A few days before Christmas, I made my way to Hanoi. I admit I was nervous about going, since what I have ever really heard about Vietnam surrounded a gory history from nearly half a century ago. Upon landing, it became very clear that those stories of the country were no longer valid. I was disappointed only in discovering that I had not nearly enough time to explore the area as I had thought, and I’ll have to plan a future trip to fill in all of the gaps I’ve left there.
Let me start with some general things about Hanoi and the area. Generally, the French influence in Hanoi was palpable in the architecture, and a lot of the buildings were old but quite beautiful. The only way I could describe the look of the city is a very old, communist Paris.
Overall Madness: The best way to describe the atmosphere of Hanoi is that it’s NYC on speed. I mean this in the nicest way possible – Hanoi is just extremely energized and bustling at speeds trumping Manhattan pace by a lot. Half of the country’s population owns a motorbike, and it’s clearly felt as they rip through the streets all day and night. There are also 7 million people packed in an ancient city’s streets (Hanoi is a couple thousand years old), squirming around each other to get places. The stores stuff themselves between each other and brim onto the street with their merchandise, and cars/motorbikes take up a lot of the extra space on the road. I was staying in the Old Quarter, which is more packed and chaotic, but also more charming. Outside of the area, though, I would say the overall frenzy was the same, just more spread out on bigger streets. The biggest problem with this madness was the massive pollution everywhere. The air was thick with smog and I found my nostrils polluted.
Post-War Sentiments: I was nervous that the Vietnamese would not appreciate me, an American, visiting their country (I mean, we did kind of mess things up for them in an epic way). I was relieved to discover that the people seem to view it all as water under the bridge. They mention it in their country’s history, of course, since it was a big piece of recent history. But it was described as more of a piece of confusing history where they shrug and say, “Yeah, well, that happened.”
I went to tour the grim Hoa Lo Prison, where Vietnamese were killed and detained by the French, and American POWs were held during the war. The exhibits had a patriotic air to them, and talked of the countrymen’s struggles to be independent of tyrants….but I would feel much more uncomfortable as a French person there than American. The American section was seen almost like we were a silly irritant they tolerated while they struggled with the south area of the country.
With all of this, one odd thing I found there was that John McCain is kind of a big deal there. One tour guide talked about him as if he himself stopped the Vietnam War, and the prison tour had lots of pictures of him during and after being a POW, with his trooper outfits on display nearby. I found it surprising because I was not of the mind that McCain had too much to do with the war as a whole, other than fight in it….but that’s not the image I get of him there.
Christmas: I went to Hanoi for Christmas, thinking that I was going to be the sole celebratory person. How wrong I was. I would venture to say that Vietnamese in Hanoi put most Christian-centric areas of the world to shame with their splendor for the holidays. I went past one street in the Old Quarter with stores swollen with Santa outfits for sale. And people were actually wearing Santa getups in the city for days! Children and men strutted around in full red suits and women dressed as cute reindeer in heels. There were big balloon clusters of snowmen and Santas being floated around and sold throughout the town.
On Christmas Eve, I swear I was in NYC on New Year’s Eve! The streets were congested with so many motorbikes that they couldn’t move around each other. The town was glowing and buzzing with Christmas, and people were making their way to the big Cathedral in town. Curious, I went to the Cathedral with the mob, and found myself in a square where I heard on a speakerphone someone telling a grand story, and a JumboTron in front of the Cathedral broadcasting what was clearly the Story of Christmas (presumably happening in the church). Vietnamese people were there taking pictures smiling in front of the nativity scene and television, though clearly not paying attention to the story being told (I may not be a Christian anymore, but even I was feeling disappointed for the performers’ preoccupied audience). It was all about the celebrations, clearly. Walking back to the hotel, I heard musicians playing carols and restaurants along the area packed with diners and hosting bands playing more holiday tunes.
Funny enough, whenever I wished a Vietnamese a Happy Christmas, they would shy away and say, “Oh, no, we don’t celebrate Christmas here.” Really? I could have sworn you very much did.
More onto the activities of the few days I was there.
My exploring was cut short because within my first 7 hours in the country, I drank a fruit smoothie with yoghurt that was tainted. I had food poisoning and rendered dangerously useless for a day or two. It got to the point where my fever got too high and I could barely stay standing, so I went to a medical clinic – thanks for the tip with that one Tessa! – that hooked me up to an IV drip and shot me up with antibiotics and other great drugs to make me stop getting sick everywhere (meant literally). Fortunately, the hotel I was kind and very worried about my health, bringing me bananas and rice and checking in to see if I was alive throughout the ordeal. Don’t worry, I’m better now – the antibiotics have been strong and helpful.
Because of the great care at the clinic, I was able to make on a tour bus a day after being treated so I could visit the famous UNESCO Site, Ha Long Bay. The drive was three or four hours long with crazy driving (thank you, anti-vomiting meds!), and with a strange pit stop in the middle at an art factory of sorts. Getting to the bay, though, to see just a glimpse of the whole place was totally worth it. I felt spiritually moved with the beauty in Ha Long Bay, and that’s even with it being packed of tourists! The limestone mountains jutting out of the water make a magical atmosphere where we were in a watery paradise that only existed for us, even if for a few hours. In the bay we also went to a cave to see the pretty internal stalactites, which was also a beautiful sight to see for a little while.
I was still dealing with food poisoning and didn’t eat much outside of steamed rice and bananas, but I also heard the food on the tour was great. Our tour guide was a sweet lady who was full of life and pleasant jokes.
I don’t know what else to say about Ha Long Bay, other than it was one of those places I will try to make to again in the future, just to admire the beauty a bit more.
When in Hanoi and not puking my brains out, I toured the city. I walked around the mythical Hoan Kiem Lake and visited the temple on it (Ngoc Son Temple), which is an extremely old reminder of the Chinese influence on the region. And I walked around the Old Quarter to see what kind of other strange shops may exist on different streets. I also visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which was an impressive big box, and ended up meeting an older man named Chien who offered to tour me around the city. Seeing as his name in French translates to my favorite animal in the world (aka dog), I felt it should be fine to join him on his tour of Hanoi. He was a friendly guy who was interested in my family, and shared me stories of his family as well. He showed me as much as he could in a few hours, and was highly concerned that I was going to fall off of his motorcycle at any moment.
Tutting through Hanoi on a motorbike reminded me I was very much in a communist country. Pictures and statues honored hard labor, and the communist flag was flown from most streets we went down.
Chien took me to the Museum of Ethnology, which is a fantastic museum that showcases many of the 54 ethnic tribe Vietnam hosts with exhibits and videos. They also have a tribal house garden, which allows tourists like me to walk around and in houses constructed as if they are meant to be used by specific tribes. I realized about ten years ago in Wales that this was my favorite kind of museum – the exploratory kind that lets me feel what it’s like for a moment to live in a setting like another group of people. I was so happy to find myself in a museum like that in Vietnam. Very well done! He also took me to the Temple of Literature, a millennium-old university. It was a lovely campus, and swarming with tourists, but still peaceful and nice to visit.
On the evening of the 25th, I bought a ticket to see a water puppet show. This is a very old storytelling method in the area, where they take light wood and paint it into puppets, then perform stories and myths on top of ponds of water. It was a really fun experience, though don’t ask me what most of it was about as it was all in Vietnamese and I somehow missed the pamphlet that translated what was happening. In any case, the puppets were beautiful and seeing such a unique form of storytelling integrating water completely was a real treat for the water-related graduate student in me. It became clear to me how important lakes and rivers are to the history of the people there, and how their lives have revolved around bodies of water in a major way for a long time.
Locals who would interact with me seemed really worried about me being alone while there. I felt safe while walking around (except for my stomach), but I think the locals were more upset about me traveling solo than I could ever have been. Honestly, I was fine. Even on Christmas Day, where I stomached a fancy holiday meal as much as I could, I was happy to be with myself in such an exciting and fun town.