It was the strangest sight I have ever had. The plane stopped at the boarding gate, I looked out the window and saw the sign, in English, which read: “Welcome to Hanoi International Airport”. Never in my wildest imaginations did I ever think I would see this sign one day. During my first tower from Vietnam, I flew an army helicopter, carrying troops to engage the enemy. Landing anywhere near Hanoi would have been unthinkable. Now, I was safely sitting on a plane, at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi, about to start my second tour as a tower-ist. Surreal doesn’t quite say it.
Welcome to Hanoi
In July 1970, I turned 21 in Vietnam, halfway through my year of combat mission flying. I returned to Vietnam in September 1992 for a different kind of trip, not by plane this time, but for sightseeing and getting to know the Vietnamese people.
Mark Twain once wrote: “Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and narrow-mindedness. My time in combat in Vietnam changed my life; my return as a tourist / veteran changed me again. And, despite the poisonous history between our countries, the Vietnamese accepted me among them with open arms. For two weeks I traveled through Vietnam – it is no longer a war but a country – reveling in its recovery and absorbing the gracious acceptance of its people.
I meet my interpreter / guide
My guide, a young man named Nhat (Nyut), met me at the arrivals gate holding his company designed sign with my name spelled correctly, which doesn’t happen often. This simple fact helped clear a misconception for me. When I was stationed in Vietnam as a soldier, I had only seen local Vietnamese as a subordinate. Fulfilling various roles for the US military, they have been given tasks such as housekeeping, PX clerk, garbage removal, and more. They seemed to be simple, poorly educated peasants. Nhat explained that in fact 95 percent of Vietnamese are literate, compared to a rate of around 90 percent in the United States at the time.
A hotel in Hanoi
As we made our way to downtown Hanoi, I was impressed with the city’s layout and infrastructure, largely due to French influence. One thing I noticed was that drivers saw traffic lights as mere suggestions and loved the sound of their horns. “Konner is a common courtesy,” Nhat said.
We arrived at the hotel, a modest three story near Hoàn Kiếm Lake. This is the 30-acre lake in the middle of Hanoi that Navy pilot John McCain was dropped into after his SkyHawk was shot down in October 67. It wouldn’t be my first contact with related images and artifacts. at war. Nhat told me that the Vietnamese were not referring to the “Vietnam War“; they call it the American War, to distinguish it from several conflicts they have encountered over the thousand years of their besieged history.
Asian rice bowl
One of the reasons Vietnam has been challenged is its fertility. The southern half of the country has been called the Rice Bowl of Asia. In most parts of what was once South Vietnam, rice can be harvested three times a year. The northern half of the country is less fertile. Indeed, one of the justifications for reunification, according to Nhat, was that the north could barely feed itself.
Seeing a large military presence in Hanoi, 30 years after the end of hostilities, I asked why? Nhat’s response was enigmatic and informative: “We have a very big neighbor,” he said, referring to China, just 40 miles away.
We explored the capital of Vietnam
After a rest at the hotel, I met Nhat, and together we rode motorcycles – him driving, me riding – to explore Hanoi. The first stop was a simple restaurant, where we sampled traditional Vietnamese spring rolls and a cold 33 beer. Total cost for the two of us at that time, around $ 4.00. Then it’s off to explore the region.
If anyone doubts the industrious nature of the Vietnamese, a walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake will dispel that. People offered street food, sold arts and crafts, and handmade clothes. Some would fill ballpoint pen inserts and sell them!
The puppet is a cultural touchstone
Near Hoàn Kiếm Lake, we visited a must-see cultural touchstone. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is a small hall of great importance to the Vietnamese. The hour-long show featured multiple skits, as puppets recreated the history of this tiny Southeast Asian nation. For more on Hoàn Kiếm Lake and its importance to the Vietnamese, see Wendy Lee’s The journey awaits you August 2020 article.
Pro tips: Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is located at 57B Đinh Tiên Hoàng St. Reserve early in the day, as shows all sell out. Current ticket prices, according to the website, are 100,000 VND (Dong), or around $ 4.50.
Ho Chi Minh’s tomb
Ho Chi Minh is called the George Washington of Vietnam, and respect for him endures long after his death in 1969. Nhat and I headed to central Hanoi to visit the grave of this revered leader. The mausoleum overlooks Ba Dinh Square, where Ho declared Vietnam’s independence from France on September 2, 1945. In his speech that day, Ho said, “All men are born. equal: the Creator has given us inviolable rights, life, freedom and happiness! Words that should sound familiar to all Americans.
We entered a queue, two abreast, waiting to enter the massive tomb. The experience was martial, almost masterful. Soldiers in ceremonial uniforms checked our attire, warned us that no photos were allowed, led us to the entrance, and ushered us in.
And there was the tall man stretched out, locked under glass, with withered hands on his chest, a tapered beard sticking out of his chin. I passed Ho Chi Minh, 5 feet away, as North Vietnamese soldiers, former enemies, watched my every move. Confusing perhaps, fascinating certainly, an experience that I will never forget, absolutely.
Pro tips: Located at 8 Hung Vuong Street, admission is free. Expect long lines at different times. Take an umbrella, as it can get hot or rainy. No shorts or cameras are allowed. Ho’s body travels to Russia every year, usually in October, to stabilize, so check before you go.
Vietnam Military History Museum
Adjacent to Ba Dinh Square, the Military Museum is a repository of both the American War, including pieces that could very well have come from John McCain’s SkyHawk, and the Vietnamese hit at Dien Bien Phu, The Battle of 1954 which drove out the French forces. from Vietnam. At the entrance to the museum is a famous battle tank. The heavy machine is the same one which crossed another door, that of the presidential palace of Saigon, today Ho Chi Minh City, on April 19, 1975, putting an end to the American presence in Vietnam.
Back at the hotel, Nhat and I entered Hai Ba Trung Street, which is part of Hanoi’s “French Quarter”. We stopped in front of an arch reading Central House, or Central House. Behind the arch once stood the infamous Hỏa Lò prison. In Vietnamese, the name means “furnace”. For American prisoners of war, that meant the Hanoi Hilton. The structure of the prison was razed, but the arch remains. The property is now the site of another hotel, the Somerset Grand.
Pro tips: In Dien Bien Phu Street, adjacent to Ba Dinh Square, the museum houses many artefacts from various Vietnamese military efforts. The Hanoi Hilton is located at No.49 Hai Ba Trung Street.
Ha Long, “Descending dragon” in Vietnamese, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 600 square miles, containing 775 small islets, Ha Long Bay is ideal for boat trips. Ha Long Bay figures prominently in Vietnamese history as the site of a crucial naval battle.
Pro tip: A two hour drive from Hanoi, with many small hotels, the best way to see Ha Long is to book a cruise from Hanoi or Hai Phong.
Cúc Phương National Park
Nhat and I traveled 2 hours by car southeast of Hanoi to visit Cúc Phương National Park. The park is home to human artifacts dating back 12,000 years. Cúc Phương covers 100 square miles (62,000 acres), where dozens of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish are protected. Cúc Phương is a great place for hiking and birding. With our guide, Nhat and I explored caves once occupied by ancient inhabitants.
Pro tip: The best time to visit the park is the dry season, from November to February.
Encounter Former Enemies
Nearby, I met Mr. Loan, my former adversary, a retiree from the North Vietnamese army. Sharing stories of war, we realized that we had been stationed close to each other during this conflict. It filled me with wonder to know that Loan had perhaps watched me fly over it while I was in his country. He agreed to pose with me for a photo, and I felt a little closed. I hope he did too.
Seeing Hanoi was one of those travel experiences that touched me more than I ever imagined. I saw no combat damage, only the appearance of prosperity. I felt no animosity; people greeted me warmly. Didn’t expect to wish I had a few more days there, but I did. It was time to head south into what used to be called South Vietnam. The second part of my trip would bring back vivid memories of flying over this beautiful country 20 years ago.
To find out more in Vietnam: