We made it to the city of Hanoi in northern Vietnam. We have visited many of the museums and spent time in the old historic quarter. The museums have a noticeable “revolutionary” bias, but provide an interesting Vietnamese perspective nonetheless. The ‘Chinese Invaders’, ‘Fascist Japanese’, ‘Imperialist French’ and ‘American Aggressors’ turned Vietnam in a battlefield for the majority of the 1900s. The bottom line is that this country has seen too much conflict and the people here today are very happy not to have any war. Aside from all the wars and conflict of the last century, Vietnam also has a rich and complex ancient history with various ethnic groups and previous civilizations.
Since Vietnam was a French colony for so long, French architecture and good baguettes are lingering cultural relics from that era. It has been interesting to wander through the museums that repeatedly show how the Vietnamese people struggled for national independence from France, but as we entered the streets afterwards, we couldn’t help but notice that the brand new Vietnamese Communist government buildings are built in a distinctly French style of architecture. Same with new hospitals and other new houses.
We also visited the infamous Hoa Lo Prison (known as the Hanoi Hilton to Americans), originally used by the French for those who spoke out against French-colonial rule. Incidentally, when the Hilton chain of upmarket hotels moved to Hanoi, they named their hotel the “Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel” to avoid any affiliation with the notorious name of the “Hanoi Hilton”. Of course, the prison has a one-sided portrayal of what occurred there, complete with mementos of the prison’s most famous inmate, Senator John McCain. Needless to say, his account and the ‘official’ account of his (and other American prisoners) treatment there vary significantly. One bizarre item on display was a huge poster allegedly drawn by an American prisoner, depicting the red-star logo of the communist government and some poem of rambling communist propaganda in English (probably forced from some delirious, tormented and starving American prisoner).
It is oddly ironic that a prison once used by many sides during the Vietnamese struggle for independence and their Communist Revolution is now right next to two huge luxury hotels. The developers wanted to knock down the whole thing for their capitalist venture (and I bet the government officials who were getting their pockets lined were more than willing), but historical groups intervened and a portion was preserved to serve as a memorial for all those who did time here. The result is an odd juxtaposition of modern luxury next to this old prison where many people were housed in torment. VIP room with a great view… of the execution wall (?!?), no thanks. Maybe a view of the solitary confinement block is more too your liking…
The old quarter of Hanoi is nice, but suffers from the plague of motor scooters to an extreme. The sidewalks are used for scooter parking and outdoor eating, and so you have to walk in the street with the crazy amount of traffic. The narrow streets are often congested with puttering scooters, and when so many vehicles are stuck idling, the air is less than fresh. Many historic cities in China are closed to vehicles (although some scooters tend to sneak in) and it makes a huge difference for the pedestrian experience.
There was a typhoon (Ketsana) that hit areas of coastal Vietnam that we had planned to visit, and we understand than many areas (Hoi An, Hue and Danang) are still inundated with flood waters. We would like to visit them and spend our money to help locals, but at this point we don’t know if we will be more of a hindrance or a help. We will spend more time here in the north and see how things work out. Next we headed up to Sapa. When we come back through, we take some good advice and visit an ethnology museum when we come back down to Hanoi.
: We went to Sapa, and came back to schedule a trip to Halong Bay and squeeze in a trip to the very good Ethnology Museum here in Hanoi. We will spend the next few days on a small cruise boat kayaking in Halong Bay to celebrate Jason’s birthday.