I visited North Vietnam the first time roughly 10 years ago. The country then had already moved on from the previous century of imperialist wars and national angst. The wheels of prosperity and reconstruction were firmly in place. In September 2018, I returned to Vietnam, starting in Hanoi, and wandered in some of the same places I had visited earlier. However, this time I also was able to walk across the DMZ (demilitarized zone) that ceased to mean anything after the American military pulled out in the 1970s. I also toured Saigon and the Mekong Delta this journey.
I will post a considerable series of blogs (photos) on Vietnam in order to introduce southeast Asian life, culture and landmarks.
[Today, the Internet and cell phones generally produce millions of photos each day of just about everything. So my story is only one among many. Every photo in itself is a story or interpretation; at least that is how I regard my own images. Our time is limited, so usually we can only glance at a photo or painting. Nevertheless, I try to post in this blog at least some insights related to the images posted that may be explanatory and even unique, and in any event are almost always complimentary to the places referenced and to the citizens living there.]
Socialism remains in the moniker of the state of Vietnam, but a kind of capitalist fervor not even seen in the US rules the streets. The law and order scheme is fuzzy while nearly 100 million people, crammed into this little Southeast Asian country, struggle to realize dreams that might or might not materialize. Some youths hinted to me (in subdued voice) that they actually see the US as nurturing a model of life that they want for themselves. However, even that vision is blurred as it is myopically fixed on the ubiquitous cell phone and fed by a social media frenzy often punctuated by commercial exaggeration and seductive western-style advertising.
Strangely, today this country is probably more in tune with the French/American vision that drove the brutal wars in this place during the last century than even the Western idealists/imperialists could imagine while stirring the former quagmire. Of course, today’s shine is also dimmed undoubtedly by persistent corruption and political malfeasance; a malady of many smaller reforming nations living in the shadow of large powerful giant engines of change in the neighborhood (in this case, China).
[Dragonflies fill the sky south of Hanoi in a vast field of commercially cultivated flowers along the Red River (extends to China). ]
Old Quarter, Hanoi, 2008
A group of 10 very robust travelers from Pennsylvania shared my own experience during the late summer wet season month of September 2018. Our guide and sponsors, who each spoke and understood at least some of the local language, are better placed to deduce the depth of Vietnamese character and motives. In vignettes, nevertheless, I will present a rather superficial interpretation of what I saw — but the photographs, if examined up close and carefully, contain many details that can inform viewers of the considerable complexity and dynamic of the modern post-war culture of the Vietnamese. I will leave a lot unsaid.
I gaze outside the Silk Queen Hotel in Old Quarter, Hanoi, from my ninth floor accommodation. An industrious pair of men are repositioning a vital water tank that most dwellers in this area of the city rely on. The "Tan My" words inscribed on these tanks may refer to the high quality silk design shops on Hang Gai Street below. ("Hang" means "wares" or "crafts", and so Silks Street, Bamboo Street, etc.) Other tanks on distant buildings display a “SONHA” logo of a Vietnam corporation famous for its stainless steel pipe and container products.
Other specialities for sale nearby are tourist souvenirs, of coarse, and coffee (tea and chocolate). Coffee is a drink of choice nearly everywhere in northern Vietnam. Back alleys boast coffee, birds and bamboo. Hanoi's Cafe Giang offers "cà phê trúng," or egg coffee, a Hanoi specialty composed of a “creamy soft, meringue-like egg-white foam hovering over dense Vietnamese coffee.” Our traveling party found another particularly charming coffee house, well hidden near the Pillow Hotel/Hostel. Here the egg-caffeine booster won cheers that drowned out the chirps of innumerable caged singing birds and carried all the way to modest kitchen in the rear. Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer in the world, positioned between Brazil and Columbia (according to the International Coffee Organization).
The vendors and craft and flower stalls in Hanoi's Old Quarter are scenes of an unending soap opera and social drama that to the uninitiated can at first be overwhelming.
Another immediate impression on a visitor to Hanoi, or anywhere in Vietnam for that matter, is the chaos and cacophony of movement. While being taxied to my hotel from the airport I was struck, astonished, at the lack of it in some places — that is, total traffic standstill. Once the nation had to contend with millions of bicyclists; then the population graduated to scooter and motorbike; and now it’s everyone for himself with bike, scooter, motorbike, car and truck and bus and on foot. I could definitely sense the increase in motion density compared to my previous encounter with the road warriors 10 years earlier. Many more automobiles are squeezing the cyclists into tighter packs; or are the bikers squeezing the buses and cars? — it is not so easy to tell, especially at the sometimes regulated and sometimes not-regulated intersections. An elevated unfinished sky train project hovers over a main section of the city, looking forlorn and apparently abandoned (sponsored by Chinese enterprises, I was told).
And there is no limit to the variation of fashion wear on the streets, ranging from barefoot vendors to well heeled and carefully coordinated family attire. Always handy and often worn is the quick slip-on rain gear and the ubiquitous face masks. Helmets on the bikers comprise an endless stream of colors, advertisements and identifiers of the proud owners underneath.
The children of Vietnam inherit this display of modern upward mobility, starting very young; but it is clear that their ultimate goal will be to own a slick car, or tank.
(to be continued)