Good morning Vietnam

After nearly 30 hours in the air and in airports, we arrived in Hanoi at about 10pm last night. Even though it was dark, it was clear upon approach that some aspects of Hanoi, specifically Noi Bai airport, have changed  since our last visit 16 years ago. Last time, the airport was just a low-slung concrete 1960s-style box with a couple of runways and a dozen or so water buffalos lazily munching along the tarmac. 

Today's Noi Bai is a modern, glass-and-steel airport with airconditioned jetways and flat screen TVs. The intimidating middle-aged soldiers unhappily stamping huge ledger books with blood-red crests and seals have been replaced by bored twenty-something functionaries indolently scanning passports into modern PCs. It's all very efficient, but somehow disappointing from a travelogue standpoint.

We made our way through immigration and baggage claim with no trouble at all, and were greeted by a driver with "MR. JOHN MCCOLLUM" written on a placard. After a 40 minute drive on a modern interstate highway, we reached Hanoi. The outskirts of the city certainly start out a bit farther than I remember them, and I'm certain that there weren't nearly this many shiny hotels. There may or may not have been a shopping mall.

When we finally reached the Old Quarter, I smiled and sighed -- this is Hanoi as I remembered it: tightly packed buildings, each about 6 feet wide and 4 stories high; street corners filled with shirtless men sitting on red plastic stools drinking weak yellow beer and smoking white filterless cigarettes. The smells, the sounds, the signs -- some things haven't changed much at all.

We checked into the Hanoi Central Hotel, which is unsurprisingly a hotel in the center of, well, Hanoi. It's cheap, but it works. There's no hot water and the bathroom smells a bit like sewage, but the internet is fast and there are a couple of English-speaking TV channels. The location makes up for the simple amenities: it's just a block from lake Hoan Kiem, and is in the heart of the city's oldest neighborhoods. When we adopted Chien, we stayed just a couple of blocks away.

Chien and me at the Thuy Ta Cafe today.

Chien and Kori at the Thuy Ta Cafe, June 1998.

The boys went to their room, and Kori, Xiu Dan and I tried our best to get some sleep by around 12:30 a.m. Aided by Ambien, I got a couple of hours of decent shuteye. Thanks to jetlag, I was wide awake again by 5:00. At around 6:00, I took a cold shower, got dressed and grabbed my camera. When I got down to the lobby, the desk clerk was still asleep on the floor. He quickly got up and let me out, and I hit the streets. 

I headed straight for the lake and wandered among the hundreds of Hanoians exercising in the cool of the morning. The lake is an oasis of tranquility in the heart of the busy capital city. Young men jog and lift weights, children play badminton, and old women practice Tai Chi under the boughs of ancient willow trees. A red lacquered bridge stretches from the west bank to a tiny pagoda on an island in the center of the lake where tourists snap pictures and supplicants burn incense at the shrined dedicated to the magic turtle who once returned the sword of power to King Ly Thai To.

There are fewer cyclos and bikes and more cars. Most of the motos are fizzy, late-model Honda Dreams and Yamaha 125cc jobs, rather than the Super Cub C90s that used to burble around the streets, but little else has changed in the heart of the city. Tired yet mighty worker-women still waddle the sidewalks with heavy bundles of fruit on poles over their shoulders, men still chop glistening piles of grilled meatparts on heavy wooden cutting boards and hungry Hanoians of all ages still slurp steaming bowls of phở from metal folding tables at streetside cafes.

After locating and photographing the Thuy Ta Cafe where Kori and I used to feed baby Chien stacks of Ritz crackers and the Claudia Hotel where we first became a family, I returned to the hotel, gathered the family and headed out for breakfast. We found a tiny family-run restaurant serving the city's famous beef noodle soup, phở, and reminded ourselves once again why we don't bother ordering the stuff very often in Columbus, Ohio. If Hanoi wasn't filled to the brim with other, equally-tasty treats, I could eat a bowl of at salty, spicy and slightly-oily brisket-and-broth for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

We strolled around the lake, visited the pagoda and grabbed tea and fruit smoothies at the Thuy Ta -- that was about all we had energy for, and we have returend to our hotel for a couple hours of rest before lunch. By tomorrow morning, we should be mostly adjusted to the new schedule, and will be ready for full days of fun.

I love this place. I'm more accustomed to the heat, the pace of city life and the profound Asianness of the place than I was 16 years ago, but I'm not jaded. I've worked hard to maintain my sense of wonder throughout my 20+ trips to this part of the world, and so far, it's paying off with a great visit to Hanoi. 

Pak and Xiu Dan are enjoying themselves. Kori and I are definitely a bit emotional. Chien seems to be quietly taking it all in. "It's kind of strange being here," he said. Yeah. It is. But I'm glad we're all here together.

John McCollumComment