Time is speeding up, it seems. We have seriously front-loaded our year with Shanghai, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and our first trip to the US all in the first four months of 2010. We leave in about 10 days and we both have long to do lists and we haven't even told you about Vietnam!

So Vietnam was actually part of a larger trip for our friend Leah. Leah started in Hong Kong two Sundays ago and I met her and Caroline there for a super short trip before I came home to work and Leah and C stayed for the week. It was very quick, but I love Hong Kong and there was yummy dim sum and that's always good.

Last Thursday, Leah met Kyle and me in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City for a long weekend and our introduction to Vietnam.

The first thing to address as far as Vietnam goes is the obvious. We've had friends ask us if we could even go to Vietnam. "Do they let Americans in?" "Would you want to go?" "I know you weren't born yet, but,  um, our country and Vietnam have a history, and it was a bit of a mess." The short answer is yes, they let Americans in, and yes, we wanted to go. The trip did open our eyes to some holes in our knowledge of American history (all three of us), but we really enjoyed it and would like to go back to see more of the country.

We spent a couple of days in Saigon. For the most part we walked (a lot!) around the city and just took in city life. City life consists of a lot of motorbikes and some really stunning wiring practices. 

We did go to the War Remnants museum, a gated building with American planes in the courtyard on blocks.

While the museum was certainly one-sided, none of us thought that it was overwhelmingly anti-American, and in fact it seems that museum's target audience is Americans and Westerners. The exhibits were in English and French, and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his book/documentary In Retrospect were heavily featured. One of the largest and best exhibits was a photography exhibit donated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky of war corespondent photographers--mostly Americans--who died in Vietnam and Indochina. 

Later that night a Canadian we met said of the museum, "Don't let it make you be embarrassed to be an American." That wasn't my reaction at all. I told him that if anything, it made me embarrassed to be human. We are all capable of doing some really awful things to each other.

We actually spent far less time in the museum than we could have because they closed for lunch and we were hot and hungry too, so we went off in search of food. We spent the rest of the day wandering before looking for a bia hoi spot for a drink. Bia hoi is a type of fresh beer made locally, and bia hoi "bars" spring up along the road in the evenings. The lager has a very low alcohol content and is brewed daily and delivered in plastic jugs each afternoon. Bia hoi is completely informal and isn't monitored by any health authority. We just hoped there would be enough alcohol to kill anything dangerous.

We wandered in a bia hoi bar where we were almost the only westerners and Leah and I were one of only a handful of women. The single other westerner in the place was the aforementioned Canadian guy living in Australia named Tom. He is touring SEA on a motorcycle for charity and had just had his head shaved by a monk for a $6000 donation. He welcomed us to his table and we spent the rest of the evening chatting with his friends: Tang, Mr. Ninh, and another man who was reportedly 75 and didn't speak English, but was quick to smile and top up our glasses.

The waitress plunked down three glasses with a single huge chunk of ice each (chipped from a massive block), and a plastic jug of beer. We gave our ice to the locals (we know better) and started toasting our new friends.

Mr. Ninh is a construction engineer with three children, a wife, and a mistress. During the war he was an interpreter for the Marines and his English is quite good. He also speaks some French (more than me, but then that's not saying much.) He taught us to say "cheers" in Vietnamese and explained that it's polite to tell a man how handsome he is. So of course we went around the table toasting and discussing everyone's overwhelming handsomeness. He was happy to have his picture taken and wants me to send him a copy of my pictures via Tom.

Tom was thrilled to be having a drink with native English speakers. (By the time we arrived he'd already had quite a few drinks with Mr. Ninh and his friend, and was all the more enthusiastic for it.) He told us about his motorcycle crusade. He and four friends are raising money for an orphanage in Cambodia. He told us about a nasty bike accident in northern Laos, which involved the air-removal of one guy to Bangkok with a broken leg and the subsequent arrest of the other three riders by the Laotian authorities because, um, where did that helicopter come from?!

Tang makes his living driving a motorbike taxi. He and his wife are separated and he has two children. He and Tom became fast friends because Tom hired him on the street to take him to get some food and Tang took him to some great hole in the wall place (much like the one we were currently sitting it) and didn't suggest the usual single male Western tourist vices (I'm sure you can imagine what those might be.)

We spent a couple of hours in the bia hoi bar before Tom suggested dinner. Mr. Ninh had a date (I think with the mistress) but Tang knew of a place so Tom, Tang, and the three of us took a cab to another of Tang's "hole in the wall" restaurants and had dinner together. They hadn't let us pay for the beer, so we treated Tom and Tang to dinner and chatted more about traveling, Southeast Asia, motorcycles, and Vietnam.

After dinner we were all pretty exhausted and we needed to be on a bus early the next morning to spend the day in the Mekong Delta, so we bid Tom and Tang goodnight and headed back to our guesthouse.

A friend told me that when she visited Pearl Harbor she was upset by the crowds of Japanese tourists smiling for photos. She understood, of course, that those tourists had not been involved, but it still made her somehow uncomfortable. I'd expect there is some of that uncomfortableness on both sides--on the part of the Vietnamese, and on the part of Americans who lived through and lost loved ones in the war. In fact, someone reading this may be uncomfortable that we even went and had a nice time. But everyone we met was kind and friendly, and we spent all evening in a bar with four Vietnamese men who were very respectful, bought our drinks, toasted us, and treated us like friends. We weren't embarrassed to be Americans or humans.