Photographer, author, military historian Aaron Edwards checked in to Da Nang, Vietnam. First thing that came to his mind was this: “Good morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test. This is rock and roll. Time to rock it from the delta to the DMZ! Is that me, or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang. Oh, viva, Da Nang. Da Nang me, Da Nang me. Why don’t they get a rope and hang me? Hey, is it a little too early for being that loud? Hey, too late. It’s 0600 What’s the “0” stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early.” This was Adrian Cronauer aka Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam (1987). Aaron, an author on mainly military matters, is on the big tour with girlfriend Charlotte Britton, even taking in that church on the Highway of Horrors, where civilians took refuge in the intense fighting of 1972 – not even holy places were respected. He also took pictures in Hué and the Imperial City. This is a taste of Vietnam exclusively for readers of The Democrat. Aaron said: “The 13-hour ‘sleeper’ train from Hanoi to Hué was an experience to behold.”
Words and photo essay by Aaron Edwards
Half a century after war ravaged Vietnam, Aaron Edwards discovers a vibrant country on the rise. I’d started off my 12-day holiday to Vietnam in the south-western city of Ho Chi Minh after two weeks spent travelling in Thailand and Malaysia. Vietnam has always fascinated me. Like most people in the West, I’d been subjected to a negative Hollywood representation of it for years. What I discovered was something very different.
“I can see this country becoming an Asian powerhouse in the near future,” remarked a friend of mine who had accompanied me on the first few days of my trip. We were sitting on a rooftop bar in the upmarket Silverlands Hotel at the time. All around us were flashy Canon and Samsung billboards littering the skyline of a city that could easily pass for Hong Kong. Vietnam is undoubtedly rising. Its 95 million people appear self-confident and enterprising. What I saw in Ho Chi Minh City and later in Hanoi suggests that time does not stand still here.
Vietnam might be under one party Communist rule but take away the flags and emblems and you’d be hard pushed to find anything overly oppressive at street level. I’ve been to a few countries in recent years where policemen grumpily wave their rubber truncheons, questioning your every move. Not here. Vietnam is definitely open for tourism.
Behind the scenes, there’s a thriving market economy. The government seem tolerant of free enterprise. Even the internet is fairly open.
After a visit to a few war-related sites – hard to avoid in a country with a long history of colonialism and resistance – and the extraordinary Fine Arts Museum in Ho Chi Minh, we moved on to a very wet Hanoi and a mix of peculiar national memorials and a street food tour.
The food in Vietnam is delicious and simple. Beef noodle soup, Ban Chi and spring rolls are the staple diet. A few eateries have even incorporated Western style dishes like hamburgers and fish and chips but on the whole the cuisine remains distinctly Vietnamese.
From Hanoi, I travelled with my girlfriend Charlotte on a 13-hour overnight sleeper train to the old Imperial City of Hué. The soft four-berth cabins aboard Vietnam’s reunification railway express are reasonably comfortable but there’s no telling what kind of berth buddies you’ll get. Two Vietnamese families were crammed into two single-person berths and the noise was extraordinary but it is all part of the experience. Our reward came when we arrived in Hué and checked into the French colonial style hotel Saigon Morin. Built in 1901, the original decor has been carefully preserved. Outside the hotel on the other side of the Perfume River, the rest of the city has been mostly rebuilt, having been practically destroyed during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
A day-long tour of the Demilitarised Zone, which once divided north and south Vietnam along the 17th Parallel, allowed us to appreciate the real costs of the Vietnam/American War of 1965-75.
Our last stop was in Da Nang, a place bordered by breathtaking jagged mountain ranges and the South China Sea. All in all, a wonderful holiday to an up and coming tourist destination. If you ever get the chance, go.