A few hours after I landed in Vietnam, my girlfriend led me through the maze of streets in Hanoi's bustling Old Quarter, to a relatively quiet corner where we could enjoy the country's tradition of bia hoi -- light, cheap draft beer, best consumed street-side on small plastic stools.
A steady stream of motorbikes flowed through an adjacent intersection, providing the night's entertainment as their riders slipped around cars, pedestrians and one another.
We rose to leave after a couple of glasses, only to have our waitress bring over two more beers. We tried at first to decline them, until she told us the round was courtesy of two Hanoians sitting at the table next to ours.
One of the men attempted an explanation in English but couldn't find the words; what mattered was that we smiled, sat back down and raised our glasses for a toast.
The gesture was a small one -- the beers cost 10,000 Vietnamese Dong apiece, about 45 cents at nearly 23,000 Dong to the American dollar -- but it left a lasting impression.
Vietnam is a country of jaw-dropping scenery, captivating cities, addicting food and complex history. And while those factors make it a rewarding place to visit, the memories that always surface when I think about my time there are of the warm smiles, friendly waves and welcoming attitudes of so many Vietnamese people I encountered.
There are plenty of Americans for whom the word "Vietnam" conjures thoughts of a war first and a modern-day country second, if at all.
But Vietnam is a young nation. Less than 15 percent of its 95 million residents were in their teens or older when the American War, as it's known there, ended in 1975.
People under 25 -- those who grew up after not just the war but also economic reforms in the 1980s that shifted Vietnam away from hard-line socialism and toward more open trade with the rest of the world -- make up 40 percent of the population.
Any view of Vietnam that doesn't extend beyond the fall of Saigon ignores thought-provoking questions about where the country is going, as well as the fascinating transition through which it has become a booming destination for travelers from around the world.
Slipping into Hanoi's chaos
Walk at a slow, steady pace. Keep your head on a swivel. Don't stop. Definitely don't go backwards.
Do all of that, and you should make it across the street in Hanoi.
Relatively few intersections in this city of more than 7 million people -- and what feels like just as many motorcycles -- are controlled by traffic lights or stop signs. Even at those that are, the signals are interpreted loosely.
That makes crossing the street a challenge, and the same can be said of walking on the capital's crowded sidewalks, from which pedestrians are often forced into the road by restaurant seating or parked bikes.
Sitting at a bia hoi joint or a cafe like we did that first night, taking in Hanoi's orchestrated urban chaos, became a favorite activity. Luckily, corner cafes serving two of the country's favorite beverages, green tea and syrup-thick iced coffee, are everywhere in Vietnam.
Where car-dominated cities can feel daunting, the two-wheeled traffic that defines Hanoi is more human, even intimate, in scale. Rather than being hidden behind tinted glass, so many of the people buzzing past you are there in the open: Businessmen in suits, toddlers squirming between their parents, uniformed children getting a ride to school in the morning and, by evening, young couples dressed for a night out.
Hanoi is a place where these small details -- how the traffic flows around you when you step into the street, and the damp air warps the pages of your books -- linger in your mind long after you leave.
Long days, longer stay key in capital
I had just two weeks in Vietnam when I visited in February, but I was joining my girlfriend, Taylor, as part of her two-and-a-half month trip through Southeast Asia. That meant we moved at a comparatively relaxed pace, limiting how much of Vietnam I saw -- we visited Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in the north, then the central cities of Hue and Hoi An, but while she continued south to Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, I missed southern Vietnam entirely.
I was happy to spend more time in fewer locations, though.
My days in Hanoi started early, when I'd wake up just before dawn -- first because of jet lag and later by choice.
It was the perfect time to wander through the Old Quarter, getting lost in its crooked lanes as the sparse lights and gloomy winter weather lent Hanoi a dream-like air. Turning down random streets and alleyways meant happening upon bustling morning markets, merchants sweeping their storefronts for the day and locals hunched over bowls of breakfast noodles.
The Old Quarter has become a center of tourism in Hanoi, but at those hours there's scarcely another westerner to be seen and the streets are relatively free of the tour buses and bicycle taxis that often clog it later in the day.
Around Hoan Kiem Lake, at the south end of the Old Quarter, older Hanoians fill the walking paths for their morning exercises. This is when the 50-plus set runs the town, practicing tai chi, shaking out their arms in calisthenics and dancing in large groups to speakers blasting upbeat music and, in one case, "The Macarena."
Hanoi offers its share of night-time entertainment as well, although bars generally close early.
The Hanoi Social Club, in the backpacker-friendly district west of Hoan Kiem Lake where we stayed, hosts acoustic concerts on its pleasant rooftop. Tadioto in the upscale French Quarter serves craft beers and cocktails such as the refreshing London Evening, with vodka, lime and ginger, in a stylish but not standoffish atmosphere.
Finding the right tours, trips
For many visitors Hanoi is both a destination and a base camp -- a place from which they can go on a range of trips and tours in the mountains to the north, national parks to the south and Ha Long Bay, one of Vietnam's most popular attractions, to the east.
Tourist areas are thus awash in travel agencies and tour companies, a topic on which travelers will want to do some homework before they arrive. Lily's Travel Agency, which also ran the hostel/hotel where we stayed, became an integral part of our trip, helping arrange a street food tour in Hanoi and trip to Ha Long Bay, as well as Taylor's visit to the northern mountains before I'd arrived.
Food tours make a good activity for new visitors' first days in Hanoi, as they take the guesswork out of finding some of the city's many great, cheap eats, and provide an introduction to Vietnam's complex and regionally distinct cuisine. The meal can also double as a walking tour to help you get oriented, and gives travelers tips for restaurants and stands -- like the one steps from our hostel's door serving excellent crab spring rolls -- they can return to later.
The innumerable options for visiting Ha Long Bay, an otherworldly collection of nearly 2,000 limestone islands jutting out of the South China Sea, range from basic one-day trips to luxurious multi-night excursions. (Given that the bay is a three- to four-hour bus ride from Hanoi, I wouldn't recommend trying to see it on a day trip.)
We opted for a two-day, one-night cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay, an area northeast of Ha Long Bay hailed as offering the same stunning views with fewer tour boats. Our research felt well worth it as we cruised past local fishing vessels until the karst islands, with their soaring cliffs and lush valleys, silhouetted against one another in the mist, were all around us.
The war's legacy, visible and not, in Hue
The Vietnam War for the most part plays as large a role in a trip to the country today as each traveler wants it to.
You could tour Hoa Lo Prison -- the "Hanoi Hilton," now a museum, where John McCain was held as a prisoner of war -- and visit the former De-Militarized Zone that divided North and South Vietnam. Or you could skip war-related tourism almost entirely, and see only occasional reminders of the conflict.
Hue, in central Vietnam, embodies that choice.
Situated along the Perfume River, the city was the site of perhaps the fiercest and most important battle of the war, when it was taken by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and wrestled back in a costly, weeks-long campaign that helped turn American public opinion against the war.
But while Hue is a destination rich in history, visitors today find few obvious signs of the brutal warfare that engulfed the city.
There are some relics of the war. A collection of decades-old tanks and planes is on display inside the citadel, the fortress at the heart of Hue that was once the seat of power for Vietnam's imperial government.
And the sprawling walled complex bears scars -- some of its gates are pockmarked with bullet holes, and several buildings are still in various states of restoration after they sustained damage during fighting against the French and, later, Americans. In some cases there are only sunken grass fields where important structures once stood.
The citadel is a fascinating place to explore on foot. We opted not to hire a guide, from whom we probably could have learned a lot more about the Nguyen Dynasty that ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945; videos and signs scattered around the complex conveyed the absolute basics.
Left to our own devices, we stumbled upon peaceful courtyard gardens and ornate gates, many painted in what are now beautifully faded hues of gold, red and blue.
The hills south of Hue are dotted with the tombs of Nguyen emperors, which are easily accessible with a cheap motorbike rental in town. The drive to monuments such as the tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, which runs through pine forests and along the Perfume River, is an experience on its own.
Back in town, the south bank opposite the citadel is thick with new hotels, restaurants and bars catering to the growing crowds of tourists like us who come to see the citadel, the tombs and the DMZ a few hours north.
In the evenings, locals and visitors -- Vietnamese and no small number of Americans, nearly half a century after the battle for Hue -- walk along the riverfront at a bustling night market.
Hoi An's charm outlasts tourist crowds
A two-and-a-half hour train ride from Hue to Da Nang deepened my appreciation for Vietnam's countryside, as we rattled for part of the journey past scenes of grazing water buffaloes and rural cemeteries dropped in the middle of rice paddies, then crawled up central Vietnam's seaside mountains for breathtaking ocean views. Another 45 minutes by car south of Da Nang is the impossibly quaint Hoi An.
Once a trading center, legions of visitors now descend on the town each day and evening to walk the streets of its centuries-old ancient district. So it's a testament to just how charming Hoi An is that its well-preserved buildings, narrow alleys and distinct local food still left Taylor and I with an overwhelmingly positive impression, despite it being the most tourist-dense place either of us visited outside Ha Long Bay.
One reason is that Hoi An still offers options for avoiding the bulk of the selfie stick-wielding masses.
Rent a bike and you can pedal around the quiet rice fields a few minutes out of town and watch more water buffaloes wading through the paddies.
Turn down the right alley on Tran Phu street in the ancient quarter and you'll find a stand beneath a tarp roof serving bowls of the Hoi An specialty cao lau to diners -- most of whom, unlike at other restaurants in the area, are Vietnamese.
Like so much Vietnamese cuisine, cao lau plays with contrasting flavors and textures in ways that make the food back home feel one-dimensional, matching slices of roasted pork and chewy noodles unique to Hoi An with fresh greens and crunchy croutons. The version at this stand was among the best meals of my trip, and cost less than $1.50.
The vibrant setting, the incredible flavors and of course the friendly faces that surrounded us made the experience at the cao lau stand feel like a microcosm of why Vietnam had become such a special place for me in only two weeks. It's the kind of memory I can already feel pulling me back.