Southeast Asia Travel Secrets

Published on January 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

With Singapore being so small and the surrounding region being so rich with culture and beauty, it would be a shame not to travel as often as possible. There are what seems like a million websites and apps out there to help with everything from packing to pinpointing the ideal snack joint, but here are some of the resources I’ve found most helpful over the last three years.

If you’re looking for flights:

Southeast Asia is a hive of budget airlines that compete with each other, which means plenty of cheap offers every week. Sign up for emails from TigerAir, Jetstar, Scoot, and AirAsia to get access to flash sales. Even Groupon has some great offers. Websites like Skyscanner and Kayak are also ideal for comparing cheap flights, while sites like Zuji go further and offer hotels, car rentals and entire holidays.

If you’re looking for hotels:

Booking.com is always my go to due to their free cancellation policy.

If you’re not sure about visas:

The State Department’s SmartTraveler app lays out everything you need to know about passport requirements, visas, entry and exit fees, locations of American embassies, local laws to take note of, tips on staying safe, and any other restrictions or requirements you can expect to encounter.

If you want someone else to do all the work:

It’s a lot of fun planning out a personalized itinerary for a new destination, but it does take time and research to pin down all the details. Companies like Eco Adventures provide everything from English speaking guides to hotels to internal flights, while making your trip as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible.

If you want the inside scoop:

Each article on WikiTravel is a comprehensive breakdown of what you need to know before you go and when you’re there. It’s easy to navigate due to clearly marked sections like “Get In” and “Eat”, and it’s one of the more reliable sources of information about ATMs, local scams, what prices to expect and how to avoid being disrespectful. TripAdvisor’s website and app have also proved invaluable for finding hidden gems, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to affordable nail salons.

If you’re looking to get around:

Uber has proven a lifesaver multiple times in multiple countries, from the United States to Vietnam. Since the Uber app is already hooked up to your credit card, you don’t need to worry if you’re stranded somewhere without cash. And since the driver will have you and your desired destination located on GPS, you don’t need to worry about giving him directions or language issues.

If you’re looking to just explore:

Google Maps is hard to beat. Look up your destination and save the map so you can access it even offline. If your phone has linked with the local phone network, the satellites will also be able to place you on Google Maps.

If you’re hungry:

TripAdvisor and Yelp are probably the most universally reliable, though sometimes digging through the piles of reviews can be exhausting. Usually I just recommend following your nose and taking a chance on a place that looks good. Long lines of people waiting to eat are also a good sign.

If you want a crazy adventure:

Koryo Tours are the people who got us in and around North Korea, but if that’s a bit too crazy a destination for you, they also offer adventures to remote parts of Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia.

If you’re in an emergency:

Hopefully you have travel insurance. I personally recommend ACE Travel Insurance. They found me a clinic up to international standards when I contracted salmonella poisoning in Myanmar. If you’re already in the thick of things, the Travel Safe app is a directory of police, fire and medical services around the world.

Singapore American logo

 

History’s Different Facets: Confronting New Perspectives in Vietnam

Published on April 7, 2014 in Young & Global Magazine:

War Remnants Museum

Here’s a question you probably weren’t asked in history class: Who won the American War? If you’re a little confused as to which war I’m referring to, you’re probably not Vietnamese. To the rest of the world, the prolonged struggle from 1959 to 1975 between communist-backed northern Vietnam and the United States-supported south is commonly known as the Vietnam War. A recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) taught me that history would never be an easy topic to confront or discuss abroad, but that it is worth trying.

A great many Westerners know little about the history of Vietnam before or after this gruesome conflict. The Southeast Asian nation makes a single, traumatizing cameo in American history books, and students will rarely learn about Vietnam from any other angle. While it would be ideal if our education about other nations were more holistic, it isn’t unusual or even remarkable that Americans are taught about the world mainly through our own country’s actions and interactions.

However, it is often forgotten—as in the case of Vietnam—that the foreign players in our nation’s history have long and rich backstories of their own. This is why travel continues to be vital in an era when every nation on earth is represented by galleries of photos on the internet and summaries on Wikipedia. When we go out into the world, we relocate not just our physical bodies, but our minds as well. We are granted the ability to hear these countries’ histories as narrated from their points of view.

This can be frustrating. The history of the world you learned in school will likely be quite different from the recounting you hear abroad, especially when it comes to conflict. It may be tempting to enforce your own nation’s version of events as the “correct” one, but it is important to remember—whether you travel the world or not—that there will never be one entirely accurate account of history. Retellings vary from textbook to textbook, city to city, and country to country. Authors and historians make assumptions, mistakes, and oversights, just like the rest of us. In some cases, you will come across obvious biases or misrepresentations—such as in North Korea’s museums, which feature a clearly false retelling of world events—but most variations will not be so blatant.

History is a collection of human experiences, and each person experiences the world through a unique lens. This lens is heavily influenced by cultural norms and heritage, and many people are unaware of how deeply embedded these influences are. For example: a person who grows up in a powerful, independent country will learn (through formal teachings and subliminal cultural osmosis) to judge the world differently than one who grows up in a country influenced by foreign invasions and occupation. A person who grows up with more than enough to eat is going to appraise a meal differently than a person who grows up with barely enough. A nation that venerates honesty is going to reflect on war differently than a nation that venerates societal harmony.

Modern Propaganda

It is easy to become emotional when faced with an unflattering version of history, particularly if you are American or British or Japanese. You may become angry with your own country, as perhaps you wonder why your teachers failed to cover certain historical events in class. Or you may direct your anger at the country you’re visiting, as perhaps you believe this retelling of events to be unfair. You may feel the urge to completely write off this account of the past, but by doing so you sacrifice a tool for gaining insight into the nation that authored the account. Instead of reacting blindly to this unattractive portrayal of your country, ask yourself why this portrayal exists in the first place.

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City attracts approximately half a million visitors annually and has become one of the city’s most popular tourist sites for foreigners. I left the museum in tears, shaken and bewildered by the unforgivingly vivid photographs of American soldiers smiling next to dismembered men, the piles of slaughtered women, and the children torn apart by U.S. bombs. It might be tempting to decry the War Remnants Museum as propagandist. After all, the museum depicts American soldiers as genocide machines who invaded this country for no reason, and there is almost no mention of any of the Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese atrocities that occurred. But it is worth mentioning that many of the photographs are from vetted American sources and it is worth considering why the Vietnamese government would choose to portray the conflict in such a manner. What might their objective be? And what does it say about them?

By framing this part of history in this way, the War Remnants Museum presents a national Vietnamese identity via its suffering. As a country literally and emotionally split in two by a bloody conflict, a unified identity was an uncertain reality, one that needed to be reinforced. And how better to unite people than to depict them with a common enemy? But this enemy isn’t the United States, however much the violent exhibitions may suggest that it is.

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to the international antiwar movement and the museum does take care to include Americans among the posters, newspaper snippets, and photographs: a B-52 pilot who defected, protests in Washington DC, quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., and so on. The Vietnamese government may want its population to forget how divided it once was, but the last thing it wants is to incite its people into another imbroglio. Thus, while the museum has no qualms about demonstrating the gory actions of the United States, the enemy it wants visitors to remember and fear is the brutality of conflict. We are supposed to understand that ideologies may be grand and noble, but for the civilians on the ground, war is never anything but senseless and inhuman.

In this case, I agree with the choice to portray history this way, even though I left the War Remnants Museum bawling. Most high school history textbooks explore the macro trends that spurred international conflict but don’t expound upon the grisly trauma. And so, it is occasionally necessary to recall that history happened to people. However, while Ho Chi Minh City’s visceral museum is an indispensable reminder of the human element of war, it is also necessary to remember that no matter how mindlessly violent, no conflict is created in a vacuum. Vietnam’s suffering was real and important, but it was not the entire story.

The War Remnants Museum displays some of what occurred during the Vietnam War, actions and reactions, but not why it occurred. Framing the war as a foreign invasion streamlines Vietnam’s role in the struggle, but it subsequently oversimplifies the convoluted and interlocking series of world events that led up to the conflict in the first place. The Vietnam War was only possible due to the tense atmosphere of the Cold War, which cannot be understood without understanding World War II, which in turn cannot be understood without knowing World War I. To fully understand the reasons for the Vietnam War, one has to go back a full century to the beginning of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia. Empathy alone will not prevent history from repeating itself; we must be knowledgeable as well. Thus, it is important when considering a nation’s past to strike a balance between the causes of war as well as the effects. The global currents and ideological conflicts that take place on a macro scale are crucial to understanding why any individual human being would slaughter another.

History gives us context for what we encounter when we travel and while it empowers visitors to be understanding, equally important are your own eyes. Present-day Ho Chi Minh City is bustling and cheerful. The streets are replete with coffee shops, clothing stores, and petite hotels, in front of which women in nón lá (the traditional conical hat) sell baguette sandwiches, bowls of noodles, soft drinks, and fresh coconuts. Tourists are welcomed. When it rains, foreigners and locals hide under the same awnings and share incredulous laughs at the strength of the downpour. This is a far cry from the horrific depictions in the War Remnants Museum and from the somber history featured in Western textbooks. It is important to be aware of the complicated history and to feel personally how brutal conflict is, but it is also vital to take stock of the living, breathing present and to see how the soul and culture of a nation is so much more than just a past struggle.

Young & Global Magazine

 

Five Mistakes Not to Make: Hanoi

My theory is that as long as I have my passport and some money, I can figure the rest out. For my slightly more prepared and detail-oriented travel companions, this lackadaisical approach is maddening. And although I think disastrous changes of plan and getting lost in a foreign city are undervalued opportunities, I will admit there are a few mistakes I made in Hanoi this past weekend that I wish I hadn’t made. So draw wisdom from my errors and go forth!

#1 With the exception of the words ‘Thank You’, English isn’t even sort of prevalent. Before you damn me as an unreasonable tourist demanding that the world speak American, let me say that in a number of other Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, to name a few) English actually is fairly widespread. Menu items had columns of English translations; the locals spoke enough English for a simple conversation and sometimes even a more involved one; even some street signs were readable. Vietnam, however, makes you work a little harder. Outside of national monuments and tourist hubs, you’re going to need to buckle up and use a phrase book. Or work on your charades.

#2 May isn’t the best month to visit Hanoi. When it wasn’t raining, it was scorchingly sunny. When I remembered my umbrella, it wasn’t the worst (could always be monsoon season) but it also wasn’t ideal for traipsing around outdoors. Our guide for our day trip to Ha Long Bay suggested September or October instead.

#3 You need a map. Hell, we used three maps: the one the hotel gave us, a printout from Google maps, and the offline map of the city downloaded onto my phone. And we still got turned around at a couple of Hanoi’s monster intersections. Not that I don’t love getting lost in new places but…

#4 The city’s most popular sites have oddly specific hours and you’ll want to arrive early. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is only open in the mornings and on Sundays it is MOBBED. Also you will be denied access if you’re wearing shorts. Because my pasty white thighs were really going to offend the dead guy.

#5 Bug spray. Use all the bug spray. Hanoi isn’t called the City of Lakes for nothing, and where there are lakes, there are mosquitoes.

Regardless of my missteps, I have to say I fell in love with Hanoi’s easy blend of the traditional and the modern. I loved its delicate, old French architecture and especially adored the food. And now that I’ve learned some lessons the hard way, I’m looking forward to a much smoother trip on my next visit.