Saturday, April 4, 2015

Vignettes of North Vietnam -- Part I: Hanoi

Aren, one of our sons,  has been living in Hanoi, Vietnam working at the Norwegian embassy for almost two years.  I've very much wanted to visit while he's there, but haven't been able to make things come together to do it.  Since he will be leaving Hanoi soon, he suggested in a recent Skype conversation that if I were going to visit while he's there, I needed to do it now.  Realizing that traveling there will never be closer (I'd be flying from Norway rather than the U.S.), cheaper (obviously less air miles means less cost), or easier than now (I'd have a country-savvy host), I decided to go for it. He found me a reasonable ticket, I acquired my visa, and a week later I found myself on the way to Hanoi via Bangkok, Thailand.

I flew with Thai Airlines and would definitely give them high ratings. They got us in early; their food was tasty; their staff were efficient, polite, and impeccably groomed; the plane had more leg room in economy class than most; their entertainment selections were current, numerous, and varied; their information videos were original and interesting; and, to top it all off, their female flight attendants serve you wearing beautiful long silk skirts and jackets. I left Norway where the  temperature was around 2 degrees C (35 F), passed through Bangkok where it was around 33 degrees C (91 F), and arrived in Hanoi to around 24 degrees C (75 F).

Since I was arriving during Aren's work day, he had instructed me well about the best way to get money (from the ATM at the airport), had alerted me to how easily one can confuse all the zeros (2,000,000 VND -- Vietnamese dong = approximately 100 USD = US dollars), advised me on which taxi companies to look for; and had given me the address information to show to the taxi driver. I've been to Korea and China previously, and expected Vietnam to somehow be similar. Actually, it's quite different.  Driving into the city from the airport, I kept waiting to see the high-rise buildings, but there weren't many, and none were very high.

Hanoi has its own unique atmosphere. Motorbikes are everywhere.  I'm sure there are more of them than cars. They are used in all sorts of creative ways besides inexpensive transportation for one or two people. You can see them used as a vehicle for a family of four, as a delivery service of all manner of goods of all sizes, and as taxis. There might be a women in high heels and a very stylish dress driving one or a family riding together with the mother breast-feeding her baby. Just about anything is possible.  Their sheer numbers make them kings of the road. Crossing the street as a pedestrian requires careful planning and bold determination.  Walk with confidence but keep your peripheral vision engaged. Quite exhilarating once your get over the initial panic.

Hanoi has many lakes.  This one, Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) has a place in a Vietnamese legend about a turtle god living in this lake who asked the emperor to return a magic sword given to him by the dragon god. There are large turtles living in this lake, one of which is preserved and on display.  This beautiful bridge leads to a small island which is home to a Buddhist temple and a variety of tropical fruit trees. It's always amazing to see what we grow as houseplants at home growing outside and with such ease in a warmer climate.

The orchids in Vietnam are fabulous and seen everywhere.  Where we have two or three stems per plant at home, they have a dozen.

Just around the corner from this bridge is a plaza with this statue of the Emperor Ly Thai To who reigned from 1009 - 1028 A.D.  He was responsible for moving the capital to Hanoi (sometimes spelled Ha Noi here).

North of the lake is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.  This traditional art form dates from as early as the 11th century and originated in the flooded rice paddies.  Painted wooden puppets attached to underwater rods are operated by puppeteers hidden behind a screen.  The performance is accompanied by traditional singers and instrumentalists.  The instruments are ones I've not seen or heard before and the singing style is one used in north Vietnamese opera. The musicians tell the story of what the puppets are portraying, including conversations and music.  I wish I could have understood all that was said; however, it was nonetheless very entertaining and different from anything I've seen before.

A couple of dragons emerged from under the water, breathing out fire and smoke. Very dramatic.

The puppeteers come out to take a bow at the conclusion of the show.

The best maintained garden and area in Hanoi is around the site of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum.  I found it fascinating to learn that the man himself  (the prime minister and then president of North Vietnam for 24 years until his death in 1969) stated clearly in his will that he wished to be cremated. Visiting the mausoleum means standing in a very long line while watching videos of nationalist celebrations on screens interspersed along the waiting area.  Visitors are to be silent and walk in two lines.  Hands are to be visible, not in pockets or holding hands with someone else, nor arms crossed. There are to be no shorts or miniskirts.  No smoking, drinking, eating, photography, or video-taping is permitted.  Young men in white uniforms stand guard outside and enforce the rules. Four guards stand at the four corners of the glass casket which is in a dimly lit room, and one must slowly file past the casket without stopping.   

Isn't the bonsai beautiful? I'm sure it takes a lot of work to maintain it.  While we were waiting in line, a gardener was clipping some of them with a pair of scissors, removing perhaps 1-2 inch pieces.

One of the great things about sight-seeing alone (Aren worked during the day) is meeting new people.  I struck up a conversation with a traveller waiting in line next to me.  Turns out she teaches at a university in Denmark and works with their overseas programs.  We ended up visiting  the Ho Chi Minh sites and having lunch together.  Delightful! She took the photo below and I took a similar one for her.

In the same compound as the mausoleum, which apparently was inspired by Lenin's tomb, is a museum about Ho Chi Minh and the stilt house in which he preferred to live, rather than in the more ostentatious presidential residence. The area around the stilt house was beautiful with a lake and gardens.

The stilt house, though fairly small, was beautifully built and quite cozy, I thought.

In the same compound is the One Pillar Pagoda, an iconic Vietnamese Buddhist temple  with an ancient history.  The original one (built in 1049) was destroyed, and this rebuilt version is said to be smaller than the original.  It is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, a Buddhist symbol of purity since the lotus flower blossoms in a muddy pond.  

I was drawn by sounds I heard to another Buddhist temple which was also in the same compound before I even saw it.  The place was alive with women seated on the floor in front of the shrine, chanting together in a call-and-response fashion.

The Hanoi Citadel is the sight of the residences of Vietnamese monarchs dating back to when it was constructed in 1010 A.D., when the city was known as Thang Long, until 1810, when the capital was moved to Hue. Much of it was destroyed by the colonial French in the late 19th century, but it's still
an interesting place to visit.

In the chaotic traffic and noisy streets of Hanoi, I always found myself drawn to the peace and calm of temples and their courtyards.

Though the temples are certainly more prevalent, Hanoi has a quite grand Catholic Cathedral also.

One day as I was exploring I came across another church that had a school next door where, through a doorway into a courtyard, I heard children singing .  I stepped inside to see what was happening and found the scene in the following photo:  a Singing English Contest for Grades 1, 2 and 3.  It was really fun to see these children performing songs like "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands." Some of them were very good, and their classmates certainly were enjoying the performances.

One aspect of visiting Vietnam was particularly interesting to me. I gained what I see as a more balanced perspective from seeing history viewed from another point of view than the one I've always had presented to me. This was particularly brought home by exhibits from the Women's Museum and the Hoa Lo Prison (also known as the Hanoi Hilton). I've heard from others that a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is particularly poignant in this way. Here are a couple of interesting exhibit explanations from the women's museum.

The most sobering visit I made in Hanoi was to the Hoa Lo Prison built by the French to house political prisoners in the late 1800s. To disguise its use, the French called it Maison Centrale -- Central House. Much of the museum is no longer there; however, what remains is one of the most visited sites in Hanoi. Most of the museum documents the living conditions and treatment of Vietnamese political prisoners during the French occupation of Vietnam, including death by guillotine for a number of prisoners.  There is a display about the prison being used to house American pilots shot down in bombing raids on North Vietnam in the 1960-70s. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

This prayer of St. Francis of Assisi seems appropriate at this point:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.  

There you have it -- some vignettes of my time in Hanoi.  I also experienced some delicious meals with new tastes;

amazing, strong, entrepreneurial women (many of whom come from outside Hanoi into the city to help support their families); and

a sense that "community" is central to everyday life .  This gathering at a little mobile restaurant is just one of many examples of this. Little simple eating places are all along the sidewalks with people sitting at child-size tables and chairs enjoying some food or drink and time together.

For years, my mental picture of Vietnam has been one associated with the horrors of the war of my high school and college years.  I'm very grateful to have much more of this beautiful country to picture when I think of it now.  The next blog entries will be from visits to places outside Hanoi.

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