I’m on a trip of a trip of a lifetime to SE Asia with my mom and good friend Sandra. See my original post here where I explain the how and why of us coming halfway around the world. Special thanks to my many travel blogger friends who were loaded with advice on what to do, where to go, and how to blend in.
After visiting Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, we ventured to the Communist country of Vietnam. Besides some fleeting memories from childhood of overheard parental discussions of the Vietnam War, I knew little about Vietnam except what I learned from Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, and Little Miss Saigon. (Hey, my American History classes only made it through WWII, so don’t blame me!)
Well, it is alive even if it is not exactly well. We landed in Hanoi, which is the capital of Vietnam and lies in the heart of North Vietnam. We had to file for a visa to travel in the country well in advance of our trip, and once there, our guide escorted us everywhere. (It seemed like we couldn’t even make a single move in the hotel itself without it being monitored! lol ) And, speaking of hotels, we stayed at the Sofitel Metropole, built in 1901 and listed as one of the top 5 luxury hotels in the world. It is a legendary hotel, the former home-away-from-home for many foreign ambassadors and celebrities, including Charlie Chaplain who honeymooned here. Like other places we stayed, we once again had a butler assigned to us who not only assisted us, but this time seemed to keep close tabs on our movements. (Click here for more explanation.) The hotel is breathtakingly nice!
Fun fact: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed here, too!
Our guide’s name was Ha, which means “river” in Vietnamese. He was the son of a former North Vietnamese soldier, a decorated captain who sustained injuries in the “American” War, which we, of course, call the Vietnam War. After the war, Ha’s father was in charge of teaching Communism at the university. When asked if Americans were resented in North Vietnam, Ha was careful to say that many former enemies are now good investors and so they are viewed in a positive manner. (China was listed as another example.)
We got to see the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous POW camp during the Vietnam War where John McCain spent many years as a captive.
We also got to explore the Sofitel Metropole’s newly rediscovered bomb shelter. During a renovation in 2011, workers came across the long-rumored bunker. American singer Joan Baez was among the people who used this shelter during the infamous Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, when the U.S. dropped bombs for 11 days straight. Baez even wrote a song in response: Where Are You My Son. Now open for tours, it was a chilling reminder of how war affects people, regardless of which side they fight! (I was very impressed with how the Sofitel Metropole gently handled the history so it did not matter from which country you were visiting – it was meaningful!)
Fun fact: All Vietnamese men must serve 2 years in the military before the age of 26. Ha was excused from this service since his father had been injured in the “American” War.
Vietnam has long placed an emphasis on the importance of education. Dating back to the worship of Confucius (the legendary, ancient Chinese teacher), Vietnamese throughout the centuries would hold a national exam, where students would study for years in hopes of passing the grueling test. The lucky few who prevailed were treated like rock stars and showered with wealth and prestige by the king and the provinces they represented. (By the way, cheaters got the death penalty.)
Fun fact: The French found it easier to control a less-educated population so they outlawed the national exam during the time they governed the land from 1887 to 1954.
Now returning to that emphasis on learning (the study of science and technology is being stressed) today’s school children are taken on field trips to a temple of Confucius where they are indoctrinated with the idea that an education is the key to their future and to bring glory to Vietnam. (Hmmm, as a former teacher, I approve of this propaganda!) We enjoyed touring the temple at the same time the children were there.
While we saw countless monks in the other countries we visited, we did not spot one in Hanoi. Ha took some pride in explaining that monks in Vietnam are “wealthy” from numerous private donations, and so they don’t have to beg in the streets for food. Instead of walking barefoot, he said monks ride motorcycles or cars. We only visited one Buddhist temple, referred to as a pagoda in Vietnam rather than a wat.
Fun fact: The traditional Chinese zodiac signs are hugely important in Vietnam. The day of the week and the year you are born can control many things, including who you will marry! And, ancestor worship is still widely practiced, including by our guide Ha.
Developed in the rice fields, which are underwater for months as a time, Vietnam has mastered this unique form of puppetry. The puppeteers are hidden behind a bamboo screen and extend puppets out under the water using long sticks. It was magical to watch!
We also visited the “hero” of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of North Vietnam during much of the Vietnam War. His name was synonymous with the Viet Cong for Americans, but for the Vietnamese he is regarded as the great savior whose vision united the country after the civil war. We visited Ho Chi Minh’s legendary home in the capital city.
A fan of Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh brought Communism to the country as well as the former USSR as a valued ally. When he died in 1969, Russia sent their very best embalmers to help preserve Ho Chi Minh’s body to be displayed in a mausoleum, similar to how Lenin was displayed for many years in Red Square in Moscow. In 1987, I got to enter that Soviet mausoleum and view Lenin’s body, and it is amazing how the Vietnamese version is eerily the same. The area is tightly controlled by guards who lined us up 2×2. No bags allowed, no cameras, and keep our hands out of our pockets! (By the way, the road kept clear in front of the mausoleum is where they do their annual military parades.)
Fun fact: Like Lenin’s did, Ho Chi Minh’s body rests on a bed under a glass case. His body looks surprisingly lifelike as if it were a Madame Tussaud figure. This is especially *amazing* since they had to hide his body in the mountain for three years before it was safe to bring it back to the capital. (Hard to believe that is his actual body!)
Although Vietnam is unapologetically Communist, cracks are beginning to show in the iron curtain. Recognizing the need to serve the people, the government decided to embrace certain parts of the western world. In the last fifteen years, they have created capitalist zones where citizens can run a private business and competition is encouraged. Hanoi is one of these zones, and our guide Ha says it has been a great success. Prior to this experiment, he would have to wait in long lines for the things he needed. Now, he can go to six different stores; prices are better and no waiting.
Fun fact: To encourage as much competition as possible, storefronts can only be up to 12 feet wide, resulting in extremely narrow yet tall buildings.
Despite its capitalist experiments, Vietnam is a strange mixture of modern and outdated. Beside a state-of-the-art building will be a farmer who still uses a water buffalo to plow; an IT professional will buy his breakfast from a old lady carrying baskets on her shoulders. We got to see all this firsthand on a pedicab tour.
Traffic in Asia is so different from here in the U.S. And, while we thought Bangkok’s traffic was bad, we hadn’t seen anything until we got to Hanoi! There are 6.8 millions people in the city and 4.5 million registered motorcycles. We had never seen so many motorcycles! But it wasn’t just the fact that there were a ton of motorcycles that made the difference, it was the fact that there were no traffic lights nor stop signs, nor did there seem to be any real rules to follow. Intersections had vehicles entering from all directions simultaneously and they just wormed their way through the slippery gridlock. Horns were a constant and our poor driver was always on the alert. It kind of felt like the cars and motorcycles were several schools of fish colliding during swirling, swift currents. Wild! (And thanks Michael Cooney of Cooney World Adventures for the heads up on this!)
Fun fact: Honda motorcycles are considered the best, and while those manufactured in China are far cheaper, they break down quite often. I think Harley Davidson should create a cheaper version and then go kill it in the Asian market!
As a foreign city, Hanoi was different enough to be truly fascinating. From the traffic and strangely narrow architecture to the Communist propaganda, it was stimulating to explore. However, evidence of the oppressive government was noted. Our guide told us drug use and suicide are prevalent. Security bars on the balconies deter robbers looking for drug money, and although heroin dealers face the death penalty, the drug is an ever-present problem. As for suicide, some factories have had to install nets to to prevent workers from jumping to their death, so conditions still have a long way to go.
That said, the culture of Vietnam is beautiful and the long history is worth remembering. I hope their government continues to make adjustments for the better of the people and to see the value in capitalism and human rights. And, finally, for American baby boomers who were touched by the Vietnam War, I think a visit would be valuable trip. They were welcoming to Americans and would love to see more of us there as tourists!
Final stop: Ha Long Bay Stay tuned!
To see all my photos from my trip, see my Flickr account.