The Continuing Glow of Vietnam

By Andrew Lam, with photographs by Catherine Karnow

Twenty years ago, I stepped onto a Hanoi street and into darkness. The electricity was out, and clouds obscured moonlight. The faint smell of incense wafted in the air, and I saw shadows flitting about and red dots spinning in circles on the streets.

My eyes adjusted: Local bicyclists had tied burning joss sticks onto their bikes’ spokes as a way to avoid one another. The heart of Vietnam had turned into a phantasmagorical temple, full of ghosts.

That Hanoi, that city shrouded in incense and shadows, is but a distant memory. Now neon lights up the night. Forty years after war’s end and the country’s reunification and political rapprochement with the West, Vietnam’s population has more than doubled.

Golf courses are replacing rice paddies. New cities have sprouted where only thatched-roof hamlets squatted, and high rises tower in once low-key metropolises like Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City. Even longtime residents fail to recognize their own city when they venture downtown.

Hanoi schoolgirls get around on a motor scooter. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)
Hanoi schoolgirls get around on a motor scooter. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

And the place once feared by drafted American GIs has become a bucket-list destination for backpackers, beach lovers, and yes, veterans on nostalgia tours. They come to see mountains veiled in morning fog and sand dunes glittering under tropical sunlight. They come to taste the fragrant cuisine and to enjoy the sultry nightlife. They come to swim in the sparkling sea and to shop for colorful textiles.

I left Vietnam as a child when communist tanks rolled into Saigon and ignominiously ended the Vietnam War for Americans. That was on April 28, 1975. My family fled, among the first wave of refugees. I was 11 years old.

I grew up and became an American citizen and a writer and journalist. But I have never forgotten Vietnam, and have returned many times to witness my native land emerge from behind the bamboo curtain.

In Hanoi, street barber Bùi Văn Quát not only gives a shave and cut, but also creates art. (Photograph by Katherine Carnow)
In Hanoi, street barber Bùi Văn Quát not only gives a shave and cut, but also creates art. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

If stories of bicycles in dark nights, of mud and bent backs and long lines for food rations, formed the bulk of the narrative I told a quarter of a century ago, the story I tell now is an entirely different one—that of a country steeped in modernity and change, and a society integrating with the global culture and economy at a breakneck speed.

In Hanoi, the rusty bicycles have long been replaced with Honda motorcycles. The old quarter, with its narrow streets and historic homes, is now filled with video arcades and karaoke bars, with cafés and shops selling candies and dried apricots. Even the ancient lake of Hoan Kiem shimmers at night, its perimeter strung with lights.

In Ho Chi Minh City, still popularly known as Saigon, you can have your pick: Wander around any small neighborhood and you may still run into old men sitting on small wooden stools in alleys drinking coffee and smoking; or, in the evening, hang out at the Chill Sky Bar on top of the AB Tower to watch the sunset over city boulevards running like golden rivers swift and furious below.

So much has changed, yet my homeland remains an astonishing beauty, a country shaped by mountains and rivers and the eternal sea lapping at her shores. She’s also made up of smiles and laughter, of leisure and of celebrations. What I think is odd for a communist country: Vietnam’s temples and churches are always full of worshippers on religious holidays.

A traditional fishing junk completes a timeless scene on Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site scattered with some 1,600 islands and islets. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)
A traditional fishing junk completes a timeless scene on Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site scattered with some 1,600 islands and islets. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

Some of my favorite memories: watching fishermen in Phan Thiet landing their boats on shore with the day’s catch, their silhouettes wavering against the setting sun, and the sea a pointillist carpet of silver stretching toward the horizon; or sailing down the Perfume River of Hue, Vietnam’s imperial city, one summer evening, the air redolent with the scent of blooming lotus in nearby ponds, the old boatwoman crooning a folk song about the storied citadel and about those who have left yet long to return to the river Perfume.

I remember sitting at a campfire on the side of Lam Vien mountain overlooking my hometown, Da Lat. Thousands of French-built villas dotted the hillside, and my best friend accompanied with a guitar three young Lat women singing romantic songs.

One recent early morning out on the balcony of my hotel in downtown Saigon, the roaring din of motorcycles and cars and construction was so deafening that I began to doubt my own memories of the incense wafting in the dark.

One can get nostalgic thinking of what is lost and gone. Or one can get on a motorbike and ride with the endless flow of traffic, filling up on the energy of this youthful yet eternal place. Listen to the laughter. Listen to the honking horns. Long night has journeyed into day. The once wounded nation is healed, and its gaze forward is dauntless.

This piece, written by Andrew Lam, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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  1. Dana @ Green Global Travel
    May 14, 2015, 11:21 pm

    It’s crazy how quickly globalization can change a place! Great writing also. I really enjoyed reading this!

  2. Kate Jones
    May 12, 2015, 3:52 am

    This is the country with a rich cultural heritage and natural beauty. There are many beautiful places to visit in Vietnam.

  3. Long Vo
    SaiGon, Vietnam
    May 3, 2015, 11:33 pm

    Thank you so much for such wonderful words written about this healing country. I was born in late 1980s so i might not experience the war or struggles suffered by local dwellers but I do witness the changes in the hometown. compared to 10 years ago, in district 2, a rural area of Saigon,slums now are replaced by high-rise, appartments and shopping malls, narrow crowded streets are changed into highways and more and more international schools are set up and operated. the most important thing is that living standard has been rising.

  4. Daniel
    May 2, 2015, 2:39 am

    An enjoyable and evocative piece indeed by Andrew, and oh so true about the changes described. I first backpacked from Saigon to Hanoi about 15 years ago and have returned on the occasional business trip, each time witnessing more modern progress. Let’s hope some of the old charm and magic Andew wrote about never disappears.

  5. Brooke
    United States
    April 28, 2015, 7:23 pm

    A beautifully told memoir and journey of Andrew Lam. I loved reading about how much he’s seen Vietnam change as he grew up and the final lines are incredible. I can’t wait to experience it myself someday.