As my flight was about to land at Noi Bai International airport I saw Hanoi for the first time. Much to my surprise, it was modern and well-lit. Before this trip, my perception of Vietnam was that of a gloomy place. The Western media has created a harrowing image of a crippled, impoverished, underdeveloped, and war-torn country. However, that late night flight into Hanoi started to make me see and appreciate the real Vietnam.

The next morning, my advisor and I ate breakfast at one of the many street kitchens in the city. We sat at a small table on red, pint-sized stools. Even though we were staying at the Hilton Garden hotel, my advisor who regularly visits Vietnam said to me, “Tunde, to have a complete Vietnam experience, you need to try some locally made foods, you will like it”. Did I? Yes! It was love at first taste, as I set my tongue on Pho, one of the many culinary delights in Vietnam. The aroma and taste of the broth (thinly-sliced meat, mixed with rice noodles and vegetables) immediately produced a divine, mouthwatering experience. Each delicious meal was different. Each day was an adventure. Needless to say, my conference quickly turned into a vacation.

Even though I grew up in a country where motorcycles are popular, I have never seen a place with as many as in Vietnam. What fascinated me the most was that many riders were women. Vietnamese women, who are naturally beautiful, love to wear fancy dresses and helmets while riding their scooters. Standing at the intersection to watch this smooth-flowing traffic is an attraction in itself. By the way, did I mention that a tall Black man was an attraction for them too? People were staring at me on the streets; I became the Dennis Rodman of Vietnam.

The French quarter of Hanoi is dominated by imposing French-style villas, majestic buildings and high-end hotels. After each conference session, I would walk around the streets with my camera, taking pictures of people, architecture, and motorbikes whizzing by. I walked around the legendary Sword Lake and its peaceful surroundings. From children on roller skates to tourists enjoying a cyclo ride, I was so surprised at the multitude of interesting happenings, especially at night. Bars and glitzy nightclubs jam-packed the entire area, and the Ta Hien Street at the Old Quarter was filled with hundreds of western tourists, drinking bia hoi (Beer Hanoi-Vietnamese adjectives comes before noun).

Many people see the traditional Vietnamese hat and shoulder poles as synonymous with rural life, something that does not fit into a modern representation of the country. What I see is a country with a unique and untouched cultural identity. My visit to Ha Giang province, in the northernmost part of the country, shed more light on their intriguing culture. This region is more laid-back. From the Quan Ba skygate, I could see the Dong Van plateau and her rugged, panoramic landscape preserved as a Geo Park. I saw vast stretches of rice paddies, women wearing conical hats with shoulder poles balancing their baskets and plowing their fields with oxen. It was all beautiful to my eyes. This, I thought, is the real Vietnam.