Throughout our journeys, I have been asked multiple times daily by curious locals, “Where are you from?” The answer is that I was born in the US, but my parents are both from Vietnam, which made our trip to Vietnam particularly exciting for me.
Being Vietnamese was a huge part of my childhood. I still remember when my dad sponsored his family to come to the States, little by little — when Ba Noi (grandma from dad’s side) first arrived, when my cousins came over with their parents, and so on. I don’t forget about how my father flew helicopters for the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War or how my mother’s family — because they were more educated than most in Vietnam — moved to Europe when she was ten to escape Communism. All of these things shaped my parents and directly and indirectly shaped who I am, which is why visiting Vietnam was so special to me. I wanted to see the country that molded my parents and provided the bed of cultural traditions I experienced growing up.
Our first stop in Vietnam was Hanoi, the capital city in the North where my mom was born. We arrived in the middle of winter, and were surprised by very cool and wet weather. It was a welcome break from the rest of stiflingly hot and humid Southeast Asia.
Much city life revolves around Hoan Kiem Lake around which the popular Old Quarter and French Quarter are located. Legend has it that a giant tortoise who used to make his home in Hoan Kiem Lake stole a warrior’s sword and carried it to its watery grave. There is a temple dedicated to this legendary turtle in the middle of the lake across a cute little red bridge. Locals say there are still two large tortoises who live in Hoan Kiem Lake, but they are rarely seen. Where are you, tortoises!?
The pace of life in Hanoi is intense, probably driven by the absolutely ridiculous amounts of traffic. The narrow streets are flooded by a torrent of motorbikes and vehicles, all in a rush to be somewhere else. It is impossible to cross the street the way we were used to in the States, even at crosswalks. By observing, we learned the technique to crossing consists of walking out into oncoming traffic at a slow and steady pace, so drivers can see you and have time to just maneuver around you. No sudden movements, and never turn back! The trick is to move slowly and clearly enough for everyone to see you. It felt ridiculously stupid and unsafe at first, but that is truly how to most effectively and safely cross the street in Hanoi. Now you know, ha!
One hilarious part of staying Hanoi was the shoe repair men. These men wander the streets with shoe shining and repair kits looking for customers, and they are quite aggressive if they feel you need their services. Well, Mitch decided that this trip would be the last hurrah for his 9+ year old Sperry’s that he was issued at the Naval Academy in 2005. These shoes looked pretty terrible after years of wear and months of foreign travel, and this did not escape our shoe shining friends. Within one block, Mitch was accosted by at least three men who spotted his tattered kicks from across the street. They’d point to his shoes and almost demand that they be fixed. One of them even started trying to glue the soles back on as we were walking away. It was simultaneously hilarious and annoying, so after a few days, Mitch decided to avoid wearing those specific shoes at all in Hanoi, ha!
For the first portion of our stay in Hanoi, I accidentally booked a guesthouse in the middle of the backpacker district — something we have managed to avoid our entire trip. We may be backpacking, but we are not the type to be out and about all day and still have energy to party into the wee hours of the night. After some sleepless nights, we moved to a wonderful homestay outside the tourist area where we were hosted by Mrs. Dong, her friend and colleague Narelle, and their dog, Caru. They were absolutely wonderful and took amazing care of us as well as giving us wonderful recommendations of where to grab some good eats and what to see around Hanoi.
One of our first stops in Hanoi was the Maison Centrale, or the “Hanoi Hilton,” as it is sarcastically referred to by Vietnam veterans. This is the prison where South Vietnamese and Americans were held by the North Vietnamese army during the war. I was very impressed with the museum quality displays and the condition that that old buildings were kept. Everything was very well done; however… the information given was incredibly, incredibly one-sided and full of propaganda in favor of the North Communist Party, of course. I won’t go into detail, but I was actually very upset by some of the lies being broadcast to Vietnamese citizens and tourists visiting the prison. The plaques described how well-treated the US prisoners were and how “lucky” (their words) they were to be prisoners under the Communist rule. It’s no secret that the US committed unspeakable atrocities during the Vietnam War, but it was also insulting to be told that the North Vietnamese were nothing but gentleman to US soldiers. This type of propaganda permeated all war-related sites throughout Vietnam. It’s really interesting to think about history and how people in power can shape and change the narrative, history, and perspective of a country.
On Valentine’s Day, Mitch and I spent a romantic morning visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (ha ha!). It was a rainy morning, and we queued up and shuffled through the walkway to see the Communist leader’s embalmed body. The experience was quite strange: we queued up almost single file and were led into the mausoleum where we walked down a quiet corridor and finally into the main room where Ho Chi Minh was surrounded by an orange glow and ogling tourists. Did you know that Ho Chi Minh requested to be cremated but is now flown yearly to Russia for annual “spa” treatments (read: he has to get re-embalmed yearly in Russia)? Yea, talk about a romantic day! We also visited the Temple of Literature, which was built in 1070 as a temple dedicated to Confucius and served as the Imperial Academy.
One of our favorite days in Hanoi was visiting the Blue Dragon weekly football (soccer) games on Sunday morning. I heard about Blue Dragon from our friend Rebecca who we met in Koh Phra Thong, Thailand. She had volunteered for six months with the organization, which assists disadvantaged youth, and put us in touch with her friend Tho who organizes the weekly soccer games. It was eye opening to escape the tourist trail and see another side of Hanoi as well as the kids who absolutely loved playing football.
After the morning games, Tho was so kind and took us to to some of the best local food joints, including a Hanoi original: ca phe trung, or egg coffee. Egg coffee consists of a small amount of very strong coffee topped with whipped egg yolk and cream or condensed milk. It tastes like a little bit of heaven flavored with tiramisu. This cafe was so hidden, there’s no way we would have ever found it without a local! In order to enter, you have to go through a storefront that looks just like another tourist store, walk down a narrow, empty alley, then into the cafe entrance. We climbed three stories for a seat with a beautiful view overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake and enjoyed our ca phe trung and the company of our new friend.
Tho also took us out that evening to the Old Quarter Walking Street. This area of Hanoi shuts its streets off to motorbikes and vehicles on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. Droves of tourists and locals alike flock to the area to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and drink Bia Hoi (fresh beer). Guys, this beer costs $0.10 USD per glass. It’s not the greatest beverage you will ever consume, but it’s a Hanoi must-try when in town.
Our short stay in Hanoi was an interesting introduction to Vietnam where we found the government oppressive (more on this later), the food delicious, and the history fascinating. Even though my mom hardly lived in Hanoi at all, my grandparents did for some time, and I felt closer to understanding them as I walked the streets of this beautiful city.