We easily entered the country so many people from home once desperately avoided to go to. Vietnam, a country brimming with paradoxes and motorbikes, was to be home for the next three weeks.
Two flights, one sleep, and a reunion with Laura and Brittany later we arrived in the capital, Hanoi. We spent four days wandering, relaxing, and catching up on travel stories before we were to set off to northern Vietnam for some excursions. Whilst in Hanoi the calls of Bia Hoi did not go unanswered. Playschool sized tables and chairs lined the streets and an endless pour of “live” 20 cent beers made rounds. This daily happy hour is Hanoi’s primary attraction, with its appeal in its uniqueness and affordability.
In small attempts to not let laziness completely take over, the four of us strolled through the bustling streets to view the city’s museums and attractions. The amount of motorbikes, and their accompanying beeping, is unfathomable. Like schools of fish, they navigate the sea of narrow and dirty streets with ease, naturally parting around pedestrian obstacles to unite the fleet once more. There are few stop lights, and they are simply a suggestion, not a rule. In order to cross the street you simply start walking and do not stumble nor hesitate; the aggressive drivers will flow around you. Doubt from this game of Frogger soon vanquishes after the fourth or fifth street crossing.
Making a wide, counterclockwise loop, we explored the city highlights in one day. The tour began with the Ho Chi Minh museum and One-Pillar Pagoda. Field trips of countless children, all who never fail to show shock and awe at seeing a foreigner, greeted us with smiles, kisses, and waves. The braver ones called out ‘Hello! You beautiful!’, and we couldn’t help but fall for their charm.
As we strolled through the streets, passing women balancing two baskets of fruit hanging from either ends of a pole over their shoulders, the French influence was screamingly obvious. In the wealthier parts of town, wide boulevards were lined with towering trees and the facades of neighborhoods resembled France’s ostentatious design of intricate arches and balconies. Baguettes were sold on every corner, albeit the additional fillings to the baguette are quite Vietnamese.
We carried on to the Temple of Literature, the first national university for the elite. Tokens to the turtle, a symbol of longevity and wisdom, were scattered throughout the grounds. Groups of recent graduates stood to take pictures in this Confucius temple, connecting scholarly life from one thousand years ago to today in a simple photograph.
As we walked on to our next attraction we stopped at a restaurant filled with locals, knowing we would find good food. There we feasted on bun cha as the owner gazed and smiled at us, clearly pleased foreigners were enjoying her cooking.
I navigated, as a master of direction, our troop to Hoa Lo Prison, an unchosen home to Vietnamese political prisoners during French Imperialism and later to Prisoners of War from the Vietnam War. In silence we toured the prison and learned about the horrendous conditions, torture, and treatment found there. The place was cloaked in death’s despair, a somber stench that will never be lifted.
I knew coming to Vietnam I would find myself faced with the hidden truths of America’s aggression in the Cold War. So as I made my way through the cells and communal rooms of Hoa Lo Prison, I unearthed the history of Hanoi Hilton. During the Vietnam War, American captives were sent to this prison for detaining. Rather than be treated with spite, revenge, and cruelty by their enemy, most Americans found themselves quite well off while incarcerated. Inmates were treated extremely well – clothed properly, fed amply, celebrated Christmas, and enjoyed leisure games. The photographs strewn across the walls gave truth to the prison’s nickname. We left the prison and immediately discussed the morality and choices made during the Vietnam War; one conversation of many that was soon to come.
Every day the four of us would walk around Hoan Kiem Lake in the old town of the capital. I would run there in the mornings before crowds and humidity swallowed the path. Our nightly ritual was a highlight as we finished off our walk with a forty cent ice cream bar. The simple pleasure of walking without haste while surrounded by close friends awakened the sweet memories of walking with my family down at the beach after delicious meals prepared by my talented Aunt Laurie.