When my colleague asked me to draft up something for Vietnam for the embassy newsletter, I was excited about the prospect. The trip had been worth documenting, and I had a dozen ideas of different things I might write about. But as I am nearing the end of my tour, I found little time to spare to dedicate to the project. Then I was struck by an idea that was fresh and interesting, and probably better than anything I would have written myself. I could interview my wife, who accompanied me on the trip to the land of Ho, and get her perspective. It had been around two months since our trip and I realized it was probably the perfect time to capture her thoughts on Vietnam, while they are still fresh, but she has had time to process them and decide which ones will be part of her long term memories. Ever the diplomat, she agreed and so, without further ado here is the totally impromptu interview:
(Begin our only very slightly edited [to protect the innocent] interview. Thank you my dearest wife.)
Q: Is there anything I can get for you?
A: Yes, you can move those [decorative vases I put in dumb location where our cat could knock them over].
Q: OK, can we do that after the interview?
Q: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I know you have a busy schedule.
A: I do.
Q: I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about your trip to Vietnam.
Q: OK, nothing to say about that then?
A: (laughter) I’m very happy to talk about my trip to Vietnam. It’s one the best trips I have ever taken.
Q: Great. Save all the Vietnam stuff for the interview. So, Vietnam: how long were you in Vietnam? What were the cities you visited?
A: We were in Vietnam about nine days and stayed initially in Hanoi. Then we took a boat trip out to Ha Long Bay before returning to Hanoi for the final days.
Q: Lodging. Let’s talk lodging. What can you tell me about the Hanoi Hilton? (pause) Just kidding. Tell me a little bit about where you stayed. Would you recommend it to your friends?
A: We stayed in a Sofitel in the heart of Hanoi. It wasn’t the Metropole, but it was a Sofitel.
Q: What’s the Metropole?
A: The Metropole is this famous hotel that all of the stars stay at. It’s astronomically priced.
Q: You sound like you wanted to stay there.
A: No (laughter) I didn’t. I loved where we stayed. Normally, I like to stay in a more rustic place, but for us Vietnam was probably one of the most foreign travel experiences we’d ever had. So, being able to return to a place where they had a moderate grasp of English really helped us center ourselves and have a home base for planning that was friendly and comfortable.
Q: Was that in the middle of the city?
A: Yeah, it was right in the middle of the city, right around a bunch of Pho shops, mopeds buzzing and food stalls and high-end and low-end restaurants. It really was in the heart of it all.
Q: So, you would recommend it?
A: I would definitely recommend it.
Q: Now that you have visited Hanoi, what was the most surprising discovery you made in the capital?
A: That’s a hard question. Honestly, the whole trip felt like one big discovery. A completely different culture that I had ever experienced, and I had traveled to Thailand before.
Q: How did it compare to Thailand?
A: It appeared, although I don’t know, that Vietnam has fewer tourists. Whereas in Thailand, obviously tourism is a booming industry for them. It’s a huge part of their economy. For Vietnam, it didn’t appear that way. So, all of the tours we did, places we ate, excursions we went on, many of them appeared to be startups that only emerged in the last few years. Which only added to the delight of the experience. I know that I am sort of skirting your question, but I guess Ha Long Bay literally was the most beautiful place I have ever been on earth. It reminded me of – and you are going to laugh when I say this – it reminded me of a scene from Avatar, where they are flying between those floating planets.
Q: So, you are a big sci-fi fan?
A: (laughter) No. But this looked like that. I mean these islands in Ha Long Bay almost looked like they were floating, alone, in this sort of pristine atmosphere that is indescribable. We really enjoyed that part of our trip. Vietnam is not a place I thought of as being a naturally beautiful, but I was completely mistaken about that.
Q: Vietnamese cuisine is beloved around the world. Having tasted authentic dishes, did you find it met your expectations?
A: Vietnamese cuisine was different than what I had experienced in the U.S. One of Aaron and my favorite restaurants – you may actually know my husband, he also works at the embassy.
Q: Very, very cool guy. Probably one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met.
A: Hmm, I guess we’ll get back to that. Um, Pho 75 is one of our favorite restaurants in Virginia. We go there and we get our steaming bowl of Pho. It was actually our first date. You can put a lot of sweet sauces in it and it has this sort of aromatic taste. I found actual Vietnamese cuisine, particularly Pho, to be a little bit milder. I think with the American version they play it up a little bit more – that clove and cinnamon taste. But, that being said, the kind of food that we were eating for a lot of money back in the U.S. was just sort of everyday breakfast food. Pho is a breakfast food in Vietnam, food that people eat in stalls on the street. They sort of load up and then go to work. For us, it is kind of funny because we view it as lunch or dinner food. But for them it is the most basic food they eat, it would be like toast or a bagel for us every morning.
Q: So what are restaurants there like? What is your favorite dish?
A: The restaurants were amazing. We ate mostly at food stalls, because we thought that was more fun. But, I have to say that – this is such a boring answer – that I love fresh rolls. The combination of spring onions with shrimp with vermicelli noodles is so fresh tasting that it satisfies you with extremely clean and healthy ingredients. It’s something I hope I can bring home and make here, if I ever find rice wrappers.
Q: I hope you can bring it home as well.
A: Yeah, I know you hope that I can recreate the Vietnamese dinner magic.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about what you did outside the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. You mentioned Ha Long Bay. Did you visit any other sites? Were there any places you wished you had more time to visit?
A: I found the general tourism to be fascinating. We went to Hao Lo Prison, a bunch of the Hanoi sites like One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. I found all of that interesting, particularly the way the Vietnamese presented their own history. Obviously, from our perspective, having fought a war there, seeing the way they presented that war was very interesting to me, from a sort of historical perspective, anthropological perspective, ethnographic perspective – all those long words. I thought that was fascinating and I wanted to do more of that. There were a lot of museums that were under construction while we were there. The face Vietnam wants to show its visitors was fascinating to me. I also wish we could have visited some of the hill cultures, to see the way other Vietnamese live. Seeing all the different ethnic and cultural diversity within Vietnam would have been interesting, but we just didn’t have enough time for that.
Q: Speaking of, tell me about the people. Are there any striking characteristics or societal norms that you noticed? Did you feel welcomed as an American tourist?
A: I felt incredibly welcomed. I found the Vietnamese people to be so warm and eager to help. There was a moment when Aaron and I could not get across the street. We were in front of this wide boulevard in the government district and this really old woman saw that we were struggling and she took Aaron’s hand. I was holding Aaron’s other hand – and she took Aaron’s hand and led us across the street and let go and went on her way, just as if that’s what you do. I thought that was such a beautiful, selfless, generous gesture towards people who were so obviously foreign, and even from a nation that maybe she or her husband fought against. I was incredibly touched by that. I felt, in that way, that Vietnam was forward-looking and a dynamic culture.
Q: I bet you have ton of anecdotes like that from your trip to Indochina, but is there an experience that really stands out in your mind. What’s the first story you would tell if Vietnam came up in a conversation with friends over drinks?
A: It doesn’t make as great of a story, but when I think of our Vietnam trip I think of this woman who was our guide for our cooking class in Hanoi. This was probably the Vietnamese individual we got to know best, because we got to spend a whole day with her and her English was excellent. We got to know her, her family background, how she came to be a tour guide, and how she experiences life in Hanoi. She seemed to be incredibly proud of her culture and eager to share its traditions, especially their everyday family traditions. She said she had been married, but it seemed as if that was no longer the case, and she clearly was the breadwinner for her extended family. In her career, she was always finding ways to capitalize on her language abilities and her strength in making quick connections with people. I was impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit she exuded, despite her disadvantageous place in Vietnamese society as a young divorcee. I was impressed by how well she was able to articulate her pride for her nation. You meet someone and you are struck by their story, and for me she will represent Vietnam.
Q: Would you have planned your trip differently if you had been with girlfriends rather than your husband?
A: I guess it depends on which girlfriends. One of the things I love about traveling with Aaron is that he is a little more fearless than I am, getting out into the streets and trying new things. He helps me overcome my fears and anxiety about those sorts of experiences, so if I had girlfriends like that similarly encouraging me to do the same sorts of things, then I would do the trip the same exact way. But if I didn’t, I would make sure that I really looked into which hotel I stayed in in Hanoi. I would view it as a sort of mother ship, where they orient you and help you plan your trip, because you will not encounter many people who speak English. That is part of the delight of it all, but it can also be very confusing. I would really make sure that hotel you stay in is a place you feel comfortable in and where the staff takes care of you. Then go explore this incredible country.
Q: Is there anything visitors should avoid traveling to such an exotic and less accessible destination?
A: Honestly, no. Of course here and there we had experiences like being overcharged for a cab. But those led to our understanding the country. Honestly, no. All of our experiences were fantastic. Even the ones that were a little touch-and-go have ended up being great stories. Overall, we felt like the Vietnamese were overwhelmingly willing to help us when we were in a bad situation and that will be my salient memory from our trip.
Q: And finally, can you sum up your Vietnam experience in a 144-character Twitter posting?
A: Vietnam is alive and open for business. Go see it. #PhoForBreakfast2013