Why would you ever want to visit Vietnam? What could you possibly want to see or do there? We fielded some form of this question from everyone approximately our parents’ age or older upon telling them the destination of our next international adventure. To them, Vietnam should be forgotten. A mistake, a failure, or even worse, a disgrace, that still inflicted sharp pain when the memories started to resurface. For them, it was more than a question. You could hear it in their voices. You could see it in their faces. Unpacking the question revealed the thought that we were crazy followed quickly by a realization that they couldn’t change our minds. That, however, wasn’t enough to restrain the question, and so it was presented in a sort of weakness, as if the asker knew they shouldn’t even bother yet deep in their heart longed for a redemptive response. The desired response, we would come to learn, went deeper, and further, than our parents, or even their parents. There were people across an ocean that longed for those things too.
Hanoi is a hive of activity. Nonstop traffic with no apparent order yet which somehow results in even more chaos than one would expect under the circumstances. The city is dense, and you feel, you taste it, and you smell it as you navigate its narrow alleys, congested streets, and crowded restaurants. You breathe it in the form of a smog that never lifts. You see it in the miles upon miles of apartments where multigenerational families are living in a few hundred square feet.
This flurry of activity can be overwhelming if you let it, or you can choose to dive in and get to know the genuine, kind people that call this city home. The swarm all around us was full of images of a people not simply content with their day-to-day, but striving to renew a life and a culture with a history of pain and grief. We would have the opportunity to dig under the surface a little later, but first sampled some of the delights of this culture in the form of delicious pho, vietnamese egg coffee, and adventures to Tam Coc and Hao Lu, talking with locals and tour guides every step of the way.
Over 1,000 years old, Hao Lu was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, and people still come to the temples here to light incense and give offerings. The area of Hao Lu and Tam Coc are surrounded by picturesque limestone mountains creating topography similar to that of Ha Long Bay, but on land. We hadn't planned on visiting this area, but a monsoon kept us out of Ha Long Bay. We only had a few days to spend in Vietnam, and were determined not to let the storm get us down. We ventured out, only to be caught in the storm first on bicycles, and then on small boat paddling around, and through, mountains. Soaked to the bone, another couple’s misery was our hilarity, as all we could do was laugh and enjoy the beauty around us through our soaked skin and chattering teeth.
Drying off on the ride back to our hotel, our guide sensed our joy in the midst of the bad weather, and began to open up about their customs and traditions. She told us about her family, kids, and living with her husband’s parents in an apartment smaller that ours back home. She explained how baby boys are more desirable for this reason, because it means the parents will be cared for later in life. We discussed their traditions for remembering the dead, how opening up to democracy was causing radical changes, and even why they put deadly animals inside bottles of alcohol (apparently, and I quote, “it’s for the sex…”). Most intriguing of all, though, was when she learned that Leah cares for US Veterans as a nurse at the VA Medical Center. Her demeanor softened even more, and words such as forgiveness and reconciliation were used often. The Vietnamese, she said, didn’t want to forget, they wanted to forgive, and to heal. Arriving back to our hotel, it’s as if our eyes were opened. Everywhere we looked we saw American veterans, looking for the same.
The monsoon finally gone, we boarded our traditional, and private, junk boat and began cruising in emerald green waters past 2,000 majestic limestone islands, equipped with kayaks, first class local cuisine, and bamboo rods to fish for squid.
There are villages of people that live out their entire lives in the bay among the labyrinth of limestone rocks. They gather, fish, farm oysters and pearls, and buy and sell, all from the water. In some ways it’s sad, thinking of the world they’re missing out on, and in other ways it’s noble, a display of commitment to their community and their land.
One such local paddled us around his "neighborhood,” through caves and other floating villages. At night, if they aren't in their floating homes, they tie their boats together to form one large vessel and drop their anchors until morning. As for us, we went back to our private junk where our hosts put on the Vietnam episode of Top Gear…and it wasn’t a joke.
Ha Long Bay should be on your bucket list, and is best explore by spending a few days sailing on a junk boat. It is astonishing, and a clear natural wonder of the world. But spending a few days to explore Hanoi, and to get to know its people, is equally worth your time. Whether we can convince those who doubt, or still don’t want to remember, is not our job. But if you’re on the fence for any reason, don’t let that sentiment stop you. Vietnam is hectic and overwhelming, but it’s also beautiful. For all of the unfamiliarity to our western eyes, it would be easy to withdraw and seek out the comforts of home. Push past that barrier. Vietnam, and its people, will not disappoint.