As we were making our final approach for landing, music began to play over the plane’s loudspeaker system. It was a song I had never heard before, performed gently by a female singer – surprisingly I thought, in English.
“Tell me all about this name that is difficult to say. It was given me the day I was born. Want to know about the stories of the empire of old. My eyes say more of me than what you dare to say. All I know of you is all the sights of war. A film by Coppola, the helicopter’s roar. One day I’ll touch your soil. One day I’ll finally know your soul. One day I’ll come to you. To say hello – Vietnam.”
This lovely, yet haunting, song by Quynh Anh continued to play on to its completion shortly after touch down. While taxiing, the plane’s sound system played the theme from Disney’s Pocahontas – Colors of the Wind. I think at this point it was safe to say I had no idea what to expect as an American visiting Vietnam.It was at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 100 percent humidity, and raining, as we lumbered under our packs out of the Hanoi airport, weaved between the taxis, motor bikes, tour buses, and other travelers looking for that magic bus that would deliver us to a stop in the old quarter, somewhat close to our hostel. The bus ride lasted at least an hour and as it wandered it’s way into town from the airport it gave us our first sights of both countryside and then city. The walk from the bus drop off to our hostel gave us our first taste of the famous Hanoi scooter traffic – a living, ever flowing stream of intertwining wheels, engines, exhaust, revs and beeps, I can only describe as being like the veins and arteries of the circulatory system. It is a thing of beauty actually – as long as you learn to flow as part of the organism! We navigated the streets to our hostel and were very happy to learn it was indeed as good as it’s reviews. We enjoyed some street food on the corner huddled out of the rain under an eve next to a French couple and watched the traffic do it’s flowing dance on the glistening streets.
The next day we headed into the narrow streets of Hanoi’s old quarter. It was Sunday morning and there were plenty of others enjoying the morning after the rain. Like this group of first year college students who were looking for foreigners to interview for a class project. Oh boy, our first morning in Vietnam and we are getting asked where we are from and how we like it. They were wonderful actually! It was a real pleasure to meet them and learn a little about them too. (Amber thinks this kind of meeting is just random chance but i think we must have some sort of aura that beckons: “we are safe to chat with, come talk to us” – I mean it happened here, in China, in Russia, and with that nice US customs lady at the Canadian border.)One of the first items of business was to get me a haircut since I had not had one since our first week in China. I was starting to look like one of those guys we have noticed in every country we have been in that looks like they left the states in 1991 for “a wild summer abroad” but never got around to going back, or getting a haircut.
We tried both fresh coconut water, hacked open with a machete by a woman on the street, and fresh pressed sugar cane juice with a hint of lime. The (obviously) sweet liquor of the sugar cane also has a nice earthy, grassy quality to it. We sipped it while strolling the streets at the night market. Both were very refreshing!
Vietnamese coffee is available absolutely everywhere. It is a very strong, black, bitter brew that is mixed with enough sweetened condensed milk to make it taste good! It is served hot in little mugs or poured over ice in a tall glass. A variation unique to Hanoi is called “egg coffee.” It does not sound like it would taste good but it really does! By frothing the milk and an egg yolk together the coffee gets a thick, almost custard like topping. It reminded us of an eggnog latte – only thicker. We will be attempting to duplicate it back home I am sure!
We visited a few of Hanoi’s historical and cultural sites. We saw the changing of the guard at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and we visited the museum of Ethnology which provided an excellent look into the cultures and traditions of the 54 ethnic groups that make up Vietnam.These are traditional water puppets on display in the museum. Amber and I were able to attend an actual showing at the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater where traditional stories are acted out by these little characters. What makes it all so unique is that their control mechanisms are hidden by the water they are wading around in. It was enchanting.The Hoa Lo Prison Historical Relic is the preserved portion of the famous, “Maison Centrale” prison built originally by the French in 1896. They used it to house primarily Vietnamese prisoners, both criminal and dissident. After the French withdrawal in 1954, it was used as a civilian jail until it’s most noted role (to those in the US), as the “Hanoi Hilton,” a prison for American pilots shot down during the war. It is immaculately cared for and preserved and we saw visitors from many countries looking over the exhibits and displays. It’s thick brick walls have been left standing to answer the visitor’s questions of a time that is over forty years past. The question I hope we are seeing the answer to, however, is this: is forty years enough time for genuine healing?As you probably know, three months ago there was an historic event in US and Vietnamese relations. For only the second time since the conflict end, a US president visited Hanoi. The two leaders discussed many things of great importance I am sure, what with the region being so tense and all. But for lunch, the president met Anthony Bourdain, at a, now famous, small bun cha restaurant. Not wanting to miss out, we headed there too and discovered pictures of the event proudly displayed on the walls and one interesting menu option.The place was full of locals when we were there all ordering the Combo Obama. In case you are not familiar, bun cha is a fairly simple but delicious dish. It is grilled pork patties swimming in the ubiquitous nuoc cham sauce (fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and spiced to your liking with fresh chilis on the table), sticky vermicelli rice noodles and a whole mound of fresh greens and herbs. This actually was the best bun cha we’ve had so far. Hanoi is alive with street music on the weekend with different performances taking place just about every block in the night market Saturday night or near the lake on Sunday morning. The first video is a sample of a very traditional performance. The second two, however, are of US origination and I think represent the healing of old wounds even better than a presidential visit.