Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Vietnam: from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

Hue, Vietnam, Planet Backpacker
A 90-something museum guide in Hue offers a betel-nut smile.

Travels With My Wife


Check out my book -- available at and Apple iBooks, $4.99 

By Robert Downes

From the book, Planet Backpacker

Christmas Eve, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

   Christmas in Vietnam starts with a bang -- a furious argument on the streets of Hanoi that threatens to spiral into flying fists and a visit from the cops.

   I should have known better than to take an unmarked, gypsy cab from the airport, but a guy at the travel desk vouched for the driver and we headed into town.

   Hanoi is a gray, chilly place, a far remove from the Death Valley temperatures of Bangkok.  My first impression is of an Asian Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Talking Heads song rings in my thoughts: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”

   There are literally millions of motorbike riders on the streets, with all the riders wearing the new “rice cooker” helmets which were recently mandated by law. There are 22 million bikes in this land of 85 million people, so the helmet manufacturers must be doing handsprings.

   We pass a vast billboard depicting a blood-red B-52 Stratofortress bomber going down over a city filled with explosions.  It’s a horrifying image, full of anger and pain. From the date: “1972” and the number “35” I deduce that this is in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the plane getting shot down, with its wreckage on display at the city’s famous B-52 Museum.  The B-52 carried 60,000 lbs. of high explosive and rained death on Hanoi from 55,000 feet -- it is still the largest bomber in the world.

   For 12 days of Christmas in 1972, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered the bombing of Hanoi, which was to be the last battle of the U.S. war in Vietnam.  The North Vietnamese had turned down America’s final offer at the Paris Peace Talks, knowing that an anti-war Congress had been elected with a vow to cut funding for the war when they took office in January.  So the Nixon administration ordered the bombings which destroyed bridges and factories, but also hospitals and neighborhoods filled with civilians.  The raids sacrificed the lives of several B-52 crews, shot down over the city.  

   But the North Vietnamese high command had the bejesus scared out of them by the bombings -- which had finally brought flaming hell to their door -- and went back to the bargaining table, signing an agreement to end the war.  Yet they considered themselves to be the winners of the air battle.  They figured they’d paid in blood to end the war.

   We got to our destination and the driver and his tout indicated that the hotel was down a side street and that I should pay them, get out, and walk there.  This told me they weren’t on the up-and-up, so I leapt out of the cab with all my gear and said we’d walk the rest of the way to the hotel and pay in the lobby.

  I’m not that tough compared to some of the gritty French and German backpackers I’ve met who’ll eat anything and stay anywhere, but I do have a fuse like a blasting cap when it comes to cab drivers trying to rip me off, which is endemic in Asia.  Several times I’ve pushed the ejector button on cabs, playing their game on my own terms.

   As it turned out, these crooks were directing me down the wrong street, possibly in hopes that I’d be so confused looking for the hotel that they’d be long gone by the time I figured out they had overcharged me.  When I refused to play along, they wanted me to get back in the cab.  No deal.  

   “There’s no way I’m getting back in your cab!” I yelled, walking off down the street with my pack and guitar.  “You lied to me and now there’s no trust.  No trust!”

   There ensued a loud, angry argument in which I insisted on walking in the correct direction of the hotel, with them following me in the car -- screaming, yelling and gesturing the whole way. I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to act like a drama queen and make a fuss in Asia because someone might “lose face,” which is considered to be an intolerable insult, but to hell with that.

   Sure enough, the hotel clerk told me they were charging me two-and-a-half times the local rate and the driver was a bad character.  I gave the driver half of what he wanted and indicated that he should buzz off.  He was mad enough to spit nails, but I don’t think either of us wanted a talk with the police, so eventually he ripped the money from my hand and left.  Then a  happy smile settled on Bubby’s face.

   So, what to do on Christmas Eve in the ‘Nam?  The local restaurants were pretty scroungy, but I found a nice “pho” noodle joint and had chicken soup.  Then I squatted on the sidewalk with six men playing Chinese checkers and watched awhile.  Oooh, my aching joints.  

   A young police officer in a dark green uniform came over for a friendly talk.

   “Where you from?” he asked in ragged English.

   “America. I’m from northern Michigan in America.  It’s up on the big Lake Michigan.  Do you know it?”

   He shook his head yes, but I suspect he didn’t have a clue.

   “My uncle also live in America,” he said. “He live in Mexico City.”

   “You mean he lives in Mexico?” I asked.  

   “No, he live in America -- in Mexico City,” he responded.  

   Before turning in, I saw an old man outside my hotel who was missing a leg.  Probably a casualty of the war, and perhaps this man was younger than me, but had grown old before his time as a result of all the injuries and insults to his life.  He gave me a wary glance and I felt a stab of guilt for what my country had done, so long ago.  I realized that I would be seeing many people here missing limbs and would have to get used to it.

   As I fell asleep, I wondered what it would have been like to have lain in bed on a Christmas Eve long ago, listening to the anti-aircraft guns and SAM missiles exploding far overhead as a B-52 Stratofortress delivered its flaming death.

  Read more tales of adventure in 'Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Buming Around the World" available on amazon kindle and Apple iBooks.

 My Vietnam hit list:

-- I warmed up to Hanoi after a rough landing.  Must do's include the American War Museum (which looks pretty much like a junkyard from the outside with its wrecked planes and is full of propaganda paintings).  Also, the coffeehouse scene in the parks, and the old part of town with its twisting lanes and shopping ops.

  -- Didn't much care for Halong Bay, though most people absolutely love it.  Seemed like far too many tourist boats (disguised as Chinese junks) junking up the vibe.  Said to be the harbor of the ghosts of ancestors, but they must surely be irritated by all of the tourists...

  -- Hoi An.  Can't say enough good things about this village south of Danang just off the famed China Beach.  Dozens of tailors in town can whip you up a new suit in a day or two, and you'll find what is arguably Vietnam's best shopping here.

  -- Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City: lots of big city bustle here and the legendary hotel haunts of the likes of Graham Greene.  A city of surprises... see the chapter in 'Planet Backpacker' about the restaurant that serves scorpions, rats, goat dick and the like...

  -- Hazards, dangers, cautions, etc.  As mentioned in the story above, there are plenty of scammers and con men in Vietnam, anxious to take advantage of long-nose, round-eyed stupid tourists.  Watch out for the bill-switching scam when you take a taxi (and elsewhere).  Wave your money in their face and make sure you both agree on the note.


Visiting Ozzies held a Christmas parade along the parkway in old Hanoi.
Click on the logo to order 'Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Bumming Around the World" from Amazon Kindle -- $4.99 for the illustrated ebook.