One of the things that Smiling Albino values highly is also something that’s hard to define: character. A location can have it in spades, as well as lack any trace of it. Character can also be maddeningly vague: Shakespeare wrote this character to be a real character.

For more musings on the term, see our most recent newsletter… but you get our drift.

On our trips we usually assign character a more tangible definition; something that describes our featured local personalities to a T. And in the case of Nguyen Hong My, it couldn’t be more apt.

Next time you visit Hanoi, let us introduce you to the first Vietnamese pilot to shoot down an American fighter jet in 1972. Now retired and living a simple life in a small house on the Red River, he welcomes our guests with tea and fascinating stories from the Vietnamese perspective.

In 1968 Mr. My returned to Vietnam from 3 years of pilot training in the Soviet Union. When war broke out, he was on the front lines defending against American air attacks. In his words:

“When I was flying over Thanh Hoa province, the command center said my flight was running out of fuel and I had to return. But I was burning with anger because of the previous missed fire, I took the decision to continue and shot it down. I saw the fuel light turn red when I shouted “burning”. I returned to land in Thanh Hoa and the mechanic told me that the plane would have crashed 1 minute later.”

Mr. My was awarded the Order of Ho Chi Minh and continued flying in the war, eventually shooting down 2 more jets. It all ended when a US airman named Daniel Cherry shot him down. Both of Mr. My’s arms were broken in the crash. Soon after, he left the military, became an economist, and settled down with a family.

When our guests visit Mr. My’s unassuming house in Hanoi, they are treated to a true legend, a piece of history in the flesh. With a warm smile and a casual laugh he plays the role of guidebook, interpreter, and historian rolled into one. The complicated history of the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam) is easy to read about but difficult to understand.

However, when you hear history come to life by someone who was a hero of the ‘other side’ and who is sitting across the table from you, the vague, wispy fragments of an imagined history suddenly gain color, structure, and import. Everything from food to architecture to the very people you interact with takes on an entirely new meaning – or character, if you will.

Indeed, Mr. My’s vivid tales are a metaphor of sorts for the Smiling Albino philosophy. Coming to understand that men and women on both sides of the war struggled through tragedy and celebrated heroism is a stark reminder that there is always another way to experience every place, recount every story, and commemorate every memory.

Interestingly, in 2007, Daniel Cherry traveled to Vietnam to meet his former foe, Mr. My. The favor was returned when Mr. My visited Mr. Cherry in the US, and even ended up on a US postage stamp!

Now that, my friend, is one heck of a character.