According to my sons, Vietnam’s french fries are the best in the world. In the fall of 2005, our family moved to Hanoi for a year and the boys—Jesse, 8, and Sam, 5—made this culinary discovery quite early. It wasn’t until relatives arrived for a visit in December, however, that they got a chance to demonstrate what they’d learned.
"Trust me," said Jesse, leading the way to his favorite fries spot, a restaurant a few blocks from the balconied town house we were renting in a quiet neighborhood within walking distance of the city’s Old Quarter.
Jesse’s cousins, Maya, 10, and Noa, 8, merely nodded. They’d just flown in from Brooklyn with their parents—my sister, Lynne, and her husband, Mark. Shuffling along the crowded sidewalks, the girls stared at the wandering fruit sellers carrying baskets of mandarin oranges on poles balanced across their shoulders, at the old ladies dishing up noodles from sidewalk stands, at the motorbikes roaring by on the narrow street. The smells of ripe fruit, grilling pork, and engine exhaust were so substantial that you could almost reach into the air and grab them. How could thoughts of french fries compete with all this?
When we reached our destination, the grown-ups ordered spring rolls and a whole grilled fish. The children chose bit tek—"beefsteak"—topped with a mound of sautéed garlic and served with the blue-ribbon spuds. As Jesse had predicted, Maya and Noa loved the fries, but it was the sautéed water morning glory that they devoured. They couldn’t get enough.
Which is the way I feel about Vietnam. I fell in love with this country in 1990, and I’ve been returning to and writing about it ever since. My memoir, The House on Dream Street, describes my life in Hanoi for part of the 1990’s, and half my new novel takes place in Vietnam. When my husband, Todd, an associate professor of film studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and I were offered Fulbrights here, we felt we’d hit the year-abroad jackpot. I would conduct research for a book on Operation Babylift, the evacuation of displaced children from Vietnam at the end of the war, and Todd would teach at Hanoi’s University of Theater and Cinema. Jesse and Sam, whom we enrolled at the United Nations International School, would study Vietnamese—and start becoming citizens of the world.
Vietnam itself is in the midst of a big leap. Long associated with war and deprivation, the country currently has the second-fastest-growing economy in Asia. The nation’s poverty rate is also declining—between 1993 and 2003 it went from 58 to 29 percent, and is expected to drop to 17 percent by 2010. Not only are the rich getting richer, many of the poor are finally making headway, too.
We found ourselves living in Vietnam at the perfect moment—which also made it an ideal time for my sister and her family, as well as my brother, Ira, from New York, to visit. Over the next two weeks, the nine of us would follow a route mapped out by the outfitter Trails of Indochina, traveling from Hanoi and the Red River Delta in the North to Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta in the South. Jesse and Sam could show off their adopted home. And I’d be able to demonstrate why I’d been making such a fuss over Vietnam all these years.
Hanoi: Welcome to the Land of Paper Cell Phones
Vietnam’s capital is 1,000 years old and has four million residents, but it feels more like a cluster of distinct villages. Among them is the Hai Ba Trung area, with its century-old European-style villas, and Hoan Kiem, given over to crowded outdoor markets (fresh tofu! live snakes!) and dark, incense-filled pagodas. Armed with a map and guidebook, you can navigate the more central neighborhoods on foot, and if you get lost, you just flag a passing cab and flash your hotel’s business card to return to home base.