I first visited Viet Nam in 1994 as a new employee of ATA and then again leading Smithsonian Study Tours’ first tour to country the following year. Since then, I’ve returned to graduate school, studied Vietnamese language, history and culture, and even started work on a doctoral dissertation examining border trade between China and Viet Nam. In all that time, I’d never actually made it back to Viet Nam. I’d come close – Cambodia, Thailand, even looked over into Vietnam from the Friendship Gate close to Pingxiang, China, but I hadn’t been able to make it back for nearly 14 years.
Finally, in October, 2008, I was able to make the trip. People who’ve traveled there a lot told me I wouldn’t recognize the place, and based on my experience in China, where I frequently visit, I was expecting a complete transformation. I was very pleasantly surprised. To be sure, there were changes – the ride from the airport into Hanoi at midnight was along an elevated highway, crowded at the time with motorcycles overflowing with flowers headed to the wholesale flower market. 14 years ago, the road to the airport was at places unpaved and meandered through villages and farms. There are now skyscrapers in Hanoi, mixed in with the elegant old French colonial buildings. But it’s still recognizable as Hanoi. Unlike their counterparts in Beijing, the Vietnamese haven’t torn down the vast majority of their city and replaced it with a hodgepodge of oddly shaped, hyper-modern buildings, or row after row of identical apartment buildings. The old quarter looks very much as it did when I first explored it: chaotic and colorful. There are more cars on the road, and many, many more motorcycles, but it still feels like Hanoi.
The biggest change I noticed was in the people. Part of what I loved about Viet Nam when I first visited was the people — friendly, smiling, welcoming. They’re still that way, thankfully, but now there’s a sense of optimism and confidence that I didn’t detect before. People in their 20s and early 30s have grown up and come of age in a period of relative openness and unprecedented economic growth, and they seem to have the feeling that anything is possible. In the early 1990s, there was a lot less certainty. Doi Moi had just begun, and no one was sure what would happen. They seemed tentative, wide-eyed toward the outside world. No more. At least in the places I visited – admittedly all very much on the beaten track – people were hip, connected, well-informed and cosmopolitan. I, being none of those things, felt a little out of place!
14 years ago on my first trip to Viet Nam, I received no fewer than 3 proposals of marriage from young women (none of them serious, but then again they probably weren’t completely unserious) who foresaw that their lives in Viet Nam would be bleak; this year I received none. I like to think that this is not (only) because I am old, fat and generally unattractive but rather because the Vietnamese themselves like where they are and where they are headed.
Senior Program Manager