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Majestic Halong Bay is like something lifted from the pages of Tolkien, with thousands of limestone karsts and isles that rise up from the water like the jagged body of a gargantuan sea serpent.

Rafu Columnist

In late May, my wife and I took her mother and brother to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, located in the north. The country had been a place we had wanted to visit for several years because we enjoy the cuisine and had heard and read about its natural beauty.

From the airplane while touching down, it’s unavoidable noticing the lush greenery interspersed with bodies of water—large puddles, small lakes, streams, rice paddies, ponds. H2O is abundant. The colors green and brown are too, and in a wide swath of shades.

While we were landing, I couldn’t help but think, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Not that the scenery reminded me of the destructive powers of Agent Orange, but more so because Vietnam and war had become synonymous growing up. Thank pop culture, from movies like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket,” to the countless songs created during the ’60s and ’70s that all reflected and/or directly addressed the war and its effect on Americans. There were also my personal connections with those who were drafted—my uncle was shipped there in 1969 as were several family friends—my JA “uncles.”

All of these learned, preconceived ideas were present, this knowledge filtered through everything I did and experienced during my time in Hanoi. The airport reminds a bit of a ’70s run-down version of Oahu Airport with soldiers dressed in green uniforms with red accents checking your passport at immigration.

Within minutes of getting inside a cab on our way into the city from the airport we saw a makeshift motorbike car—like one of those bicycle cars you rent in Huntington Beach—except this one was crafted from a moped enclosed in two large iron sheets held together by 2x4s and was driving on the highway.

“Only in Vietnam,” our taxi driver told us with a laugh.

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Grilled prawns at Quan Com Pho, where “All the food is made with love.”

Only in Vietnam…something as simple as crossing the street is an adventure all on its own. One’s natural instinct is to follow the stop lights and watch out for vehicles trying to avoid the churning, river of buzzing, two-wheeled machines. But experienced travelers and the locals understand that the best way to avoid traffic is to walk slowly and let the traffic avoid you. It’s a bit unnerving at first, as motorbikes in Hanoi are as ubiquitous as people in Tokyo’s Shibuya Station. The roads and streets are a sea of mopeds, bicycles, motorcycles, and dirt bikes. All colors, shapes, sizes. They typically are carrying more than they seem designed to carry—from crates filled with live pigs, to boxes filled with tools/produce, to entire families riding on a single moped.

In a city of 6.5 million people, it’s estimated nearly half own a motorbike. Every sidewalk and street makes that number seem to be a gross underestimate. Rows and rows of mopeds and motorcycles line sidewalks as if they are on car lots waiting to be sold, while those being driven flock the roads like schools of fish, mostly moving in unison, with some haphazardly breaking off from the group.

Driving—or being driven—is an exercise in lunacy. Drivers seem to fancy traffic lights as mere guidelines. If a driver feels he can make a turn or squeeze past a red light, he does so. It isn’t uncommon to see dozens of vehicles waiting as one gung-ho individual decides to make a U-turn in the middle of a completely traffic-jammed street. At no other time was this clearer than when we took our day trip out to Halong Bay.

The distance from Hanoi to Halong Bay is less than 100 miles—yet on the single-lane highway traveling between 25 to 50 mph it took us nearly three hours to get there. Our driver was aggressive and was constantly swerving in and out of our lane into the oncoming traffic to bypass the slower cars in front of us. He would peek into the next lane, then fully commit, speed up into oncoming traffic with those vehicles flashing their lights, before cutting back into our original lane, one car further along. This repeated action had its way of wearing down my courage. It got to the point where I couldn’t look out the front windshield anymore. Instead, I spent most of the three hours looking out the side window to soak up the Vietnamese countryside.

Vietnam has water all across it. That was the first thing I noticed from the plane as we touched down into Hanoi (Noi Bai) Airport and it was further reinforced as we traveled out to the coast. All over the place there are giant ponds/miniature lakes surrounded by lush greenery. Some of these ponds had thousands of ducks, other appeared to be stagnant, while still others were clearly for irrigation.

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French influence remains in the coffee, rich and tinged with a chocolate aftertaste.

The area we traveled through is known for its ceramics and there were several large smokestack towers connected to ceramic factories at various locations across the countryside. There are also rest stops along the way, giant compounds where people sell hand-woven pictures and dresses, figurines and furniture made of ceramics, and food and snacks. It’s set up in a way, with old women (some crippled or maligned in some fashion) sewing in one section of the compound—a ploy to tug at the compassion strings of tourists and have them buy over-priced items. I purchased a bottle of snake wine at one such location, and then found the same bottle for $5 less once back in Hanoi. And the math you’ll have to do when dealing with money could make your head spin. It’s something like 22,000 dong for every dollar. Good luck with those computations—though it does feel kind of cool to spend a couple million dong on something.

Halong Bay was epic in its grandeur as long as I focused on the periphery. From the main sea vessel, the scenery reminds of Braavos in “Game of Thrones”—something lifted from the pages of Tolkien. There are thousands of limestone karsts and isles that rise up from the water like the jagged body of a gargantuan sea serpent. Thousands of years of erosion have created this breathtaking work of art.

But get right up close (like when we took a small dinghy out into the waterways) and discover that the thick, pea-green water has plastic bottles and discarded trash bobbing around. Navigate your way through over 50 floating houses where people live, and realize that it is basically a buoyant slum.

Vietnam is like nowhere I have ever visited.

The air was wet—90 degrees and 90 percent humidity—and it thunder-stormed the entire time we were there. But the rain typically only lasted for at most an hour as the clouds would roll in, the wind would pick up, people would pull out umbrellas and rain slickers from their vehicles, a heavy downpour would ensue with thunder and lightning, and then 30 minutes later it would just completely stop.

It’s hot, but no locals wear shorts.

Everywhere you turn, there is human squalor backdropped by the splendor of nature. People squat by the side of the garbage-littered street to grill raw meat over an open flame—the meat’s sizzling aroma wafting through the humidity, sweat, and trash. Other vendors carry dragon fruit in hanging baskets across their shoulders, while others slice up small pineapples to sell on the street.

The coffee is rich and tinged with a chocolate aftertaste. Everything that claims to be cold—beer, water, juice—rarely ever is. In fact, we had to ask for a lot of ice for our drinks, which is a risky proposition as unbottled water is at risk of contamination. And yet, on every street corner were vendors selling the newest Blu-Ray players, HD flat screen televisions, stereo equipment, and air conditioning units.

Everyone seemed to be either hurriedly trying get somewhere or they are lounging on the streets. Brightly colored, Fisher-Price-looking plastic chairs, stools and tables line the sidewalks throughout the city from the nicest neighborhoods to the slummier sections of the inner city. People sit around, smoke, eat sunflower seeds, chat with each other, and/or carry on over their cell phones.

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Practically everybody gets around on two wheels. It is estimated that half of Hanoi’s 6.5 million people own a motorbike.

Men park their motorbikes on the sidewalk and recline on top of them, having mastered the delicate balance of lying out across their bikes without falling.

The architecture is an unique blend of French colonial influence with hints of East Asia all shrouded in telephone wires, dirt, and decay—like the inner city in the latest movie version of “Total Recall.” The city breathes with tropical exhalations, a pungent mix of fish sauce, sweat, and moisture, while the jungle feels ever present, like it is slowly eroding away civilization and reclaiming its territory. At times, like when we visited Hanoi Citadel, the jungle is alive with the alien-like hissing of cicada bugs.

The food was best at the local places. We didn’t try too many street vendors (my wife is pregnant so we had to tread carefully) but through our research, the places that look the most questionable often came highly regarded. One place we ate at, Quan Com Pho, a family-run restaurant, was especially memorable. The building looks like it’s old French Colonial, and the inside has tiled floors and is clean. The food was delectable—soft-shelled crab, rau muong (water spinach), grilled prawns, and some dynamite fried rice. The fresh pineapple juice was amazing as well.

“All the food is made with love,” said Linh, who took over running the restaurant from her parents. The food is northern, family style. Home-cooked meals.

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More motorbikes on the streets of Hanoi.

For those wondering, Vietnamese food extends far and away beyond pho. Though, the pho we had was delicious. There’s lots of seafood, lots of vegetables, fried dishes, fruits.

In fact, many of my preconceived notions about the country have changed. The war as well. I couldn’t help but think about my uncle as a 19-year-old, heading to a foreign country to fight an enemy that looked an awful lot like himself. The intense climate change was enough to leave me exhausted and worn down by 8 p.m. each day—and I was on vacation, not trudging through the jungle carrying weapons and trying to avoid death.

What we know as the Vietnam War (or conflict), the Vietnamese know as the American War. Our hotel was right next to Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton), a POW camp built by the French in the late 1880s where John McCain was once held after his plane was shot down in 1967.

Today, it is open to the public as a museum and lives on as a grim reminder of the atrocities the French colonialists inflicted upon the Vietnamese and later the torture the Vietnamese inflicted upon themselves and American POWs.

I went there expecting to see how horrible American soldiers were treated, and I instead saw the horrors the French inflicted upon the indigenous people. Iron chains clamping down ankles to concrete slabs slightly angled so that prisoners would have no choice but to defecate and urinate on themselves, women and children being crammed into tiny cells, photos of heads in baskets after execution by guillotine—all of this death and suffering because Vietnam wanted to be free.

The prison was designed to hold 600 prisoners, but at the height of its use, it housed nearly 2,000.

While the museum made little mention of the cruel torture inflicted upon American POWs, it did show how many POWs were treated well considering the war. They were allowed to play basketball and eat fresh fish and smoke—all in an effort to try and convince America that Vietnam wasn’t a bad place.

Having been there, nearly a half century after the war, I need no further convincing.

The way of life is very different from what I am used to here in the States. Everything seems a little dirtier. It feels Third World. At the same time, there is a vibrancy to life that is uncommon in the States.

People in Vietnam find a way. Whether it’s grabbing a tourist’s shoe and repairing it without their permission to earn a little money, or whether it’s selling fruit on the street to support their family, or whether it’s fitting two children and your spouse on one moped, people find a way.

And finding a way is a human experience that remains very familiar whether in California or Hanoi.

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