As I sit here in my Hanoi hotel room, it is hard for me to believe that just 48 hours ago I was sadly saying goodbye to my friends and life in Melbourne. It was difficult saying goodbye to my friends and I was very sad to go. But with the end of every adventure comes a new one. And what an adventure I have begun.
Vietnam: Day One and Two
Just after lifting off from Melbourne for the last time on Malaysia Airlines, I knew I was beginning a new adventure when the flight attendant offered me, specifically ME, a prayer rug. She informed me that my TV displayed the correct direction to Mecca. Realizing that my beard and taste for Egyptian movies must have falsely hinted to the flight attendant that I was Muslim, I politely declined the sajjāda and wished her a happy Ramadan. I would have to save my Ṣalātfor the huge prayer rooms at Kuala Lumpur airport.
My first Malaysian Airlines flight was normal. We landed in Kuala Lumpur early and I had a relaxing nap in the comfortable airport seats. The next flight, however, was mildly terrifying. As we approached Hanoi, the ride became very choppy. By very choppy, I mean extremely choppy. So bad that I had my vomit bag out and ready. I felt ill. Just before landing, the pilot decided he had had enough. We climbed back over the clouds and took a 45-minute flight out over the South China Sea. I was thankful we were in a brand new 6-month old 737.
What the pilot had forgotten to do, however, was tell us what exactly was going on. Gradually passengers became frantic. Was this another Malaysian flight gone rogue? People starting hitting the flight attendant call button. One Australian woman started crying. The French man next to me started chugging his beer. I started to sweat a little. How could it be that we are just randomly flying out over the South China Sea for 45 minutes?
Finally the pilot came on and informed us that we are being forced to divert to Da Nang, Vietnam for fuel. After an hour-long fuel stop and discussion with Vietnamese weather authorities, we were on our way to a safe arrival into Hanoi airport.
My first impression of Hanoi was its size. It feels like a very large city, much larger and bustling than quiet, relaxing Melbourne. My hotel sent me a private limo for the hour-long ride to the city (The trip cost me 18 USD).
My hotel is a small Vietnamese owned boutique located in the old colonial section of Hanoi. I would not be exaggerating in saying that this is one of the most luxurious hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The best part (other than the 5-star service, the huge brand new room, and the top rated rooftop restaurant) is the price: 65 USD per night. To put things into perspective, many budget hotels in Melbourne could easily cost 200 USD per night. The youth hostel I stayed in in Perth cost 80 USD per night.
Essentially, my hotel is unimaginable luxury for budget prices. Arriving at this hotel was a great start to my Vietnam trip. After my arrival, I had dinner at my hotel’s rooftop restaurant with 360-degree views of the city. My hotel is one of the tallest in the city, so I could see for many miles. This was also my first introduction to authentic Vietnamese food. Restaurants deemed “Certified to Properly Prepare Vietnamese Cuisine” proudly display their certifications. Needless to say, my hotel’s restaurant has one.
After dinner, I decided to take a walk around the city. I had heard that there was a Saturday night street market. Walked down the street and found the street market right next to what is locally called, “The John McCain Lake.” John McCain might be the most famous American in Hanoi, though I have seen a few John Stewart posters.
At first nothing really caught my eye at the street market. I hired a cyclo (you sit in a chair while someone pedals you around the city) so I could properly survey the area. Suddenly, I saw something of great interest to me: Old propaganda posters. I stopped at the shop and found a family of four running a shop filled with old posters created by the Communist government mostly during the American war. Many of the posters featured the iconic B-52 bomber and Richard Nixon’s face. I bought a few to bring home.
Most of the posters, however, were unreserved tributes to Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho. He is a universally loved Saint. Everything is named after him. Everyone I talk to praises him. His legacy is reflected on daily.
It is important to note, however, that Vietnam is the first country I’ve ever visited that his considered by Freedom House to be “Not Free.” In other words, it’s highly repressive. Dissent is swiftly and decisively crushed. The NYT is often blocked (though social media is not blocked). The media is heavily state-controlled. And it’s hard to tell if Vietnamese people genuinely feel undying affection for Uncle Ho.
By all observation, however, Vietnamese people do admire Uncle Ho. After getting a great night of sleep, I started my second day in Vietnam by travelling to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This iconic building in the heart of the Hanoi government district holds the embalmed remains of one of the world’s most recognized political leaders. I planned to go inside (you’re escorted by a military guard, photos are forbidden, your hands must remain out of your pocket, and conservative attire is required) but the line was 3 miles long. Maybe another day.
Before I discuss my next activity, I have to mention two interesting observations: There is relatively little English spoken here and the poor air quality is noticeable. Without my great sense of direction (I rarely take a map anywhere and am still able to retrace my steps), I would always be hopelessly lost here. Most taxi drivers don’t speak a word of English. When I found one who spoke perfect English, I asked for his card so that I can call him again every time. Also noticeable is the poor air quality. Within a few hours of arriving in Hanoi, I was coughing. Just as in China, economic development has come at a cost.
As my Vietnamese adventure continued, I hired a guide to take me on a culinary tour. I went on my tour with a Swiss-French gay couple and a hilarious Japanese woman; we all quickly became friends. The guide started out with “I’m going to take you on a tour of Hanoi’s food. Many Vietnamese people believe that we won the war because of the health and strength we get from food. The American food was very bad.”
We tried so many diverse foods and drink on our tour:
- BBQ pork with extremely spicy fish sauce
- Chicken salad with mixed vegetables (my favorite food)
- Rice wine soaked for 3 years with the corpses of 5 different kinds of venomous snakes (interestingly tasty)
- Apple sake
- Hanoi beer
- Whole BBQ duck (Least favorite)
- The Colonial Baguette with Pâté, Butter, Cheese and Sausage (the Swiss men laughed when the Vietnamese guide talked about how truly Vietnamese this dish is).
- Coffee with raw egg (extremely tasty)
- All different kinds of tea
- Different kinds of fried tofu, pork and rice noodles in a restaurant that was flooded after torrential rains. We took our shoes off and waded through the water to get to the restaurant.
With each dish, I thought, “This is so delicious. This is also going to make me violently ill.” In the end, it was an amazing food tour. I was pouring sweat from the humidity, crying from the spicy food, and undoubtedly slightly drunken by the snake sake (so was everyone else).
I figured I had gathered the liquid courage to start a more somber leg of my Hanoi visit: the infamous Hanoi Hilton. As I arrived, the first thing I noticed was how much it still feels like a prison. There are still guards sitting around and the place still has a very eerie feeling. It was, after all, only closed in 1994. The entry fee, paid to one of the guards, was 20,000 Dong or just less than 1 USD.
The first half of the prison was dedicated to the “comrades” who had been imprisoned and killed by the French imperialists. While there is a heavy dose of propaganda in the displays, one does feel disgusted that the French would ever create such a place. Walking through the prison is similar to how I envision transatlantic slave travel: shackles, small spaces, rampant torture and death. It was not a pleasant place.
For every ounce of anti-French display at the prison, there was some anti-American display. Most of the anti-American display, however, was focused on displaying how “blessed the Americans were to be in the Vietnamese custody” and how the prison was a place of rehabilitation and reconciliation after American war crimes.
Speaking of American war crimes, I walked out of the prison and hailed a taxi. This taxi driver, named Tàm, spoke perfect English. He brought me to a neighborhood that was completely leveled by American bombs twice – in 1968 and 1973. This same neighborhood also happens to be the final resting place of an American B-52 bomber. The huge bomber now sits in a small lake about the size of a soccer field, its mangled wing still sitting as if it fell out of the sky yesterday. “This neighborhood,” Tàm said, “No one survived. It’s a similarity between our people, Lee. We all died.”
As I headed back to my hotel for dinner, I talked to Tàm about how Vietnam and the USA are now relative friends, how there is little hate harbored between the Vietnamese people and the American people today. For many Americans and most Vietnamese people (most of the population is under 30 in Vietnam), the war is ancient history.
While American-Vietnamese relations may have improved, the same cannot be said about other relationships. As I sat down for dinner, I noticed two other occupied tables. One was an Australian woman from Hobart. The other was a table of self-proclaimed “Malaysians.”
The Australian woman and the Malaysians had gotten along famously. They had sat together, shared stories, exchanged names and really had an interesting conversation. As the silent observer in this situation, I had noticed one thing: These “Malaysians” weren’t speaking Malay. They were clearly speaking Manderin (How do I know? It’s the difference between French and Italian. It’s easy to hear).
As soon as the “Malaysian” group had left, the kitchen staff rushed out to share what had been my suspicion: they were Chinese in disguise. The Australian woman was offended. She felt deceived. “How could they lie to me like that? Why would they lie to me like that?,” She exclaimed.
Clearly a little behind on her current events after a month in rural India, I explained to my new Tasmanian friend that Vietnam (and much of Asia) has been experiencing a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment. China has staked territorial claims that have upset almost every other Asian nation.
Recently, China moved an oilrig into the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. Nationalist riots broke out across Vietnam. Chinese factories have been burned. Vietnamese and Chinese nationals have died in the unrest. The Chinese government sent in navy ships to evacuate citizens en masse. While the Vietnamese government has now clamped down on the turmoil, uncertainty remains. Thus, Chinese people hide their identity in Vietnam. In Vietnam, they’re harmless Malaysians.
My time in Vietnam, in its infancy, has been amazing. I’ve already eaten so much diverse and delicious food, met so many interesting people, observed history first hand and observed a completely different culture. And there is much more to come.