Letters From Vietnam: To My Grandad From Abroad
24th October 2018
I’ve just arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam last night. I came with a friend whom I made in Bangkok, Rodri (short for Rodrigo), from Buenos Aires.
When we arrived, it was late. The city was dark and trashy and a bit intimidating. Starved, we bounced around the city with our backpacks slung over shoulders looking for something suitable to eat. I say suitable because most of it looked like it wasn’t or the menu was too foreign to recognize anything.
Most of the dinner joints that remained open at that hour were what they call ‘hot pots’. At these restaurants, all seating is sidewalk seating with low-sitting tables and even lower plastic stools to sit on. The common procedure is to order one meal for the entire table, which is prepared and brought out in a large pot. I’m not sure if it is fully cooked when it is brought out or not because there is normally steam coming from the pot, but there is also a gas-start hotplate in the center of each table.
I watched as locals stirred their pot and divided it between the table. It usually takes this kind of observation to understand what to do at restaurants in Asia. Most places, whether it’s what you’re eating or how to eat it, is so foreign to Westerners.
As Rodri and I were not with a group, these hot pot digs were a little excessive and expensive for our taste so we continued to hop around and look at menus, hoping for a place to serve individual meals.
One which was well-lit and sanitary-looking Rodri refused. He is usually just as passive as I so his refusal seemed odd. My stomach rumbled and I was a bit antsy to have food in front of me. I became a bit frustrated as we continued past yet another restaurant.
He told me they were chopping a dog inside the kitchen. I didn’t see it but judging by the number of dogs chained up on the sidewalks, I could believe it. I understand how that could bother most people, but I didn’t have a particular aversion to it. I wouldn’t order dog just as I wouldn’t order cow. I don’t think I will have a problem turning a blind-eye if I see this in the future here. It is just a part of the culture.
About twenty minutes later, after finally taking a seat at a table and with a suitable menu in front of us, the owner adamantly called us from across the sidewalk. She made it a point to show us her collection of baby chickens which were burnt to crisp inside charcoal-ed Coke cans. They were apparently a hot menu item, their eyes and beak, and little pieces of feathers still as clear as day. Rodri turned to suggest we look for another option. This time, I agreed quicker than he could suggest it.
Our drawn-out search for an edible meal continued down the street where we ran into the first restaurant Rodri would later describe as ‘civilized’. We took seats, ordered food that looked familiar, declined free tea, were still brought the free tea, and as soon as we could take a breath, we were greeted by a stranger. It was a local man who road up on a motorbike table-side. He was older, from a generation or two before Rodri and I.
“How are you?” he said with a smile.
We were used to this kind of friendly behavior from locals in Thailand and didn’t think anything of it, at first. We smiled at the man and turned our focus back to our conversation. The man, still seated on his scooter, wanted to talk to us but the only message he could communicate was “how are you?” So, he asked again.
This time, I turned around and answered him casually. He smiled and pointed to himself, “Vietnam – Hanoi. You?”
“I’m from the U.S.,” I said. He didn’t understand.
“The U.S.A.,” I said. Still, no reaction.
Finally, I told him ‘America’ which I knew he would get. “Oh, America!” he exclaimed in a dissatisfied taste.
He then unzipped his jacket to reveal a military vest and some kind of dog chain or related thereof. After, he ceased to make effort to speak English anymore. His voice seemed to get more comfortable like he was no longer speaking to strangers. He spoke quickly in Vietnamese as if he was speaking less to us and more to the tables around us who were erupting in thunderous laughter.
Rodri and I got his message loud and clear. We didn’t need to know what he was saying, we knew it was sarcastic if not hostile. Eventually, the man took a seat at one of the other tables and started digging into the food.
“Maybe you shouldn’t speak about being from America anymore,” Rodri offered. “You know, because of the history with Vietnamese.” I knew it, too. This wasn’t the first impression we received that told us locals weren’t fond of tourists. After this incident, we assumed the showing of the burnt baby chickens was a way to ward-off tourists as well.
Not only based on those occasions, but it seemed most locals didn’t want our business. We’d ask for menus and they would only begrudgingly show them to us with no interaction whatsoever. I’ve never seen an entire local base refuse tourists’ business, but it seems (at least after the first night) Hanoi could be that way.
After these impressions, I must say I don’t believe the common assessment that Vietnamese people have forgiven us for our war atrocities decades ago. I’m not going to jump the gun and declare that the assessment is wrong, I just don’t think it’s entirely true, yet. Especially seen in the older generations.
And there’s no reason they should forgive us so easily. As Rodri said, some of these men lost fathers in the war that never needed to happen. I don’t expect them to ever forgive us, however, if it’s really as hostile as the first night, this month will be an intriguing study. I don’t have a ton of experience in places where I’m clearly not welcomed. It will be interesting to dig a little deeper into Vietnamese feelings.
It has been a month since my last letter. My friend from Belgium arrives tomorrow and we will travel through Vietnam together for a while. Rodri will most-likely stay with us. It has been a while since I’ve traveled with people.
The nights are probably getting colder in Kansas by now (definitely by the time you receive this). Winter is coming, hope you’re prepared.