Last Stop, Hanoi

Russell’s time in Vietnam (on this trip, at least) is rapidly drawing to a close.  Tomorrow he flies from Hanoi back to the States.

Hanoi conjures up interesting images for people who are in the 50-something age range.  We think of Jane Fonda, the “Hanoi Hilton,” and other Vietnam War images that are decades out of date.  Now, there is an honest-to-God Hanoi Hilton — that is, a hotel operated in Hanoi by the Hilton Corporation.  It is called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel and boasts of being designated Vietnam’s top hotel for five years running.

The current Hanoi Hilton

The meaning of “Hanoi Hilton” is not the only thing that has changed in the 30-plus years since the pointless Vietnam War drew to a close.  The United States now has an embassy in Vietnam, and the embassy website speaks to how much the relationship has changed since the depressing images of overloaded helicopters taking off from the United States Embassy were seared into the American consciousness.  Today, the United States is Vietnam’s largest export market and third-largest overall trading partner;  in 2009 trade between the two countries exceeded $15 billion.  13,000 Vietnamese citizens study in the United States, and the U.S. recently commemorated 15 years of “normalized” relations with Vietnam.

What does this mean?  I think it means that Russell made a very good choice in his decision to select Vietnam as a place to visit, thanks to the generous Weitzel-Barber grant program.  It is a country in transition, where the “War Remnants Museum” in Ho Chi Minh City stands cheek-by-jowl with beachfront resorts and tailor shops creating handmade suits.  It is a land rapidly emerging from the shadow of a terrible war that will always evoke disturbing images among Vietnamese and Americans of a certain age — but it also is a testament to how time and effort can change strongly rooted perception.  For Russell, who never watched the flickering images of bloody combat on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, Vietnam will always be a place defined, for good or ill, largely by his weeks of travel during the summer of 2010.  He bears an accurate, first-hand perception of this exotic country half a world away; my understanding, on the other hand, is warped by out-of-date perceptions that no more reflect current reality than Laugh-In reflects current television programming.

This is why travel, and having the essential first-hand experiences, is so important.  I am eager to see Russell and hear what he has to say about his weeks of travel in a foreign land.

Hotter Than Hue

Russell’s Vietnam expedition is winding down.  After leaving Hoi An — where he indeed bought one of the hand-tailored suits for which that town is well-known — he traveled to Hue.  He reports that Hue is an attractive city, but that the temperature seems to increase as he travels north.  The air is wet and humid and it is already brutally hot, so every degree of increased temperature makes the travel less pleasant.

Hue has an interesting history.  Centuries ago, it was the capital of a feudal dynasty, and the architecture from that period located within the city’s Citadel has made Hue a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Hue also features pagodas, mausoleums, and buildings from the French colonial period.  The city was located close to the border of North and South Vietnam and was the scene of intense fighting during the Vietnam War, including battles during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  Hue occupies both banks of the Perfume River (and you wonder whether that name is appropriate) and is one of the wettest cities in Vietnam, with average annual rainfall of 120 inches. July tends to be the driest, but hottest, month of the year.

Russell is now on his way to Hanoi, which will be his last stop on the trip.