Discovering Indochina–Hanoi, Vietnam: Day 1

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Carol has always loved to travel, but most of her life has not had the money to do so. Now that we are retired, living in India and both collecting US Social Security, there is finally money to travel some. Since we are getting older (faster than we like), Carol thinks the time to travel is now. Though I am a reluctant traveler, I agree with her. Last year we went to Peru. This year she thought that we could visit nearby places. After some checking around she booked an 18-day tour with Gecko Grassroots Adventures.  Gecko is an Australian tour company with a good reputation, and they offer some of the most “budget-conscious” trips around.

The trip was to start in Hanoi, Vietnam, and end in Bangkok. It would take us the length of Viet Nam, through Cambodia, and into Thailand. The tour map is below. We were going to go from place to place by a combination of trains (including overnight trains), and private buses.  After the Gecko tour was over, we wanted to spend another week in Thailand, since the tour just dropped us off in Bangkok. So we planned an extra week on our own, for almost one month for the travel all together.

Now there was a bit of drama involved with the planning due to India’s “Two Month Rule,” where people (like us) traveling on Tourist Visas are supposed to stay out of India for two months when they exit it. There are supposedly exceptions for travel to nearby countries, as we were told when we re-entered India last summer. But these exceptions are not documented on India’s web site. We felt that there was some risk that we would not be able to re-enter India after only a month away, but we decided to take this risk and go on the trip as planned.

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Starting on the adventure, we flew via Thai Airways from Chennai, with a connection in Bangkok, then on to Hanoi.

I had never envisioned travelling to Vietnam; as an American I have unfortunate conceptions of the place. But after Carol planned the trip we started hearing from a number of people who had enjoyed visiting and even living there. So we started to actually look forward to this part of the trip.

A Brief History of Vietnam

A little research on Vietnam (in wikipedia) shows a history that combines extensive colonization with periods of independence. The Chinese conquered North Vietnam in 111 BC, and ruled it until 938 CE, when the Vietnamese lord Ngô Quyền defeated the Southern Han Chinese forces at Bạch Đằng River and regained independence after a millennium of Chinese domination. Vietnam remained mostly independent until the French conquered them in a series of military conquests between 1859 and 1885. The then ruled until 1956.

After more than a decade of struggle, ending in 19xx,, led by Ho Chi Minh, the colonial administration ended and French Indochina was dissolved under the Geneva Accords of 1954, which separated the forces of former French supporters and Communist nationalists at the 17th parallel north with the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.

The Geneva Accords did not intend to permanently create two nations and expressly forbade the interference of third powers. However, in 1955, the State of Vietnam’s (South Vietnam) Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, toppled the ruler, Bảo Đại in a fraudulent referendum organized by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, and proclaimed himself president of the Republic of Vietnam. The Accords mandated nationwide elections by 1956, which Diem refused to hold, despite repeated calls from the North for talks to discuss elections. This brought about conflicts between the Buddhist North and the Catholic South. In the North, thousands of landowners were killed by the Communists, and collectivization efforts led to a brief famine. In the South, Diem went about crushing political and religious opposition. These conflicts resulted in the United States supporting Diem, and entering into what is now known as the Vietnam War, from 1964 to 1973. After the US left Vietnam in 1973, North and South Vietnam continued their conflict, ending with the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the merging of North and South Vietnam to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976.

In 1986, reformist politicians, upset by the country’s lack of economic progress after the Vietnam War, replaced the "old guard" government with new leadership. The new government encouraged private ownership of farms and factories, economic deregulation and foreign investment, while maintaining control over strategic industries. The economy of Vietnam subsequently achieved rapid growth in agricultural and industrial production, construction, exports and foreign investment. Its economic growth has been among the highest in the world since 2000, and according to Citigroup, such high growth is set to continue. This growth is uneven though, creating a wider separation between the rich and the poor.

Our Visit to Hanoi

We were booked into the Hong Ngoc Hotel, a small hotel near the center of Hanoi. Nearby was one of the nicest features of the city, Hoan Kiem Lake.

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From the window of our room, overlooking the city.

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In the lobby was a Tet (Chinese New Year) tree. Tet was just over before we arrived. Celebrations were still going on, as we will see later in these posts.

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On the street, is a typical scene for Hanoi. The buildings often have a French look, from the more than hundred-year history of colonization. The French tore down most of the older buildings in the city.

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A woman walks by, bearing a load in two baskets balanced on a shoulder-pole. This is a common scene. She is a vendor, carrying and selling her wares. And many people really do wear those hats!

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Next to the hotel entrance is a steamed bun vendor. These meat-filled buns are quite tasty; inexpensive street food.

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The traffic is mostly scooters and bikes, with occasional cars and buses. It turns out that there are relatively few autos in Vietnam. Government import duties and taxes almost triple the cost of owning a car.

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Right away we saw what is ubiquitous in Asia now, KFC. Get your Colonel’s Chicken, everywhere you go!

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Here is the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake’s name translates as "Lake of the Restored Sword," named for a magic sword called Heaven’s Will, which brought Emperor Lê Lợi victory in his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and then was given back to the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) in the lake.

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The lake is a popular place for local people to visit and enjoy. And take photos.

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On the lake are small plots of green with flowers. I think these flowers may be plastic, though.

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Nearby are flags featuring the Communist Red Star. This is the flag of Vietnam.

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The banners say that there was a recent Communist anniversary, of 3 Feb, 1930, the founding of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

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By the lake are many flowers and plants. I think these are all part of the Tet decorations.

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A big attraction in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh museum. He really is a hero to the Vietnamese.

Here is the museum.

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When you walk up the main stairs, you are greeted with a larger-than-life wooden statue of Uncle Ho (as he is affectionately known here.)

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Then into the museum. We found it interesting, and surprisingly ‘arty’.

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Many signs provide commentary on the exhibits. They are in Vietnamese, French and English.

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His simple upbringing is shown, illustrating Ho as a man of the people. Nguyễn Sinh Cung, his birth name, was born in 1890 in the village of Hoàng Trù, his mother’s hometown. From 1895, he grew up in his father’s hometown of Kim Liên, Nam Đàn, Nghệ An Province. He had three siblings.

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Large-scale carvings, such as this fantasy of ocean waves, are all through the museum.

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Some exhibits are frankly martial, like this stand of pole arms.

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Poster art shows the influence of the Communists on Ho Chi Minh. This started during the years when he was working outside of Vietnam.

Ho left Vietnam in 1912 at the age of 22. He lived and worked in the USA (in Harlem, then Boston) and England until 1919, when he moved to France. In France he started to learn about Communism. Following World War I, under the name Nguyễn Ái Quốc ("Nguyễn the Patriot"), he petitioned the Western Powers for recognition of the civil rights of the Vietnamese people in French Indochina at the Versailles peace talks, but was ignored. Citing the language and the spirit of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Quốc petitioned U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for help to remove the French from Vietnam and replace them with a new, nationalist government. While he was unable to obtain consideration at Versailles, the failed effort had the effect of further radicalizing Nguyễn, while at the same time making him a national hero of the anti-colonial movement at home in Vietnam.

In 1923, Nguyễn (Hồ) left Paris for Moscow, where he was employed by the Comintern, studied at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, and participated in the Fifth Comintern Congress in June 1924. He then went to China and stayed until he was exiled in 1927, whereupon he returned to Russia. While in China, he lived with and married a Chinese woman, Tăng Tuyết Minh (née Zeng Xueming), on 18 October 1926. When his comrades objected to the match, he told them, “I will get married despite your disapproval because I need a woman to teach me the language and keep house.” After the exile from China, they lived in various places, including Thailand, India and Italy. In 1938 he returned to China so he could assist as an adviser with Chinese Communist armed forces. Then in 1941, after nearly 30 years away, he returned to Vietnam to lead the Việt Minh, the "League for the Independence of Vietnam." The Viet Minh were instrumental in defeating the Japanese in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh oversaw many successful military actions against the Vichy French and Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II. Ho was supported closely, and clandestinely, by the United States Office of Strategic Services.

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One of the ‘arty’ exhibits. I think this is as abstract bicycle.

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One thing shown was ‘the life of feudalists and imperialists’ in Vietnam (the Chinese and French).

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Another ‘arty’ sculpture. This is about 12 feet high, a cubist expression.

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Next is an exhibit that features the anti-fascism of Picasso, which was also a theme of Ho Chi Minh. This starts with reference to Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, from 1937.

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The painting, shown below, was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, in Basque country, by German and Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalist forces, on 26 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.

Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians.

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The sign in the museum echos these themes.

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Shown are Picasso-like images and sculptures. The bull’s head and screaming face are from the painting.

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Another exhibition is this fanciful rendition of a cave (Cao Bang) where much planning was done for the Vietnamese revolution from the French (and Japanese).

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The cave is shown as a human brain, since this is where the ideas for the revolution flowed from.

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The struggle for independence went on after 1945. The French were still not expelled from the country, and the effort continued until victory in 1954.

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Below, a poem by Ho Chi Minh, written in 1947, about a jungle base.

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I am not sure what this sculpture of a Ford Edsel was supposed to mean.

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The US war with North Vietnam is shown, not favorably for the US.

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Somewhere in this war section, Lord Buddha fits in. I am not really sure how the Buddha fits into an exhibit on revolution, but here he is.

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This sculpture was near the end of the exhibit. I think it represents the upward movement of the Vietnamese people, breaking the chains of tyranny.

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All through the exhibit were TV screens showing footage, mainly from the war with the US.

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Near the end of the show was this larger-than-life sculpture of a still life. Carol stands by it for scale. I have no idea why this was in the show, nor what it has to do with Uncle Ho.

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At the end was the portrait of Uncle Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnam.

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When we left the museum we walked through other areas of this park.

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This seems to be a temple. I think to Confucius. Since it was right after Tet, many people were there, making offerings and praying for the new year.

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Is this Confucius or Quan Yin, or some other figure? I am not sure.

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Next to this temple was the most famous pagoda in Hanoi, the One Pillar Pagoda.

The Pagoda was built by Emperor Lý Thái Tông, who ruled from 1028 to 1054. According to the court records, Lý Thái Tông was childless and dreamt that he met the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who handed him a baby son while seated on a lotus flower. Lý Thái Tông then married a peasant girl that he had met and she bore him a son. The Emperor constructed the Pagoda in gratitude for this in 1049, having been told by a monk named Thiền Tuệ to build it by erecting a pillar in the middle of a lotus pond, similar to the one he saw in the dream. The Pagoda has been rebuilt several times in the last thousand years, most recently after it was maliciously destroyed by the French, before they left Hanoi for good.

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Here is the altar of the Pagoda. It is filled with offerings.

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At the base of the stairway to the pagoda is a clay pot filled with sand, where people light and place joss sticks (incense), offered to the gods.

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Next in this park is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It contains the preserved body of Uncle Ho.

This dour building was designed and built by the Soviets (surprise). Russia also provides regular support to Vietnam in one area where they have a real leadership position, preserving the dead bodies of rulers. Periodically Russia sends a team to Vietnam to ‘refurbish’ the body of Ho Chi Minh.

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Guards stand by the entrance. The guard is changed regularly, so if you wait, maybe you can see the “changing of the guard.” It doesn’t look as fancy as, say, at the Palace in London.

It is noteworthy that Ho did not want to be placed in such a mausoleum. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered. But this is where he ended up, regardless of his own wishes.

We were not able to enter. This mausoleum is only open a few hours on some mornings, 9 to noon.

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Nearby there is a truck with a crane removing Tet trees that were displayed here.

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Many people come here. I think if you wanted to see which Westerners were visiting Hanoi, you could just hang out in front of the Mausoleum.

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Naturally, since they are tourists, there are cameras. I wonder sometimes what people did before digital cameras? Maybe they just came and looked. And took a very few photos, since each is expensive to process and print.

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Political slogans are on both sides of the Mausoleum. Not sure what this says. Does anybody know Vietnamese?

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Here we are with our Gecko guide, Quan. He is Vietnamese, about 28 years old, speaks good English, and is an excellent tour guide. He knows a lot about what we are being shown, and will answer any question put to him, even about his personal life.

He stands in front of the Presidential Palace, Hanoi (formerly named the Palace of The Governor-General of French Indochina). It is yellow because that was, in olden days, the color of the Emperor. Only he could wear yellow, only he could live in a yellow building. Now in Vietnam government buildings are yellow. 

Ho Chi Minh would greet state visitors here, but he never lived in this building.

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Rather, he lived in a small, unpretentious building nearby.

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Here is his fancy dining room. He even has a radio!

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And his office, from which he ran the government.

I have to say, as I see the humble way he lived, I feel good about him. Imagine what it would be like if our leaders lived like this?

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He had two state cars. Here is his Peugeot.

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And for big occasions, he was driven in this car. Is it a Packard? Come on old car buffs, I need your help here. 

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Next to this residence was a small lake.

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On the other side of the lake, they built for him his “executive mansion,” The House-on-Stilts (after the style in his native place when he was a child).

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Here is The House-on-Stilts, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1958 to 1969. It illustrates the importance of simplicity and modesty to this Vietnamese revolutionary. Compare this to the Presidential Palace, nearby (shown above).

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Below The House-on-Stilts is this open area where Uncle Ho would sit and talk with visitors. He had the stone seat built around the table, since many children would come and visit, and he wanted them to have a good place to sit and listen.

On the other side of the building you can see a wooden door. This led into another small building. In this building he would meet privately with people. To keep these meetings secret, there is a dirt hill on the other side other building, Through it is a tunnel. Private visitors would use this tunnel to have their meetings with Ho Chi Minh.

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Upstairs, very nice wooden construction, simple but elegant in its own way.

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Here is the hill with the tunnel beneath it.

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On the grounds are military troops, doing what they often do in peacetime, sitting.

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Of course, on the grounds there are shops where the tourists can buy things.

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They even have  Barbie-like dolls pedaling their bicycles.

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That evening we went out. On the way to eat with the group, we passed this shop. Outside it are people sitting. This is typical anywhere in Vietnam, I think, people sitting outside enjoying the evening.

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Looks like it is a mask shop. Need a new face?

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We pass by places packed with people sitting on plastic chairs and stools, eating and drinking.  Quan told us that the plastic stools and chairs are used by people coming by to have a glass of cheap, local, very strong beer.

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Here is where we will eat, in a room upstairs.

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Sitting at the table, waiting for food. Our companions on this trip were mostly in their twenties, from Australia. There is beer on the table, so all is well for Carol and me.

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Walking back there were shops open. Like this ‘art’ shop.

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Many motorbikes parked along the street.

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We found a street where there is a local Night Market. Unlike many of those we saw later, this is mainly used by local people.

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A dress for your little girl?

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A toy for your boy?

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How about a new pair of legs, oops, leggings, used as pants by local girls.

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How about a snack?

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I guess these are light-up toys. Cats? Dogs? (Both are eaten in Vietnam, so not very common as pets.)

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Your typical street artist. I wonder if he knows how to draw blond hair?

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People playing cards and drinking beer. Hey, this might be my kind of town!

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As we walk from the Night Market, we wanted to again find the lake. We got lost for a while. While we were lost, we came upon these people, sitting by a fire. They were burning (imitation) American money. This is a ritual related to the end of Tet.

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Burn my pretties, burn.

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We found the lake finally, after asking questions of people who, for the most part, could not understand what we asked.

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Locals come to sit, and drink beer. More places where there are a bunch of plastic stools. They are street bars where you sit and talk and have a drink.

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Across the lake there is the red bridge afire with red lights. It is the Huc Bridge (The Huc, meaning Morning Sunlight Bridge).

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Colored lights across the water.

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On the street, too, are festoons of colored lights to walk through.

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Lighted balls, hanging from the trees.

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Away from the lake now, on a side street. We see the most amazing thing, a stairway lined with video screens.

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It keeps playing different scenes!

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Finally we got back to our room. This was a great day for the first of our travels!

I have to say that after this day I feel like, as an American, I did not know much about Ho Chi Minh. After what I have learned today, I have much more respect for him.

Sources for this article

When I needed information I went to wikipedia. I find they are a good source for most subjects now.To research for this posting I used information from wikipedia and quoted freely when writing this article.

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4 Responses to “Discovering Indochina–Hanoi, Vietnam: Day 1”

  1. Bhartendu Mehta Says:

    Dear Richard,when you go to Ankor Vat ,the famous temple,do go to a place called Giddy Gecko.It is run by am american friend of mine,called Matt Doentiz.
    He also offers seesha,it is the hubble bubble…smoke.
    And thanks for all the posts frm Tiruvannamalai and from all over world.

  2. Rich Clarke Says:

    I would love to see some stuff about the local cuisine – as it is one of my favorites!

  3. babita2008 Says:

    Hi Richard and Carol,

    Thanks for sharing your trip! I would have liked to see pictures of both of you as well. I enjoyed meeting you both in Tiruvannamalai and our breakfast together. Carol, I sent you an email long ago. Do write and let me know how you are doing.

    Love,
    Babita

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