Hanoi surprised me. I realize that since I was only in Hanoi when I was in Vietnam my observations are limited but I wasn't expecting it to be as open as it was. One of my guidebooks told me to get a VPN for things like facebook, but no one needed it and facebook wasn't blocked at all. I ran into a number of tourists from America and Europe as well as backpackers with dreads. Aside from pho and banh mi, I honestly didn't know much about Vietnam but listening to some of the people around I sensed that I wasn't alone. When I visited Hoa Lo prison, it was pretty empty throughout. The exhibits related to when it was a French prison holding Vietnamese prisoners were quiet. There was a middle aged American couple ahead of me in one room filled with shackled mannequins and I was surprised and kind of embarrassed when they stopped for a photo with all the fake prisoners. I was completely alone in another exhibit with sensors so that patriotic music followed me everywhere as I read about independence. When I got towards the end where they had things about war with America and John McCain's flight suit on display, I was surprised to suddenly find myself surrounded by people. A video played in one room, with footage very purposefully put together as it alternated between destroyed cities and hungry children and American prisoners smoking and playing cards. In the subtitles, it referred to the prison as "Hanoi Hilton 'Hoa Lo'" with quotation marks as if it were actually the Hilton and "prison" was just a nickname for a comfortable war time stay. The parting words were "Goodbye, uninvited guests. How lucky you were to be in a Vietnamese prison." Those are strange words to leave with as a tourist in a former prison. Aside from that, I never faced any issues related to my being American. If anything, my being American caused people to tell me prices in dollars even when I paid in Vietnamese dong. When I paid for my visa, I also had to come to the airport prepared with USD. When I flew out through airport at the end of my trip, the prices were all listed in USD and I struggled to work through the math so that I could spend the last of my dong.
Having read enough about Vietnam to know about its relation to China (and enough Chinese to see the connection between "YueNan", Vietnam, and "NanYue", an old kingdom that spanned parts of Southern China and Vietnam) I was kind of excited to explore connections and traditions that still seemed strong down south. I also had the great opportunity to see how they do the lunar new year in Hanoi so I got to see the city done up in lights, the flower markets, the fruit trees strapped to the backs of bikes, women and children in bright clothes and ao dai, people paying visits to different temples and the smell of diesel as people poured in (or out) to see family.