Travel History Lessons

A Day in the Life of a Long-Term Traveler: Hanoi

By Jennifer Miller on July 21st, 2016
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From the moment we hit the ground in Hanoi, I’m looking into the eyes of every man in his sixties and wondering how he sees me and my family. If he hates my guts. If in another decade of his lifetime he’d have killed me where I stood just because my passport has a blue back with a golden eagle emblazoned on it. Would he have shot my uncles dead if he’d crossed paths with them in the jungle? Did my older friends drop the bombs that killed his entire family? His black eyes give no hints.

“It’s an interesting thing to be a guest in a country that the government of your father’s generation bombed to perdition with questionable motives.”

Vietnamese Woman
It’s an interesting thing to be a guest in a country that the government of your father’s generation bombed to perdition with questionable motives. We watch a beautiful and ancient woman cross the street in the middle of a rain storm. She pulls her long pants up around her knees and gingerly steps through the puddles in her plastic sandals. She is wearing a traditional cone-shaped “rice paddy” hat and is grinning from ear to ear without one tooth left in her head. It’s likely she’s lived her whole life in Hanoi.

  • 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.


Hanoi Traffic
“We huddle on one curb watching both directions for the improbable (possibly mythical) break in traffic.”

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We huddle on one curb watching both directions for the improbable (possibly mythical) break in traffic. We surge forward, feint to one side, fall back and yell at Ezra, our son, to stand up and keep his head in, out of the street

“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.


Vietnames Food
” Hanoi is an assault on our senses, but not an unpleasant one.”

We order lunch and watch as the breath-taking dance continues and no one misses a step:

  • 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!

“The boys are hoping, not so secretly, to try a dog-kabob somewhere on our adventures.”
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History lessons present themselves around every corner: A visit to the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh’s body is displayed (embalmed with the help of the Russians.) His homes, where he lived up until 1954 as well as the newer stilt house he had built across the pond that he lived in after that. His bomb-shelter, just steps from his bedroom. The beautifully preserved cars that were given to him as gifts from the Russians and the Vietnamese in France.

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.


Historic Prison in Hanoi
“Everything is a first-hand lesson in propaganda, here.”

Vietnam is a Communist country. Everything is a first-hand lesson in propaganda, here. They achieved independence. They won their revolutionary war. They defeated the American “puppet-government,” and we all know that history is written by the victorious. To hear them tell it, the American airmen were treated better than the Vietnamese people themselves during their incarceration, including Christmas celebrations and top notch food and medical care.

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 try to imagine being locked in one of those rooms in my own filth for years on end. I try to imagine my Dad, my Uncles, my husband… my sons. It is unimaginable, and yet, it happened.”

I try to imagine being locked in one of those rooms in my own filth for years on end. I try to imagine my Dad, my Uncles, my husband… my sons. It is unimaginable, and yet, it happened. It’s happening now, around the world, at this very instant. There’s a corner of the human heart, a part of the human condition where our capacity for wrong-doing lives, and I simply cannot get my head around it, having led the tender, privileged life I’ve lead. And I know that, that fact, in and of itself, skews my perceptions and my ability to understand.

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’m very glad I’m not often judged by the actions of my government or the governments of my country that have passed in the generations before my time.

People are not refusing to feed me noodles because of President Johnson’s policies. I’m very glad I’m not often judged by the actions of my government or the governments of my country that have passed in the generations before my time. I hope the lesson my children take away is the same: the Vietnamese are people, who serve a government that tells them only part of the story, just like us.

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.

“I hope that the lesson my children take away is the same: that the Vietnamese are people, who serve a government that tells them only part of the story, just like us.”
Sometimes, when a person’s been traveling a while, the great joy is in the little things. For me, the most exciting discovery of Hanoi, however, has been a bathtub in our hotel room. There is not much I love more than a nice long bath and a book, so it was no surprise to anyone that after lunch, when the children retired for naps all around, that I headed for the tub. It should be noted that with the presence of a tub one should not assume plumbing.

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:

Photo credits: Shutterstock.com, martinho Smart / Shutterstock.com, Simon Dannhauer / Shutterstock.com, Xita / Shutterstock.com, xuanhuongho / Shutterstock.com, Leotie.