- She was likely a girl under French colonial rule.
- She likely saw the rise of the Vietnamese revolution, the ousting of Japan, and the establishment of a Vietnamese state in the north.
- She may have had sons who fought against my uncles.
- She almost certainly passed sleepless, terrified nights while bombs fell only to clear away rubble by day and pray that those she loved be spared.
- She surely buried people and part of her heart with them.
- What does she think of me? Of my children? What would she say to me if she could?
I wonder these things as I wander the streets here, delighting in so much that is rich and achingly beautiful about this ancient culture.
It’s crazy in a lot of ways, too, not the least of which is the traffic patterns. The children notice, straight away, that the steering wheels are back on the “correct” side of the vehicle, but this doesn’t seem to be an advantage. It’s a riotous blend of horns and hollering, one-wheeled, two-wheeled, motorized, pushed and pedaled, oversized and miniature, helmeted and hanging on for dear life that weaves in and out, over and around in an intricate dance to which we don’t quite know the steps.
“I feel like a duck,” my daughter Hannah chirps, and I imagine we rather look like ducks as well, trying to cross the street without one of our ducklings getting squashed in traffic.
One traveler described the necessary method as “surrendering to the fates,” stepping off of the curb, placing your faith in humanity and the agility of the drivers, and launching into the fray with complete confidence that you’ll emerge unscathed on the other side.
It’s a lovely thought, but the twenty-foot wall of graphic photos of limbs ripped to pieces and faces peeling off of bone that hang as a warning to the fool-hardy in traffic, on the outside of the hospital building are sobering, to say the least.
I am pondering this, along with the dusty warren of the old quarter of Hanoi, a blend of antique buddha statues, mixed with bamboo pipe smoke, mixed with the cloying scent of overripe fruit with scorched rice overtones as the sea of humanity surges below us.
- Soldiers for the People’s Party in jungle green with bright red stars on their hats and machine guns stand outside yellow palatial buildings.
- A heavy set man leans way back in a rickety yard chair while a second man shaves his face with a straight razor, just inches from the perilous curb.
- Women pick nits out of each other’s hair on the sidewalk, squashing the bugs between the points of tweezers as the crowd flows around them.
- A woman washes dishes in blue plastic pans over the sewer grate.
- A man heats metal tools of some sort in a brazier made out of an old metal paint bucket, doing mysterious repairs to scissors as he squats barefoot on the ground.
- Women, completely veiled from head to toe (to keep out of the sun) balance long bamboo poles over one shoulder selling fruits or banana leaf wrapped rice packets out of enormous baskets hung from the ends like scales.
- One woman dips noodles and savory things out of pots filling plates where people eat with chopsticks at low plastic tables.
- A shopkeeper sells a wrap to a European woman who walks away smiling.
- A bicyclist comes and goes at least three times collecting empty cast iron rice pots and bringing new ones, full and steaming.
- Avocados, plums, grapes, bananas, durian, dragon fruit, onions, and big loaves of crusty french bread go teetering past in baskets on the ends of poles.
Hanoi is an assault on our senses, but not an unpleasant one.
“You know what I haven’t seen here yet, Mom?” One of the boys muses, “Street dogs!”
And so we haven’t. Not a one, in fact, which is more than a little odd. Gabriel pokes at his chicken meat under a thick layer of avocado mash topped with peanuts and raises one eyebrow. The boys are hoping, not so secretly, to try a dog-kabob somewhere on our adventures. Perhaps they’ll get their chance!
Hoa Lo Prison, the Hanoi-Hilton as most Americans know it, is sobering. It’s not just the prison that held American airmen shot down over Vietnam; they were some of its last residents. It was a prison built by the French where Vietnamese revolutionaries were held, tortured, and killed. When the Vietnamese took it over, not much changed. It was just the roles that were reversed.
Of course the incarcerated tell very different versions of that story. It was sickening to move from room to room and read the stories of mistreatment on all sides. Vietnamese women and children harmed horribly under the French. US airmen with blank eyes telling one story while their captors told quite another in the video footage.
I strive not to judge because I know that in the truest sense of the words, I cannot understand.
Later on… we sit on the side of the road munching down doner-kebab sandwiches in happy food heaven, joking with the sons of the revolutionaries who are cooking for us. They are counting our kids, amazed that we have four, as usual. The toothless, wizened crone crosses the street. The rain falls. Horns honk, and here we are, in downtown Hanoi, with our children.
Something occurrs to me when slapped hard in the face with the seething hatred and depth of pain that still lies beneath the surface on the American side of the experience:
I hope they learn to separate the individual from the international. I hope they learn that in all countries, in all the corners of the world there are people, just like them, who are trying to cobble together a life made up of dreams and realities. I hope they can extend the same grace to the descendants of “enemies” that has been extended to us, because it seems to me that it’s the ultimate way to defeat atrocities on both sides: to find a way to reach over and through them, allowing the next generation to build something new.
The tub water, it seems, slides all over the bathroom floor and then drains straight out the bottom. Every bathroom here has a hole in the floor through which all of the shower water and errant veggie sprayer (read bidet) water finds its way, so there is no crisis. I plugged the drain with a rolled up plastic bag and took a nice, long, cool bath with a bowl full of cherries to keep me company. The only trick is in draining the tub slowly enough that the water doesn’t escape the lip around the bathroom door.
Welcome to Hanoi; this is not the Hilton.
Have you been to Hanoi? What were your impressions? Comment below.
To read more about Hanoi, Vietnam and long-term travel, check out the following articles:
- Hanoi Indie Travel Guide
- Long Term Travel as Education
- Worlds Collide in Hanoi
- Long-term travel tips for Beginners