A Visit To Hanoi, Vietnam
Report & Photography
by Frank Bredell
THERE IS A GREAT MYSTERY IN VIETNAM. The country has been besieged by wars for most of the last 2000 years, but why do the people seem so peaceful and happy? The enemies have been China, Siam (now Thailand) and Burma (now Myanmar) not to mention France, Japan, the United States, and the north and south parts of Vietnam engaging in a civil war. It wasn't until 1994 that the United States withdrew its embargo against the country and opened the nation to more trade with the West. If you read the 1996 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia or even the travel boosting guidebook Traveler's Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia Companion you might get the impression that Vietnam is still a hell hole of communist isolation without commerce and with people afraid to make decisions until told to do so by Big Brother. A visit to the country, even to the center of its communist government, Hanoi, soon shows that this biased American assessment is wrong. During our bus ride from the Hanoi airport to the elegant Sofitel Plaza Hotel we found that business was flourishing, not in big, bright American-style shopping malls, but in small street-side shops, market stalls and open-air enterprises. The streets were crowded with cars, but those were far outnumbered by motorscooters and bicycles. About a tenth of the scooters and bicycles had conical kumquat trees strapped onto their carriers. The trees were full of fruit and about four feet tall, including their bagged roots. Instead of fruit trees many of the cyclists had branches or small trees filled with pink peach blossoms. All of Hanoi's 3.7 million people who weren't on bikes or cars apparently were rummaging through various markets in search of gifts and decorations. All this activity was in preparation for Tet Nguyen Dan, usually just called Tet, the beginning of the lunar new year, or Chinese New Year as we more often know it.
The holiday is like our Christmas, New Year's and Fourth of July rolled into one. Every house has a little shrine dedicated to ancestors, and presents of food, drink and other gifts are placed in front of the shrine for Tet.
Tet, the lunar new year and celebrated the same day as Chinese New Year, is a major holiday in Vietnam. Every family tries to have a blossoming tree, kumquat or peach, or at least some branches of blossoms. Trees are hauled home on bicycles, motor scooters and in cars and trucks. Roots are bagged so the tree can be planted if the family has space. If there is no space the tree is put out to the junk and growers collect and repot them and sell them again the next year.
It is important for every Vietnamese to return home for the holidays, so all modes of transportation were packed. And it is also important to worship at the shrines of all deceased relatives, visit family, friends, former teachers, and neighbors. It is hard for Americans to grasp the significance of Tet for the Vietnamese. During the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War) the U.S. military could not understand why every Vietnamese person who was cooperating with the American Army demanded several days or a week off at Tet. If they didn't get the time off they often quit their jobs. We were to learn more about Tet, partake in the celebration, and get acquainted with life in Vietnam during our tour. In Hanoi our visit started with a drive around the city, getting a look at one of its several lakes, and stopping at the Temple of Literature, a
complex of walls, pavilions and gardens, that was built in 1070 and became Vietnam's first university six years later. (And we Americans think Harvard is old.) Of course the original buildings have been renovated several times over the ages, most recently in 1956, but still looked like a venerable place to study Confucianism, one of Vietnam's religions. The temple is no longer a university, so is just on the tourist track as an example of ancient Vietnamese architecture, much of which look Chinese, since China controlled Vietnam for hundreds of years.
Abandon all hope you who enter here. This is the corridor into the Hanoi Hilton, the prison the French built to torture (or execute) Vietnamese prisoners. American prisoners of war were held there during the Vietnam War, called the American War in Vietnam. The walls on left and right are topped with jagged glass. The interior of the prison is dark, damp and forbidding. Bloodstains and the guillotine are still there.
From this peaceful site of meditation we went to a relic of the barbarism of wars-the Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. The prison was built by the French to lock up and torture Vietnamese who didn't cooperate with the French occupation of the country from the middle of the 19th century until 1954. The prison was used during the American War to imprison captured American fliers, and there were gristly exhibits of musty cells, various torture devices, and a guillotine imported by France and apparently often used in its day. Much of the original prison was demolished to clear land for a skyscraper, but the part that remains is a grim reminder of the horrors of war. We were to see and hear more about leftovers from the American and French wars, but this was our first day in Vietnam. We couldn't swallow that big a chunk of history yet. As we drove around Hanoi---only 17 of us on what must have been a 40 passenger bus--we saw an opera house, the U.S. embassy so shrouded by trees that we got no more than a glimpse of the roof, and Baroque buildings left over from the French occupation. The French buildings and many of Vietnam's nicer houses were painted yellow, which we were told was the color used by royalty in France. The typical up-scale city and country homes in Vietnam were tall-three or four stories high-and only about 15 feet wide, but 45 feet front to back. Land is purchased and taxed according to street frontage, hence the
narrow houses. One of our guides said a house of that type might cost about $60,000, but the land almost that much in addition. Average wages were said to be around $120 a month. Even though the upper stories of the houses were neat and well kept, the first floor often had a collection of junk, or a small workshop or store of some sort, tacked onto the front, which created an ugly street appearance. Many of the tall houses were painted yellow in emulation of the French. It puzzled me that people who thought they were so downtrodden by the French that a war was necessary to oust them would copy French colors. At some time in our proceedings we were deposited in the midst of a bustling shopping district and hustled into bicycle-powered rickshaws knows as cyclos in Vietnam. There, from street level and with no protecting window in front of us, we took in the sights, sounds and smells of a city gone frantic in the Asian equivalent of Christmas shopping at warp speed. "Wow, watch out for that car," we wanted to shout to our cyclo peddlers at almost every turn, but no collision even ensued. During the one-hour ride we encountered streets where every store and stall sold plumbing goods, another where everything on sale was for home decoration, another where handmade furniture was being turned out. If you wanted to buy it, it was all there, except that we were imprisoned in our cyclos (for our own safety no doubt) and if we ever wanted to get back to any certain street later we'd never be able to find it again. The next day's program included more historic sites in Hanoi including the mausoleum where the body of Ho Chi Minh is on display. No matter that in his will "Uncle Ho" specified that he wanted to be cremated. The mausoleum is an excellent example of heavy Soviet style architecture. There was no photography inside, no talking, no wearing of hats and no other sign of disrespect. The guards made sure of that. But who would want to be disrespectful to "Uncle Ho"? He is Vietnam's hero who got rid of a whole series of invaders and turned the country into what appeared to us to be a very comfortable socialist state.
(Above) The French occupiers of Vietnam left behind many buildings such as this, a palace where Ho Chi Minh could have lived. Instead he chose a humble cottage in a workers' settlement.
The big important and elegant looking French government palace nearby was where Ho should have lived, but he chose more simple digs for himself. We saw his house, with its spare and clean design, a place for an ascetic scholar. It was located in the part of the palace area that was supposed to be only for the servants. Nearby was the unusual One Pillar Pagoda set in a lily pond. It is suspended from a single pillar that is meant to symbolize the stalk of a lotus flower, a symbol of purity. The pillar was originally made of wood, but is now concrete. The pagoda was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong in 1049 to celebrate a dream in which he was presented with a son and heir by the Goddess of Mercy. Shortly after building the pagoda he married a peasant girl who bore him a son. Even today, despite the fact that the French destroyed the original pagoda, childless couples pray at its rebuilt version for sons.
(Left): The entrance to the Temple of Literature, a university opened in 1070 in Hanoi, and now no longer a school, but a public park.
Thankfull y our tour leader did not troop us from one museum to another, but we did see a few. One of the most interesting was the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which gave us an overview of the 54 ethnic groups that have created their own cultures in Vietnam. Around the grounds were samples of the types of houses some of those groups built and in the museum itself were nearly 15,000 artifacts. Another museum was dedicated to the life of Uncle Ho and opened May 19, 1990, on Ho's 100th birthday.
Lockportian-at-Large, Frank Bredell is a native Lockportian whose exploits of growing up in Lockport have been documented in the entertaining local best seller, Lockport Boy (now in its 3rd printing). Autographed copies are available via Internet sales and at several Lockport area book outlets. Bredell is a veteran newspaper man, working first for the old Courier Express in Buffalo before moving to Detroit newspaper work and then his own advertising and public relations agency. Although he now lives in the Detroit area, he returns to Lockport frequently throughout the year.