Hello from Hanoi!
Well I see that my coworker Justin is trying to outdo me with multiple blogs from his trip to West Virginia. Since it is
only 5:30 am at home and he is sure to be asleep, I will take this opportunity to do a little reporting of my own!
Click "Read More" below for stories and pictures.
I am writing to you from my hotel room in Hanoi. We arrived in Hanoi last night at around 7 pm after a flight from Saigon, which here is called Ho Chi Minh City. I am here to document the return of Homer Steedly, a Vietnam War veteran who has come to Vietnam to meet the family of the man he killed in March of 1969. If you want to hear the story of how Homer came to this point in his life, please take the time to listen to
the documentary that CEM produced as part of the Shared Weight series.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City after traveling for about 24 hours. We were exhausted. I am visiting this country as a person with no emotional baggage attached to this place-but I am traveling in the company of three American veterans. One of the men, Wayne Karlin, is a writer who has returned many times. Another man, Doug Reese, now lives here with his Vietnamese wife. The third man is of course Homer Steedly, and this is his first visit back to the land that has played such a huge role in making him the man he is today.
I was relieved to get off the plane when we arrived in HCMC. The scene outside the international terminal was intense and vibrant. It was chaotic and warm and wonderful. Hundreds of people were lined up waiting for their loved ones to arrive. It was loud and hot and just that small experience made me feel the hours of traveling had been worth it.
The scene outside HCMC international airport terminal
We stayed at a small hotel in HCMC called the Spring House Hotel. It was a very nice small hotel. We all crashed and in the morning I was woken by the sound of intense honking on the street below. What a racket! I learned all about Vietnamese traffic from the final installment of CEM’s
Shared Weight Series. In Unpredictable Journey, Marc talked about how the traffic initially flummoxed him. It seemed so chaotic, so random, so dangerous. The hundreds of scooters, bicycles and cars seem to operate independent of any order. Disaster seems imminent. But somehow, it all works. It doesn’t make sense to my American eyes, but I have to admit that I enjoy it. I love being in a taxi and seeing a
scooter approaching from one side while a car approaches from another, while the driver deftly maneuvers to keep from colliding. I just laugh to think of my mother along with me and how she would be pushing an imaginary break on the floor of the car!
Doug Reese took Homer and me to a huge indoor market. I love
markets and this was a good one. From shrimp to jewelry to raw meat to beautiful artwork to an entire tailored suit from scratch–there was nothing this market couldn’t offer! It was the kind of place I could have spent four hours in, taking my time wandering from stall to stall, carefully weighing all my options before making my purchases.
Various types of rice and beans for sale
Meat for sale at the market
These little blue pigs caught my eye
Doug then took Homer and me to the rooftop deck of a very tall hotel so we could see a great view of Saigon.
After that, it was back to the hotel to check out, then a great lunch, then off to the airport–where our flight was delayed by an hour before we got on the plane headed to Hanoi. On the plane I met an American woman
who was with the Vietnamese boy and girl she had just adopted. She had been in the country for seven weeks already. She had arrived with her husband having been promised by the adoption agency that the entire
process would take only three weeks. However, there has been a recent crackdown on international adoptions after agencies in the US complained about irregularities such as some children turning out to not really be orphans after all. It took seven weeks for the adoption to come through, and she was leaving Saigon and heading to Hanoi to go to the American embassy to fill out the necessary paperwork to be able to take her new son and daughter home. She was hoping to be able to leave for the US in a week. She looked tired but as he held her beautiful son in her lap it was clear that she
would have stayed as long as necessary.
In Hanoi we had dinner at a restaurant that serves only one dish: grilled fish. It became clear once we walked in that the restaurant had some experience with disappointed tourists. They handed us a piece of paper that said, "We serve only one dish: Grilled Fish!" We smiled
and nodded; we had come to the restaurant fully aware of this. We walked upstairs and sat down. The waiter brought over a piece of paper. "We serve only one dish: Grilled Fish!" We smiled and nodded. Yes, we know. He pointed again at the paper. Yes, we know. Finally he understood that we were aware and that we were not going to make a
fuss when they didn’t appear with a menu. The meal was delicious.
Today we woke up and went for a walk around the neighborhood. Then we met Wayne’s friend Duc. He is an artist who lived for a time in San Francisco where he had a radio show on KQED. Now he lives in Hanoi and owns an art gallery. He took us to a wonderful coffee house. If you have never had Vietnamese coffee, you must! It is served with sweetened condensed milk and is delicious.
Wayne, Doug, Homer and Duc all had the traditional Vietnamese meal of pho. As a pescatarian , I was unable to eat this as it is made with chicken broth. Duc asked them to bring me some bread, assuming a baguette of some sort would be delivered. Instead, they brought me a wrapped loaf of sliced American-style white sandwich bread. We all got a good laugh out of that.
After coffee and pho we walked around Truc Bach Lake. Hanoi is a city of lakes and much of the social life of the city is centered around these areas.
A couple enjoying the scenery together
A grandfather taking his grandson for a stroll around the lake
Smiling teenage girls enjoying each other’s company at the lake
Another couple enjoying some time together
This is the lake that John McCain parachuted into after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. A monument commemorating the event has been erected on the western side of the lake. Some details are wrong, such as the spelling of his name and military branch.
We stopped at Vietnam’s oldest pagoda, the Tran Quoc Pagoda, on the West Lake. This is a beautiful and peaceful spot-that is, until the tourist bus arrives!
Later in the day, we went to the Hoa Lo Prison, known more commonly to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. This prison was built by the French when they occupied Vietnam. Many Vietnamese political prisoners were held there and subject to torture and terrible conditions. Years later it became the place where captured American soldiers were held, including Senator and Presidential hopeful John McCain. American soldiers who spent time there tell their own stories of torture and enduring awful conditions. It is very strange to visit the Hanoi Hilton, as an American, fully aware of these stories-and then to see display after display that shows pictures of American soldiers playing basketball and decorating Christmas trees while being held at Hoa Lo. Visiting this prison, you cannot help but be struck by the insanity of a place being used to torture one people who then turned around and used it to torture another. You are struck by the sadness of what we are capable of doing to each other, and you just hope that places like this throughout the world all become museums and cease to be operational.
The entrance to Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton
This very eerie room is full of statues showing how Vietnamese prisoners were kept shackled. You feel almost as if they could come to life any moment.
I hope to have the opportunity again to share more about my travels while I am here in Vietnam! I hope you have enjoyed reading about the journey so far!