29: Hanoi, Cat Ba, Hoi An, Danang, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
This ain’t your father’s father’s Vietnam.
Xin Chào, Ernie and Hadley!
Well, guys, I think we can all agree that India was a bit of a ginormous bummer. I wanted out so badly I flew with a concussion, a gashed hand, injured ribs, and maybe worst of all, only one goddamn cocktail all day. I left my hostel in Delhi at 10:30AM and didn’t arrive in Hanoi until 5 the next morning. I wanted out so badly that I didn’t even care my that arrival was smack dab in the middle of Vietnam’s Reunification Day celebration. What’s that, you ask? Excellent question, Ern. Reunification Day is the celebration of Vietnam’s victory in The American War and the reunification of North and South Vietnam, so what better day for a 55-year-old pasty-white middle-class American guy to be walking through the streets of Hanoi in his hiking shoes, cargo shorts, baseball cap, and fancy little Osprey backpack?
I should take a moment to point out that even at my ripe old age, I’d never once heard it referred to as The American War. I mean, of course it would be, right? The Vietnamese aren’t calling their war with America The Vietnam War – that’d be cuckoo, and yet I was no less dumbfounded the first time I heard it. Never too old to learn, as they say.
I had no real intention of coming here, as you both know. Sure, there’s always at least one person who says “My god you just HAVE to go to yada-yada place,” like when Margot said I simply had to go to India, ranting and raving and insisting it be on my itinerary – right up until the minute my post recounting what a living nightmare it was went live, and she simply wrote, “Right!?!?!?”
“No-no -no, I never said I loved it, Peter,” she defended. “I simply said you had to experience it firsthand.”
SEMANTICS, MARGOT! GODDAMN SEMANTICS!
But when it came to Vietnam, I probably had half a dozen people tell me I needed to visit, not to mention Hoi An coming in at #34 on Lonely Planet’s Top 500 must-see places in the world.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Terraced rice paddies? Probably. Those funny little bamboo hats? Most definitely. People standing in front of street food joints with wiggling squid tentacles being slurped between their lips? I could only hope.
In my defense, most Americans my age and older know just one Vietnam, thanks to being alive while it was still raging, and to that 400-hour series from Ken Burns, not to mention a catchy Broadway musical about a bunch of hard-to-like GIs, and endless 3AM viewings of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket during those late-night Newport years with Erik, Davey, Gusman, and Tope. And “Vietnam” is still such a stain on the memory of America that I rarely come across anything celebrating its modernity, amazing culture, or lively social scene.
And besides – they’re stinkin’ commies, ammiright!?
Interesting note – it turns out they’re also socialists. True fact. And it hurt my brain trying to figure out exactly how that works. I have enough trouble putting the specific differences between Communism and Socialism into words without trying to comprehend The Socialist Republic of Vietnamunder the rule of a communist government. I’ve read about it four times now and still can’t tell you how it actually works. So instead of putting my head down and trying to actually learn something, I did what I did all through high school and college, and that was to simply enjoy the ride – and enjoy it I most certainly did.
The thing I enjoyed the most, however, doesn’t appear in the photos below, and that was the gentle spirit and kindness of the people themselves. A communist government can force its citizens to keep a clean storefront and follow rules of law and order, sure. It did seem like Hanoi suddenly became midday active and industrious with the flip of a switch at 7AM, even on a Sunday. But no one can force people to smile sincerely, chat with neighbors, greet one another with laughs, pleasantries, and flowers, and you can’t fake wrinkles, man – the face don’t lie. If you’re a frowner, unhappy, defeated, beaten down, your true self shows in lines your resting face simply can’t hide. In Hanoi in particular, the people looked and seemed truly and sincerely happy and content. Keep that in context, guys. I arrived during a festival, and I’m not pretending life here is all bliss. I was also told that the demeanor of the people is markedly different in the south due to the political history of the country, but even as far as Ho Chi Minh City it was relatively the same (even if most of the locals I met there were the ladyboys of Bui Vien trying to get me to buy them drinks). I’m simply saying that the people and vibe in the small part of Vietnam that I experienced was one of contented happiness and welcome in the context of life that is hard to live all over the goddamn world.
Or maybe India had just fucked me up more than I realized.
Hanoi’s Old Town blends the traditional with the modern, maintaining its historic charm while providing plenty of American and European creature comforts. There’s a perfect amount of grit to remind you you’re in a country half a world away, mixed with an obvious pride in presentation – so while scooters are parked on the sidewalks, they’re in perfect order. While everyone sits outside eating and drinking at little kid-sized tables in kid-sized chairs, and food is prepared and cooked in open kitchens, the sidewalks – even though they’re so crowded with motos and tables and shop-wares that you can’t walk on most of them – are swept spotless, and food safety at least feels like it could possibly be a thing. There are quaint shops and cafés, hip bars, nightclubs, and a wide array of restaurants, all with colorful lights and lanterns and flags adorning almost every tree-lined street. It was really quite nice.
Cat Ba – and no, it’s not named after you two – is a gorgeous island about two hours east of Hanoi, located in the Bay of Tonkin, in northeastern Vietnam, and it was going to allow me a chance to get back into nature, from its plentiful beaches to the mountains of its national park. My stay coincided with another festival, this one celebrating something-something that no one seemed able to explain – not because of any language barrier, but simply because they actually didn’t know. Some hotel and hostel owners were even surprised to learn there was a massive waterfront stage being constructed at the end of their street. If Hanoi made me (mostly) forget I was in a communist governed country, this festival would be a stone cold reminder, with the masses turning out to celebrate something something something…
The ancient trading port of Hoi An is the location that brought me to Vietnam, coming in at #34 in Lonely Planet’s Top 500. Whether this UNESCO World Heritage Site should come in that high is up for debate – much like Slovenia’s Lake Bled – but it sure is a quaint and beautiful city with wonderful history and tradition.
With origins dating back to 192 AD, Danang is Vietnam’s fifth largest city and also one of its most important trade ports. Modern hotels line its beautiful and active South China Sea coastline, with ancient temples, caves, and scenic national park hiking routes all within a short scooter ride.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
I would end my visit here in bustling “Saigon,” the largest city in Vietnam, an unplanned transfer point to my next destination – but I’m glad I did. If not just for its historical significance, depicted so often in movies and novels and broadway musicals, then for its own little version of Bourbon Street, Bui Vien.
Until next time, Ernie and Hads, be good and kind to Jason, Rachel, and Grayson – and coming soon, a place where cats are king!