July 23, 2008

Dispatch: Ha Noi

Black Travels community member, Claire Garcia is currently traveling through China and Vietnam, and has been sending us dispatches along the way.

The hotel was in the Old City, but don't think that that moniker connotes some carefully tended quaintness and charm aimed at tourists. The Old City, like all the rest of Ha Noi that we have seen, feels like an old village~ uneven and cracked cobblestones, very narrow and tall buildings with shops and workshops (motor scooter repair, locksmiths, hodgepodges of plasticware, some stores selling "designer" clothing-- made in Vietnam-- such as the $3 Gucci swimtrunks we bought for Mateo), and the sidewalks teeming with life and work, most of it performed by people squatting.

There are many sidewalk restaurants~ squatting women cooking wonderful smelling food in woks over little fires, selling plates of food and beer to people who sit on little plastic chairs around 6 inches high. The women wash the dishes and chopsticks and glasses the customers use in plastic basins of soapy water sitting right there on the sidewalk. Needless to say, lovely as it
all looks and smells, I don't dare try to eat at these curbside restaurants.

Adding to the village atmosphere are the women, many of them in the iconic conical straw hats, who move through the crowds with the double basket carriers slung over their shoulders. They all seem very small, and many are very old, but they carry all sorts of things, including live animals, in the baskets. Other women carry huge piles of things on their heads, like African women. There's a constant tinge of motor scooter fuel in the air, mixed with the aroma of street cooking, cinnamon (sp), incense burning at sidewalk shrines. . . .

Locksmiths working out of little boxes on the sidewalk~ young men spraypainting motor scooter parts on the sidewalk~ old men crouched over beers on the little plastic seats~ the narrow shops opening straight on to the sidewalk (traditional Vietnamese architecture seems tall ~ 3-6 stories~ and one room wide)~ the absence of skyscrapers, the old and heavy-leafed trees, the broad avenues and former colonial buildings~ all contribute to the sense that this is a unique place~ not just another itiration of a major, post-modern city.

I didn't realize that Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a national per capita income of $500 ($1000 in Ha Noi), but a long and rich history. Today Mateo and I spent the morning in the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, which had exhibits that traced Vietnamese creativity from 2500 BC, through various dynasties, through modernism, the revolution, and ethnic and contemporary art.

The galleries meander through a wonderful French colonial mansions. In the afternoon, we visited the Temple of Literature, the first university in Vietnam, founded in 1076. The campus is a series of embedded gardens, quiet pagodas, and flowering trees. Students still rub the heads of the turtles bearing the steles carved with the names of all the successful doctoral students (like a perpetual, and very public, registrars' office) for good luck on exams. The temple is still a functioning Confucian temple, with people lighting incense sticks and praying
among the tourists.

On our first day, we visited the Vietnam Military History Museum, which gave fascinating insight into Vietnam's war-torn history. It's clear that their struggle against the Americans was only one relatively brief chapter in struggles with China, France, and among themselves. The courtyard exhibited, disturbingly, wreckage of fighter planes which Vietnamese had shot down (several brought down by women), as well as a statement about the suffering-- through napalm, dioxin, and carpet-bombing- that Americans had inflicted on Vietnamese non-combattants.

But overall the tone of the museum was very welcoming, emphasizing that this military history was all part of Vietnam's struggle for liberation and self-determination, and that now they want to have positive, respectful relationships with "dear visitors" from all nations. Our visit earlier in the morning to the notorious "Ha Noi Hilton"-- the Hoa Lo Prison, which was actually built by the French to

deal with Vietnamese political prisoners from the start of the 20th century. Again, the curation was straightforward and respectful of both the suffering and causes of all those who had been imprisoned there, including John McCain.

We needed a break from cities, document anxieites, and the weight of history, so spent two days on a classic wooden junk in Ha Long Bay.

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