Many years ago my first taste of world travel took me to Hanoi, long before Vietnam joined the WTO and became “modern.” Then, the traditional was the norm, and the experience gave me fond memories that remain with me today.
Bigger than I expected, Hanoi itself was incredibly busy. Thousands of people on motor scooters and bicycles crowded every street. Many of them wore scarfs over their mouths and noses because the air was so polluted. As I rode around town on my Xe om (a kind of motor bike taxi), it was interesting to contrast the many tiny streets teeming with people doing business on the sidewalks with the ornate mustard-yellow official buildings left over from the many years of French occupation. The mausoleum of Vietnam’s revered former leader Ho Chi Minh (called “Uncle Ho” by the locals), had a prominent place in a large square. Usually visitors can see his preserved body there, but at the time of my trip he was in the middle of an official face-lift, so to speak, so a visit to the adjacent museum had to suffice. Within its halls I wandered into a back room where local musicians played traditional Vietnamese instruments and sang haunting melodies. After the show one attractive musician handed me, the lone westerner in the small room, a ravishing red rose and a seductive smile.
Though my time in Vietnam was way too short I didn’t just stay in Hanoi. Hopping on the back of one of the Xe Om motorbike taxis I had rented for the day ($20 for two, a month’s income for the drivers), I ventured far out from the city to two of the small villages. Bach Trang specialized in making pottery, most of which was brought into Hanoi on bicycles or carts pulled by an ox or pony. The other village was called Nhing Heip, which was reached by an extremely bumpy Xe Om ride over rough roads. Nhing Heip is where they make fabric, and was the location of one of my fondest memories from the trip. Because very few westerners ever make it there, my oddly pale face attracted a great deal of attention. This was especially true with three little girls of about 4 years old who would run up to me and then run away and push their friends toward me, all the while laughing hysterically. My companion informed me that they kept saying “Look how white he is.” The commotion they were causing led to one of the girls’ grandfather seeing us and inviting us into his house for tea.
The house was actually a single room that resembled more a garage with a simple fabric covering the large opening. Over the course of the next 20 minutes or so we drank many cups of tea while he chatted away in Vietnamese about how America is rich and Vietnam is very poor but they work very hard (he was obviously proud of his culture). Of course, most of this I found out after the fact from my companion since I had learned only about 10 words of the language in my four days in Vietnam. I had no idea what he was saying but I enjoyed it immensely. It was a most delightful and memorable experience and one that I will treasure forever.
A conversation I didn’t understand of which I would be reminded years later when I engaged in another discussion where neither I nor the gentleman I was conversing with had any idea what we were saying to each other. More on that event later.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.