Hanoi: “The real Vietnam because Saigon is too young”


Hanoi: “The real Vietnam because Saigon is too young”

By Jerry Wadian
Contributing Writer

On arriving in Hanoi, our tour guide stated, “Now you will see the real Vietnam. Saigon is too young; it’s only 300 years old!” To put that in perspective, our country is only 237 years old.

A city of 8 million, Hanoi traces its history back to the Neolithic period. It first became the capital in 1010 under the name Thang Long (City of the Ascending Dragon, a name still used poetically today).

The city has since undergone several name changes, becoming Hanoi by edict of the French colonial administration in 1873. 

Hanoi is located along the Red River, which is a major artery from China to the Gulf of Tonkin. It was in the Red River Valley that Ho Chi Minh retreated in 1945 to start building an army that eventually defeated the French. Had American troops invaded Hanoi, the government was prepared to go back to the Valley and start another guerilla war.

Hanoi today lacks the boundless energy of Saigon, but is still pretty eclectic. The avenues lined by wide sidewalks and tall, stately trees reminded UIU professor Don McComb of China, where he spent three weeks last summer on an FIG Grant.

The Russians are building a major freeway through the city, and the French are returning to make their presence felt. 

However, English is the foreign language most understood; much of he signage is in Vietnamese and English. McComb and I spent several hours one night on the narrower streets in Hanoi with no language (or other) problems.

With only a couple of days, we couldn’t see much, but UNESCO sites were our reason to be there.

We started with the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, not because it is a UNESCO site, but because the very next day it was due to close for a couple of months. It is a huge, Russian-style mausoleum that would be anathema to Ho (whom the Viets claim as their version of both Washington and Lincoln). He wanted his body cremated and the ashes sent to the country’s various provinces. Now, he lies in state as a major attraction for the Vietnamese.  

The lines are long (no cameras), but it was cute to see young schoolchildren holding hands or items of clothing, so they would not become separated through the long process.

Also at the tomb, we ran into a group from Ball State University in Indiana, doing what I hope Upper Iowa will do one day: touring with  a group of students.

After the mausoleum and touring the Ho Chi Minh Museum, we went to Van Mieu, or the Temple of Literature, which is a center for Confucian learning, literature, and poetry that was founded in 1070. Originally it was for educating the Mandarin class. 

It is another sprawling complex with five courtyards. In 1484 the emperor ordered stellae entered to record the names and achievements of exceptional scholars. Only just over  100 were honored with a stella, 82 of which still remain. 

After a walk through the formal gardens, before entering the Temple of Confucius, we saw the two mottos from Buddha written with flowers in Vietnamese: “Education Is the Future” and “Before You Can Begin to Learn, You Must Respect the Teacher.” Wise words indeed.

We missed the French Quarter, but managed to spend a large part of a day in the Old Quarter.  Dating back to the 13th century, it has 36 streets originally named after the 36 guilds that plied their trades on a particular street. Since some of the streets were made for horse travel, they can be quite narrow. Today there are shops everywhere.

McComb, our guide and I spent a delightful couple of hours sipping a draft beer and watching the various people and vehicles pass by – one of everything imaginable.

A place in Hanoi that is a must-visit is the Museum of Ethnology. It is new, built by the French and donated to Vietnam, presumably as one of the ways to get back some influence in the country.

It is devoted to the 54 indigenous tribes that still exist in the interior mountain regions of Viet Nam today. 

During the War, our Green Berets lumped all 54 tribes together, calling them Montengaards. We were told that if we lost the war, the tribes would be exterminated. Some 40 years later, they seem to be doing well. In fact, when Ho was hiding from the French in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was the Hmong who assisted him. After he was elected president and the government built a house for him, he had it made Hmong-style (on stilts) in their honor. Today the Hmong have a huge tourist center in Sappa in the very north.

Outside of the multistory Museum of Ethnology, there is an example of each kind of living structure used by each of the tribes. Inside are artifacts, dioramas, and other information about the 54 hill tribes. It is worth a many-hour visit.

Our final stop in Hanoi was the Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppets (called roi nuoc) are indigenous to Vietnam. The art form features musicians, a narrator, and an orchestra-like pit full of water. People hidden behind a screen standing in almost waist-deep water at the end of a long pipe control the different puppets. To change scenes the brightly colored  puppets, made from the water-resistant wood of the fig tee, can enter or exit through moveable mats.

It is thought the art form started about 1000 years ago in the Red River Valley, where rice farmers have but one growing season. In the off-season, they developed the water puppets.

    There are a number of theatres that still perform the ancient art. Our program featured skits about the origin of the Viet people and dances of the various hill tribes. 


Next: The ghostly Dragon’s Teeth of Halong Bay.



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