Thursday, April 17, 2008


We got off the plane in Hanoi and our first impressions matched up pretty well with the dreary images of communist countries that have long been perpetuated in the western world. The airport was stark and grey, immigration officers dressed in drab informs the color of pea soup stared at us grimly as they stamped our passports and everyone was cloaked in heavy wool jackets to fight off the cold. But it didn’t take long for our impressions to change. On the taxi ride into the city, our sense of gloominess transformed into nostalgia when we observed women and men seeding rice in classic cone-shaped straw hats and young people riding their bikes to school. It seemed to be such a simple and peaceful existence that we couldn’t help but feel perplexed as to how our country could have seen this poor agrarian society as such a threat to our way of life for so many years.

When we reached the center of Hanoi, our impressions were altered yet again. We had arrived in the heart of the bustling Old Quarter and were immediately stunned by the rich cultural tapestry that unfolded before us. The narrow winding streets accented with red doors and silk lanterns suggested a strong Chinese influence, while the wide boulevards, colonial buildings and imposing St. Joseph’s Cathedral across town betrayed the country’s many years under French colonial rule. The early seeds of a growing western influence can be found as well - especially the impact of the bourgeoning tourist industry.

The smell of pho soup wafted through the air, combining with the fragrance of plum blossoms and the earthy smoke of incense to create a heady and intoxicating aroma. Our eyes were treated to sensory overload as well, especially when walking through the local markets. Beautifully adorned flowers, perfectly cut vegetables, slimy eels and skinned dogs all vied for our attention. Lest our ears be forgotten, the cacophony of hundreds of thousands of honking mini bikes and the shrill yells from cyclo conductors offering us rides kept us on constant alert.

While some parts of the city are dizzying in their intensity, there are many others that provide a tranquil respite from the chaos. The city is on the Red River and is blessed with several lovely lakes. In the early light of the rising sun, people converge on the sidewalks to undertake their daily exercise – usually a session of tai chi or a vigorous game of badminton. On Hoan Kiem lake, a picturesque red bridge leads to a pretty Buddhist temple, while across town, the Temple of Literature, an ancient university dedicated to the study of Confucism, provides peaceful courtyards for local students and tourists to gather.

The Vietnamese are fond of their drink, and Hanoi is no exception. Cafes serve up a beverage that is uniquely Viet – an oily, herbal cup of joe, brewed one at a time at your table and served with a spoonful of condensed milk. Fear not if you’re not a fan of the bean, as local families have set up make-shift bars on several street corners to dole out something stronger. They consist of nothing more than a keg and a few stools set in the gutter, but who can pass up the opportunity to enjoy the purportedly cheapest beers on earth?

Of course, the culture of Vietnam, and Hanoi in particular, is heavily influenced by its politics and so no visit is complete without a tour of its more historic sites. We visited the Hoa Lo Prison (affectionately known as the Hanoi Hilton), which was appropriated by the French as a place to imprison and torture independence fighters. In time, some of these same revolutionaries used it for similar purposes – first to punish opponents of the communist movement and then to hold prisoners of war. The most famous POW is, of course, our current presidential candidate, John McCain, whose photo and flight suit are prominently on display.

The most bizarre part of our tour was undoubtedly the visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. After having our cameras, bags and hats confiscated, reading a list of peculiar rules and being set up in lines of two, we were marched through a massive building into a dark cave where his embalmed body is on display in a glass tomb. It all seemed a bit burlesque for a man who humbly asked to be cremated and have his remains spread throughout the country…

We couldn’t help but wonder what Ho Chi Minh would think of the rest of the complex that surrounds his resting place either. He would certainly approve of the simple cabin where he planned out his communist utopia, strategically situated next to the former French Governer’s palace for comparative emphasis. But we’re not so sure how he’d feel about the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a wacky exercise in experimental art that tries to explain the ideals of the communist revolution through exhibits that includes a fanciful replication of the brain that you can walk through and a basket of larger-than-life fruit. It was an amusing place to visit, but try as we might, we just didn’t get it...

We really enjoyed our time in Hanoi, which was made even better by our great company. We had been planning to meet a friend from San Francisco, Sue, but when she showed up a day later than we expected (word to the wise, you lose a day when you travel west over the international dateline…), we were lucky enough to come across her brother and sister sitting in the table next to us at dinner. Tim and Victoria filled in nicely for Sue until she arrived, after which the five of us traipsed around the city together, sipping lots of coffees and wondering about the strange land we found ourselves in.

1 comment:

Anonymous said... interesting and exciting!