Asia. This is my first trip and I am a little apprehensive. Usually when I travel, I try to learn some basic phrases in the native language to be more helpful in getting around. Vietnamese? I tried and believe me, it’s not easy.
So, I am half Japanese by heritage and we will be going to Japan but via Vietnam first. I have heard only wonderful things about the beauty of Vietnam, but honestly I am a little torn. We had planned to go to Thailand instead but there was a little political situation there that made it difficult, so Vietnam it was. But … we are American. And there is a history ….
After many, many hours of travel (11+ hours from LA to Tokyo + 7+ hours to Hanoi + layovers, etc), we arrived in Hanoi – at about 10 pm local time. We are exhausted and spent, thinking we just want to get to our hotel. However, we are amazed by what we see through the dark of our present environment. I must say that we are totally unprepared for the third world nature of the landscape. It is not totally unlike what I experienced in India. Tons of construction and mess. Makeshift buildings. Corrugated metal shacks. Lots of trash. My 16 year-old son is shocked. I am thrilled by this unexpected benefit of him seeing how truly different much of the world lives outside of the West.
Morning #1: breakfast. Amongst other choices, this is what they serve. I am in heaven and I am never leaving here. A different version of the ubiquitous dish of pho everyday or other soup/noodle/rice/comfort food dish that I will never tire of.
Though very sleep deprived, Hanoi is a bustling city that begs to be embraced. I wish I could communicate the sounds to you of the traffic, motorbikes, vendors … you can’t experience this city or any without it. And walking across the street is an adventure. Motorbikes flying at you while you calmly navigate the crossing. The first time – terrifying. After that, sport!
On our second day in Hanoi, we hired a guide and driver to tour the city. We have done this now in a number of locations: we get to help plan the itinerary and see what we want to see, we get a valuable education from our guide and we get to ask lots of questions. In Hanoi, our guide Vu took us to an important pilgrimage site for the Vietnamese: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
You can see the scale of this monument by the line of people in the cue. It is immense and impressive. Ho Chi Minh, or “Uncle” as he is referred to, is revered here in the North as the visionary of a unified Vietnam. Although we did not go into the Mausoleum due to time constraints, his body is on display inside – a practice that is somewhat common for Communist Leaders. Interestingly, this is not what Ho Chi Minh wanted. He instead requested that his body be cremated and his ashes split into thirds to be sprinkled in the North, in Central Vietnam and in the South. An expert team in embalming was flown in from Russia with two transport planes full of special equipment and chemicals and the embalming process took one year. We did visit Ho Chi Minh’s house on the grounds which has been preserved as it was during the leader’s life.
Some additional highlights in Hanoi were the Temple of Literature, a Confucian institute of higher education from the 11th century and the Museum of Ethnology, specializing in the 53 distinct ethnic groups that make up the Vietnamese population. The Hoa Lo Prison is known for being the home to POW Senator John McCain during the war, however part of it has been destroyed to allow for modern developments. The Army Museum is also interesting though without a guide, somewhat difficult to grasp as there are few English captions for the exhibits and it’s not clear how accurate the portrayal is.
Traveling in June is the beginning of monsoon season. We got a great taste of this from the restaurant at the top of our hotel in the Old Quarter. Without warning, loud bursts of thunder coupled with great bolts of lightening lit up the sky for minutes and then came a deluge of water like we’ve never seen. It was an amazing site and experience. As this went on for about an hour, our neighborhood became flooded and sandbags started appearing to keep water out of 1st floor storefronts. And then almost as suddenly, the water disappeared!
There is much more I could say about Hanoi. The people and their friendliness. The colors. The aromas. The commotion. The noise! One dish that sums up the experience are the spring rolls, served both fresh and fried. They are the universally loved Northern Vietnamese dish, a comfort food that we ate everyday.
I would and hope to definitely return to Vietnam someday. Not only to visit the many places that we didn’t have time to explore like Sapa, Hue, Saigon, Nha Trang and the Mekong Delta, but also the places like Hanoi that we did visit but could have spent more time. It is a fascinating culture with a rich and complex history and a people who, despite all that they have been through, embrace you to share their heritage.