After only a little over 2 months, thats a pretty bold statement, but a feeling is a feeling and here it is: visiting Ho Chi Minh City for only a few days was enough to open up the inevitable comparison between HCMC and Hanoi. While the North/South divide has long since passed, the smiles from my Vietnamese colleagues when I happily explained that Hanoi was still my favourite showed pride and maybe even some friendly competition between the cities. Differences in language and even the subtle change between Northern and Southern pho could have easily been missed. Although, the most significant differences between Hanoi and my weekend destinations were the opportunities available to learn about the war. Crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels and walking inside the Independence Palace, where only 40 years ago Northern Army tanks crashed through the gates, the starting point of a united Vietnam, were highly influential moments in my understanding of the country. While I hope it wasn’t the four hour delay and 5:00am arrival in Hanoi from HCMC that influenced this too heavily, but I found myself truly surprised at how much Hanoi felt like my new home when I returned. Being familiar with even the biggest aspects of a city like the skyline oddly became very comforting.
In contrast to Vietnam’s sprawling cities, my time spent in rural areas, from trekking through the mountains of Sa Pa to biking along the rice fields of Mai Chau, very quickly began to feel like an entirely different country. While certain areas are slowly ceding their remoteness to a growing influx of tourists, as of now they remain fairly untouched. Sa Pa, for instance, was an introduction into the lives of the H’mong people, an ethnic minority group, easily identified by their style of dress. While a weekend was by no means long enough to understand and appreciate the culture of the H’mong, it did highlight the intricacies of ethnicity that make up the country.
The comfort of familiarity with Hanoi and my travel experiences have created what I feel is an excellent combination when working and travelling in a foreign country, both which equally influence the other. Having the time to adjust and create my own routine in Hanoi was a great balance to the undertaking of my research mandate. Similarly to my travels, gaining a greater understanding of the city where the entirety of the primary research was conducted limited as much as possible confusion of social norms and most definitely helped break the ice when conducting interviews for the first time. Likewise, visiting other areas of Vietnam presented the bigger picture view needed when working on a project aimed at reaching persons throughout the country. Highlighting the similarities and differences of people and places, while most often opening up more questions than answers, can lead to unexpected ideas and progress.
While many memories made throughout the country will always stand out to me, the smiles from the Bun Cha restaurant or the familiar faces along my walk to work are the little charms Hanoi has shared with me, and hopefully things I will soon see again.