hanoi

Seeing History in a Mirror

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
― Marcel Proust

When I left for this trip, more than one person asked me “Why Vietnam?” Honestly, I don’t think I had a very good answer. Culturally, I like this part of the world; had heard it was a great (and safe) travel destination and, it was really affordable, but I was/am no great student of Vietnam. I could give some highlights, early religious dynasties, colonial occupation, the rise of communism, war with U.S, and that every other item of clothing sold in the US has “made in Vietnam” label on it.

After a day of being the passive observer (and trying not to get run over) in the Old Quarter, I decided to go a little further…hoping to gain a bit more understanding of the people and place. I was struck by the profound visible signs of loss in this historic capital, but also pride, resilience and sense of sameness.

I learned that they revere learning. The Temple of Literature, founded in 1070, is one of the few remaining examples of Vietnamese architecture still standing. The temple was built to honor Confucius and scholarly learning. The names of great Vietnamese scholars are etched in stone tablets on the edges of the temple. It is still regarded as a place of learning…today there were a group of Vietnamese high school kids in a graduation ceremony on the grounds.

I learned that the Vietnamese are proud of who they are and their country (even if we don’t agree with their politics); and they honor their forefathers. After the Temple, I walked to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. Like Lenin, “Uncle Ho” is honored with a huge monolithic stone mausoleum, where thousands come to pay tribute each year. Adjacent to this is a museum dedicated to his life and work and surrounding this is is huge botanical garden.

I learned that they value art and creativity, but have lost much of their heritage. A trip to the National Museum of Fine Art, begins with the phrase, “what you see here are examples or remnants of early works, most have been lost by wars.” The Vietnamese were great sculptors in bronze and stone, wood carvers, print makers, silk painters and a lacquer artists.

As I moved to the more modern section of museum, I saw works in these same traditional medium, but about the war with the U.S. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. While I don’t know many people personally who served in the war with Vietnam, I know the impact it is has had on us culturally. I have visited the war memorial in D.C. and been awed by the enormous losses suffered and the residual pain. Yet, these works showed the same costs of war….widows, children, loss, resolve, sorrow, poverty, pain. It was like seeing history in a mirror.

I know there are unresolved political issues between my country and theirs and there are many Americans who lost too much, but it seems to me, that going forward only happens when you are able to look beyond what is different and see what is the same.

Stepping off the Curb

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Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore….Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

I woke up this morning on the other side of the world. After 22 hours of travel, I arrived in Hanoi late at night and rode to my hotel in the back of a dark, air-conditioned mini-van, so my first glimpse of Vietnam came as stepped outside the doors of my hotel this morning.

Living in a tourist destination, I think of myself as prepared for cars stopping randomly, people stepping out into traffic, and generally slow going. Nothing could have prepared me for Hanoi…a seething mass of motor bikes, goods for sale, people, and the ever-present honking. Crossing the street, while a necessity, seemed part dance and part blind faith that some unfathomable system was at work.

I had the inevitable moment of “What have I gotten myself into?” and “Can I do this?”, but I stepped off the curb, dodged several motorbikes and started to wander the streets of the Old Quarter.

This central area of Hanoi, is a one of the oldest parts of a city that was named the capital in 1010AD. There are no Walmarts or big box stores in the Old Quarter. Each alley or street is dedicated to a particular type of good being sold or merchant…tin boxes, blacksmiths, toys, gravestones, herbs, altars, shoes, rope, straw mats, silk, jewelry…every street has a purpose.

While this ancient grid of streets is the foundation, everywhere the new is pushing up against the old - crumbling clay tile roofs and brick alley ways surrounded by soviet-era block buildings, women carrying baskets with produce and a motorbike loaded with knock-off Beats headphones; traditional straw hats and young Vietnamese in fedoras; handmade wooden toys and plastic Hello Kitty dolls, faded communist party posters and pirated DVDs.

I wandered this maze of alley ways for several hours finally coming out on the other side at Hoan Kiem Lake. A brief moment of quiet at the temple on the edge of the lake and then I took a deep breath and threaded my way back through the streets to my hotel. While I didn’t travel far today, I did learn to cross the street…

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