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.
One man though, really stands out in my memory as being especially representative of my time in Hanoi. He checked me in on my first night and went home for two days before he had to go back to work. He patiently answered all my questions as I asked him about Vietnamese holidays, the hotel's altar, and the various tourists who came through the hotel. He wore a European style suit and sang Vietnamese pop songs, he spoke French with one of the guests (He was a regular and stayed there for months at a time, the staff treated him like family and he told me with a thumbs down that he didn't care Donald Trump and followed with, "But I have much respect for the democratic party and that Bernie Sanders. A very honest man."), he showed me pictures of his daughter and his beautiful wife in her new ao dai in what looked like a more rural part of Vietnam. Conservative, but worldly. I asked him about the flowering tree in the hotel lobby, covered in Christmas lights and wishes and he told me one reason he didn't think Tet (the Vietnamese new year) should be mixed with the Western calendar was because the trees didn't bloom in January, they bloomed for Tet. We talked about French tourists who came in groups and were surprised to find Vietnamese people spoke French. We talked about Chinese tourists who also came in groups and sometimes struggled to communicate. He talked about loopholes in a law that was supposed to give incentive to international businesses to operate in Vietnam (they could work for a number of years tax free, but what often happened is that once the tax free period was up the businesses packed up and moved out). We also talked about Vietnamese families who went abroad and never came back, or if they did their children and grandchildren came back speaking French, English, or Czech instead of Vietnamese (He surprised me by saying that as a Chinese-American, I should probably learn to speak Chinese). He seemed traditional, but aware of the world in a way that fascinated me. I tested the limits a little and mentioned that at times, the food in Hanoi reminded me of southern Chinese food. He smiled, and didn't say much to me afterwards except to see if I wanted to leave my bag with him when I left for lunch. I sensed my mistake and felt it sorely, since I'd enjoyed all his observations and insights.
In total, I spent about a week in Hanoi just relaxing and drinking and enjoying the festivities before heading out towards Osaka where I feared I'd have to bundle up again after enjoying mild temperatures and a steady supply of strong coffee. But part of getting to know and enjoy a place is looking for what it is rather than what it's not and Osaka would have its own charms.