For most of 2015, I was anxiously looking forward to an overdue family trip to Việt Nam. It would be a trip of many firsts: first time going to my parents’ home country, first time meeting my maternal grandparents, first time traveling internationally with my parents. I know this sounds crazy. Coworkers and friends alike were shocked to hear of these many firsts, especially being in my late 20’s, but I guess it’s better late than never! We had an aggressive itinerary to practically cover the entire length of Việt Nam from Hà Nội to Sài Gòn in 2.5 weeks. Obviously, we wouldn’t be able to stay in any location for too long, but it would allow us to cover a lot of ground so we knew which places we’d revisit when we return in the (hopefully near) future.
When the day came, I admit I was really nervous. I was unsure of what to expect, how good or bad living conditions would be and how I would be perceived as an American-born Vietnamese. I grew up with my parents continually telling me how grateful I should be as they described this impoverished and war-stricken land. It existed as a myth in my mind. Now, the myth was coming to life. Truthfully, that made me uneasy.
With a packed carry-on (thank goodness packing for tropical weather is so space-efficient!), I embarked on my 18-hour flight to Hà Nội. We arrived at a concrete and sterile-looking airport. Customs was a breeze; no questions were asked. I don’t know if that should be alarming or not. I was a bit surprised that the airport just looked like any old airport. So far, not bad – a lot more developed than the shambles I was imagining from my parents’ stories. Haha. As you can tell… my expectations were totally unrealistic. Though, to be fair, it’s weird to bridge the gap between the stories my family portrayed and how much the country must have progressed since they fled. My dad, who had already been in Việt Nam for a week now, was waiting for us outside. We headed into the city center and began our adventure.
Initial thoughts: so. many. bikes. Holy…
As many previous travelers had warned me, it was absolutely frightening to cross the street. Do I go? Or, do I risk getting run over by a motorbike?! This is not how I want to end my life. It’s chaos out here!
So… yea… off to a great start! But, instead of getting run over by bikes, we decided to hop on one. Hà Nội is broken down into little districts filled with shops that specialize in only one specific type of item. It was very cool to see and even reminiscent of Paris. There was a clothes district, a toys district, an inox district, a shoe district… you name it, they’ve got it. I definitely recommend cruising around the city on a bike to discover these pockets.
We strolled alongside the legendary Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Lake of the Returned Sword), named after an age-old tale of an invincible sword gifted to an emperor. A critically endangered population of turtles is said to live in the lake, but no one knows how many are left. Could be 10… could be zero… NBD.
On the north side, Cầu Thê Húc (Morning Sunlight Bridge) is simply beautiful, casting a perfect reflection on the lake. Though it’s robbery that they charge admission to go inside Đền Ngọc Sơn (Temple of the Jade Mountain) on the other side, it’s still nice to go. And, frankly, these people probably need the money. There’s a turtle preserved and displayed near the entrance, which I found interesting because turtle sightings were so rare that when this turtle washed up shore, it became a sacred symbol. The temple is pretty and fittingly surrounded by a few weeping willows. It would probably take you a half hour at most to explore everything in depth on the island. Across the street, there is also the famous Thăng Long water puppet theater. We did not get a chance to catch a show, but heard many great reviews.
We got a taste of the chợ đêm (night market) scene on another night. Street food and vendors lined the streets, selling all sorts of stuff. The whole area was jam packed with people. Countless times, friends warned us to keep our belongings close since this was prime territory for pickpockets. Regardless, it was a great place to find souvenirs and cheap goodies.
Hà Nội was also filled with street cafes. If we were hungry, we just walked down the street. We spent many times just sitting on the sidewalk on plastic stools, enjoying authentic Vietnamese food and catching up with friends. Absolutely no frills. We got the gist that locals spent much of their time just hanging out at these cafes. Here, my dad reconnected with a high school friend (both pictured on the right), who happened to be a top Couchsurfing host of Hà Nội.
They recounted stories from their grade school days. One crazy snippet was recalling how they walked to school during the Việt Nam War and passed by bodies lined along the road for loved ones to claim. Some bodies were so disfigured that it was beyond recognition. Stories like these make you realize how incredibly lucky we are.
As I suspected, this was the first of many tragic anecdotes to come — tales of Vietnamese people who made that difficult decision to stay or leave everything behind to escape. Some live today to tell these stories… but, the frustrating part is they never actually tell them until a small window of opportunity allows them to open up, even just for a little bit. Culturally, Vietnamese people are very closed and private. Yet, the stories I did get to hear would shape my whole outlook and experience here, so as much as I would like to keep this a sugar-coated, light-hearted post on Vietnam travel, it just wasn’t the case for me. With some words of affirmation and encouragement from trusty Nanette to stay true to our authentic approach, I’ve chosen to open up more personally and keep this tone different from conventional travel recaps.
As Vietnam’s capital, Hà Nội is full of life (and communist propaganda) with all the typical things to do in an urban city environment: eating, drinking, shopping, being stuck in traffic. However, there is still enough calmness from the hustle and bustle to recover from the long travel and prepare for more adventure. It was perfect that we started our trip here. Hà Nội helped reset my expectations, alleviate some apprehension and look forward to learning more about Vietnamese history, culture and stories. I’m very thankful to have this medium in which I can re-tell the untold and can’t wait to share my memoirs to the motherland in the next several posts with you guys from my outsider-insider perspective. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Hope you find a deeper appreciation and understanding for the tragic beauty and history of Việt Nam as I did.