Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, January 9 – February 7, 2019
While I remember hearing a lot about America’s involvement with this country halfway around the world as a kid, I don’t recall really learning much about Vietnam in school. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, or maybe the history was too raw and complex for American educators to distill into digestible lessons at that time. My dad wasn’t drafted; he completed military service straight out of high school before the draft would have affected him, and I don’t recall his friends that did go talking much about it. So going into this month-long visit I felt ignorant, in awe and somewhat guarded, simply unknowing of what the reaction would be to American travelers. I had a goal to learn as much as I could, attempting to patch the gaping hole in my education and understanding. The one major lesson I took from our month in Vietnam is that – as with most things – it’s complicated, but that’s a big part of what makes this incredibly resilient country, and its people, so beautiful.
The Vietnamese (that we interacted with anyway) talk about the “American War” with almost detached neutrality. The people, from North to South, never responded to our American-ness with disdain or distaste. While walking around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi one morning, a short, older and vibrant woman came up to us with a big smile and said, “You look like happy family.” We chatted for a while and learned that she walks around the lake every day, that she’d had a long career as an engineer, and that her husband had been killed many years ago when an American bomb hit a building he was in. Us being American never dimmed her smile or changed the tone of the conversation. She taught us some Vietnamese words and went on her way, happily helping another frightened-looking tourist cross the street (a death-defying feat in Hanoi).
I don’t know why I felt so guarded about being American in Vietnam, and I’m probably oversimplifying here, but I learned that at least in our travels with children by our side, we were welcomed warmly.
The deep complexity, tragic history and cultural story of this recently-independent country was woven throughout our visits to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, the Hoi An Museum of Folk Culture, and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
I believe though, that our visit was most enhanced by a lot of reading we did while there (many thanks to our fellow traveling friends Tania & Kyle for some of these suggestions). We all loved Listen Slowly, a novel narrated by an American-Vietnamese tween who unenthusiastically accompanies her Grandmother back to Vietnam, and The Best We Could Do, a detailed and moving memoir by a Californian woman who fled Vietnam as a young girl, told in haunting graphic novel form. The Beauty of Humanity Movement was a gorgeous story centered in Hanoi, and was wonderful to digest while in that city. The hardest to get through was The Sympathizer, an intentionally acrid novel about a Vietnamese double agent. Wayne and I also watched 2-3 episodes of the epic documentary series The Vietnam War. The whole thing is 18 hours long; after the first 80+ minute episode, all I could think was, mouth agape, “Holy shit, what a mess.”
We spent a month here, traveling by train from North to South (see Wayne’s video compilation here). The bulk of our time was spent in Hanoi and Hoi An, with a side trip to Ha Long Bay and shorter stays in Nha Trang and Saigon. During that month we had so many amazing experiences, but to disclose up front, there were also challenges:
Vietnamese cities are LOUD. So loud. There’s constant beeping, nonstop traffic (which carries with it bad air quality), roosters crowing at all hours of the night, off-key and/or extra loud music, and the language, with its nails-on-a-chalkboard tonal intonations. Our first week in the country we had the privilege and challenge of three straight days of funeral ceremony singing and instrumentation right outside our window in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It was humbling to witness, but the noise (aka music) was cringe-inducing to our unsophisticated ears.
There are over-touristed parts (yes we are tourists, yes we contribute to this) of the country where super aggressive selling starts to wear you down. Some very well-traveled bloggers have written that they won’t return to Vietnam for this reason. I didn’t get close to that, as we spent less time in these parts. But Hue, Nha Trang and parts of Hoi An’s Old Town were examples of places that seem to have gone over the edge in this respect.
Finally, in Hoi An, the girls and Wayne battled some flu-like sickies. It’s never fun to be sick when you’re away from home, and now that the girls can search the internet, they maximize their anxiety by insisting that every ache, pain and squinge must be malaria, yellow fever, or dengue (or all three combined). Luckily for the girls their fevers and aches were short-lived, but still convinced them that every mosquito bite (and there were many) was lethal and all Vietnamese food would make them sick. Wayne battled the aches and fever and then on came the trailing chest cough, so he unfortunately struggled for longer. I managed to resist until we got to Cambodia a few weeks later, then had my (luckily quick) turn.
These challenges aside, our month in Vietnam was truly a gift.
Hanoi, cold and damp with all of its noise, insanity and mystical charm, is a city I’d go back to in a heartbeat. I think it’s one of those love or hate places – the girls got through it but not without some major anxiety trying to navigate the narrow, motorbike-packed alleys of the Old Quarter (Annabelle’s take here). The late Anthony Bourdain was so much more eloquent describing this country than I’ll ever be in his Hanoi Parts Unknown episode (a must-see). Yes, we did play geeky tourists at the restaurant where he and President Obama dined on bun cha and seafood spring rolls among seemingly disinterested Hanoians. The photo below shows the table they dined at encased in glass.
I’ll never forget watching Annabelle stare out our hostel window at the woman down below in the street washing a huge pig’s head, really digging in to the ears and snout up through the neck with her bare hands. Walking and running around Hoan Kiem Lake in the early morning achieved less peace and quiet than I was seeking, yet gifted the fascinating sights of SO much activity. These people rise REALLY early to get in their exercise and socialization. Observing these activities simply made me happy; the Vietnamese know what contributes to a long and happy life, and they partake in it – especially the women. I saw MANY more women than men in all of Vietnam in the early mornings dancing, walking, moving, smiling and laughing with each other.
In Hoi An:
I’ll fondly remember biking to the beach and running along concrete paths cut through emerald green rice paddies.
In this busy but smaller town we got to spend lots of time with seven other traveling families, sharing stories, comparing itineraries, building new friendships, and enjoying the camaraderie of the common bond we share. A huge thanks again to Tania and Kyle for introducing us to this awesome crew.
A favorite memory: after spending a fun afternoon at An Bang Beach with the families celebrating one of the youngest kids’ birthdays, we biked back into town together with Andre, Becky and their kids in the dark, on the rusty bikes from our guesthouse, without helmets, with Annabelle on the back of Wayne’s bike and just a couple of lights between all eight of us. In Seattle this probably would have been illegal. In Hoi An it was a little bit scary but mostly exhilarating – we’d just met this other traveling family from South Africa, and here we were on the other side of the world taking care of each other, sticking together through the dark and the traffic. We joined them at a neighborhood restaurant they’d frequented and collectively devoured the four dishes on the menu. The adults drank local beer and shared stories of parenting on the road, and the kids snuggled the restaurant owners’ tiny puppies. It was one of those amazing, spontaneous travel days you couldn’t recreate if you tried.
Artisans abound in Hoi An, and all of us got to exploit some inner creativity. Annabelle went all in on a leather making class, and Wayne & Amelia tested their calligraphy skills with an expert.
We also kept up our tradition of seeing a new town by bike tour in Hoi An (and meeting really fun semi-retired traveling couples from all over the world). We got to grind rice into milk for pancakes (banh cuon and banh xeo), gasp at the nonexistent safety gear at a real boat making site (chainsaw while in flip flops, anyone?), visit with a 99 year-old river weed weaver and her family, and try locally-made rice whiskey.
In Nha Trang:
While the town itself was an international Vegas-like strip of huge hotels, cheap souvenir stores and Western and Russian restaurants, the beach was clean and beautiful, and we enjoyed walking on the soft sand and playing in the huge waves.
Wayne and the girls also had a great day at the Vinpearl water park/amusement park/zoo (speaking of overdevelopment for tourists), accesible only by boat or gondola…
While I relished a solo visit to the hillside Ponagar Temple complex, watching the devoted leave offerings for ancestors in the days leading up to Tet.
The biggest celebration of the whole year is Tet – Vietnamese New Year – and we were so fortunate to be in the country during this time to witness all of the buildup in preparations and experience the actual three days of holiday.
At our Hoi An guesthouse, we were humbled to be invited to the owner’s pre-Tet party with family and friends. I’ll remember Wayne and I sitting on low plastic stools around one of ten tables, enjoying curry stew, mini baguettes and learning how to munch watermelon seeds while chatting with the owner’s teenage son about his school, family and Tet traditions (I wish we had taken photos!).
In Nha Trang, Tet prep was evident on the wide sidewalks that showcased ornamental kumquat trees with red bows and envelopes. Vietnamese homes are decorated with these during Tet, kind of like Christmas trees, I deduced, until I saw how the Vietnamese shop for their Tet trees – drive up next to the sidewalk on your motorbike to peruse the selection and carry it home on the bike! We regretfully didn’t get good photos of this but thankfully others have.
We were in Saigon during the three key days of Tet. This was somewhat fortuitous for our travels; the even-more-insane-than-Hanoi rumors we’d heard just weren’t true during these important family holidays. It was strangely quiet and everyone was happy. In the elevator of our apartment building we said Xin Chao and Happy Tet to a Vietnamese family on their way out to festivities. The mother then excitedly pulled two red envelopes out of her bag and gave one each to the girls. Red envelopes = traditional gifts of money = surprised and smiling A&A.
After regaining our composure from this overwhelming kindness, we strolled the silent streets of Saigon towards Tao Dam Park. We walked the beautifully manicured grounds taking in the celebrations and watching Vietnamese families and their dressed up kids enjoying rides, food, and holiday festivities together.
All throughout our North to South journey, as my hesitancy and guardedness evaporated through these experiences, the themes replayed that even on the other side of the world, in a country so embattled, people love their families, welcome strangers, celebrate holidays, and carry on, through good times and through war. I’ve been to very few places in the world that have been torn apart by recent conflict, and in the grand context of an entire country, I saw very little of Vietnam. What I did see, combined with a sprinkle of helpful books and documentaries, taught me above all else that the Vietnamese are an incredibly resilient people, and it would do us all good in America to try and understand just a little bit more.