One of the things we are finding most wonderful about visiting Vietnam is how incredibly affordable everything is. Seriously, if you are looking to take an interesting and exciting vacation, this just may be the place to go. It has history, culture, shopping, beaches, and a whole lot to just observe and digest.
Because it is so affordable here, we are able to stay in a wonderful hotel for a reasonable price. The Hanoi Moment Hotel, a boutique hotel in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, prides itself on customer service. They arranged for our taxi from the airport so we wouldn’t get scammed and when we pulled up out front, the doorman ran to get our bags and carry them inside. We were ushered in, presented with fresh mango juice and asked to sit on the couches while they checked us in. Soon, the very smiley and friendly Jimmy sat down with us to review the amenities of the hotel and room. When we looked up, our bags had already been taken to our room and Jimmy was escorting into the elevator and upstairs. As he opened the door, Jimmy informed us that he turned the air conditioning 30 minutes prior to our arrival so our room would be cool for us. A welcome tray of fruit sat on the bed and along with a complimentary bottle of wine. The room also has free water, robes, slippers and a WiFi connected laptop plugged in. It is really beautiful.
These things helped Hanoi Moment Hotel to make a great first impression, however it is everything else that has really made us fall in love. There is a travel desk downstairs run by the very knowledgeable Ching. She is always eager to help and has been very patient with our many questions. She took care of booking a tour of Halong Bay which we will embark on tomorrow and also helped book tickets to a theater event. The best part is the awesome restaurant suggestions. They are really looking out for us. They even gave us a list of cab companies we could trust so we wouldn’t fall prey to the scams which are so common. We originally only booked two nights here, but we like it so much we are staying for a third. And the most amazing part is how affordable the hotel is. This wonderful stay is only costing $67 USD per night, including taxes. Amazing.
It isn’t just the hotel that is affordable. We can’t believe how little things cost here. We first had to get used to doing the conversion from Vietnamese Dong to the US Dollar. Twenty-one thousand dong equals one dollar. Which means that 2,000,000 Dong equals $100. So, it is a little strange to buy two bottles of water and see the price ring up as 28,000. But, when we stop to think about it, we realize that is less than 2 bucks. That’s a great deal for two bottles of water! In addition, the local food we’ve eaten has not only been inexpensive (totaling about 15 bucks for a full dinner with two beers), but it has been delicious. The staff have guided us to outstanding places locals choose to eat and we look forward to trying more adventurous dishes.
Aside from our interacting with the locals at restaurants and bars, we actually found ourselves engaging in some more typical tourist activities today. The first place we visited was the Temple of Literature, essentially an academic hall of fame for scholars of Confucius. This complex looks like a temple, but is not dedicated to religious study. Instead, it honors the teachings of Confucius which are basically focused on how to become the best person you can be (really, how to be a gentleman but I’m trying to be PC). They have stone stelae with names of doctors who have passed the 82 Confucian exams and some of these date back to the 1400’s. I’m glad we visited, but overall it was a bit underwhelming. Perhaps a guide would have been helpful and we maybe could have appreciated it more.
After the Temple of Literature, we went to the Vietnam Military History Museum. This was easily the most interesting and unsettling thing we saw today. Of course, we all know the history the US has with Vietnam and I was really interested to visit this museum to see a new perspective. I didn’t anticipate how upsetting it would be. Outside the museum they have aircraft which have been captured from the French and the US, and in the center of all of these is a huge sculpture formed from wreckage of downed aircraft. Looking at this gigantic pile of crumpled metal which had been shot down, thinking about the pilots of these aircraft and reading the plaques which brag about how many planes were brought down made me feel kind of sick.
Throughout the whole museum we got a sense of boasting about winning battles, downing aircraft and defeating the enemy. In one exhibit, they even had the uniform of Lt. Everett Alvarez on display. He was the first American pilot prisoner of war and one of the longest POWs in American history, having been held for over 8 years. Seeing his uniform on display like a trophy was surreal. I’m not sure if I’m describing this right, but the whole museum focused on triumph and victory, nothing about any casualties suffered by the Vietnamese. They call the Fall of Saigon the Liberation. They called the Saigon Government the Puppet Government. The whole thing was so one-sided and filled with propaganda. Of course, it constantly reminded me of Animal Farm by George Orwell, a book I love and know well from having taught it for 6 years. It may sound strange, but we could really feel the Communism in this museum. Perhaps it was the giant statue of Vladimir Lenin across the street. The whole thing was really interesting.
Phil and I wondered, are American war museums like this? I realize the closest I’ve come to one is the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, but I remember that as being more a display of artifacts, not celebrations of killing. I can imagine how visiting this museum could be very difficult, especially for members of my parents’ generation. I’m glad we went, but our response to the exhibits has made us reconsider if we should to go the Hanoi Hilton Museum, the infamous jail where US prisoners of war were held, most notably John McCain.
Our visit to the museum today and our response to those exhibits illustrate for me the reasons why it is important to travel. Seeing other perspectives, analyzing how information is presented and considering if that is reflected in one’s own culture broadens your horizons and makes you think about things in new ways. I think that is one of the most valuable things that will come out of this trip. We can’t wait to continue our journey and explore more of Vietnam.