We chose Hanoi, Vietnam as a place to spend ten days simply relaxing after being constantly on the move.
Hanoi is probably the worst place we could have chosen to relax.
Where we stayed, within the French-inspired old city, was crowded, loud, dirty, and chaotic. It took me a few days to be able to step out of our hotel without having a small panic attack. (And our hotel room didn’t have windows so it was a claustrophobic few days). Parked motorbikes pack the sidewalks and the streets are barely wide enough for two way traffic, so as pedestrians, you are on your own. We had to learn to trust the drivers – even when they come perilously close, they won’t hit you. We had to google how to cross the street: Just go, walk slowly, no sudden movements, don’t hesitate. The traffic will simply move around you. As terrifying as it was, and we saw a fair share of accidents, there was a beauty of interdependence to it as well. Everyone accepts that everyone has a right to the road: people pushing carts, vendors carrying their loads, pedestrians, children, bikes, cyclos, buses, taxis, and motorbikes. There’s no power moves, no aggression. It looks like chaos but it’s actually a dance. Getting around Hanoi is something I’m glad I may never have to do again but I’m thankful for the inspiration it’s given me to share the road better back in the States.
Amid the chaos, we found a sweet simplicity: birds. Caged birds hang all over Hanoi’s awnings, singing beautiful songs to passersby. I think I’d rather them be out in their natural habitat, but I thought it sweet that people value their beauty and gifts within the crazy city. There is a lot of beauty here, amid the dirt and dust.
Whenever we did venture out into the street, we were eventually rewarded with some novel experience. Our first night, we went in search of dinner, and were rewarded with what can only be described as “toddler hip hop” in the middle of the street. The street performers were taking a break, but left their music on for people to enjoy. Children of every age, mostly those who could barely walk, entered the center of a ring of onlookers and proceeded to put on quite a show. It reminded me that even in this exotic place, we can find common ground: tiny, tumbling babes dancing to hip hop is hilarious.
Sometimes, when we felt overwhelmed by the newness of it all, connection came to us. As we ventured out to Hoàn Kiếm Lake one afternoon, we were approached by about ten Vietnamese high school students. They were looking to practice English. After being ripped off by some ladies selling homemade donuts on the street a few hours before, we were leery of engaging with them, but their aim was innocent and we talked with them for about 30 minutes, having an awkward but educational conversation about our cities.
One of our adventures was to the US Embassy for more passport pages. I’d never been in an embassy before, but it was a pretty underwhelming experience. Felt like being at the DMV. Ah, home. Walking back to our hotel, we saw a guy on the sidewalk set up for haircuts. We gestured with him and he agreed to cut Nate’s hair for ₫50,000, or about $2.30.
One of our most interesting excursions in Hanoi was visiting Hỏa Lò Prison. Built by French colonists in 1886, it was later used by North Vietnam for prisoners of war and often referred to sarcastically as the “Hanoi Hilton” by such long-term guests as Senator John McCain, whose flight suit and parachute are now on display there.
Thematically, touring the prison teaches about the terrible torture of the Vietnamese there during the French colonization. Today, the majority of buildings have been destroyed; only the gatehouse remains intact as a museum. There is a small section devoted to the “American War”. Of course, the movies and displays in it are presented from the perspective of the Northern Vietnamese, and it’s filled with propaganda showing what a wonderful, fun time the American soldiers had during their years in the prison.
I got sick in Hanoi, as I tend to do, but it was a great place to lie in bed for a few days. Our sweet hotel staff noticed and brought up fresh ginger and lime tea made from scratch – exactly what an exhausted traveler’s pathetic stomach needs! While Nate took great care of me, I’m glad he got to go out on his own, too. He was looking forward to trying bun cha, and without me, who rarely ventures beyond pho and báhn mì, he had his chance to finally try it. Bun cha originated in Hanoi and is served with grilled, fatty pork over a plate of rice noodles and herbs with dipping sauce, garlic, and chilies. It’s a put-together-your-own-meal kind of experience, so Nate watched what others did and followed suit. As usual, he liked it a lot.
We also tried another first in Hanoi: pigeon. It was by far the most uninteresting thing on the menu, but we weren’t really feeling up to gourmet crickets or snakes or oxtail or anything else. Nate likens it to the guinea pig he had in Peru: tastes good, but tough to get much meat off the bones. Not quite worth the effort, but it was a unique meal.
What we truly loved was the little bánh mì stand on our street. Egg (for me) or meat (for Nate) sandwiches with lettuce, carrots, spicy sauce, and handfuls of fresh cilantro on a french baguette: just over $1 each. When your bánh mì vendor says, “see you tomorrow!”, you know you’ve made a habit out of it.
An unremarkable meal but a sweet memory: we walked into a bar to get some soup and coffee and realized, as we sat, that it was a Boston-themed restaurant. O’Leary’s, which has a location on Brookline Ave in Boston, apparently has a Hanoi location, too. We felt some serious nostalgia as we browsed the walls covered in Boston momentos, and even pointed out some of our favorite places on their murals.
Christmas Eve in Hanoi was like nothing we expected. We attended a church gathering at an international fellowship, enjoying carols with hundreds of others and a message in English. We heard Silent Night in seven languages. The highlight, however, was their African Band, who came up to sing traditional songs at the end of the gathering and just. didn’t. leave. Watching their joy and exuberance was moving and beautiful. We left feeling a bit of that warm, Christmas glow.
But our Vietnam Christmas didn’t end there. When we returned to the city center, what we found was nothing short of a citywide party. People were absolutely everywhere. We went to a post-it note themed cafe (yes, that’s a thing) to get away from the crowd and watch the night unfold outside. For a country that is 8% Christian, they sure love Christmas! In addition to the general chaos in the streets, we often saw skinny, Vietnamese teens fully dressed as Santa walking down the street. It was part hilarious and part…disconcerting.
We ended the night at a bar on our street where all the waitstaff remembered us from a few days before. You know when you meet people and you’re like, “man, if we lived closer, we would totally be friends”? That’s those guys. As if that wasn’t enough, back at our hotel they had wine and cake for all the guests in the small lobby. We had some glasses with two of the hotel staff that we’d gotten to know over the past week. Then they gave us some handmade Christmas cards. It may have been our most incredible Christmas Eve ever, so far away, in a country that barely celebrates Christmas. Unexpected blessings.
Christmas morning was our last day in Hanoi. We woke up, prayed together, snuggled to a Christmas playlist, had breakfast, and headed out to the airport. Just another day in the life of long-term travel, far from home.