When we arrived in Hanoi it was raining, which was welcome after the heat we'd experienced in Luang Prabang. Plus it gave the city a freshly scrubbed look just in time for us to take to the streets. The traffic in Hanoi overwhelmed us at first. It's a big, busy city full of people with places to go and things to do. But after a few hours we fell back into step and realized we really liked this northern city, the capital of Vietnam. Formerly the most formidable city in Vietnam, it was surpassed by Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) in population but is now re-asserting itself. Everywhere we looked new buildings were popping up in and amongst the old. We stayed in the French quarter and found lots of cafés and cramped little shops to wander in and out of. The streets are lined with narrow buildings that go up and up and up. Almost every shop or restaurant has stairs leading to a second and third floor and adorable balconies set up with a couple of tables. As the temperature and humidity skyrocketed the next day we adopted the local way of doing things: up very early to explore as
Trúc Bạch Lake
And a posse of swan paddle boats
much of the city by foot before it got too hot, back to the hotel at noon for a shower and nap, and then out again by 4:30 to explore some more. Around 9:00PM we'd relax and watch the sun go down and the lights come on around Hoàn Kiếm Lake. We only had a few days but took advantage of them. A bigger city offers much more variety in cuisine and we were very pleased to stumble onto a Chinese restaurant that made amazing Dim Sum. There were also several French cafés though the food offered was more Vietnamese than French. It's been around 60 years since the French had an active strong presence in Vietnam and the intervening years have definitely had an effect on the way the French food is prepared. Everywhere we have been throughout the country we've been a little disappointed when we've expected traditional French food. No matter, there is great Vietnamese food to be found and we also stumbled upon a charming little Spanish restaurant where we had a lovely meal and a good sangria one night. It's funny that we don't crave bread or cheese on a daily basis but as soon
as an opportunity for either presents itself we both jump.
The one thing everyone told us to do in Hanoi was to see a traditional water puppet show. The Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre is a repertory theatre that offers 14 pieces in an hour long review. Water puppetry is endemic to Northern Vietnam and dates back to the 11th century when it was performed on rivers, ponds and in rice paddies. As the lights go down you can image how awesome it would have been to see funny stories enacted by charismatic little wooden puppets in an actual rice paddy. A live orchestra and traditional singers accompany and interact with the puppets. It's well worth a visit.
We visited the Đền Ngọc SơnTemple in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, strolled impossibly narrow alleys and chaotic side streets, and cruised by the impressive Presidential Palace and the various embassies and consulates which were each a beautiful example of the French Colonial architecture still to be found in Hanoi. Our next stop was Hỏa Lò Prison, famously known in North America as the Hanoi Hilton, the prison that housed American POWs during the war. Most of the prison was torn down
in the 90's and replaced by a high-rise and other buildings, but the gatehouse and a small portion including a few cells were spared and what's left operates as a museum.
The prison was built by the French in the late 1800's to house Vietnamese political prisoners who were fighting for independence. Most of the museum documents the horrific living conditions and torture suffered by the Vietnamese prisoners, some of which perservered and went on to become high party members, government officials and heroes of the struggle. After the French were defeated the prison was used for other purposes until the Vietnam (American) war at which point American POWs were housed there. A very small part of the museum is dedicated to this period. Some artifacts are displayed in glass cases including John McCain's flight suit, boots and other paraphernalia he was wearing when shot down, images of the POWs with their pertinent information, and items used during their incarceration. Matt and I weren't sure what we'd see or how we'd feel touring this prison. In the end we left feeling upset and discombobulated. The signage, video, captions for photographs - generally all of the information in the museum/prison
- belies everything we have learned about treatment of American POWs. Some of the very same propaganda footage that was released in the 70's is still being played at the museum today. The overarching message is that the POWs were treated warmly, offered more food than the average Vietnamese person, given the best medical care etc. There is a large prominent picture that shows McCain being pulled from Trúc Bạch Lake and the caption states he was being helped by the residents of Hanoi when it's been documented that those people dragged him from the water and beat him severely before handing him over as a prisoner.
We weren't expecting entirely objective documentation when we entered the museum. You cannot spend any time in this country without learning about how much the Vietnamese people suffered during the war and how the years of war have shaped the stories that define them. Living here many of our pre-conceived ideas have also been challenged. But such an obvious re-writing of history still shocked us and the several other foreigners we saw walking around with varying looks of disbelief on their faces. That the same propaganda was blatantly being put forth unnerved
French Window, Ho Chi Minh, and German Beer
We were in Hanoi for Ho Chi Minh's birthday and expected huge celebrations, but it was pretty underwhelming
us. There were several Vietnamese people at the museum at the same time and I wondered what they thought.
When we left we walked to Trúc Bạch lake to view the monument to John McCain's capture. Earlier in the week I received an email from the Canadian Consulate warning about the protests against Chinese nationals and businesses in Hanoi. Before we left Hội An we'd read about anti-Chinese rallies in the newspapers. It has been 40 years since China invaded and occupied the Paracel Islands, a small island chain off the northeast coast of Vietnam. Over the decades China has slowly escalated it's harassment of Vietnamese ships and fishermen in the area, leading to occasional protests against Vietnam's ideological ally but historic foe. Last month, anti-Chinese sentiment exploded again after the Chinese placed an oil rig south of the Paracel Islands and has since refused to move it. The dispute about off-shore drilling has escalated and there have been some violent altercations in the city and other parts of the country. On the way back to the hotel we walked through a square littered with discarded placards but besides a few people gathered in small groups, nothing else.
Since our return to Hội An, problems have escalated in the country with estimates of at least 20 people killed in anti-Chinese riots. Chinese factories and businesses have been attacked and along with them Chinese nationals. The Vietnamese government is calling for people to calm down while at the same time refusing to back down in the face of China's bullying tactics of deploying water cannons and attacking Vietnamese ships. We are following the news on-line the best we can as the newspapers here are definitely biased.
A final word about Hanoi: there is money here, a lot of money. Trang Tien Plaza was built in 1901 and has been a Hanoi landmark ever since. It was recently renovated and re-opened as a gilded high-end shopping mall that hosts stores like Dior and Cartier. A stark contrast to the rest of the country outside of the big cities that are still immersed in relative poverty, it's also an indication of what's to come. Many young people attend university now and we've read articles in the papers about youth that are unwilling to follow cultural traditions or work traditional jobs. Young people are as tied to their smart phones here
as they are at home and even though Facebook, Twitter and other social media is banned, they can easily manipulate around the government's firewalls to access whatever they want. Things are changing in Vietnam and nowhere is it more apparent than in this great northern city.
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