Here’s Part 3 of guest contributor Myles Stone’s Viet Nam Diary, featuring his insightful narratives during a recent two-month stay with his family in Hoi An, Viet Nam, during which he received a visit from my son, Grael; daughter-in-law, Nona; and my 16-month-old (and already well-traveled) grandson, Conrad. (Myles’ wife, Aimee, and baby daughter, Mimi, rounded out the contingent of travelers.)
All were born after the Viet Nam War ended in 1975, and thus bring a fresh perspective to the country that so consumed the baby boom generation in the U.S. during the turbulent 1960’s and early 1970’s.
In this post and the next, Myles recounts a visit to Viet Nam’s old imperial capital of Hue during the late April holiday marking the reunification of the country. As with all his posts, photos are courtesy of the family photographer, wife Aimee.
By Myles Stone
Photos by Aimee Stone
It was the start of a major federal holiday celebrating the reunification of Viet Nam. Saigon fell (or was liberated, depending on which half of the country you were born in) on April 30th, 1975.
Over the last 42 years, there has been an emotional transition around this weekend, going from triumphant to somber to memorializing. Now it’s a day off from work that means many things to many different people. Not unlike our Fourth of July.
As Americans in Viet Nam during the Reunification celebration, we treaded very lightly. That said, not once has the war been brought up by our Vietnamese friends, and it seems like most people in Viet Nam are playing the long game.
The war was 50 years ago, and was the unfortunate and likely inevitable conclusion of centuries of foreign intervention. For the past 20 years, the official position of the Vietnamese government has been been that normalized international relations and continued economic growth were more important than reopening old wounds.
I have no doubt that memories of the war still linger in people old enough to have lived through it, but everyone we have met seems to approach the war history in the same way as the government: focusing on healing their country and being proud of both their history and their future.
A Train Trip to Hue
So in that spirit, we thought we’d take this weekend to discover more of their history up close. The old imperial capital city of Hue (pronounced “hway”) is about 3 hours north of us, and we thought we’d pack up the diapers and sippy cups and make the journey to see it.
Since Nona and Grael hadn’t experienced the train yet, it was an easy choice for how we’d get to Hue. But now there were two babies locked up in an 8×8 cell, so we figured that we’d just book a one-way ticket and see how things went before committing to a second train journey home.
Viet Nam remains charmingly analog when it comes to domestic travel. So the morning of the trip, we walked down to one of the neighborhood booking offices, reserved a cabin on the train, and left with paper tickets. I love it.
Since we were planning this trip in real time, we had a relatively tight connection. We had to pack up the babies in less than an hour and catch a car to Da Nang. No small task, but we made it to the station and didn’t forget a single baby.
Of course there was a three hour delay before the train pulled out of the station, so we bonded with several Vietnamese families over all of our kids losing their minds. Some truths are universal.
Once the train started boarding, we walked down the tracks to where our car (car #12) should have been. But the train stopped at car #11. Hmm.
As I began to question the legitimacy of our tickets, we saw another car getting pushed up the tracks. It slowly knocked into the rest of the train, and a train engineer crawled under the tracks to presumably make the final connections. Huh. Seems legit.
Even still, all of us had visions of getting stranded as the rest of our train went up a hill.
But the train ride itself was painless. It was only two hours long, and passed through the green, mountainous highlands that you’ve seen in postcards and history books. Absolutely stunning.
It was lost on the babies, but they kept it together reasonably well. The non-smoking train (presumably enforced by the conductors smoking in the back of the car) even served a decent fried chicken dinner.
Granted, the timing was unfortunate, since I had just told Nona and Grael about what happened after eating questionable fried chicken on a previous trip (spoiler alert: 36 hours of porcelain hopping), but the experience was much better this time around.
Since this train’s intercom was sketchy, I was only 80 percent sure that we got off at the right stop. But the medium-sized station felt right for a city like Hue.
Breaking My “Cabbie Rule”
A taxi driver approached us as soon as we got off the train. Generally speaking, I have a loosely enforced rule to never use the first cabbie that approaches me in a foreign city. That tends to be a recipe for getting scammed.
But the kids were breaking down, and I was in no mood to hike around the city looking for a ride.
As we were loading our luggage into his trunk, I asked him how much our half-mile journey would cost. He told me a price that wasn’t too far from what I pay for a 45 minute trip to Da Nang.
Woah, woah, woah! I told him that we live here (that phrase changes everything around here), and negotiated the price down quite a bit.
We were still over-paying, but the extra dollar or two was a small price to pay to get to the hotel before Mimi completely turned into an over-tired gremlin.
Babies Will Be Babies
No luck. About 10 seconds into the cab ride, Mimi absolutely lost it. Thankfully, this was really only the second or third time on the trip that she was inconsolable. But when it happens, she makes it count.
Maybe I was projecting, but as soon as Mimi started crying, the cab driver warmed up, and looked as though he almost felt guilty for overcharging us.
Again, some truths are universal. We were tired after a long day of travel, and had a baby that was breaking down. Every family worldwide has been there. I wished we had bonded instead over something less ear piercing, but it was a nice moment of humanity.
But my wistful daydreaming was snapped back to reality as cars honked, Mimi wailed, and motorbikes flew by. It only took a few minutes to get to our little boutique hotel, and the charming desk clerk (and chef/maid/maintenance woman) read our faces and kept the introduction brief.
We put our baby to sleep, and for probably the second time in my life, actually opened up the hotel minibar. Ultralight rice beer had never tasted so good.
All in all, the hassles were trivial, and were more than worth the chance to explore another city. But first, some well deserved rest.
Next up: Part II of A Holiday in Hue
Note: You can read more about Myles’ Viet Nam travels and elsewhere at his blog, Myles Away from ordinary.