Monday, July 23, 2018


The old French Quarter in Hanoi is full of this architecture — a little bit European, with its wrought iron balconies and shuttered windows, much of it streaked with mildew and carpeted with a jungly overgrowth of plant life. I find it beautiful, lush and evocative.

I finally got a chance to look around this morning. I went out at 6 a.m., thinking I’d find the city empty and I’d take photos of quiet shopfronts and desolate streets before our early afternoon flight to Nha Trang.


But no! Hanoi is an early-rising and apparently very energetic city. People were out in the parks and green spaces playing badminton, doing tai chi, dancing in big groups to music pouring from speakers, playing soccer. It was incredible! I compiled a video of it all, because I couldn’t believe how much activity I was seeing. I mean, teenagers playing football at 6:30 in the morning?!

I even saw some old ladies doing tai chi on a traffic island in the middle of a very, very busy intersection.

It was wonderful. Watch that video. You won’t believe it either.

I passed this little coffee shop and that guy in the door waved me in when I stopped to take a photo. The place was plastered with little post-it notes bearing various messages, from “Mango is the best fruit ever” to “There’s no time to be bored in a world as beautiful as this.”

I ordered a strong espresso-like Vietnamese coffee (which I badly needed at that hour) and drank it walking around the lake in the nearby park. The lake had a small weathered temple on an island in its center.

To take on a somber subject: Some of you in the comments have mentioned the Vietnam War. I too have been struggling to reconcile what I’m seeing in Vietnam today with what I know of that conflict and its aftermath. Understandably, it’s still the lens through which most Americans see this part of the world.

In fact, Dave and I were talking about it last night at dinner — we were sitting in a beautiful restaurant with a courtyard, the trees strung with lights. The place was mobbed with Vietnamese customers. I was having a glass of Chilean white wine, waiting for my order of fried rice with chicken, and thinking, less than 50 years ago our country was dropping bombs on this very city.

It’s surreal. There’s a Prada around the corner from our hotel, and a Starbucks across the street. And we lost! What on earth were we fighting for?

I suppose some would argue that our opposition to the Communists in Vietnam — along with the Cold War in general — helped lead to the overall collapse of Soviet-style Communism in the late 1980s, paving the way for the more market-friendly version we see now in China and other parts of Asia.

But I can’t help but wonder whether Vietnam would have gotten here anyway. Was it worth the deaths of 60,000 American military personnel and more than a million Vietnamese? I never understood that war, and I understand it even less now.

All I know is, despite our defeat in a conflict that was supposed to ensure their freedom, people here seem happy. I see them out in restaurants and working in shops, smiling with their babies, taking family cruises on Halong Bay and dancing in the park. I don’t know how their government works, or how representative it is, but many of them seem to have money and enjoy some luxuries. Most of them are too young to have been adults then, and many weren’t even born. The world, I suppose, has moved on.

And I feel very comfortable and welcome as a visitor, though I'm shadowed by the same sense I’ve had my whole life — that we had no business fighting here.


  1. Great post and reflections giving a great insight into Hanoi today. But back then...
    And it's one, two, three,
    What are we fighting for ?
    Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
    Next stop is Vietnam;
    And it's five, six, seven,
    Open up the pearly gates,
    Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
    Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

    - Country Joe and The Fish

  2. Such an incredible post! And no- I can't believe that many people are up and out and exercising and dancing and playing so early in the morning! What a beautiful little film! Thank you, Steve, for capturing it. I now have images in my head of a Viet Nam I had no idea existed.
    Of course we had no business being there, bombing and fighting and sacrificing the lives of so many of ours and of theirs. Yet another huge stain on the soul of America.
    War- what on earth's it good for?
    Well. It is a joy to see that the country has survived, has thrived, has created beauty and tranquility and prosperity and it is even more amazing to hear that Americans are welcomed there now.
    We could learn so much from them.

  3. What a fascinating journey you are on. Do you think the day begins so early because of heat later in the day and a siesta mid afternoon? I love all the dancing! What a beautiful way to begin the day.

    I was an Army nurse during the Vietnam war ( just out of nursing school). The Army plan helped me to pay for school. It was mad to send all those young men into such chaos, death or horrible injuries.
    After my two years I moved to New York and started going to protests.

    The names of the cities you have visited brings back so many memories of battles. It is such a positive change that now they are destinations because of their beauty.

  4. so many conflicting feelings are brought up when Vietnam is the subject but you brought us the beauty of it, I'm still picturing in my mind the elderly woman in the medium doing exercise lol,, I love the faded temple as well, that photo I will hold in my memory a long time,

  5. I will hold this memory of a country that has come to terms with themselves and allowing tourists to see their lives. I was impressed that all the people could do all these exercises without Lycra! Amazing pictures and video...

  6. Wonderful post! That video was simply amazing. All those people out and about to early in the morning. I agree, we had no business there.

  7. I wish your movie was five times longer -- it was fascinating! Well done!

    I was in grade school when the Vietnamese War started, in junior high when the casualties being reported every night on the evening news became "normal", in high school when I went to my first anti-war march when it seemed to me that this conflict would never end, and in my 20s when Saigon fell. It's very hard for me to think of Vietnam as just another country but seeing it through your eyes has given me so many new, beautiful images.

    You're a great traveller. Thank you for taking me along with you.

  8. I love the video. What a great peek into Vietnam. Thanks for posting it.

  9. Excellent post and a wonderful video. Thanks, Steve.

  10. That video is stunning. Makes me wonder what time the sun rises there. All that energy so early in the day is wild. I marched on the streets of Newark, NJ and Washington DC back in the 60s protesting that war. I'm glad to see the streets there now teeming with life and art and beauty. The best balance to the old photos from back then. Thank you for this.

  11. The video is extraordinary. I could hardly fathom that it was taken at 6 am! Such vibrant life everywhere! And yes, I so agree with your reflections on the war. It's always a useless endeavor as far as I can understand, and look, we are now in the grip of Russia, and the Vietnamese seem happy and free. Such a curious world. Thank you so much for sharing your travels with us!

  12. GBM, caused from agent Orange ,plagues Vietnam vets, PTSD, homelessness, limbs blown off- the war brought home with them , to a country shunning them with no help available at all- I would say that Where you are right now looks as though the other side may have moved on in a healthy way. This country is till suffering - the guilt is tremendous.
    Your photos are fab! Loving your adventure- thank you.

  13. Your pictures and that video and your observations are just great.

    Have you heard of this:

  14. I loved reading this post. It was very informative, and the video was great. Hanoi is quite different than I pictured it to be. In one of the courses I teach, we spend a week on the Vietnam War where my students learn just how senseless and pointless that war was...not that any war is good.

    Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  15. Excellent post. Thank your for the wonderful photos and your insightful impressions. It is so nice to think of western tourists enjoying a place that most of us recall as a war zone. That is progress of which to be joyful. Your observations stimulated a thought- with only very few exceptions, places, people and history would be much better if war was avoided. To think of the great animus 50 years ago, and now it almost seems as though it was for naught, perhaps even, to someday be forgotten. What was gained in all of that suffering? If only we could constrain our more base impulses as nations with a longer view and a good dose of history. Thank you indeed.

  16. I appreciate reading your thoughts on the Vietnam War and today's Vietnam. Although I'm Canadian, my mother had two young American cousins drafted into the war. It was very hard mentally and emotionally for the one who saw action because he was not a highly placed officer like the other one was. And then, as I said, our son-in-law's mother was Vietnamese. When I saw our day-old grandson and thought of the connection we now have with the other side of the world, it gave me goosebumps. Because of that connection, I've done more reading on that period in history. Seems like hell to me - to everyone involved.

    That little temple is beautiful. Did you leave a post-it message at the coffee shop? :)

  17. P. S. I wonder if exercise is prescribed by the government or something along that line. It would be interesting to know how they get so many people involved!

  18. Interesting that they were out early in the morning. I wonder how long before 6:30 they were out there?