Monday, January 18, 2010

Việt Nam – Ascending and Descending Dragon

With several short and direct flights a day from/to Siem Reap/Angkor Archeology Park of Cambodia, major Vietnam cities are logical candidates with which to combine a visit of Angkor; that is exactly what we did.  To be honest, Vietnam was not high on my list of places to visit due to my own lack of curiosity; I thought it is so close to China both in location and in culture.  Well, my recent short visit of the 1,000 year old Hanoi city (old name: Thăng Long or “Ascending Dragon”) and Halong Bay ( or Bay of “Descending Dragon”) changed it as I got a first hand and closer look, and interacted a little with people there.  It is confident, lively, friendly, charming, and rich in culture and history. Of course, this is a extremely limited sample of a small part of the north given that the country is narrow and long with a roughly 2,000 miles long of coast.

We arrived in the evening and checked into an older hotel near Hoan Kiem Lake at the Old Quarter (or “36 Old Streets”) of Hanoi, after 45 minutes of car ride.  Right across the street from the hotel, it is a popular traditional market and in every direction you turn to, you would find countless shops, restaurants and foot traffic of tourists as well as locals.  How exciting!  There is no doubt this is the heart and soul of old Hanoi.  What would be a better way to feel Hanoi than breathing and soaking the air right in it?

The first surprise: we were awaken at 7:30 a.m. the next morning by a 30 minutes broadcast from permanent loudspeakers on a pole right outside the hotel at the street corner (see photo to the right).  Is this real life George Orwell’s 1984? Since it was in Vietnamese, we did not understand what it was saying.  Nobody seems to be bothered or pay much attention to it though.  Not far, there is an Internet Café where one can surf Internet in blazing speed and get overloaded with information (filtered?).  Later, we learned that the contents of this daily broadcast include news, ruling Communist Party updates, policy and local announcements, etc., continuing a practice of the single-party communist Vietnam of decades.  We also learned that in country side and villages, such a broadcast could start as early as 5:30 a.m. and more frequent and longer during the day.  It also includes music for morning exercises and if you are lucky that your room is close one of those loudspeakers, you would for sure get up early every day!

After an uninspiring breakfast at the hotel, we started our private one day city tour in a van.  The first stop is to visit the largest memorial in town – the  Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which was constructed between 1973 and 1975, presumably after U.S. stopped bombing Hanoi.   It is situated at the Ba Dinh Square (Quảng Trường Ba Đình) and is a part of so-called Ho Chi Minh Complex.  Ho’s preserved and embalmed body lies in a sealed glass casket for public viewings daily (when it is not being taken to Russia for maintenance).  Strict rules such as no talking and no hands-in-pockets are enforced by numerous guards deployed throughout the visit route to make sure you do not show any sign of disrespect.  The arrangement reminded us our visit a decade ago to the Mausoleum of Chairmen Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Square of Beijing.  There are several parallels of the two leaders such as both had announced the formation of a new Republic at the respective Square where their Mausoleum is located.   Of course, Vladimir Lenin was the first one who got such a treat at the Red Square of Moscow in 1924.  As far as I know, the only other leader had his body preserved and can be viewed is Kim Il-sung of North Korea.  They have at least one thing in common: they all from single-party Communist countries. To be fair (to Ho), the arrangement was probably one of few times that Ho’s wish were not followed.  He actually wanted to be cremated, according to some accounts.

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) requires no introduction.  He is considered the founding father of Vietnam Republic who proclaimed its independence at the Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi on Sept 2nd of 1945 after the abduction of Bảo Đại, the last emperor of Vietnam.  It wasn’t until 1954 however that French finally left Indochina when defeated by Ho’s Viet Minh force in the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu.  The ensuing Geneva Accord divided the country into two by the 17 parallel temporarily, pending an election in 1956 that never took place.  It sets the stage for the civil war and further conflicts for the following 2 decades between the Communist North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh and the South Vietnam led by initially, the rivaling non-communist leader Ngô Đình Diệm and former emperor Bao Dai with the support of U.S.

Truman doctrine, Korean War, and the concern of the communism expansion in Asia clearly drove the American policy in Asia Pacific then.  The conflicts eventually evolved and were escalated into the disastrous full scale Vietnam War that finally ended in 1975 when U.S. withdrew from Vietnam.  The final tally of the casualty includes 3-4 millions of Vietnam people (from South and North), 1.5-2 million people in Laos and Cambodia and close to 60,000 of American soldiers.  More than 10 years later, Vietnam launched the Doi Moi of 1986 and began to incorporate market economy and more personal freedom into its otherwise rigid authoritarian socialist system.  Over the following 2 decades, it has successfully reestablished diplomatic relations with the West including U.S. and joined many international organizations such as WTO.  Today, it is one of fastest growing economy in Asian and the world.  Still many Vietnamese, especially the in north, continue to honor Ho as a god-like figure and recite his legacy.

Back to the city tour:  the Ho Chi Minh Complex has many more historical sites such as the opulent Presidential Palace which was former French Indochina Governor’s residence.  Ho Chi Minh had chosen instead to live initially a much more humble small residence in the complex which used to be occupied by the electrician in French colonial days.  Portraits of Lenin and Marx are hung in his study and a Radio which is a gift from Castro is clearly visible in his bed room.  His later official residence was a new construction – a house on stilt, simple but elegant.  The garden and pond are nicely maintained, completed with a large bunker and some single person bunkers, built and used during the Vietnam War.  On the south side of the Complex, there is a Single Pillar Pagoda on the edge of a tiny pond and a temple. There happened to be a private funeral ceremony when we were visiting and we observed the rite of burning of paper models of objects, a custom similar to what some Taiwanese people observe derived from the belief and wish that the deceased will be able to enjoy the tributes sent through the burning. There is also a Ho Chi Minh museum that we did not go in.

Museum of Ethonology is a popular tourist destination in Hanoi. It is certainly a quick way of sampling the culture and custom of different (54) ethnic groups in Vietnam.  Many are not unfamiliar to me since they also live in the Southern parts of China. For that reason alone, if it was completely up to me, I would probably have opted to visit the Musuem of Art instead.

Temple of Literature is literally a Temple of Confucius that was built nearly one thousand years ago.  It is a reminder of how much the influence of Chinese system has been in ancient Vietnam.  The compound is sizable that also housed the Imperial Academy.  Chinese Imperial Exam System was also adopted.  Stone steles recorded the annual exam events and the results are displayed in the galleries.  The writings were all based on the traditional Chinese characters.  Indeed, Chinese characters and its derivative Chữ nôm have been used extensively till 1910 when French colonial rule made the Latin alphabet based Quốc Ngữ the official written language that was a Romanization of Vietnamese codified centuries earlier by missionaries. Still, for those who know Chinese, it is possible to relate easily many of the vocabularies from their pronunciation

Not far from the temple is the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain and some American POWs were once kept during the war.  The prison itself was first built and used by French during colonial days to house political prisoners.  Guillotine and most exhibits weren’t as gruesome as I had imagined.  The display of John McCain’s gear and short films played in the rooms however were clearly for propaganda.

The guided one day city tour was concluded with an exciting one hour cyclo ride.  Cyclo, or cycle rickshaw in Vietnam is a tricycle where the passengers sit in the front with an unobstructed view while the driver paddles the bike at the back.  With the incredibly busy Hanoi streets and traffic with very few traffic lights, cyclo drivers negotiate their ways with pedestrians, bicycles, motor bikes, cars and buses.  The passengers who sit in the front do need to have some nerve and trust on the driver/peddler behind them and of course, on the competitions as well.  Oddly enough, through the ride and the day in the city, we did not see any traffic accident!

We completed our stay at Hanoi with a visit to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater next to the Hoan Kiem Lake.  Water Puppetry is a one thousand year old art and is originated in Red River Delta of Vietnam.  The puppets are made of heavy large lacquered wood controlled through bamboo rods with strings.  The show, both the puppeteers and the puppets, is done in a large waist-deep pool, completed with a traditional Vietnamese orchestra and singers on the side of the stage.  The most fascinating instrument in the orchestra I found was đàn bầu, a monochord Vietnamese string instrument.  Click here to see a YouTube demonstration video by Ho Khac Chi. 

After a busy day in Hanoi, we traveled to Halong Bay by van the following day.  Halong Bay is one of the most striking landscapes in the world and is one of the 28 finalists of the ongoing competition for the New Seven Wonders of Nature (to be selected in 2011).  Halong Bay is located more than 70 miles east of Hanoi and about 3 hours car ride.  It appeared in several movies including Indochine (lead actress Catherine Deneuve) and the 1997 James Bond movie Tomoroow Never Dies (played by Pierce Brosnan) although some claim the latter was actually shot in Phuket of Thailand.  The Bay itself is over 1,500 square kilometers and has around two thousand limestone islands, karsts, and islets.  The legend says these islets were pearls spitted out by the descending mother dragon and her children dragons sent by the Heaven to help Vietnamese defeat the invading navy of Ming China.

Some of these islands have numerous grottoes and caves.  A popular one is Sửng Sốt (Surprise) cave. The photo to the right is taken from the high point at the cave exit.  Another interesting geological feature of the Bay is there are few lakes can be entered through eroded caves.  We visited one of them in small boat and kayak.   It is also possible to climb up to the top of some of the islands to have a panoramic view of part of the Bay.  Below is a stitched photo taken from the top of Ti Top Island.  The island was named by Ho Chi Minh after he accompanied Ghermann Ti Top, an early Russian Astronaut to visit the island in 1962.   Overall the 24 hour over night Bay cruise was very relaxing and enjoyable.  The scenery is incredibly beautiful and truly breathtaking. 

For Chinese people, Halong Bay has often been referred to as “Guilin in the Sea”.  Guilin area is one of the most scenic spots in China and is about 300 miles northeast of Halong Bay with which it shares similar geological features.  A decade ago, we had visited Guilin and taken the popular Li River cruise of Li Jiang from Guilin to YangShuo.  While they each have its own characters, Halong Bay does have a size advantage and support more activities and multiday stays.

It appears the only way to see Halong Bay is to use one of the sailboats modeled after Chinese junks as private boats aren’t allowed in the Bay.  Junk is a very interesting and efficient sailboat that was designed dated back 2000 years ago in China. The famous early 15th century expeditions of GeneralZheng He’s from China to Indian Ocean and east Africa coast were accomplished with a large fleet of huge Junks, some of which are supposedly as big as a football field, with a carrying capacity of thousands of tons and more than 500 people.  It is more than 10 times bigger than the ship used by Columbus!

Throughout the trip, I picked up on some little hints of communist indoctrination here and there.  In addition to the more obvious street corner loudspeakers and short films of “Hanoi Hilton”, we were told the significance and legends such as Ho Chi Minh died on the Independence Day of Vietnam.  We were also told that there are 1969 islets in Halong Bay which happens to be the year that Ho Chi Minh died.  Sounds a little suspicious, does it?
What also struck me was that the national psyche seems to still get consumed somewhat by the pride and efforts to erase its memory of dominance by foreign powers from China through the history and in last two centuries, Western Imperialism and U.S.  The country name Vietnam says it all: Viet refers to the dominant majority Viet people and Nam means south - in reference to China which was the center of Asian world in old days.

Whether one likes it or not, there is a deep cultural link and long Chinese influence which arguably was a result of political and military dominance.  At the same time, Vietnam finally has an opportunity to spend more of its energy to find its own identify and pursue prosperity after decades of armed struggles.   There is a clear sign that as the country prospers, the confidence is growing and people believe that they will one day sit at the same table with the regional and world powers.  Younger people are looking forward pragmatically instead of dwelling upon the ideology and bodies and scars of the past.  Vietnam’s economy is expanding at a rapid pace with its successful incorporation of market economy.  Its GDP is growing at more than 8% per year for last few years, topping many neighboring countries and its competitions.  On the way to Halong Bay from Hanoi, we passed by booming industrial zones where many large factories with foreign investors reside. Interestingly, both from news reports and stories from the driver, there have been significant number of strikes in recent years where labor unions demand more wage/benefit increase and more respects from these large international corporation employers such as Nike.  It would be interesting to see how the ruling single-party communist government navigates the intricate balance of labor/worker’s interests (that was the root of many revolutionary appeals   for the Communist movements) and business interests where cost reduction and efficiency was a major draw for foreign investments that powered the recent growth.

Talk to you soon!

No comments: