Hanoi: A Loaded Entry Point
Hanoi is ever-changing. I visited in 2011 during my six week backpacking stint through Southeast Asia. However, this time was a completely different experience. That's likely because the city itself is constantly reinventing itself. And it has to. The Capitol of Vietnam was largely off limits to outsiders and remained politically isolated until 1986. It was within the past 20 years that Vietnam recognized diplomatic relations with all nations. The progress to became more globally competitive felt tangible.
As soon as we stepped outside, the streets washed over us like an organized chaos.
The hum of motorbikes was ubiquitous, but not in an overwhelming way. There's a fluidity to the lawless driving--and plenty written on crossing the street in Vietnam. It's a crapshoot.
After all, scooters are the preferred method of transport by Vietnam's 90 million inhabitants.
But despite the frenzied hype, we found it a more organic way of driving. After some practice, it felt less jarring, as scooters seemed to weave around us effortlessly. And the constant beeps and honks aren't malicious as they may be interpreted in the States. It's more of an, "I'm occupying this space right now," type of alert.
Once you master confidently crossing the street, you're able to appreciate your surroundings. Both the French and Communist influence is undeniable and an odd juxtaposition. A significant percentage of the architecture was Parisian, remnants of the French colonial impact. The buildings were painted an omnipresent pail butter yellow.
In Hanoi, both the Presidential Palace and the Opera House are the same shade, given that the yellow hue is correlated with royalty in Vietnam. Yet many of the buildings had both Western and Eastern influence with Vietnamese patterns and red roofs.
That being said, the Communist statues and propaganda were deep-rooted. It felt eerie at times.
It can't be overlooked, today Vietnam is one of the world's five remaining social states that supports communism. Only political organizations affiliated with the Communist Party are allowed to run in Vietnam political elections. Conversely, while walking down the street, you come across sights such as the St. Joseph Cathedral that bring you right back to Paris. The late 19th century neo-gothic church opened in 1886, and one of the first buildings constructed by the French colonial government. As the oldest church in Hanoi, it was built to resemble Notre Dame. It all felt very conflicting.
Will and I both admitted how little we knew about Vietnamese history. Or rather, once knew, but didn't retain. Since we were, coincidentally, both American Studies majors in undergrad, we're well aware of the Vietnam War from an American perspective--referred to as the American War in Vietnam. However, I was not as well-versed in the French colonial influence.
On our first full day, we went to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. I had actually been in 2011, but felt a compelling need to refresh my memory for a comprehensive new perspective.
The extensive complex was constructed by the French in 1896. The prison was built to hold around 450 inmates, but by the 1930s records show that there were closer to 2,000 prisoners. Although it was dubbed "Ha Noi Hilton" by American prisoners of war, many of the images were graphic.
What I did remember held true. It was heavy. Most of the museum is related to the prison's history prior to the 1950s when the Vietnamese fought for independence from French rule. I had to turn from horrific artifacts such as the French guillotine used to behead Vietnamese inmates. More recently, there were also exhibits about the American pilots who were held at Hoa Lo during the American War.
The prison is notably where Senator John McCain was held prisoner. Below is a photograph from 1967 of Hanoi locals rescuing him from Truc Bach Lake after being shot down.
The museum did provide the historical context we were lacking. It wasn't until 1949 that Vietnam was recognized as an independent state. The American War commenced a mere six years later.
The following day, in need of a lighter historical perspective, we visited the Temple of Literature. It offered a peaceful space among the bustling motorbike scene.
Also referred to as a Temple of Confucius, it was built in 1070, which is staggering to comprehend.
The temple is also home to the Imperial Academy, deemed Vietnam's first national university.
The temple is a prime example of the few traditional Vietnamese architectural structures that was preserved through the war years. It's worth a couple hours to visit, if nothing else than to absorb the tranquility.
Once you leave the Literature Temple, you're quickly grounded in the noisy reality. Railroad tracks cut directly through the city, with trains racing through at sporadic times.
The Capitol of Vietnam has a complex history. We only scraped the surface and thus it did pique both of our interest to learn more. Despite the American War, which is still so raw, we found the Vietnamese don't outwardly show enmity towards American visitors. In fact, an older man who sat next to Will on a park bench told him that 90 percent of the Vietnamese like Americans. Skeptical, Will replied he finds that hard to believe. It could be attributed to former President Obama's impact. On a personal note, I think locals are open to us because they still stop Will to say he looks like Obama. All the time.
Regardless, another young boy walking in the park noticed we were American and said, "hello." He was eight years old and eager to practice English. His sister joined, as their proud mother encouraged them. Their mother, however, did not speak English. Vietnam is a place that exemplifies that on the most basic level, everyone is searching for the same thing. Sure, the Vietnamese may conduct their politics differently and eat pho for breakfast, but ultimately, we all want to laugh, have food on the table, and a roof over our head.
Vietnam is going to be a different place in five, ten, twenty years from now. It's already changed drastically since I was there last. Go now. Learn the history, but moreover, talk to the people. They have stories to tell and a fascinating perspective to convey.