When my plane landed in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, after 33 hours of traveling this past January, I stepped out of the airplane and into a whole new world. I had chosen to study abroad for a month with my school, Elon University, traveling with a group of 30 college students from northern to southern Vietnam while we studied the country’s business and culture. Despite the nerves I had collected in the months leading up to my departure, I was welcomed into the country with pleasant mid-70 degree weather, an eight course meal and our tour guide Tuan, who was constantly wearing a smile – Shared by The Transylvania Times
While in Hanoi, we stayed in the oldest sector of the city, deemed the Old Quarter. This sector has been around since imperial times and is located right outside of the Imperial Citadel, where Vietnamese dynasties lived for centuries. The city seems to have expanded upward first before expanding out because all of the buildings are thin, close together, and stacked on top of one another like stairs leading up to the constantly cloudy sky.
The people living in these miniature houses only about the size of an average living room seemed to move in unison, fitting together like a moving puzzle. They were always anticipating the direction the other was going as they wove around the streets, making their daily commutes to work or running errands on foot or on one of the motorbikes that ran rampant on the streets. It is normal for someone to cross a street full of motorbikes stampeding towards them.
“Just keep moving. Don’t stop or go backwards,” Tuan advised our group.
As we walked, each motorbike had to swerve around just so that they barely missed us.
Our first evening, as we walked to a restaurant for dinner, we passed by families having pho, a classic Vietnamese beef and noodle dish, for their own dinner at small tables no more than two feet tall. Once we arrived at our destination, we realized our tables were not much taller, and we all struggled to squeeze our legs underneath them.
This first meal showed us what a typical meal would be like for the majority of our stay in Vietnam. It consisted of eight separate courses served “family-style” to share with three other people at your table. Each course came out every five-ten minutes, and we all quickly had to learn how to pace ourselves and resist getting carried away with the fried appetizers and white rice in order to save room for the delicious fish or pork main dishes that were to come. Although this meal was paid for by Elon, most (single course) meals I paid for myself cost 50,000 dong, equivalent to about $2 in American money.
While in Hanoi, we took a weekend trip to Ha Long Bay, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. After the initial four hour bus ride to our boat from Hanoi, we set sail into the forest of mountains that make up Ha Long Bay. The mountains towered over us, and we found it impossible to fully capture their beauty, even with the best camera. The water was a striking jade green, and the sharp peaks of rocky and tree-adorned mountains shot out of the water and up through the misty clouds.
On deck, we made our own spring rolls in a cooking class, practiced Tai Chi on the sun deck at 6:30 a.m., kayaked and even got off the boat to go caving in Sung Sot Cave and Hiking to the top of a mountain on Titop Island. The hike was fairly short, less than a mile long, but the trail was very steep as we hiked up stone stairs that wound up the mountain and through the surrounding forest. There was a small temple at the top in which we had a panoramic view of the water and mountains in the distance.
Back in Hanoi, we visited the Hoa Lo Prison, known by many Americans as the Hanoi Hilton where Sen. John McCain was held during the Vietnam War. I walked silently through the dark halls donned with relics like old prison uniforms or photos and manuscripts from times Vietnamese were held in those cells by the French, as well as when Americans were held there by the Vietnamese. As the self-guided walkthrough tour continued, I made my way into a brightly lit room upstairs that felt uncanny in comparison to the previously dark and eerie setting. Hand-drawn photographs were framed, and old sports balls were encased in tall glass boxes.
The descriptive posters on the walls described seemingly ideal living situations that the American prisoners were kept in. I was shocked to read the propaganda descriptions of the “comfortable” time Americans had while living in the prison and how accommodating the Vietnamese people were to their needs, allowing the prisoners to contact their families and giving them filling meals.
One plaque said, “During the war, the national economy was difficult but the Vietnamese government had created the best living conditions to U.S. pilots for they had a stable life during the temporary detention period.” Their descriptions had no mention of the inhumane torture they put American POWs through while they were kept in Hoa Lo.
Based off of my experience within this museum and propaganda within in various war museums, such as the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City, I believe that in the same way that Americans often want to justify our involvement in wars, the Vietnamese are trying to convince their people that they treated Americans well and that their side was fair and just. The propaganda also serves to show Americans the Vietnamese side of the story because many Vietnamese people that I spoke with believe that the Vietnamese did not harm Americans and did not want anything but peace.
Towards the end of our journey, we took another weekend trip to the Mekong Delta, a region where people have lived solely off the river for centuries. To get to our homestay there, we took an hour boat ride to a small island on the river.
Daily life in this region is strikingly different from America. The people here live their lives slowly and with purpose, constantly on “island time.” They operate small businesses on the island such as making baskets, rice hats, flip flops, bricks, rice paper or even Vietnamese candy. They live in small shacks made from the dense forest wood that surrounds them. One thin sidewalk with several bridges runs down the length of the island and is their thoroughfare between each other’s homes and the one small market that is run from inside a family’s home (as all businesses in the delta were).
It was here in the delta, at the An Binh Candy Factory, that I held a 30-pound python. The candy factory did not resemble a traditional factory in that it was only one floor, open-air and made mostly out of bricks and logs. It also was not your typical factory in that it sold snake medicine in addition to traditional Vietnamese sweets. Behind the small shop where they sell the snake products, they keep several snakes in a cage and allow visitors touring the factory to take turns holding the large python. The python was twice as tall as I am (5’2), but it was surprisingly easy and fun to carry across my shoulders.
Buildings in the Hanoi Old Quarter contain businesses and residences.
My trip to Vietnam can only be described as one of the most impactful and educational experiences I’ve ever had. This month of traveling allowed me to meet some of the kindest and most selfless people, hold a python, ride a water buffalo and eat a lot of new food, particularly my new favorite, the banh mi sandwich. This experience has provided me with a new perspective to carry with me every day.
Vietnam did not change my life, but it did give me fond memories, new values, unique experiences and a love of banh mi sandwiches that I will treasure for a lifetime.