Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ha Noi Hilton...

We had the best day in Ha Noi, filled with rich Vietnamese history as heart aching as it is. Accompanying us on a tour was a young third year University student from Hanoikids, which is a volunteer organization built to give foreigners a tour of Hanoi in return for a day of practicing English. That's right. These kids do it just to practice English. All they ask for is payment for taxis, entrance fees, and lunch. That is quite a small price to pay for an all day locals' tour. Let's just say entrance fees were around $0.50 typically, and he got a student discount on top of that!

 Our tour guide Anh at Sword Lake

We began at the Ho Chi Minh complex, which consists of a mausoleum, a museum, and two of his homes (including the one where he passed away). There were three things I came to correctly understand through this first hand visit to Vietnam. The first of which was at the complex. Ho Chi Minh was revered, respected to a level no textbooks or newspapers can depict. Hearing or reading about Ho Chi Minh does no justice to the regard in which the people of this country hold his everlasting presence and legacy. They call him Bac Ho (Uncle Ho), and their faces light up when his name breaches conversation. He is their Gahndiji or George Washington. Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr of sorts. The polar opposite of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Modern America's Bill Clinton in ways. Serving as their leader and with admirable dedication, he never married so as not to distract himself from his people. He visited kindergartens and villages of elderly. He settled for a while in France, eloquently learning their native language. Same for the Soviet Union. He made political trips to India and the US. He could speak in seven tongues and read four of those languages. His life ended naturally in Hanoi, and upon his death the Vietnamese people preserved his body in the mausoleum, defying his request to be cremated and spread across three regions of Vietnam: North, Central, and South. Although not compulsory, many pay tribute annually.

Ho Chi Minh Complex

We then proceeded to the Temple of Literature, which was the first university in Hanoi. There are many temples of literature in the country, but this one is the largest and most well known. Much of the back portion was destroyed during the French-Vietnemese war and rebuilt thereafter. Today, it is more or less a temple and museum.

Temple of Literature

Our gift to ourselves was this "idea" I had whilst sitting in this vegetarian restaurant (Hats off to the chef at Tamarind). I wanted to get our family name (that's Nagaraja...not Patel) written in the local language on some cool canvas/cloth/bamboo. As it turns out, there are elderly folks outside of the Temple of Literature who do just that. Apparently, it is not just a tourist thing-it is quite common close to the Chinese/Vietnemese new year (February 8th this year-it goes by the Lunar calendar). We had Anh assist us and after much interpretation, we found a gentleman who took "King Cobra" and translated it into Chinese as "Big Snake". In doing so, I learned more about Vietnamese history. You see-Vietnamese language is actually NOT written in characters like many of its neighbors. It is based off of the Latin alphabet. Well, many years ago the good ol' Christians came through and through that influence the written language was changed to Latin-based. Some locals tried to adapt the Chinese alphabet and make it "Vietnamese", but it was too complicated to catch on. And thus, reading Vietnamese is much like Spanish to us-you can read it and not understand a lick of it.

Pretty cool huh?

After introducing our guide to a Indian food (which was not oily and quite home-cooked tasting), we headed to the famous Hao Lo Prison-or perhaps you know it as Ha Noi Hilton. Oh you don't? Allow me to explain. The prison was built by the French (oh yeah-ever wonder why the Vietnamese are good bakers? French occupation should say it all...) and used to imprison Vietnamese during the their war. And by imprison I mean brutalize, abuse, and punish. During the Vietnamese-American war, it was used by Vietnam for American POWs. When US planes and their US soldiers went down (including former US presidential candidate John McCain), they were captured and held at the Hao Lo prison. Though, it was nothing like how the French ran it all those years prior. I cannot say it more eloquently than Anh so let me use his answer to my innocent question: "What the French did was unheard of in its cruelty. We Vietnamese are nice people. We were not looking to abuse. The Americans were simply the enemy and they crashed in our territory. We had to imprison them and so we did." The POWs were not mistreated or abused or tortured. And thus, the Americans called it the Ha Noi Hilton. I had always known of this phrase and thought I understood it. But the meaning hit home when I saw the pictures. I only wish all humans on this Earth could learn history first-hand. It would be such dramatic learning.

Hao Lo Prison

Sculptures of Vietnamese soldiers during French imprisonment

 US POWs playing cards, etc at Ha Noi Hilton

Zoom in on this and read the top left. 

We finished the night off with traditional Vietnamese culture after Anh confirmed it was indeed worth it and not at all "only for the tourists". We saw what is called a Water Puppet Show. It is literally that-puppets in water. But it was also so much more than that. It was entertainment before modern entertainment existed. Paired with Vietnamee folk song, we had a great end to our taste of Vietnam.

 The Water Puppet Show

I recommend every American visit and take a month to tour the entire country. Someday we will.

Finishing off with a quick lunch in Ho Chi Minh (the former Saigon)

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