North of the 17th

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Government Guest House, Hanoi

Geographically, historically, and culturally, North Vietnam is fairly distinct from the southern portion of the country. Particularly in Hanoi, the experience of what it means to be Vietnamese seemed totally different than in Saigon. Hanoi survived the war in better condition than Saigon, so it is undeniably a much older city, with all the charm and problems that come with a city designed by the French in the 19th century. If you read this blog regularly/know me at all, you’ll know that I often make light-hearted jabs at the French but especially in light of what’s happened in Paris, I just want to clarify that that is in no way my intent here; I simply mean that cities designed by Europeans several centuries ago often make for traffic-flow nightmares in 2015.

I’m not going to discuss the events in Paris, as I don’t think it’s my place, nor is it in keeping with the tone I’ve tried to set on this blog, but it would feel strange to not even mention it. All I’ll say is while I have certainly been known to make the French the butt of many jokes, it comes from a place of love. I’ve always enjoyed my trips to Paris and I look forward to my next visit there sometime next spring as much as ever.

Anyway, onto the lighter stuff.

Hanoi

Hanoi has, off and on, been the capital of Vietnam for more than 1,000 years and it’s easy to see why almost everyone, including many foreign invaders, picked the northern town as their center. “Hanoi” literally means “between the river” and several lakes around the city break up the urban sprawl and add some greenery, something Saigon could have used a bit more of.

As the last colonial power to have control of Hanoi, the French have left the strongest mark. Unlike in Saigon, the highly Parisian streetscapes are almost entirely original, and their age shows. This is particularly evident, not surprisingly, in the Old Quarter, a chaotic mash-up of tired cafes, family-run businesses, and motorcycle repair shops alongside Circle K convenience stores and cellphone companies. There’s nothing really to do in this part of town, but it is the necessary counterbalance to the ultra-sanitized, predictably glitzy New Quarter.

I don't know why this woman looks so alarmed, but I promise I didn't run her over immediately after this photo was taken.
I don’t know why this woman looks so alarmed, but I promise I didn’t run her over immediately after this photo was taken.

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The grand dame Metropole Hotel is the centerpiece of French colonial architecture in Hanoi and one of the city’s important historical landmarks. Now 114 years old, the hotel was frequented by celebrities during the first half of the 20th century (Charlie Chaplin honeymooned there) and continued to host a star-studded line-up during the war. Graham Greene stayed here while writing The Quiet American in 1951 and Joan Baez is the unofficial patron saint of the Metropole, having recorded music while staying in the hotel during the Christmas bombings in 1972. The recently rediscovered bomb shelter under what is now the poolside bar makes for a surprisingly fascinating and detail-rich stop on a history buff’s tour of Hanoi.

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Entrance to the Metropole, now owned and operated by Sofitel

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As the political center of Vietnam, Hanoi has the kind of stately, bureaucratic atmosphere of D.C., and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum fits right in. This is a man who chose to live out his final years in a two-room bamboo hut built on stilts behind the presidential palace, yet his memorial is a study in imposing communist austerity and a 1984-style demonstration of power. Ho Chi Minh himself requested that he be cremated and his ashes spread over the entirety of Vietnam as a symbolic gesture of the country’s unification, which was promptly ignored and his body is now embalmed and on display for all to see. He died in 1969 and was never able to see his country fully unified again.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

If I’m trying to be really magnanimous, I can sort of understand the argument that Ho Chi Minh was such an important person it’s important for the people of Vietnam to be able to come to a place and pay their respects. At the same time, this is someone who worked tirelessly for the Vietnamese people and they can’t even honor this one very simple request after his death?

It’s one thing to build a grand monument to honor a great leader of your country even if it would probably be too ostentatious for his taste; it’s another thing to turn his body into a museum showpiece (in case this isn’t clear, his carefully preserved, embalmed body is on display, like a wax figure). I didn’t go inside, but the Chinese have done the same thing with Mao Zedong, so I get the general idea.

Ho Chi Minh's office in his two-room flat on bamboo stilts built behind the presidential palace
Ho Chi Minh’s office in his two-room flat behind the presidential palace
The presidential palace
The presidential palace

Is it fair to expect the Vietnamese to be totally objective about the Vietnam War? Probably not, but the Hoa Lo Prison takes propagandist language to another level. The prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American soldiers, was built by the French at the end of the 19th century to house political prisoners and other dissidents that pissed off the government. Many of the future leaders of North Vietnam spent time in Hoa Lo and undoubtedly passed ideas amongst each other while behind bars.

Prison entrance. "Maison Centrale," literally meaning "central house," is a common euphemism for a prison used in France in the 20th century.
Prison entrance. “Maison Centrale,” literally meaning “central house,” was a common euphemism for a prison used in France.

During the war, the North Vietnamese housed American prisoners at Hoa Lo, particularly pilots shot down flying various missions over Hanoi. John McCain is perhaps the prison’s most famous tenant, having spent more than five years there after his plane was shot down over the city.

What is made abundantly clear at the museum is how horribly the French treated their political prisoners, and I’m sure that’s true, but as they tell it, the experience of American POWs was as comfortable as if they’d been staying at an actual Hilton. In one room, there is a series of photos of American prisoners looking very healthy and smiling with captions like “American pilots raised chickens” and “American pilots played volleyball.” There’s another photo of some POWs watching a movie in a very plush theater.

I mean, come on. No. As complex as the POW problem is, what’s not hard to understand is that of course American soldiers were mistreated, and spending time in Hoa Lo was hardly the summer camp experience they’d like you to believe.

Corridor with cells where the French kept prisoners before their executions. Note the guillotine at the end of the hall
Corridor with cells where the French kept prisoners before their executions. Note the guillotine at the end of the hall

This approach really rankled me because I hardly came to Vietnam needing to be convinced of the Americans’ countless mistakes in that conflict, but such blatant propaganda really gets in the way of trying to understand the problem. No matter what you think of the American involvement in the war, the insane falsities that you read about in places like this today don’t make it any easier to get an objective understanding of the war from either side.

At this point, I’m really running out of ways to talk about Buddhist temples having seen roughly 5,000 of them since I arrived in Japan in August (realistically I think this number is closer to 50). Thus, Hanoi’s Temple of Literature was not exactly at the top of my list, but this one is unique. The temple was built in 1070 as the country’s first university and remained in operation until the late 18th century.

Today, its main function is to serve as a backdrop for graduation photos. First, a word about photos in Vietnam. The Vietnamese love their photo shoots. Spend any time at all in the Old Quarter and you’re bound to see more than one couple having their wedding photos taken. In much of Southeast Asia, elaborate wedding photos, often involving multiple costume changes, are taken weeks before the wedding, rather than on the day of the ceremony. The same custom holds for graduation, meaning that many students set to matriculate next spring are already donning caps and gowns for photos in November.

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Unlike in the U.S., graduation celebrations aren’t very closely tied to particular universities, so students from institutions all over the city wear the same cap and gown and get their pictures taken together at the same place. The result is that the Temple of Literature is definitely crowded and in no way a peaceful, serene place to contemplate one’s spirituality, but fighting your way through groups of exuberant local students is sort of fun in a way that squeezing through groups of sweaty, wheezing tourists is not.

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Saying a city is best enjoyed just by walking around and not worrying about the sights is a total cop out on the part of the writer, but in Hanoi, the top sightseeing destinations obscure what makes Hanoi cool. The government’s heavy hand in so much of the literature and portrayal of the city’s history can be a real turn-off, while Hanoi is full of history and intrigue all by itself. You can’t miss the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum or the prison when you’re in Hanoi, but I don’t think either are an accurate representation of the city as a whole or the people who live there.

Ha Long Bay

Oy, okay, so this. Back in early September when I was in Guilin in China, I said that there would undoubtedly be an informal competition in my mind between the two places and their similarities are uncanny. Below is Guilin:

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And this is from Ha Long Bay:

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Geologically, they are nearly identical, as both are composed of limestone karsts that almost seem to float on the water and were once on the ocean floor millions of years ago. Objectively the experience is totally different. In Guilin, you cruise down the river with the mountains leaning in on either side of you and because you’re on a tiny bamboo raft, you really get a sense of the scale.

In Ha Long Bay, the area is much larger as is the boat, so you move in between and around the mountains as you sail through the bay. “Ha Long” means “descending dragon” in Vietnamese and comes from a legend that says in order to protect against foreign invaders, a family of dragons dropped various jewels into the ocean to form the mountainous region that now protects the bay and insulates it from both ocean currents and maritime enemies.

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Tucked away in various coves throughout the bay are floating fishing villages in which many of the inhabitants live their entire lives on the water. In 2000 UNESCO, quickly distinguishing itself as Southeast Asia’s most mixed blessing (read about their bungled efforts in Myanmar here), listed Ha Long Bay as a World Heritage Site and in many ways signed its death warrant as far as tourists are concerned. Additionally, the Vietnamese government is involved in protecting and regulating activity in the bay, so in theory there are two organizations working toward its preservation.

Here’s the problem. Because UNESCO so tightly manages its sites, and because the Vietnamese government is also involved, only a relatively small portion of the Bay (about 400 square miles) is open to tourist boats of any kind. What this means is that it can be nearly impossible to get away from the crowds to actually enjoy the scenery. Four hundred square miles is a lot, but it can feel small given the way the land is carved up by the mountains and based on access points into the bay from Ha Long City ports.

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I have to believe there is a way to see the bay in an area less frequented by the usual tourist ships, but if you want to overnight onboard in Ha Long Bay, you have to be on one of the ships that anchors in the same spot as every other ship in the whole area (at least this is my understanding, and if someone knows otherwise, please correct me). So rather than enjoy the scenery, you’ll spend half your time looking at 20-30 other ships filled with tourists.

I had been convinced that not to overnight on a boat would mean not having enough time to see the area, but I’m now fairly certain that if you want to see an uncluttered side of Ha Long Bay, you should do it only on a private charter that will take you out for a few hours in the afternoon, as you cannot stay in the bay overnight outside the designated area. While this means less time in Ha Long Bay, those few hours will surely be more valuable, and it’s a shame there’s really no good way to see the landscape now, because it is beautiful.

As far as I know this doesn’t exist, but truly the best way to see Ha Long Bay would be from a helicopter. Even if you were able to sail through the bay without seeing any other boats, it’s still hard to really see the whole thing. The benefit of the comparatively compact size of Guilin is that you can see the mountains stretching out uninterrupted in front of you. In Ha Long Bay you would have to get above the landscape to get any perspective on the area.

Obviously, this is an enormously popular tourist destination, and I’m sure someone will come along with this idea and execute it at some point. Until then, if you visit Ha Long Bay, tread carefully. There is probably a way to see the area without getting stuck in the clogged morass of tourist ships, but obviously I don’t know it and because of the UNESCO regulations, it would be hard to stray too far from the crowds.

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While it didn’t radically alter my opinion of the whole country, northern Vietnam is where the appeal started to fade for me. Like any other government, communist or otherwise, the Vietnamese system is imperfect, and it seemed like the cracks in the system manifested more the closer I got to the government center, which seems counterintuitive, but I’m speculating is maybe a result of increased oversight. The more the government involves itself in the affairs of the people, the less successful it seems to be. In Saigon, it felt like things ran smoother because there was more of a laissez-faire attitude, while the restrictions and bureaucratic headache of a communist government felt like more of an impediment in Hanoi.

For example, because of governmental economic controls, dealing with money, particularly in credit card transactions, can be uncharacteristically problematic if you’re used to dealing with the incredibly free and easy movement of currency between countries in the Western world. Getting a refund for whatever reason is in no way an easy process, and exchanging money for U.S. currency, which many people in Vietnam prefer to deal with because of its more stable value, can require some real arm-twisting if you’re not at a bank.

My experience also led me to believe that government censorship and propaganda are more pervasive in the north. It’s hard to really know but empirically, I felt like people in Hanoi were much less willing to be straightforward with me about the government. This is understandable, but I was surprised by what a difference geography made in what is a relatively small country.

That said, I did still very much enjoy Vietnam. There’s a certain X-factor in Vietnam that makes it so appealing. Part of it is even though several more powerful countries have ploughed their way through Vietnam over the centuries and done everything they can to put their stamp on the place, it’s a country that still, at its essence, feels purely Vietnamese. Yes, there is French architecture everywhere and Chinese cultural influences are undeniable, but you can’t shake that authenticity of the country underneath it all.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon
War Remnants Museum, Saigon

On a somewhat related note, The New York Times has recently run two excellent pieces discussing travel in a highly cerebral, introspective way. In the hands of experts, they are both deeply thought-provoking and not self indulgent. I’ll link to them here if you’re interested.

The first article is fascinating and wonders what the ugly side of “authenticity” can be, particularly for Westerners in non-Western countries. “To wish that it were otherwise — to hope that the Chinese everywoman you meet wants to live the same ‘unspoiled,’ often imprisoning existence as her father, without the iPhones and Audis and frappuccinos that we find so indispensable — is to practice a kind of imaginative colonialism.” This definitely gave me pause, and the whole article is worth a read.

While this made me rethink how I’ve approached writing about my trip and my own expectations, what this doesn’t discuss is the way various countries deal with and work toward preserving their natural environment. Vietnam unfortunately did not strike me as a place with a government terribly interested in natural conservation, which is a shame because Vietnam is a stunning place, but someone making decisions somewhere is doing a damn good job hiding it behind slipshod, irresponsible development.

I’ve been in Luang Prabang, Laos the last few days and will be posting again about my time here shortly.

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