The first thing the mind wants to do when arriving in a new place is to scan the memory ‘banks’ looking for the familiar, whether it’s language, customs, faces, print….anything that your brain can cling to in the hopes of regaining some kind of familiarity or comfortably when faced with a totally new situation. And although Vietnam has its own distinctly unique peoples, customs, history, government, nationality and so forth, it’s irresistible to arrive from China and make comparisons as there are many similarities. The biggest stand-out is the Confucian influence; strong family bonds, deference to elders and respect for parents, teachers and other authoritative or hierarchical figures. This is no surprise as China invaded Vietnam several times throughout history and dominated the country for several periods totaling several hundred years.
We left the high rises that dominate Chinese city skylines to land among the rural setting of Hanoi International Airport. It was turning dark so we didn’t see much on the way to our hotel from the airport. But it was clear we were not in Kansas….er, Chengdu anymore. Our first real encounter was purchasing our visa. Gone were the efficient, orderly lines we’d seen in China (around government officials, anyway). We had gotten our visas before arriving in Vietnam but had not paid for them yet. Despite having the necessary paperwork, there were still forms to fill out and lines to be negotiated before entry. We made our way around the visa line which looked more like a small mob by the time we got to see the officers. Since we didn’t have the required $45 US dollars or Vietnamese Dong, we needed to pay with Chinese Yuan but were unsure if that was even possible, or how the process would work. We were somewhat fortunate enough to watch three others who were in the same situation. They were able to pay the fee in Yuan but paid a premium at $63 each. This was a huge ‘mark-up’ so I calculated how much $45 would be in Yuan and then tried to hide my Yuan as I counted it out. Unfortunately the immigration officer saw me counting it and asked for (or actually, demanded) more than the Y550. We paid $58 for each visa and the whole process was quite arbitrary. So depending how you look at it, we either overpaid by $13 each or saved $5 each. Still, we paid a premium and it was a lesson in preparing for foreign entry and visa fees. It was also a lesson in how things are done here. Later, we would get a better exchange rate for our remaining Yuan on the black market vs going to a bank.
Once at our hotel, we were in the old quarter of Hanoi and it was brewing big. The streets were an ocean of motorbikes. There were so many that they could only move along so fast in the massive traffic. There was music coming from bars and people sat on the sidewalks with their friends and family sipping cold drinks, eating sunflower seeds or just hanging out. I passed one bar which had a local guitar and keyboard duet belting out a pretty good rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally”.
Our first museum was a visit to Hoa Lo prison, sarcastically called “The Hanoi Hilton” by Vietnam era American prisoners of war. The land was originally a village known for its pottery-ware but was taken over by the French colonialists who built the prison for political prisoners. Hoa Lo means “hell’s hole” and the atrocities committed there are almost unspeakable.
Cindy was galled by the highly propagandist information regarding the good treatment of American POW’s but I was prepared for its viewing which provided some solace. I found it ironic that Vietnamese were tortured (and executed) at the hands of the French and created the museum to document the horrors which, during their continued war for their independence, they perpetrated some of the same crimes. That those facts are omitted are a sad statement of politics getting in the way of the truth.
Politics aside, we’re having a great time and are enjoying Hanoi. The people are friendly, the sights are fresh and the food is great!