written by Todd DePastino

One immediate difference I noticed in this year’s trip to Vietnam is the absence of Chinese tourists.

In 2018 and 2020, we shared our hotels, tourist sites, and the streets with large groups of well-dressed Chinese vacationing in Vietnam. The sumptuous hotel breakfast buffets were strictly segregated—sometimes even by floor. The American buffet had Danish, omelets, cereal, and sausage. The Chinese buffet had porridge, fried rice, cabbage, meat and noodle dishes, and all sorts of unrecognizable items.

Various breakfast dishes at the hotel buffet in Hanoi, Vietnam

This year, the food is still there, but the Chinese are not. The occasional Russians we saw back in 2020 are also gone.

Instead, there are many more Indians, South Koreans, Taiwanese, and West Europeans than ever before.

I asked our guide about the lack of Chinese tourism. He told us the issue was the infamous Nine Mile Dash Map. This is the map China uses to claim territorial waters and a host of islands—the Spratley, the Paracel– in the South China Sea (what the Vietnamese call the East Vietnam Sea).

The Nine Mile Dash Map of the South China Sea

The problem with the map, from the Vietnamese point of view, is that Vietnam has sovereignty over some of these islands, not China. Same goes for Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, all of whom reject the Nine Dash Line Map.

China, for its part, banned the Barbie movie in 2023 because it briefly showed a map of China without the Nine Dash Line.

Last year, China started putting an image of the Nine Dash Line Map on its passports (it had also done so in 2012). In response, Vietnamese border officials refused to stamp the passports and admit the Chinese as tourists.

Banning Chinese tourists is an extreme move, especially given how much the Vietnamese economy depends on tourism from their northern neighbors.

“It is hard,” says our guide, “but it is a matter of sovereignty.”

That sense among the Vietnamese that its sovereignty is always in peril, always threatened, not only by the giant empire to the north, but rivals near and far, explains much about the culture and the people.

The ancient Imperial Citadel front gates in Hanoi, Vietnam

Our first visit on our second day in Hanoi was to the ancient Imperial Citadel, where Emperor Gia Long declared the Dai Viet in 1010 CE, less than a century after Vietnam’s independence from China.

The Citadel marks Hanoi’s birth as a city, and, despite its millennium of existence, is still under archeological excavation.

That’s because the Communist government of Vietnam has an ambivalent relationship with its imperial past. After all, Ho Chi Minh’s brand of Communism was fiercely anti-imperial, as well as anti-feudalistic. The feudal Dai Viet launched imperial wars of conquest south to Hue, Danang, Saigon, and the Mekong Delta.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese are proud of their imperial heritage. To them, it indicates more than conquest or class subjugation. The Dai Viet represents Vietnam’s independence from the giant to the north and all other rivals that might claim the land between the Annam Mountain range and the South China Sea. Emperor Gia Long’s massive palace complex is a symbol of Vietnamese nationalism.

The Citadel also played an important role in the Vietnam War. Americans never got there, of course, since it was in Hanoi. But the North Vietnamese built a deep bunker system that served as General Vo Nguyen Giap’s command post in the 1960s. This is where he met daily with his lieutenants, advisors, and fellow high-ranking officials in the North Vietnamese government.

Long table and chairs in a meeting room deep underground under The Citadel in Hanoi

The meetings rooms are set up as they looked in 1972, during the 12-day Christmas Bombings known by the US military as the Linebacker II campaigns. It’s sobering to think of these men planning their diplomatic and military responses as the earth shook from devastating B-52 bombardments.

Less sobering is the cute kitty-cat thermos they used to drink green tea during the bombing.

Kittens on an old thermos and tea cups on a table

Our second visit was to Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where 591 US POWs were tortured until finally released in 1973.

Sculpture depicting men shacked by one leg on the floor of Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”

The museum doesn’t emphasize this American connection to the prison complex. Instead, it focuses on the colonial history, when the French created Hoa Lo to detain, torture, and execute Vietnamese rebels and revolutionaries.

Hoa Lo Prison is a grim place—its very name means “Fiery Furnace”—a double meaning capturing its origin as a place of brick firing as well as the hell it became.

It’s hard to look at the staged photos of smiling American POWs decorating Christmas trees and playing games, as if they were enjoying a respite from war. There’s no mention of torture or how the years of solitary confinement bred ingenious methods among the US servicemembers to communicate with each other and boost morale.

Man taking a picture of John McCain’s flight suit in the museum

John McCain’s flight suit is on display. But you wouldn’t know it unless someone told you ahead of time. The Vietnamese removed McCain’s name from the display as a token of honor and appreciation to him for his role in spearheading diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam in the 1990s.

I think it’s no dishonor putting McCain’s name on his flight suit display, but perhaps the Vietnamese view it as a demeaning war trophy. Or, perhaps, they attach some shame to McCain’s POW status.

McCain, of course, was shot down right over Hanoi in 1967. There’s a marker next to the lake where he landed.

Stone monument in Hanoi, Vietnam

Can you spot the error on the monument?

Stone monument in Vietnam that spells out USAE

One final stop for the day: a winding walk through narrow alleys of the Ngoc Ha neighborhood opened up on a small pond called the Huu Tiep Lake. In one corner of the pond sticks out the rear landing gear and undercarriage of an American B-52 bomber. It’s been there since it was shot down on December 18, 1972 as part of the so-called Linebacker II or Christmas Bombings.

Rear landing gear and undercarriage of an American B-52 bomber in Huu Tiep Lake

There’s a plaque with limited information, some of it incorrect:

Historical Vestige plaque: Huu Tiep Lake and the Wreckage of B52 Bomber

The airplane–a D model, tail number 56-0608, call sign “Rose 1”–took off from U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand. While flying over Hanoi, an SA-2 surface-to-air missile hit the plan, and it crashed into the pond. Two of the six crew members were killed in action. The rest survived, held as POWs until 1973:

Cpt Hal K. Wilson, pilot,
Cpt Charles Arthur Brown, copilot,
Cpt Richard Waller Cooper, navigator (KIA)
Maj Fernando Alexander, radio navigator,
Cpt Henry Charles Barrows, EWO,
T/Sgt Charlie Sherman Poole, air gunner (KIA)