written by Todd DePastino

Welcome to Viet Nam sign at Hanoi airport

Welcome sign at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi

Vietnam is about as far as you can travel from the United States. It’s literally half-way round the world. So, most of us who landed in Hanoi on November 28 for our two-week tour of Vietnam put in 24-hours or more to get here. That made us giddy and loopy, a good state for encountering the always fascinating and often strange capital of the country we once called enemy.

The first day begins with a “cyclo” ride through the ancient Old Quarter on what was once known as a “rickshaw.” If you can put aside any post-colonial reservations about being peddled around by a poor, thin man in sandals and a pith-helmet, you get to enjoy front-row tour of Hanoi’s chaotic street life. The odds are excellent you won’t get hit by a motorbike buzzing past you, front and back, and, in fact, the whole experience is strangely serene, as Valerie Brendel, one of our travelers, pointed out.

Thank you to Mary Klepper for this great short clip!

Hanoi is the ancient cradle of Vietnamese civilization, the heart and soul of the country, where it all began thousands of years ago. It’s the most Vietnamese part of Vietnam and remains, despite the nation’s emergence as a tiger economy at the forefront of 21st century globalization, a deeply conservative, patriotic, and patriarchal place. You still see men (in green pith helmets) and women (in straw conical hats) from the countryside peddling fruits and vegetables, ducks and chickens on the streets at all hours. Little flashy clothing or consumer extravagance.

Vietnamese women walking bikes full of produce to sell

This adherence to tradition works in strange ways, making Hanoi both intensely supportive of the Communist government and also devoted to what we would call capital accumulation.

“In Saigon,” explains our guide, “people spend money to enjoy the life. In Hanoi, people save money to buy the house.”

Thick smog in the city of Hanoi

The air quality in Hanoi is noticeably terrible. I connected to wifi and tried to see the Air Quality Index on a common weather app. “This content is no longer available in your area” was the message. Weather.com might be banned for reporting the air quality here.

Someone in our group asked our guide the reason for the bad air. He uttered the one-word source of blame you often hear in response to the nation’s problems: “China.”

A bowl of phở, a Vietnamese noodle soup

Our guide, a proud native of Hanoi who admits, when pressed, he’s actually partial to Saigon, surprised me at lunch when he declared that Americans had never had eaten proper phở, the noodle soup that is the national dish of Vietnam.

“Not true,” I said. Phở is very popular in the US and is probably my wife’s favorite meal. 

“But you’ve only had the kind of phở they make in the South,he pointed out. “And that is not the real phở.”

He went on to explain that most Vietnamese-Americans come from the South, home of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, and the former Republic of Vietnam (RVN) the US pledged to defend in the 1960s. In the South, he said, people adulterate phở with all kind of add-ons like basil, lime, sugar, bean sprouts, and anything else that might mask the blandness of the broth. Northerners strip phở down to its bare essentials: broth, rice noodles, beef or chicken, and a light sprinkling of green onion. Nothing more is needed because cooks spend hours getting the sweet flavors of the bone marrow into the broth. Southerners, he suggested, don’t have the patience for that kind of diligent cooking.

Vietnam Veteran Nick Edinger giving the thumbs up to the national drink of Vietnam

Vietnam Veteran Nick Edinger enjoys the national drink of Vietnam on the first day of our trip.

The national drink is beer, and the Vietnamese consume lots of it. Each city boasts its own slightly different popular lager. In Hanoi, the beer is Bia Ha Noi, and it’s served every lunch and dinner. Bia Ha Noi‘s slogan states plainly why people drink beer with every meal: ““Vị Bia làm nên sắc Tết

Google translate gives this interpretation:

Google translate from Vietnamese (Vị Bia làm nên sắc Tết) to English (The taste of Beer creates the color of Tet)

If you enter the Vietnamese phrase without the diacritical marks around the Latinate letters, which indicate tonal distinctions, you get a blunter translation:

Google translate from Vietnamese (vi bia lam nen sac tet) to English (because beer causes food)

After lunch came the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology dedicated to the 54 official ethnic groups that call the country home. Vietnam’s immense ethnic and linguistic diversity is a problem for Vietnamese nationhood. It took centuries to unify the Vietnamese Empire–the Dai Viet–because so many non-Vietnamese people lived within the borders, especially in the Annam Mountain range that separates Vietnam from Laos. Anyone who has lived in a mountainous area–whether it be Switzerland or West Virginia–knows that mountains breed isolated small communities that fiercely defend their independence and don’t trust outsiders.

Map of Ethnic Groups in Vietnam

SDC (Imgur)

Many of these ethnic minorities–such as the Khmer, the Hmong, and the Muong, collectively often referred to as “Montagnards” (Mountain People) sided with the Americans in the Vietnam War.

Now, at the museum, they are celebrated–though often in muted and condescending tones–as part of the unique heritage of Vietnam, a land of “unity in diversity.”

Our guide at a traditional Viet farmhouse exhibit in 2018.

When it came time to look at the Viet (or Kinh) ethnic group–which is 87% of the Vietnamese population–we toured a traditional Viet farmhouse. Our guide explained that this was the kind of house he grew up in. He walked to the rice bin and said when he came home from school in the 1990s, he would knock on the bin to see how much rice was in it. If it was even partially full, he knew he’d eat that day.

Jerry Augustine next to a RPG at the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum in Hanoi

Jerry Augustine found this enemy RPG at the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum in Hanoi. It’s the exact model that shot at Jerry back in 1966. The shell hit his foot and didn’t explode.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum is a once proud, now dated, home to an enormous number of one-of-a-kind artifacts that most Americans would probably look right past, but our veterans find mesmerizing. After all, much of the US effort in the Vietnam War was “interdiction”–stopping the flow of men and materiel down what the Vietnamese call the “Truong Son Strategic Supply Route.”  The Vietnamese credit their success in keeping the Ho Chi  Minh Trail open with winning the war.

The spine of the route were pre-existing mountains footpaths that people had used for centuries to travel the rugged mountains straddling Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In one of the greatest achievements of military engineering in world history, the North Vietnamese Army (including our guide’s father) transformed those old paths into a vast network of trails and even paved roads. An estimated 300,000 full-time workers labored round the clock to maintain the trail under triple-canopy trees in a primeval rain forest.

In 1965, the CIA and Army Intelligence estimated that 200 tons and 50 people a day were arriving in South Vietnam on the Trail.

Because of that, western Vietnam and Laos became the most bombed places on earth. Three times as many bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than dropped by all sides in World War II. By the end of the war, Laos itself saw a mission dropping a payload on it every 8 minutes, round the clock, 7 days a week, for nine years. You can still see the craters in the Vietnamese countryside today. Where water tables are high, the holes now serve as duck ponds.

Our travel group at the Ho Chi Minh Trail Memorial

Hanoi’s immense pride in the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the respect it garners from Americans shows at the museum. There’s a “hey, look how we beat you!” kind of excitement to the exhibits and short movie that orients visitors. Around back, there’s an elaborate memorial to some 10,000 Vietnamese who died on the Trail. It’s a vast undercount. The real number is maybe ten times higher. And most died not from bombs, but disease and starvation.

Today, the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a four-lane highway in some places, and the whole network is still being improved, widened, on cooperation with Laos. Alternative to Highway 1, which is the main artery from North to South.

The day ended with a remarkable dinner at a Hanoi “tube house” where a three-generation extended family lives. The family welcomed us into their homes, told us a little about themselves, and served an overwhelmingly abundant dinner featuring items familiar and strange. They also served us shots of their homemade rice and ginger wines. Not for the feint of heart or stomach.

The 13-year-old son of our host explained how they honor their ancestors at their household shrine.

Our travelers may end up saying that evening with the beautiful Vietnamese family was a highlight of the whole trip. And it was only the first day.