Our time in Hanoi is coming to an end, and I have less than an hour before we get picked up to head to the airport for the next leg of our trip in Saigon (technically Ho Chi Minh City).
I’d been warned by everyone I know (granted, all people from South Vietnam) that Northerners are scary, to watch carefully everywhere I go, they hate Viet Kieu, and that they’ll all try to steal from me or cheat me. Luckily, I’ve had an amazing time in this city, and everyone has been super sweet and kind. I think it helps that I have been fairly non-confrontational as a Viet Kieu and I haven’t been openly critical of the Ho Chi Minh, the people, or the government. I am, afterall, trying to stay under the radar. Then again, when left to express their own opinions, the Vietnamese, for example our tour guide Thuan, is critical enough without my prodding. Of course, the other Americans push her enough without my needing to.
It probably also helps that I’m traveling with a conspicuous white American traveler, who charms everyone to giggles when he says “cam on,” or thank you.
It’s been quite the experience visiting some historical/cultural sites and hearing Ho Chi Minh described in honorific terms, and the former president Ngo Dinh Diem being referred to merely as “The Puppet President.” Understandable, but interesting nonetheless.
Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which was heavily guarded and monitored, and the entire complex devoted to remembering him was remarkable. I get sad thinking about his body made spectacle, when he himself wanted to be cremated and buried in each of the three regions of Vietnam (North, Central, and South). I was also struck by how he himself worked in the hospitality industry in the early 20th century at hotels, restaurants, and on ships in various capacity. I wonder if there is a way I can bring this into my chapter some how…
We then got to see many of the French-built buildings that now act as the seat of the federal government in Hanoi, including HCM’s Presidential Palace, which he reportedly hated, and the smaller house, and house on stilts that he preferred and spent the later years of his life in (respectively).
My favorite thing about this part of our tour was, without a doubt, the hordes of school children. Whenever they saw my pale, round-eyed travel companion (aka Ong Xa), they would of course practice their English and yell, “HELLO!” or “HI!” while smiling and waving enthusiastically. He ate it up.
The One Pillar Pagoda, built by an old childless emperor after being visited by a female buddha in a dream, who told him he would have a son , was particularly beautiful.
And the Temple of Literature, which is the site of Vietnam’s first university, built by an emperor in 1070. It’s now a temple for Confucius and his disciples. Loved hearing about the iconography around Vietnam’s education (heavily influenced by China), which places great power and influence on teachers and their significance in the roles of successful scholars and officials.
I especially loved the turtles, which commemorated some of the university’s famous alumni who went on to become successful officials/scholars. Apparently, they have since become good luck charms for students hoping to do well on exams. They’re also tourist attracts for dumb tourists who don’t think they need to stay behind the ropes when they want pictures petting the ancient stone turtles. GRRRRRR….
We then went to a lacquer art co-op where we got to see how lacquer was made. Fascinating. The art, but also the set-up of the business, which encouraged us to document the workers, to recognize the time and skill involved, and the innovative works of appropriation, production, and distribution.
Our guide was one of many young women in ao dai who could speak to the details of the process and she could do so from several languages: Vietnamese, English, French (and I could have sworn German and some other languages also spoken in the shop). So fascinated with the gendering of this part of labor in the tourist industry. Especially at the value of young, attractive, engaging, polyglot women.
Of course, a visit to Hanoi would not be complete without a meal of cha ca thang long and some Bia Ha Noi.
The evening of our final night was spent with some more wandering, where we perfected (or overcame our crippling fear) the skill of crossing the streets in Hanoi. So glad our guide told us to “walk slowly and don’t stop” our first day here. It’s been invaluable (and terrifying). We also conquered our fear of eating street food. “Street food” here refers to little eateries that spring up on the sidewalks, often after bigger businesses close up shop for the say, and scores of people sit at little plastic tables on tiny plastic chairs and eat the shop’s specialty. We had chicken ramen, which was delicious, but also a bit scary after watched the proprietors clean out cups in buckets beside us.
The food has so far been delicious, and we’re still waiting to see if we will be experiencing any adverse effects. Here’s hoping!
Next up: Ha Long Bay!