Vietnam was a country I was both excited about and scared of. I was afraid of what its citizens would think of me, having read one too many blog posts about American tourists getting cheated out of their pocket change as a time-delayed revenge move for the American War.
I should have known better.
For the most part, to most of the people with whom we interacted, our nationality didn’t matter. Our American accents didn’t matter. Neither the color of our skin nor the color of our passports mattered. After our six days in Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An, and Da Nang, the only thing that mattered was that we didn’t really want to leave.
My then-boyfriend and now-husband Eric and I rolled into Hanoi very late at night in May 2018. We found a Vietnam Airlines shuttle bus at the airport to take us to our hostel, Vietnam Backpackers Hostel The Original. (“The Original” is part of the name.) Too tired to care that the room to which we were led contained not four (our target) but eight other beds, each housing an equally-exhausted trekker, we collapsed on our assigned bunk beds.
History Lessons from Hoa Lo Prison
The next morning, Eric and I explored Hoa Lo Prison, or “The Hanoi Hilton.” Used by the French colonists for Vietnamese revolutionaries and political prisoners and then by the Vietnamese for US prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, it’s a rather fascinating relic of history. As Eric and I explored, we were floored by the overall tone of the museum’s placards, which ran contrary to the tone used by all of our childhood educators and history textbooks: the Vietnamese imprisoned there by the French were “heroes” as they faced “unthinkable brutality,” while the Americans housed there by the Vietnamese “lived comfortably” and “played games.”
Being in a museum like this made me wonder what it meant to be educated under the auspices of a certain set of facts, ones generally agreed-upon in the textbooks taught in one’s schools and corroborated by what one chooses to read, and to then experience an entirely different narrative in another country. What did it mean when an event I thought I understood looked completely different through the eyes of another? In one corner of the museum, I found pictures of none other than John McCain, who received medical care in Hoa Lo Prison.
These questions, these visions, all made for an incredibly enlightening visit to Vietnam, one that has energized me with more questions and an even more critical eye through which I now view the complicated facets of history.
After leaving the prison, Eric and I ate lunch at Banh Mi 25. Banh mi is an extremely popular Vietnamese food with an interesting colonial history, in fact. At this lunch spot, I learned that the French colonists brought their classic snack of a French baguette and patê to Vietnam, and subsequently the Vietnamese reclaimed this snack by adding pork, cucumber, cilantro, carrots, and other add-ins to the dish. Thesis statement: it was the best banh mi I’ve ever had and it was about one dollar.
We spent a little over an hour that afternoon getting massages. True to our style of travel, we were quite hungry after that, so we had chicken pho (a traditional Vietnamese soup) at a hard-to-find local restaurant. Thesis statement: it was the best pho I’ve ever had and it was about one dollar.
Bellies full of pho, Eric and I went together to an area of Hanoi called Beer Corner. There, locals and tourists alike sat on impossibly small stools, lining the streets like human sidewalks and lining up their empties in the gutters. Occasionally, a woman selling snacks wandered by and offered us chicken feet. I took a swig of my beer in response, hoping that I’d get used to seeing baskets of chicken feet someday but suspecting I would not.
On our last day in Hanoi, we went to the famous Bun cha shop that Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain visited in 2016. Immediately after entering the shop, we knew we were in the right place. Someone had decorated the walls exclusively with pictures of Obama and signs advertising the exact meal he got. Bun cha, the third of the three staple Vietnamese foods Eric and I had set out to try in Vietnam, is a pork and vinegar-like broth dish. I had about a third of mine and it was absolutely delicious; however, a copious amount of fish sauce was not something I was used to and not something I could, as of that moment in my life, eat an entire bowl of. (I noticed that Obama might have felt the same way, because in all of the pictures they have of him in action, he’s only part way through his own bowl of bun cha.)
That night, Eric and I wandered lively downtown Hanoi. It was thronging with people: children were launching tiny parachutes into the sky, mobs of people were line dancing in the streets, buskers were playing their traditional instruments for small crowds. Surprises waited around every street corner like little packages waiting to be unwrapped.
We went to the Water Puppet Show at 8:00PM. This medium started as a form of entertainment in rural Vietnam, used to pass time and generate smiles when rice paddies flooded. The art form involves beautifully-engineered puppets operated from behind a curtain by humans half-submerged in water. The puppets then perform in a pool of water, treating the water like either water or a floor, depending upon the skit. Each skit had a simple name that was just enough to guide foreigners like me and Eric: “Boy with Flute,” “Man Fishing,” “Dancing Dragons,” and “Student Coming Home To Pay Tribute To His Ancestors For Good Grade On National Exam” are some 100% real examples of the skit names. Throughout the show, professional musicians played traditional instruments to provide the soundtrack to this dialogue-less show. I had never even seen some of the instruments before! I had to restrain myself from giving a raucous standing ovation at the show’s end.
Ha Long Bay
The next morning, a private van collected us for our two-day, one-night cruise on the Paradise Elegance. From that scintillating vessel we’d see Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about a four hours’ drive east of Hanoi. Upon arrival, Eric and I were thrilled with the ship’s modest size and even more modest capacity. After we explored the dining room and upper decks, we scrambled down to the first floor to see our guest room. What a sight it was! Our room was reason enough to do this cruise. We had a king bed, changing area, full bathroom, and enormous windows with a private balcony attached. The only other cruise I’d experienced in my life was a Carnival cruise to the Caribbean, taken as somewhat of a joke. This, I assure you, was far better.
Down by the Bay
That day, we went on two excursions, the first of which was a short walk through one of the largest caves in Ha Long Bay where rock formations, stalactites, and stalagmites inside tell stories. The most exciting formation is one that looks like a dragon approaching Ha Long Bay. This makes sense, of course, because “Ha Long Bay” itself translates to “Descending Dragon.”
The sunset over the bay, with the light snuggling its way around each of the islands rising from calm waters, was mesmerizing. When it came time to disembark, Eric and I found ourselves dreaming of ways to stow away, wishing only for one more night on a bay steeped in mysticism and beauty.
Hoi An & Da Nang
Sights & Seams in Hoi An
The benefit of going south to Da Nang is that it grants you access to an entirely different part of Vietnam. Though a worthy destination in and of itself and one we’d visit soon, Da Nang wasn’t our first stop in the south. We were headed to Hoi An, a beautiful and quaint UNESCO World Heritage town. The buildings are each a different, sunny color, and it is the tailoring capital of Asia. And what do you do at the tailoring capital of Asia?
You go to the tailor.
After three appointments at BeBe Custom Clothing (one for suit design, another for fitting, and a third meeting for final alterations), Eric had two custom suits made. The experience was just wonderful! We loved the way in which incredibly talented tailors descended upon Eric’s every limb each time we walked into BeBe. Our day in Hoi An was yet another wonderful day, filled with yellow paint, razor-sharp seams, and more banh mi.
Sun & Sands in Da Nang
We spent our last day in Vietnam on the beaches of Da Nang (I told you we’d get there!), where the American troops first landed during the Vietnam War. While lounging beneath a pine-leaf umbrella, we sipped Tiger beers and watched families play in the surf and strangers pose for pictures on the sand. The afternoon wore on as we ordered several coconuts and sipped their milk through straws, took a break to dive beneath the waves in the refreshing water, and enjoyed take-out Burger Bros on our reclining chairs. With the exception of our sunburns, it was, I daresay, a perfect day.
Our only regret about our time in Vietnam was that it was too short. There are so many days I wish I could extend: our day on the Ha Long Bay Cruise, our Saturday night in Hanoi, our day on the beach in Da Nang. But I guess that’s the thing about traveling. You have to try to taste all you can, slurp the marrow from each day, and hope that your life one day takes you back again. On your return, rather than chasing repeat-experiences that you probably won’t ever be able to replicate, you’ll create new reasons to say “I wish I could have had just one more day.”