Mid Jan. to mid Feb. 2014 I went to Vietnam starting in Hanoi and eventually departing from Ho Chi Minh City which is still
more commonly known as Saigon. I had traveled a lot in southeast Asia over 2 decades ago but not Vietnam, which was just opening up to tourism back then.
As an American, I of course wondered how I would be accepted in light of the legacy of the war. It might seem like a paradox since one sees
constant reminders of the struggles of the Communists against the French and Americans but I felt no ill will at all and a ready acceptance of
American culture. Vietnam has also embraced international business and the use of dollars as the international currency yet the lack of overt
poverty clearly shows the Communist ideal of spreading out the wealth to the benefit of all. And as a tourist I felt very safe and free to enjoy
myself without any worry about being targeted for hassles or bribes. Freedom? sure felt less likely to be scrutinized by anyone than in the USA or Europe.
The following photos show typical street scenes around the old quarter
and surrounding neighborhoods.
The national flag is often displayed but even more so during the lunar New Year known as the Tet festival which is by
far the biggest celebration of the year. Tet was to start in more than a week but many decorations were already up. What is also clear from these photos is that motorbikes
(mopeds and motorcycles) are by far the main means of transportation.
These decorations were definitely for the New Years. Having grown up in America where the anti-communist propaganda was strong
for so many years, it was a bit of a twist to see the hammer and sickle displayed with doves as a coherent symbol of peace.
Typical around Hanoi are the many banyan trees with their tendrils hanging like something out of a fantasy movie.
Another thing that I would find to be popular all over Vietnam is the use of really small stools. I guess they just take less space to store
and are often set out on the sidewalks in the evening so more people can socialize over food or drink.
A lot of typical 4 or 5 story buildings with a business on the first floor or two and residences above still remain
in Hanoi. Such places were much rarer in Saigon as urban renewal has given way to big apartment blocks with dozens of levels or business centers.
Hanoi doesn't lack for commercial property either and one will see plenty of well-known brands advertised. An
English or foreign name on a product seems to be desirable even if it is a local product.
There are many French style colonial buildings, typically used as government offices, museums, institutes or schools.
One of the more outstanding landmarks in the old quarter is the Cathedral that is an orientation point to many small side streets
filled with cheap hotels, hostel and travel agencies catering to backpackers and foreign tourists.
Ones sees mobile food-carts but many street vendors make due with bicycles.
Although it was winter and cool in the north, there was no lack of tropical fruits.
Of course motorized transportation is even more practical and even on 2 wheels; one can move a lot of goods.
Bicycle rickshaws seemed to be mostly for the tourists. The quickest way to get around for less than a taxi is to hire a guy
on a motor bike as long as you know the going rates and have nerves of steel to wind through the traffic.
There seemed to be a great cultural appreciation for flowers and plants.
Like in Europe of old, Hanoi has many clusters of shops selling similar products. Here were dozens of plant and flower shops together
although plenty of what you see here is plastic rather than natural.
I'm not sure what these shops sell other times of the year but offerings of traditional decoration for the Tet festival were abundant.
But even Hello Kitty or Psi kitsch was available and if in red and gold then it fits to the lunar New Year.
Another bringer of good luck are cuttings of saplings with their flowers just starting to bud.
And everyone needs a new potted kumquat tree for Tet. They are small like bonsai but carry a surprising amount of fruit.
Another tradition is to burn offerings representing what one wishes for a prosperous New Year. Here small boxes like gift wrapped presents
are offered on the street. Fake money is also popular and I hear that people even make piñata like paper representations of fancy cars or motorbikes.
guess if you want to get lucky then why think small?
One of the best known landmarks in the center is Hoan Kiem Lake. It doesn't look particularly clean but is surrounded by parkways and garden and
wide, tree line boulevards. There is a sizable temple Ngoc Son on the NE corner of the lake reachable by a small bridge seen here top left as well as this picturesque
pagoda on a small island to the right.
Parkway along Hoan Kiem lake.
Entrance to Ngoc Son temple.
View towards the south side of the lake from within Ngoc Son temple. The pagoda was a perfect setting to just chill out and
relax or to plan out where one was off to next minus the constant hecticness of the traffic.
This is a scribe/calligrapher who writes with the old Chinese style characters. The old script is not religious in itself
but often associated with religious writings from the past. During Tet, many people will go to a temple or other place where they will find a scribe
to produce a sign with wishes for prosperity written in the old script.
Orange robed monks were definitely a rare site compared to a country like Thailand but when one saw them, they were likely
snapping some photos with a cell phone at some temple or tourist attraction.
Monks passing back over bridge; not only a photo opportunity for me but for many locals (who are BIG camera bugs) as well.
There were a lot of temples in Hanoi like this one that one would almost overlook from the street. And all of the
Buddhist temples I saw in Vietnam were open so that one could just walk in. One often saw people burning incense or praying yet even the
locals never took off their shoes; something strictly controlled in Thailand.
This was a small but very cute pagoda that is well visited since it is located right between Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
and the Ho Chi Minh Museum, two secular landmarks that are almost sacred spots as Ho Chi Minh is revered as the father of the modern nation of Vietnam.
The biggest temple complex I saw in central Hanoi was the Temple of Literature, which was dedicated to the country's
best writers and academics.
Ceremonial drum in pagoda.
Temple building now containing many artifacts.
Across the street from the entrance to the Literature Temple was an area set up for the Tet holidays with a dozen or so tents to
cover booths where calligraphers would scribe messages of prosperity on scrolls.
The scribes all wore traditional robes and I wondered if they all had a religious association independent of being monks
since it seemed comparable to having people writing bible verses in Latin, which I would associate with the catholic church.
This is one side of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. One can walk across the lot to where the potted trees are but there are lots of
uniformed guards to keep one from getting closer. Supposedly, Ho Chi Minh didn't want such a memorial because he wanted to emphasize
the tenants of communism and national solidarity rather than become a cult figure. Obviously, his admirers had other ideas.
Police marching around the perimeter of the mausoleum area seemed as stern as the white uniformed guards.
Nearby is the large Ho Chi Minh Museum that contains quite a lot of odd exhibitions many of which didn't seem to have
much to do directly with Ho Chi Minh.
Halfway between the old quarter and the HCM Mausoleum is the large Vietnam Military History Museum. There is an old
tower and the main museum building and in the courtyard a good collection of tanks, aircraft and canons captured or shot down from the Americans.
The majority of displays pertained to the conflict with the French and Americans. But what one realizes is that the history of Vietnam is
a series of armed conflicts with many neighboring invaders going back millennium. Outlasting and repelling the Americans is something they
are proud of but in another context it was just one more war out of many.
This is the entrance to the place Americans called the Hanoi Hilton and synonymous with cruel treatment of prisoners.
A good part of the complex has been torn down but what remains is a stark reminder of what conditions the locals suffered under
the French who actually built the prison. Rather than downplay the stress it must have been for American POWs locked up here, it detailed the
even crueler conditions imposed by the French on locals for being nationalists in tehr own country as opposed to the Americans who were foreign invaders.
The conditions for locals shackled to a slat as shown by these figures was simply medieval.
Above the entrance to this government building is a Happy New Year's greeting. To the right is a typical propaganda image saluting the
images of Ho Chi Minh and communist followers.
There were at least 4 branches of a gallery that specialized in reproductions of old propaganda posters. The themes were often
about the armed conflict but often nationalistic appeals to support people's rights or to support industry or agriculture to boost the country's well-being.
I found the graphic designs to be very stylish and thought to buy some of the smaller posters as gifts but didn't want to drag them around
for the next month. Luckily, a tourist mentioned that there was a branch of this gallery in the main tourist street in Saigon, so I could hold off on my purchases.
Souvenir shop. This is always a quandary for me although I don't buy many souvenirs. One doesn't want to drag stuff around and it can be costly and risky to send by mail. Often one
finds the same kind of souvenirs all over the place and can wait until the end of a trip but you never know exactly which will be the things you liked
but never find again. One sees lots of lousy t-shirts and other junk for sale but nicely made bronze or porcelain figures or inlaid lacquered boxes were nicer but
I didn't end up buying any but found the puppets to be interesting. Most Asian countries seem to have some
tradition of puppetry but what seems to be rather unique in Vietnam is that the figures are often made to float on water. There is then
a backdrop to hide the puppeteers but they themselves and the puppets are set in a pool of water and manipulated by stiff wires.
I found the lacquer ware to be beautiful but one of those things one has little use for at home. Like how often do
you have guests over where you need a fancy bowl for nuts or snacks?
This was a theater exclusively set up for water puppet shows. There was also a water puppet stage set up at one
museums I went to but I didn't want to wait around for the next performance. In the end, I never did get to catch a live performance,
which is a shame since they often have elaborate scenery, puppets and live music and one can only wonder at the dedication of the puppeteers who
have to stand around in waist deep water the whole time.
This was a scene close to the main train station. Seems nobody thought much about safety conditions when the tracks got built
but then there are not a lot of trains. There is a route going south to Saigon and north towards Bejing and the other goes northwest towards Sapa and
southeast towards the coastal city of Haiphong.
There is a long bridge over the Red River for trains and on either side, bicycles and motorbikes. Thankfully, they don't allow
other motorized traffic as the whole structure is old and corroded and sections of the side rails would be easy to tear away by hand.
Unlike most European cities, they have had the foresight to leave wide banks for flood control that are utilized as vegetable gardens.
Looked like if one has a surplus in the garden then one can just sit on the bridge and sell it.
Then again there are street vendors throughout the city.
I tried some of the local fried pastries, not bad but a bit on the heavy, oily side.
In addition to the many open public spaces I also paid to go into the large Lenin Park. Not only are the grounds well
gardened but there are cafes and amusement park rides, areas to play sports or just relax by the lake. The admission was not much but
probably helps to keep loiterers away.
Next to the Lenin Park is the circus building with performance and training space for the country's only circus school.
I had located them in the internet and hoped to meet and possibly train with them but unfortunately, there was nobody around and I
suspected that the students were already on break for the Tet holidays.