Admittedly, I entered Vietnam with mixed emotions given my childhood memories of the war.
Vietnamese flags with a single gold star lined QL217 as I crossed the border from Laos; a symbol of victory in Vietnam’s long fight for reunification and independence from any country that tried to dominate her.
I thought of my childhood experience of that fight, brought into our home every weeknight by Walter Cronkite. Singing protest songs around a bonfire on a warm summer’s night with the older neighborhood teenagers who were soon to experience the war far more directly than I.
I remembered those people who had traveled here before me under very different circumstances.
The older brother of my first love who was ‘selected to serve’ in Vietnam and emerged from the battles forever changed. The former colleague who saw it as his patriotic duty to enlist in the Marines, only to be thanked for his service with slurs and spit when he returned home. It wouldn’t be until June 1986 that these men and the others who served would finally receive their long overdue hero’s welcome home in a Chicago parade designed to ‘Honor The Warrior, Not The War’
I thought of a Vietnamese friend who nearly drowned when her family fled in a boat as Saigon fell. Luckily she and her family found respite in a world that once opened its doors to war refugees. A very rough start to what became an on-going story of success.
These were my ‘experiences’ of Vietnam before I traveled there. So what did I find when I arrived in Hanoi?
A staunch ally of the United States. 84% of Vietnamese had a favorable view of the US in 2017. I was often told glowingly of what and where Obama ate during his visit to Vietnam and proudly that Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc was the third among world leaders that called to congratulate President Trump on his election.
A market economy that is experiencing exponential growth given demand for its products abroad and its dedicated workforce.
The people I met typically worked over 12-hours a day, 6 days a week and often on the four days of leave they were given each month. Currently 47th in world economies (35th in purchasing power), Vietnam is targeted to be the world’s 20th by 2050.
I experienced Hanoi’s rich history that long pre-dates the conflicts with which my generation is more familiar.
… and I met a new generation that has lived in a Vietnam without armed conflict since the end of the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1989.
I had the surreal experience of streaming Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ‘The Vietnam War‘ while visiting Hanoi. The first episode aired the day I arrived.
I’d watch the history at night and see Hanoi in its current form by day. A variation on a theme indeed.
I found endless inspiration for my lens on the streets of Hanoi …
……and enjoyed the company of a vibrant expat community and welcoming locals.
If I wasn’t so determined to complete my circumnavigation, I could have happily moved to Hanoi for a couple of years.
The best bit was the freedom I found in Vietnam on the back of a motorbike.
From my first terrifying (for me) ride with Hannah from the Splendid Star Group through the streets of Hanoi, to a fantastic motorcycle tour of the city and its surrounds with Mike (Long) to my adventure with handsome Hà who safely ferried me through the flooded ways of Mỹ Đức to the beauty of Ninh Bình and back.
And of course, the motorcycle trips through the Hòa Bình, Lào Cai, and Lai Châu provinces…but I’ll save those for a future post. I hope you’ll join me there.