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2023 Hanoi

Written by Jeff Drake
5 · 01 · 23

“Tomorrow I will be in Hanoi, Vietnam,” is a sentence I never thought I’d say outside of a nightmare I may have had. After all, Hanoi was the literal heart of the beast, the center of evil for me during my time in the Vietnam War. So why did I find myself so excited at the prospect of setting foot there? Perhaps it was my intuition telling me that closure on a major part of my life would soon be within reach. I like thinking this.

A major reason Lisa and I have had our eye on a return visit to Vietnam was due to the fact that during our first visit back in 2007 we did not see much of the country other than Da Lat, a city near my mountain home during the war, as well as Hoi An, the Mekong, and Saigon. And there was so much more to see of Vietnam! We missed so much! So yeah, we’ve been thinking about a return ever since.

For me, of course, the fact that in 2007 the Vietnamese government was using my old mountain home for their state-run television station and would not allow me to enter, left me with an itch that I knew I could not scratch until I’d finally returned and gained access to what used to be our Pr’Line Mountain home. In the past few years a few people have managed to visit the area we knew as Pr’Line Mountain, so I knew that it was finally going to be accessible to me! So yeah, I was excited about a return to Vietnam!

This main part of this tour from Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) was titled, “Inside Vietnam 2023,” a 20-day small-group adventure. And that it certainly was!

Both our pre-trip adventure (see my blog 2023 The Hill Tribes of Vietnam) and the main tour included time in Hanoi, so we actually spent a total of about 8 days in Hanoi, which is a long time, I think. Lisa and I were ready to move on when our visit to Hanoi came to a close. Still, it was completely mind-bending to me to actually be walking the streets of Hanoi.

I didn’t really know much about Hanoi before this visit, but I’ve learned a few things as a result of our tour and research I did before arriving in country. In 1970, when I was in the war, Hanoi had a population of 617,000 people. Today it has a population of 5,253,000. That’s quite a lot of growth! Still, although Hanoi is large and is the capital of the country, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is still larger. BTW, although everyone knows Saigon was renamed after the war, the people in the south still call it Saigon, and the government doesn’t put up a fuss about it. So, for my purposes, I will still refer to it as Saigon.

The name, “Hanoi,” means “inside of the rivers.” It exists on the banks of the Red River (somewhat appropriate for a communist country, lol), within the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam and lies between the Red River and the much smaller Nhue River. Vietnam is a very old country and can trace its history back to the 3rd century BCE, when the Vietnamese nation was called, Au Lac. In 1010, the emperor declared the area occupying what we know as Hanoi as the capital and named it, Thang Long, which means “Ascending Dragon.” Cool, heh?

Thang Long remained the capital until 1802, when it was officially moved to Hue, a city we visited on our tour. In 1831, Thang Long was named, “Hanoi,” and later served as the capital of French Indochina from 1902 to 1945. In 1946, Hanoi was designated as the capital of the “newly independent country.” This designation continued through two major wars, the First Indochina War (1946-1954) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). In 1976, Hanoi was designated the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976. Indeed, throughout the centuries, Hanoi has known many names.

Today, Hanoi is a major tourist destination. The city is comprised of a mix of older, distinctly French architectures and modern office buildings, with every nook and cranny filled with something or other. Everywhere you look, people are cooking, sewing, constructing, or selling something.

Contrary to what you might think, given its communist government, religion plays a big part in modern day Hanoi. It hosts various religious sites dedicated to Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism and Taoism. There are many famous landmarks and several museums. According to Wikipedia: “Hanoi was the only Asia-Pacific locality to be granted the “City for Peace” title by the UNESCO on 16 July 1999, recognizing its contributions to the struggle for peace, its efforts to promote equality in the community, protect the environment, promote culture and education, and care for younger generations.” I will admit to being impressed by Hanoi.

Like the country of Vietnam itself, Hanoi has known its share of warfare. Hanoi was occupied by the imperial Japanese from 1040 until 1945, when Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam and it became the seat of what was then known as the Viet Minh government. The French, of course, still remembering their many years of occupying Vietnam, returned and reoccupied Hanoi in 1946.

The Viet Minh would fight the French for 9 years, up to 1954, when the French were finally defeated. If memory serves me right, these were the years when Ho Chi Minh wrote not once, not twice, but three times to President Roosevelt, pleading with him to support their fight for independence against the French. Ho Chi Minh obviously had the silly thought that the United States, given its own history of fighting for independence, would support their own struggle against the French. Wrong. These letters, although US officials admitted to them being received, have since mysteriously disappeared. No one seems to know whether they ever reached the desk of Roosevelt. How convenient, a situation Noam Chomsky would no doubt refer to as a “memory hole.”

Our guide for the Inside Vietnam tour was the same guide (Dai) we had for the pre-trip to meet the hill people, which was really nice! It’s worth repeating that Dai is really an over-achiever, which is definitely a quality you want in a tour guide. He had an attention to detail that was exemplary, was very comfortable and confident with our itinerary, which made all of us feel the same. We had 16 people in our group, which is the max for an OAT tour (one reason we like OAT).

We all had an ample amount of free time in this tour, too, which we always enjoy. Being in a group day-after-day, even when the group is very nice, can get to be a bit of a drag. So, it’s always nice to be able to get away on your own and see what there is to see.

One of the tourist sites we were scheduled to see in Hanoi was a puppet show. I have to say that this wasn’t something I necessarily was interested in, because, well, puppets. I just don’t have an interest. But then Dai explained that these were not just any puppets, they were “water puppets.” Huh? So the puppets are all wet? Why yes, yes they are! Why is this special? Because the puppet show we were going to see is the very last historical “small water puppet” show left in the country! Apparently there are “large” water puppet shows that are put on for the tourists, but OAT has instead settled on a cultural relic, which gave us all a chance to discover and learn something special about the country we were visiting (another reason we like OAT).

While in Hanoi, we had the first of three different meetings we were going to have with men who were Vietnamese soldiers during the war. As you might imagine, the prospect of these meetings filled me with mixed emotions. On the one hand I worried that meeting them and shaking their hands would somehow be insulting to those of us who fought them during the war. On the other, I realized that the war was 50 years in the past (to me), it was over, the Vietnamese had won, thus carrying any hate-filled baggage from the war did not make much sense and wouldn’t be good for anyone. I was also very curious to meet them, as they were to meet us! I’m very happy that I met them! We didn’t have a lot of time to spend with them, but I think it would have been interesting to spend an evening getting dfrunk with them. I think they may have felt the same. As it is, we all did a number of different toasts, so we did some damage to a bottle of rice wine we had for lunch!

If memory serves me right, all told we met with 3 different combatants from the war, an NVA officer (I forget his rank) and two Viet Cong officers, a major and a captain. My first thoughts upon meeting them was the realization that 50 years ago, we would have shot each other on sight had we run into them in the bush!

Two other very interesting activities we did in Hanoi included visiting the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison where senator John McCaine had been imprisoned during the war; and also a visit to the war museum. The prison included a walk through rooms filled with photos of the American prisoners enjoying games of chess in their leisure, LOL! They were treated so well! Not. But hey, history is always written by the victors, right?

The war museum had been renamed from the original title which directly referenced American war crimes. I guess when the US president was going to visit Vietnam, they thought that might be embarrassing, and they’d have been right. There is plenty for the US to be embarrassed about when it comes to the Vietnam War and especially where we were, in Hanoi.

There’s a myth about Hanoi during the war that has found its way into the psyche of the US public: that the US never bombed Hanoi directly. It’s amazing, really. Propaganda works. The history of the war is so well documented now, especially since the release of the Pentagon Papers, that it is surprising, to me at least, that you still find people who believe the myth. Perhaps not terribly surprising, given the years of lying the US government did about the war to the public.

In fact, the US did bomb Hanoi. The event even has a couple of different names: the Christmas Bombings and Operation Linebacker II. The bombings happened while I was still in Vietnam, during December 1972. Unlike another secret bombing campaign carried out illegally by the US when we bombed Cambodia in 1970, I was too far away from Hanoi to hear the bombs. But, in 1970, even though Cambodia was 60 miles away from Pr’Line Mountain, the sounds of the assault were carried on the wind to our hill.

On December 18th, 1972, US B-52s flew over Hanoi and rained hell on the people who lived there. This was payback of sorts for Vietnam parading the invaders, our fallen pilots, down their streets where the viewing public back home could see, as well as the failed so-called Paris Peace talks. The bombing was temporarily suspended on Christmas Day, no doubt a nod to the God who was certainly backing the US in the war, but both before and after Christmas, the bombs fell like tears from the sky. The US flew 729 bombing runs over Hanoi in this operation. In just one area of Hanoi, over 2,000 homes were destroyed and 280 people killed. Vietnam claimed at least 1600 people died during the bombings, but it is believed to have been many more. On December 29th the bombing ended and all parties were back in Paris where the peace agreement was signed which led to the release of all US prisoners and the eventual complete pull-out of US forces when the war ended.

The museum we visited was a hall of propaganda for sure, but the many photographs and reams of video evidence documenting what the US did to the civilian population in Hanoi and elsewhere in Vietnam no doubt created more anti-American hatred than any political speech could have ever achieved. This is a museum that every US citizen should visit, lest we forget!

Knowing this, I was somewhat astonished to see and experience the warm welcome we received from the Vietnamese in Hanoi. It was humbling, to say the least.

My next travel blog post will cover Ha Long Bay, Hue (the imperial city), Hoi An, and Nha Trang.

Let us know what you think…

Comments

3 Comments

  1. Kathleen Treb

    Thanks for writing and sharing this article. You do such a good job of including history with your own personal experiences.

    Reply
  2. Michael B Connolly

    Very much enjoyed, as always, your blogging of Vietnam travels! Thanks for taking the time to share this.

    Mike C

    Reply
  3. Betty June Anderson

    Jeff, You are one string person to revisit that again. Course Lee’s are headstrong and hard headed.lol

    Reply

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.