we left California. This trip was also the first where I basically spent two nights in the air, because we technically left on Friday and landed on Sunday.

I talked to my seat neighbor a bit. He worked for a big shoe manufacturer (I won’t say which) and had done the Boston to SFO leg prior to our flight, and then was flying to China next to tour some factories. He said he was in Vietnam a few times a year and told me I’d love it. It’s funny how any time I ask anyone about a vacation spot, they tell me I’ll love it, even if they are a total strainger. I understand that for a place like Hawaii or Iceland, but I’m waiting for the time I tell someone about a destination, and they tell me, “Sorry dude, that’s a shithole.”

While I couldn’t sleep, I watched Oppenheimer. Good movie, but it was weird because as the scene came on where they’re testing the first bomb, I looked at the in-flight map and I was directly above Hiroshima.

I landed in Hong Kong at five in the morning local time on Sunday, and everything was closed. The HK airport is this confusing maze of multiple levels, and is a jumbled combination of new technology and luxury, and not. It’s like if Chicago Midway got bought by the Saudi sovereign fund and they tried to make it look like the Dubai airport and gave up after six months. Good news is I got a shower in the Amex lounge. Bad news is my “breakfast” was beans and sausage. It was either that or some fish head curry that is only appetizing if you’re from the Mainland. Also. was I in China? I think depending on who you ask, I was. Or maybe not.

The jump over to Vietnam was easy. I think it was a two hour flight on a half-empty Cathay Airbus. The only other Caucasian was an older half-hippy looking woman who shops REI clearance only for her hemp clothes and is probably helping some communists dig a well somewhere. I had an entire row to myself, and mostly zoned out for the entire flight over. When I landed, it was now Sunday morning.


The Tân Sơn Nhất airport is a perfect metaphor for Vietnam. It existed in some form since the 1930s, grew, collapsed, then grew again. The French built a terminal in the fifties, and then the US dropped in a pair of two-mile runways and a bunch of jetways and aprons. For a few years, it became the busiest military airbase in the world, and then that stopped when the war ended. After 1975, Pan Am noped out, and the airport only did light domestic duty for the next three decades. Then the capitalists started flying 747s to the city again, and things massively grew. They built a giant international terminal in 2007, expanded the old (now domestic) terminal tenfold, and traffic grew accordingly. But unlike the Hong Kong airport with its giant mall-like concourse, this one looked strictly utilitarian. It’s drab, with primary colors and outdated trim, and looks like the old Indianapolis airport circa 1978, or a Midwestern grade school built by the lowest bidder in 1981. The customs area was basically a non-air conditioned gymnasium full of lines of people fresh off a 20-hour flight, leading to booths with nothing automated, just clerks in military uniforms lazily stamping passports. I waited an hour, had my visa and passport glanced at, then got waved through with no communication whatsoever.

Yes, I needed a visa to get in the country, even as a tourist. There was slightly contradictory information about this, but it’s possible to do everything online. You fill out the “Do you have a passport? Are you a war criminal? Are you sick?” form, pay $25, and they email you back a single-entry tourist visa within a few days. The only oddity from the 1997-looking web site was that it had a mandatory field for religion, which is weird for a country that’s officially atheist. I’m not Catholic anymore, but I recognize that putting Catholic in that field might be a huge misstep, given the post-1975 situation over there. And I’m always tempted to fill these in with “Siðmennt, félag siðrænna húmanista á Íslandi” but I don’t want to get stuck in a holding room for six hours having to explain Icelandic humanism to someone who really doesn’t get the joke.

Once I got my bags, unzipped the legs off my convertible shorts/pants, and stepped outside, it all hit me: the wall of heat, the bright sun, the thousands of people outside, the lines of cabbies looking for fares, the motorcycles everywhere. I didn’t know what to expect, but my only point of comparison is my time in Bangalore, and Saigon is Bangalore times ten, if Bangalore had no height restrictions and said fuck it, you can build a 50-story tower if you give the right person a suitcase of money. (I probably need a different metaphor here since a million VND is about $40. A roll of bills as thick as your arm might get you a used refrigerator.) There’s the same frenetic energy, mopeds everywhere, people slaughtering animals in the street or selling dialysis machines from rickshaws or cooking food on an open pit on the sidewalk. The new stuff, it’s like India too, where someone randomly builds an all-chrome Prada store and it’s next to an open-air slaughterhouse. But the bones of the city – it’s every Vietnam War movie and documentary I’ve ever see, a mix of feudal architecture and French colonialism, with bits of Americana tacked on the site. I’m driving down the road in my Grab taxi, look over, and I’m suddenly in the second half of Full Metal Jacket. (Bad example – that was the Thames river doubling for Da Nang…)  But it’s such a strong deja vu. And then I’m walking around and I’m suddenly freaked out because why the hell is that hotel hanging a half-dozen North Vietnamese flags off their balcony? Wait, it’s a Vietnamese flag. They’re everywhere. McDonald’s has not been taken over by the Viet Cong. And then a guy is selling fruit off a moped, and he’s got a little bullhorn that’s playing a tape loop or something over and over in Vietnamese, and with the distortion and the traffic, I’m expecting him to start yelling “Fuck you GI! Fuck you GI!” like Apocalypse Now.

I got to my hotel in District 1, but it was too early to check in, so I dropped my bags and went for a walk. The heat was absolutely overwhelming. 95 but felt 100, almost nothing had AC; this was not Las Vegas or Singapore. My hotel was a narrow building in a row of narrow buildings at a night market. The entire block was filled with tents and awnings and people selling stuff: cases of soda, boxes of snacks, fish, slabs of meat, vegetables, bags, everything. Various food stalls were buried in the shops, and after the morning, it was always packed with traffic, mopeds, carts, motorcycles, and people shopping.

I thought I’d walk to a McDonald’s for lunch to sort of ease into things, and the MCD was some weird standing-room-only alley with the kiosks and I guess you take your Big Mac and go sit in the street and eat it. They looked like the worst possible golden arches I’ve ever seen in my life, and that includes the ones in the lower Bronx. I went to a giant hotel and ate at the “French Patisserie” which was just paninis and pre-packaged salads, like the sandwich shop you’d go to in an office park in Schaumberg. 

After getting set up in the room and taking a shower, I suddenly realized it was St Patrick’s Day so I thought it would be dumb fun to find an Irish Pub. There was one place a mile away. It’s the same setup as what I saw in Poland last year or what would be in Bloomington or Brooklyn or anything else: the green shamrock, the sepia-tone pictures of Irish laborers on the walls, and so on. The first floor was the bar, which was full of bald expatriate blokes wearing football jerseys. The dining room on the second floor was completely empty. I ate a corned beef sandwich for dinner at like 3:00. Food was decent, actually. I don’t drink but I almost would have grabbed a Guinness because of the occasion, and oddly they only had Vietnamese beers. Probably for the best.

I didn’t talk to anyone and don’t really know the story about the expats in Vietnam. There are the obvious ones, young people on a gap year, backpacking across the cheap parts of Southeast Asia, staying in hostels and Instagramming the whole thing. I can distinguish them by their young age, their look, their tattoos, their gear. This was absolutely unattainable when I was that age; I remember a trip to Mexico was a major undertaking that I never managed to pull off. Maybe they have trust funds; maybe the internet has democratized this to a degree. I don’t know.

I think other people either come to Vietnam on a quest or in defeat. Like they punched out of corporate life after their third divorce and came here to live on ten grand a year and try to forget it’s Asia. Or they’re running some off-shoring business to kill off jobs in the US, but wish they were back in the US, so they find the one Irish bar and pretend they’re in Dublin or Dayton or Aurora. It makes me wonder if this is what the French did back when this was a colony, or the Brits in India. Make three stories of a narrow building look like Paris or London and try to forget where you are.

I stumbled home in a jetlag and meat coma and fell asleep at like seven. 


Didn’t sleep, of course. I was up for good at like 2:30a with horrible back pain, like I couldn’t even turn over in bed without spasms stopping me. I think it was the combination of the travel and dehydration. I had to spend hours massaging my spine until I could even get out of bed. By the time they started breakfast at 6:30a, I was largely ambulatory and past the pain, but it bothered me the whole trip

Breakfast – I was on the top floor, which is the 8th, but the G floor with the lobby is really the “second” floor, and there is no 4th floor (tetraphobia) and then 1-8. The restaurant is upstairs, so basically ten floors up. It’s half open, half a deck facing the river. In the morning, the temps are only in the mid-70s, the humidity isn’t there yet, and traffic is almost quiet. The panorama is this mix ranging from brand new chrome and glass skyscrapers, 80s Soviet-looking block housing, and colonial apartment towers that are eight feet wide and look like they survived an airstrike fifty years ago and were just fixed with tarps and chicken wire. Roosters crowed to start the day, but traffic hadn’t started yet, and it was otherwise quiet. 

I went for a walk in the morning, no camera, to grab some supplies and survey the area a bit more. I did not know this but I was in the red light district, which is disconcerting. Lots of ladies shoved flyers in my face and yelled hello at me, especially at night. This is not straight-up brothels, but more of the Japanese hostess bar model. Buy “lady drinks” for triple the normal cost and they pretend to be your friend. No thanks. The problem is the bars, “lady bars,” and expat restaurants all look sort of the same. Is Phatty’s Bar and Grill a Chili’s ripoff or a tub-and-tug joint? You don’t know until you’re in there. Also most restaurants are like 9 feet wide, no AC, and outdoor seating on little plastic step-stools that don’t jive with a bad back.

Anyway, lunch, I decided to go to Saigon Center, which is a big Westfield-style urban mall, seven stories plus an office tower. Tons of food and lots of American stores, like Coach, Nike, and an MLB store. (?!) I went to the basement food court and ended up at McDonald’s as a goof. I got the equivalent of a #2, which is the Cheese Royale. The fries tasted identical. Meat was passable. Something was wrong with the ketchup, though. It’s a totally different taste, which threw off the whole thing. 

I booked a photo tour, which really delivered. This French guy named Arnaud showed up on his moped at 2:00p. We talked lenses for a second, and then he gave me a helmet and told me to hop on. I really didn’t want to brave a moped on this trip, especially with my back out and a ton of gear on my neck, but we did. I hung onto the grab bars as we weaved through traffic, every turn unprotected, other mopeds inches away, some carrying groceries, dogs, lumber, a month of chopsticks in crates, whatever. Remember those stories about old ladies on the Ho Chi Minh trail dragging 500 pounds of medical supplies on an old Schwinn? That spirit lives on in Saigon. No econovans or Amazon trucks – they do it old-school. It was truly terrifying to be in the middle of it at 50 km/h, but the chaos was amazing.

We started at a Chinese temple, which was low light but the Jacob’s Ladder effect from holes in the ceiling letting in some light, then candles and tons of incense smoke swirling around. We talked a lot about exposure, enough for me to learn I’m doing it all wrong, but not enough for me to get practice in doing it right. There were not enough people in there to get good subjects, so we moved on.

We spent most of our time in “the maze.” This was a sort of night market and residential area, which I normally never would have ventured or even found. It was like an entire city block of tube houses where each unit was roughly 9×9 feet, and four stories tall. At street level, they had open doors like garage doors, and the rows of houses were maybe six feet apart, with a narrow alley that was used for walking, motorcycles, storage, cooking, work, and everything else. The ground floors were all random businesses: rice wholesalers, variety stores, salons, print shops, motorcycle repair shops, fish mongers, or just someone’s living room.

So a walk down an alley would be something like:

  • Older woman on the ground in the alley, cooking a hundred eggs over medium on a small gas grill to ship off on a moped to a hotel. (Note to self: don’t eat eggs for the rest of the trip.)
  • Ten feet away, a teenager drenching parts of a 50cc engine with brake cleaner and letting it run into the drain in the middle of the alley.
  • Someone laying on the mat on the floor watching the lottery numbers on a fifty-inch Samsung.
  • Four shirtless guys with lots of bad tattoos playing pool under a harsh single bulb like the interrogation room in a war movie.
  • A teenaged girl watching TikTok and sitting in a room full of bags of rice as a Grab driver stacks a purchase onto the back of a Honda.
  • A fish monger breaking down some random fish I’ve never seen in my life and putting the guts in a kettle of curried stew.
  • A guy wants to show us his chubby little terrier. Cute dog. I look over and there are cages of roosters being raised for cock fights.

Etc etc etc. So many people on top of each other, so many businesses, such big families. There are also were so many kids in Vietnam. When we got out of the maze, school was letting out, and there were thousands and thousands of teens in uniforms, getting on bikes and talking on cell phones. There was a wall of mopeds, like every Honda built from 1947 to present was on this main drag.

We got the bike and headed across the river to a District 4 apartment. Crossing the Ben Nghe Canal on a little moped during rush hour was insane, putting along on this incline with cars surrounding us, looking out at the river and the buildings and the stark contrast of this new construction sprouting up everywhere. We went to this bombed-out old apartment complex for whatever reason – he liked the sun or the angles or something. It was a c-shaped place, open on the inside like an old motel.

The thing about Arnaud was he had 100% confidence and would walk up to someone and shoot a dozen pictures of them before they even noticed. Like he would show me his screen and say “look at this one” and I didn’t even know he fired off a dozen pictures, because he was talking to someone and had the camera at his chest or off to the side snapping away. Or sometimes they would notice him shooting and he’d keep going and did not care. He spoke Vietnamese and would start conversation and joke with people and smile, and he shoots the same places frequently so he knows people. Sometimes he would show the shot to a person and thumbs up them and ask “xing dep?” (It’s beautiful?) He also had an incredible eye for light and framing. I thought he was focusing on a motorcycle in the front of us, and he’d show me his camera and say “did you see that Buddha statue to the side in the apartment?” and he captured that layer in the foreground of the other layer. He had such a great eye and quick reaction.

I shot maybe 300 shots and I’m sure 295 of them were useless. And I think the main lesson here is I’d have a lot of work to do  to get even vaguely confident in portraiture or street, But I learned a lot from him and saw a part of Saigon way out of my comfort zone I’d never have found.

Came home exhausted but had to eat. I wandered back to the mall and went to some little Korean place among the pseudo-hawker faire they had in the basement. It was basically mall Korean, but I was starving and just needed calories. Wandered around a bit more and then collapsed at home.


I got almost a full night of sleep. Grabbed some breakfast upstairs, then I read and horsed around on the computer for a minute, downloading photos and looking at maps. I went over to Bitexco Financial Tower, which is a 68-story skyscraper right on the river, built as the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010. (It’s since been surpassed.) I had a ticket to go to the 49th floor observation deck, which I got for free from Expedia. It was about worth that price, honestly. It’s a very sterile environment, and reminded me of going to the Sears Tower as a kid: you’re in this building with a million offices, but you don’t see anything or have any context; you’re just shot to the top in an elevator and it could be a hundred or a thousand or a million or twelve stories, who cares.

And most of HCMC is largely flat, with a few taller buildings. It’s like being at the top of the tallest building in Indianapolis, where there are a few shorter buildings, then a ton of three-story buildings out to the horizon. Also, maybe it’s me, but I think with the advent of Google Maps and Earth, the aerial view has lost some of its excitement versus when I was a kid. It was good to get that sense of scale of the city, and see how District 1 (where I am, the downtown) is this mix of old areas like The Maze pocked with giant towers built for banks or cell phone companies or whatever. Across the river, District 2 is – weird. It looks mostly vacant, except for the occasional Soviet-era brutalist building, or a brand new apartment “community” that looks like it was thrown up in a Denver suburb in 2007. I’m thinking this was a poor district that got completely ignored for ages and now development is just starting now that there are bridges over there. 

I tried to snap a few pics, but the windows were filthy, and there was this pollution haze over the city. I didn’t notice it at ground level, and even though everyone complains and wears masks, I just looked it up and Oakland’s twice as bad. What’s odd is my allergies were 100% better in Vietnam. I’m not sure if there was less pollen, a different growing season, or I’m only allergic to the domestic stuff. It was a nice break, though.

Anyway, I wandered after that, and went to the Hotel Continental. Ducked inside to look at the lobby, and didn’t stay long. It’s one big room, a straight shot with four people at a desk staring at me as I’m hauling around a full-sized camera and lens. I took a quick look at the history mural next to the gift shop (all jewelry in there, no logo polo shirts) and they mention Graham Greene living there, but of course gloss over Hunter Thompson’s brief stay in room 37. By the time I left, it was noon, a hundred degrees out, and the sun was pounding down full force.

In my quest to eat everything but Vietnamese food (not really, but that’s how it’s been going) I went to the only German restaurant in town. It was straight up old school American Bavarian food, full menu. Asked for a speisekarte, bitte – turns out they speak less German than English. Fair enough. Got a bretzel mit käse, und currywurst. Tasted like the curry was made with their weirdo ketchup, so I scraped it off and used a bottle of “US mustard” (generic yellow mustard). Sausage was also slightly off in consistency, like the fat ratio was wrong. Oh well. Great posters on the wall, probably from eBay, or actually they were all lo-res and maybe they just printed them from the JPEGs on an eBay listing.

Wandered around more to take more pics. Went to the giant statue of Uncle Ho and it’s more fun to pretend to take pictures of the statue but actually take pictures of the people posing in front of the statue, and try to catch them before or after they stiffly post for their spouse or tour guide. I’d run into westerners and say hi, and most were tourists from New Zealand or France or some other European country. Sometimes in front of the HCM statue, I’d see an old Vietnamese guy my dad’s age, weathered face, zero BMI, and wonder if he was a PAVN regular on a once-in-a-lifetimes trip down from Haiphong Bay to see the south before he went off to see Uncle Ho in the sky. Or maybe he was from Singapore and I’m an idiot.

Tuesday night, I had a street food tour. The tour was… something. It was maybe an hour walk from my hotel, off in district 3. I left at 5:00p and got to experience rush hour in full force as the sun was going down. There was a section toward the end of the walk where there was literally kilometers of mopeds stopped at traffic, eight wide, shoulder to shoulder. Imagine the entire Indianapolis 500 track filled wall to wall with Honda 50cc scooters, all idling. 

Met up with this guy Tâm, about my age, and we ducked in an alley and got to work right off. We ate I think four different plates and then two drinks (a cane sugar thing everyone drinks, and a smoothie from their weird alien fruits here.)  It was terrifying. Women who have never washed their hands in their lives cooking over open flame in the street handed me unwashed leafy greens, sauces that had been sitting at room temperature, and unknown organ meats. At one point, I had a bowl of Hủ tiếu, which is basically a bone broth with two kinds of noodles and then about a half dozen of the absolutely most horrific meats you can think of thrown in it. Mine had kidney, liver, tongue, shrimp that probably wasn’t cleaned, and something else. That was the point where I politely tried some of the broth, ate one piece of tongue, and then said nope, out. A lot of the food was great, but that was the line.

The guide was interesting. His dad was an ARVN Huey pilot. When the shit went down in 75, his dad left his entire family, loaded up a chopper with a dozen buddies, and flew to the USS Midway. He ended up getting moved to a commercial ship, then to Clark, then to Guam, then Arkansas. He’s in Lancaster, CA now. I don’t know if this whole story is made up, but we talked a lot about post-1975 Vietnam. He was Catholic, and he talked about how the government shut down Catholic schools and things went a bit quiet after the communists took over. There are more Catholics now, but there’s more of everything here now. It’s hard to believe it’s a communist country.

The walk home at night was one of those scenes of heavy contrast that burned in my brain forever. It was a Tuesday and the streets were full like Times Square on a Friday. It was beautiful to see all the signs lit up, kids out, people eating and shopping, mopeds zipping around, and the skyscrapers in the distance. I listened to this ambient album by Jon Hopkins and strolled through the night, surprised at how strange and different this town was from what had been put in my head the fifty years before.

* * *

There’s not an easy way to ease into this, but one of the main thought loops running through my head on this trip was what my idea of Vietnam was as a child of the Eighties, and how the Vietnam I was in was completely different. I felt a bit aloof or ashamed about that, how I was the Ugly American wondering why I didn’t see more stars and stripes everywhere.

I was fourteen years old on the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and I think that was an inflection point on the sentiment of Vietnam in America. Maybe I was too young in 1975, but I felt like immediately after the war, it wasn’t talked about and it was mostly forgotten or buried. But as Reaganism flourished and the military expanded and the cold war heated up, things were revisited a bit. I think some Americans were ashamed at how we treated or forgot the military after the war, and there was a massive shift in the other direction. And in various media, especially media consumed by a teenaged boy in Indiana, Vietnam was seen as a two-dimensional enemy and little more.

So Vietnam in my head in the 1980s: Rambo: First Blood Part II; Chuck Norris and Missing in Action; Mack Bolan novels. I built model airplanes with red star decals for each Vietnamese MiG the plane shot down. There were songs on the radio and MTV by Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen. They built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A lot of people didn’t like it, so they added a trio of statues next to it. By the end of the 80s, it seemed like everyone had a Vietnam movie: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Good Morning, Vietnam, Hamburger Hill. Vietnam went from being a taboo subject to a complete saturation point.

I never learned about the Vietnam War in high school. I think in the last week of US history, we spent like two days on everything post-WW2, so it was vaguely mentioned, but that’s it. We didn’t talk about who actually won or lost the war. That seems silly, given that it was now one country, and it wasn’t a democracy, so it was fairly obvious that someone won, and it wasn’t us. I think if pressed on the issue, a lot of Americans would hem and haw about how the US left victorious in 1973 and the South Vietnamese later lost, or the US won all the major battles, or the US lost fewer people, or it wasn’t really a war anyway, or what exactly is winning? I think the bottom line though is that this wasn’t openly questioned and definitely wasn’t discussed, except maybe to say “let’s not have another Vietnam” any time military action came up, and spend more money on the military and tie on more yellow ribbons and have more parades and try to get it right next time.

As far as my own upbringing, my family was largely apolitical. My dad did serve in Vietnam, but didn’t talk much of it. None of my family went to college or was anti-war. I didn’t go to protests as a child, didn’t know anyone educated about politics or history. In today’s polarized political landscape, there’s a lot more emphasis on taking sides, and if you’re not on one side, you’re on the other. And the truth is, when I was a kid, most of the adults around me didn’t really support either side. They just worked their jobs and tried to feed their families.

The media narrative around Vietnam going into my college years was a wide range of sentiment, from glorification of war to regret to discussion of the futility of war. The American veteran gained a more nuanced role over time, as the country moved to this “support the veteran but not the war” stance. One can pull this thread on the sweater forever, but the main thing is that the view of the other side wasn’t entirely changed, at least in my head. Those common movie tropes and two-dimensional views of people were still in the back of my head.

And now, here I was, in Vietnam, surrounded by Vietnamese, in the country that won the Vietnam War. And it wasn’t just the backdrop of a Rambo movie, with character actors from Hong Kong playing cliched Viet Cong villains. It was… just people: shopkeepers, chefs, students, bellhops, bankers, mothers, tailors, teachers, mechanics. I burned a lot of mental cycles trying to integrate the Vietnam in my head with the Vietnam around me. It was good to be wrong, to see what it really was. But having the map not match the territory, so to speak, was something on my mind for the rest of the trip. And there was a strange combination of feelings around this: shame? Amazement? Regret? Wonder? I don’t know. I just wondered what the 1985 me would think of me being in Ho Chi Minh City almost 40 years later.


I was very surprised that I did not get sick from the street food during the night. I grabbed breakfast upstairs, then headed out for a long walk and to hit a few landmarks, most notably the War Remnants Museum.

I get it, history is written by the victors. I wasn’t expecting the museum to be entirely unbiased. And yeah, America is the bad guy, and they were the assholes, and everyone just wanted to farm rice, and they ended up with decades of 24/7 24-hour-a-day bomb runs on their villages. I didn’t expect a photo essay on American exceptionalism. But the museum was a bit much.

The only reviews of the museum you’ll find online talk about how graphics the exhibits are, and how it shows the truth of the conflict, and the horror of war. And it does show the war from the other side, the Vietnamese side. All of this is true. But as someone who’s wasted too much time reading history books, the whole thing was riddled with errors, and went to great lengths to not cover the South Vietnamese government, it really threw me. And it’s hard to say anything about that, because then I’m the asshole. Right?

The museum took great pains to never refer to South Vietnam as the South Vietnamese government. In every display, Vietnam (not North Vietnam) fought against France, then America. When they had to refer to the Republic of Vietnam, they would call it the “puppet regime” or “the illegitimate American-backed government.” Those semantics are understandable I guess; it’s their war. But I kept wondering what errors were bad translation or straight up propaganda. I mean, American museums are often similarly jingoistic or simplify things, and I’m not into that either. But at a certain point, I had too much, and had to call it a day.

One funny thing – they made a big deal out of the American anti-war protests, and there was a section with a newspaper showing how people in the US didn’t support the war. The newspaper was the Goshen News. It had Elkhart high school football scores as the above-the-fold headline. This “we should not be in the war” thing was probably written by a Goshen College professor. It was funny though to see Elkhart County depicted as this bastion of liberal tolerance. Anyway.

* * *

There was something disconcerting brewing in the back of my head, other than the usual mental distractions that take up too much real estate running in tight loops and draining my energy. I guess the only easy way to explain it was I didn’t know who I was in the scheme of what I was doing in Saigon, and if I was truly welcome.

First, I was somewhat skittish about mentioning to anyone that my dad was deployed to Vietnam. I really didn’t know the sensitivity level of this. On one hand, a lot of people in the south have family who were ARVN or worked for the RVN. And 60% of the population was born after the last Americans left in 1975, and weren’t alive for any of it. But I’m sure there’s a large amount of the population who has resentment about the war, and aren’t happy to see dumb American’s plodding around the country, flashing their money and talking loud when people don’t understand them.

I understand there’s a big problem with the “sexpats” and the drunken idiots causing trouble. And I know there’s the “savior complex” of people acting high and mighty because they’re “helping” by spending their money in country. In Europe, there’s a lot of the “if it wasn’t for us, you’d all be speaking German” attitude. In Vietnam, well, the Americans were the ones who dropped seven million tons of explosives on them. It’s tough to argue we saved anyone there.

My street food guide was nice and cordial and interesting to talk to. But there was a moment when he talked to the people at the table next to us in Vietnamese, and I know he was talking about me. He said “blah blah blah San Francisco blah blah” and sort of laughed. And I don’t know if he was saying, “Check this out, I’m going to make this dumb white guy eat a cow tongue” or what. Maybe it was nothing. But it made me feel stupid for being there.

The war museum reinforced that thought. It was designed to make me feel guilty. Why was I even in Vietnam? Did they even want me there? Why do I go to any country? What was I doing?

This dovetails into this feeling that I have in general with why I travel and who I want to be. I’m often unhappy with who I am and want to change things, want to get better or write more or do something else or be something else. And when I’m traveling alone, I’m looking at sophisticated business people and happy families together and affluent travelers and everyone else and wondering what I am. I book these trips maybe in some hope of thinking travel will make me happy or define who I am or teach me something. When I’m on day four of a long trip, I often realize this is definitely not true. Would I have been better off sinking this money into a new guitar or donating it to orphans or investing it in the stock market, or what? Why was I overheating in a land where I couldn’t grok the language or deal with this food, especially if I didn’t even know who I was or if I was even welcome there?

* * *

I walked more, but quickly felt like I was getting heat stroke. I went to Book Street, which is a pedestrian mall where a bunch of open-front book stores face this one street, along with a few cafes and such. It was cute, but the last thing I needed was to drag around twenty pounds of books in the hundred-degree heat. I wandered around dehydrated and went to another giant mall and ended up at a fake Italian place where I got an almost passable mall pizza. I then stumbled back to the hotel, hit a 7-Eleven on the way to get caffeine and junk food, and sat in the air conditioning until dinner.

Dinner was once again crazy, but in the opposite direction. I went to Anan Saigon, which is HCMC’s only Michelin-star restaurant, and it was coincidentally just a few doors down from my hotel. It’s chef Peter Cuong Franklin’s place, and it’s in a tube house in the wet market. It has a bunch of different floors for a noodle shop, a bar, and the actual restaurant. I ordered the chef’s menu, and they put me at this bar, where I was shoulder-to-shoulder with other eaters, but we didn’t talk to each other. Also, two of the girls there were influencers (or whatever) and had this whole setup with tripods, gimbals, and lights, which was sort of disconcerting.

The food was great, but very performative, I guess. Lots of single bite food, esoteric combinations, everything done with interesting textures, like little works of art. This is typical for this type of restaurant, and the nice touch here was that this eleven-course meal basically followed food across the country, like it told a story with the journey. The best item was a foie gras spring roll. The weirdest one – they had a pigeon roulade. Yeah, pigeon. Tastes like chicken. Really bad chicken. Overall though, the food was pretty good, and very beautiful.

As is usually the case with these things, I finished 11 courses and was still hungry after. I stopped by Circle K on the way home for an ice cream bar, and avoided all the cat-calling from the women trying to get me into the lady bars and separate me from my cash.


On these solo trips, I always get to the point where I hit the wall. The planned excursions are done, things around the hotel are looking a bit too familiar, and I’m done with the food. I always end up feeling very alone because I don’t speak the language, I’m too much of an introvert to hunt for expats or people who want to talk, and everyone online is asleep when I’m awake. I try to avoid this by booking more stuff to do, but I didn’t get anything set up for Thursday. I looked at Expedia a bit after breakfast, thinking maybe I could get some kind of last-minute boat cruise or an air-conditioned van tour, but I didn’t want to deal with a twelve-hour trip filled with me trying to be social with old people from the Midwest or tour guides who only act nice for a tip. (I also really did not want to explain for the 17th time why I don’t live with my parents or have kids.)

I went for a walk before the temp really heated up. Just south of my hotel is the location of the first US Embassy. It’s at 39 Hàm Nghi Boulevard, and that four-story got hit by a VC car bomb in 1965 or so. That building did survive the war, but I found it’s now razed and there’s a construction project going on, probably some anonymous 40-story office complex. I walked near the site of the second embassy when going to the museum the day before, the one with the helicopters on the roof, the VC sappers under the wire at the perimeter during Tet, etc. It’s a park now, torn down in the 90s. There’s a new consulate next to it, opened in 2000. It’s a single-story thing behind a wall, and looks like the community center at an inner-city housing project built in 1974. It was so weird to me because I just saw in my journal from today in 2016, I saw the embassy in London. And that place is a real “Mini-America abroad” situation, with a limestone building that looked like it was teleported from Georgetown, ringed with bollards and anti-terrorism gear, MSGs toting MP-5s in a gunless country. I’m guessing the embassy in Hanoi is the deployment Marines have to endure before they get a nice one in Europe.

I went to an art museum nearby. It was an old colonial compound and not air conditioned. It was like looking at oil paintings inside a brick pizza oven. No cameras allowed, but cell phones were, which is annoying. I only made it halfway through the first floor and then left. There was one funny room of all paintings of Uncle Ho, pictures of him playing with kids or standing majestically on top of mountains. 

Went back to the Saigon Center mall for lunch, hoping to increase my salt intake to help out the heatstroke. I was the Ugly American and went back to McDonald’s. The McNuggets are identical in Vietnam, and they have regular sweet and sour sauce, unlike India. After lunch, I walked top to bottom through the mall to check out the stores in the half-million square feet of retail space. Every time someone starts talking about the evils of communism, I’m going to post a picture of empty store shelves in a US Target and then a picture of this giant glass and chrome tower filled stem to stern with gear from every luxury chain store imaginable. You could perform surgery on the floor of the mall there, and I even saw a little robot sweeping the corridors. This very much was not the Vietnam of Chuck Norris movies. It reminded me more of the super high end malls of Singapore.

Back at the hotel, I didn’t do anything until 5:00 when the sun started to set. I went on a random walk and then realized I was very close to the Pittman Apartments, which is the setting of the infamous picture of the “last chopper leaving the embassy.” It wasn’t the last chopper to leave, and it wasn’t the embassy. It may or may not have been a CIA building, depending on who you ask. It’s now next to another giant mall, and I had to see if I could get a shot of it.

To get a view of it was bizarre, and I’m glad I found an article describing it. You go in an alley between two storefronts, walk up a set of stairs, traverse through an apartment building, go to an external staircase, walk up six floors, crane all the way over, and you can see it from a 90 degree angle, which doesn’t look like the pictures, because you can’t see the elevator shaft from that angle. Someone said if you go to some rooftop bar two blocks away with a 300mm lens and the right light, you can see it better. Or go to the chemical company that now operates in the building, give the doorman a half-million VND, and hope he looks the other way so you can catch the elevator. The whole thing was so weird, because the building looks like a typical CIA building from 1959, but there’s this gigantic mall next to it, and every other slot on the street below it is like a Circle K or Sunglasses Hut or whatever.

After that quest, I went to the Continental, and ate dinner at their big bougie restaurant where Graham Greene would have eaten every night, or HST would have drank a dozen Singapore slings. There were a couple of old people there, but it was otherwise empty. Had a decent but ho-hum chef’s menu with a lobster bisque and a steak, and ate in silence, watching the traffic outside, in front of the opera house. The view was nice. The dinner was like $180 for basically what I’d get from room service at a Hilton in Pennsylvania. The view was nice, though.

The way home was crazy. It was just a random Thursday night, but it looked like New Years Eve. Lights and spotlights and people everywhere. There was some weird Pepsi thing, a giant can of Pepsi ringed in neon, loud pulsing techno music with Vietnamese lyrics blaring, lights everywhere like a rock concert. Maybe it was a rock concert, or a lip-synced thing with their version of k-pop stars. (v-pop?)  Or maybe they had a Tupac-style hologram of Uncle Ho up there, dancing with Hanoi’s version of Taylor Swift. Saigon is anything but a sleepy little city, especially in District 1.


Friday was my last day. In WTF news – Vo Van Thuong, the President of Vietnam, resigned the day before. Or “was asked to resign” maybe. Turns out there’s a big anti-corruption campaign he was in charge of, to stop the rampant bribery here, and he did something that made the party say, “yeah, maybe you need to go spend some time with your family.” I know nothing about politics in Vietnam, but I’m guessing the bribery culture here isn’t cool to multinationals looking to invest.

* * *

After my last breakfast upstairs, I started packing, throwing things out, shifting stuff between my three bags, planning the long trip, wrapping it all up. While I paced and packed, I gave my dad a call.

Like I mentioned, my dad was in Vietnam, under different circumstances, in 1968-1969. He was never in Saigon; he flew to and from Cam Ranh AFB, then spent his tour at Phan Rang AFB. Both are on the coast, five or six hours from Saigon. Cam Ranh is now an international super-airport; Phan Rang is a VPAF air force base. There’s a lot of nothing surrounding it, and not any way for me to get close enough to do some then-and-now pictures. In the 55 years since he was there, a lot of the American presence is gone, torn down or overgrown.

I was hesitant to go to Vietnam because I didn’t know what my dad would think, and didn’t want to offend him or bring up anything bad. He went from seldom talking about the war when I was a kid to really embracing the veteran’s movement in recent years, always wearing a hat or a jacket, talking to others who do the same. I guess I didn’t want to appear to be giving back to the enemy or anything like that. I don’t really know how much the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh and 1975 has to do with the Vietnam of 2024. It feels like they are different countries, different states of mind. He seemed almost excited I was there, and told me some stuff about his time in Vietnam. It was a good chat.

My dad is my connection to Vietnam, but the obvious connection is I would not be here if it wasn’t for Vietnam. My parents met when my dad was in training outside St. Louis, and when he was about to ship out, they quickly married. I didn’t come up until the next stop along the way, after he’d returned. But there’s the connection. If the military wasn’t a thing and my dad had stayed in his small town in Michigan and worked at a lumberyard or pumped gas, he never would have met my mom, and… well, who knows what would have happened with me. So I felt some strange duty to see the place that was responsible for me, and I did.

* * *

The last day’s festivities included a three-hour jump to Taipei, a three-hour layover in Taiwan, then the 11-hour flight over the Pacific. I did upgrade to the “premium leg room” or whatever they now call it. Because of the time jump, I would land in San Francisco on the same day, four hours ahead of when I took off.

The flight back was okay. I had a rough cab ride to the airport, through lunch traffic on surface roads, lots of stop-and-go, affording one last look at the city. I got checked in with no problem, although the two people in front of me had their carry-ons plus fifteen bags or boxes, all pushing the 50-pound limit. I luckily got pulled into another line as they went through all the labor to get those weighed and sorted.

Ate at a Burger King at the HCMC airport. It was largely the same as a US one, which means it was pretty blah. Actually, it was just the “greatest hits” menu (Whopper, etc) because every time I go in the US, there’s a cornucopia of random new things on the menu that week: tacos, sliders, donuts, chicken sticks, etc. 

On the flight to Taipei, I was sitting next to a guy who I swear was the Vietnamese version of my dad. After the war, he worked for 20 years as a fisherman in Seattle. He kept showing me pictures on his phone of like every fish he’d ever caught and all of his friends’ cars, and started the whole “when you come to Seattle, we get seafood” thing, and I really didn’t want to exchange phone numbers with him and start getting random texts every time he had a Facebook question. Actually, it would be funny if he and my dad became friends and talked about fishing.

The Taipei airport is fairly insane, gigantic. Every gate is basically a sponsored lounge of some sort, themed or filled with artwork. Like it’s not just gate C7, it’s a Hello Kitty-themed Sanrio lounge. It’s also got a duty-free supermall in the middle of it. For whatever reason, I went to the McDonald’s to eat. They do not have their act together there for some reason; everything tasted way off. I don’t know where they get their meat, but it’s wrong. I only ate maybe a third of my burger and threw the rest out.

On the EVA flight home, I got a seat on the exit row, the ones that have like ten feet of leg room, but nowhere to put your stuff. I did not want to sleep, but I couldn’t get my computer or do anything else. I watched the first five minutes of ten different movies, and took some vague notes on my phone for this story. I couldn’t really process everything that happened, but knew I would in the weeks to come. I still haven’t. I need to do more work on this.

I landed at SFO in the pouring rain, the temperature roughly half what it was when I left. After standing in the rain to catch an Uber, I got home, ate a burger, and collapsed. My Apple Watch said I had 34 stand hours on that Friday.

I’m back. My brain is still there. I’d quote the “When I was here I wanted to be there” line from Apocalypse Now, but it doesn’t entirely make sense. Or does it?


2 responses to “Vietnam”

  1. Kilroy was here.

    In all seriousness, I enjoyed the writing and introspection.

  2. Much travel fascination here—the cow tongue, the million weird things unfolding in the alley, the boomer expats who land here in defeat and that you see drinking in the Irish pub on St Patrick’s Day—but to me the undeniable high point of the piece, the scariest moment, is the undecipherable Vietnamese chatter with someone at the next table: “blah blah blah San Francisco blah blah” … from that moment through to the end I was wondering about what the heck was really said. It’s such a question, haunting, and I guess you just can’t go back and ask.

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