Two small but significant moments preceded the experience I want to write about today. The experience itself was about finding affection in an unexpected place, but the first incident happened while I was still in Davis at the UC Davis Bookstore.
I was buying T-shirts as gifts for young people I knew I would meet in Vietnam. I thought this would be easy, but the selection was overwhelming, even when I limited myself to basic colors and designs.
“It’s just like America to have so many choices,” I thought as I pinballed through the aisles.
Finally, I selected three shirts sized for small people and, while waiting to pay, I took one last look at the labels. On all three it said, “Made in Cambodia.”
Vietnam’s next door neighbor? Oh, no.
I hurried back to the racks for American-made shirts but looking quickly, I didn’t find them. I chose shirts from Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala.
“It’s just like America for the shirts to come from abroad,” I said to myself.
I was already looking at my home as if from far away.
Three days later at the San Francisco Airport we began our trip.
Glancing at our tickets, the agent asked routinely, “Two to Hanoi?”
The air suddenly felt thick. I almost said, “No, that’s impossible.”
I was thinking of Jane Fonda who famously flew into Hanoi in 1972 as an antiwar activist and appeared smiling with the enemy on military equipment destined to attack American GIs. Her actions enraged so many Americans that some still call her “Hanoi Jane.”
I also remember Hanoi as the capital of war operations for North Vietnam and home to the punishing prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain was held for 5½ years.
The name “Hanoi” carries so much baggage.
Can times change so much that it’s fine for me to visit?
Yes, they can.
After we arrived in Hanoi and settled into Hotel Charming II (which lived up to its name) we got ready to tour with an organization named Hanoikids.
Their complete title is “Hanoikids Voluntary English Club,” and their website, designed for tourists and tour guides says, “Be a little ambassador of Hanoi.”
Founded in 2006, this remarkable club is organized and staffed by people who are mostly 20 years old. Hanoikids.org displays the Certificate of Excellence they won from Trip Advisor in 2012.
What distinguishes Hanoikids from other tours is that their services are free. They spend a half day, a full day or multiple days showing tourists around Hanoi in order to improve their skills in English.
They accept no payment and no tip, which is why I went to the UCD Bookstore to purchase T-shirts.
The “kids” arrive at your hotel in pairs. Our first pair were Luke and Ngoc, a young man and woman. The next day we got Ha and Nga, two young women.
Even though they attended different local universities, all had excellent English skills.
The students offered several options for sightseeing. We paid for taxis; they showed us around. Most importantly, they taught us how to cross the street, which is no mean feat in a city with few traffic lights and a wild assortment of vehicles — motorcycles, bikes, cars, and buses — that form a constantly moving stream of traffic that never stops, never pauses, and never seems to expect a pedestrian.
To cross a street you walk at a consistent pace and you don’t stop. You might as well not even look at the motorcycles or cars because what’s going to happen is going to happen anyway. Somehow, the vehicles divide and move around you.
Thanks to our Hanoikids we survived and began learning how to cross streets on our own. We also learned about their lives (all had cell phones; one had a smart phone) and about their home town.
My favorite of the sites our Hanoi kids took us to was the ethnological museum, an up-to-date facility featuring the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. Indoors and out, we saw samples of their homes, their artwork, and their clothing. We also climbed up and down thin wooden ladders while our guides watched solicitously.
Later, they brought us to a simple restaurant where we shared a meal. Our time together was full of smiles.
I can’t claim to have gotten to know our guides intimately in a few hours, but I picked up a sense of their spirit. They were remarkable young people, enthusiastic, efficient, and able to translate their culture to ours. They were ambitious, too, with three out of four majoring in financial fields. I didn’t have a T-shirt for the fourth student, but Ngoc was majoring in English, so I promised to send her books.
Luke and Ngoc were particularly eager to take pictures together and for me to write in Ngoc’s notebook of tours. At Hotel Charming we took one last picture before saying goodbye.
Then Ngoc surprised me by leaning forward for a hug. I don’t know if the Vietnamese normally hug people, but Luke reached forward, too. We hugged back.
It felt good.
And, in the context of history, it also felt amazing.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]