|Vietnam - the land of China plus one|
|By Keyvan Tabari|
Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.
The Ghost of the Past
“The runway that you just landed on was the world’s busiest in the late 1960s because many of the American soldiers and much of the war materiel came through here,” our guide reminded us while we were waiting for our luggage in the Saigon airport. Soon we were taken to our hotel, the Caravelle. This was where, the guide pointed out, “the American mission everyday at 5 P.M. gave a progress report on the war.” For visitors of a certain generation from the United States this type of introductory comments about Vietnam is common. The Vietnam War is the part of your memory that demands immediate attention if this is your first visit. Only by addressing it fully can you exorcize its ghost. The Vietnamese seem to have done it. For them, the “American War,” as they call it, is no big deal anymore, what with their much longer “French War,” not to mention the prior “Chinese War.” As the guide put it, “we were at war with China for a thousand years!”
The “Saigon Saigon Bar” of the Caravelle, where we were having this conversation, looked nothing like the bustling venue for the American military’s daily press briefings which it had once been. It now had almost the languor of the French colonial days. Warm and humid air came through the doors open all around this room at the building’s top. It made it easy to lounge in the armed chairs and ignore the harsh sound of a novice band playing American pop music. You could overlook the noisy travelers from the U.S. and let the windows of the old Hotel Continental across the plaza beckon you to the space where the novelist Graham Green had created his Quiet American.
In the plaza, Ho Chin Minh City clung stubbornly to one’s image of the old Saigon. The Opera House has been renovated to the modest glory of its French days. On this evening the program was by Verdi conducted by a Danish maestro. On the Dong Khoi street facing the plaza, young women were distributing handbills for massage parlors. A man on a cyclo followed me as I walked on a side street toward the Saigon River, offering “women, young girls, close to here!” It was nearly impossible to cross the busy road, Ton Duc Thang, which separated me from the river. Westernization has invaded Saigon with vengeance in the form of motorbikes. “There are probably as many motorbikes here as there are people,” my guide had said. The overwhelming majority of the riders were men but there were also women, wearing masks against the fumes as well as the sun. Nobody obeyed traffic rules. Venturing into the traffic behind a local pedestrian, I tried to practice the “art of crossing the street,” as our guide had described it, “never walk back; walk steady.”
A few blocks away, pedestrian sidewalks were taken up by idle motorbikes. Shops on the streets were full of merchandise but hardly any customers. Near a school, parents on motorbikes had congregated waiting for their children blocking the passage which was already truncated by a neighborhood produce stand. The much bigger Ben Tranh covered market which was closed to motor vehicles was where Saigon shopped. On the adjacent sidewalks cobblers repaired shoes, mechanics toyed with motorbikes, barbers cut hair, and manicurists polished nails.
I entered a bookstore which also had English language books. It displayed works by one American prominently. John C. Maxwell was apparently a big hit among Saigon’s readers. His several books were on subjects such as “teamwork and leadership”. Not far was the only statute of the country’s famous leader, Ho Chi Minh. It was big but a simple one, depicting him as a benign Ho sitting down in an avuncular pose. There were no visitors here. People have reverted to the old name for Saigon; “only government officials call it "Ho Chi Minh City,” our guide said. Behind Ho’s statute loomed the city hall building of “The People’s Committee.” As Hotel de Ville it had been the headquarters of the French when they ruled the city.
The Saigon Cathedral is still the busy citadel of the Catholic religion which the French brought here. Close to it was what had been the communications nerve center for the French colonial government, Bureau des PTT de Saigon. The famous Gustave Eiffle designed its distinctive metal framework. The Vietnamese gave it the name “Steel String House,” our guide said. They have also given it an ancient function not envisaged by the French: as we watched a scribe sat on a bench writing a letter dictated by an illiterate client. “He can write in three languages: French, English, and Vietnamese,” our guide said about the scribe who was ”an old time” fixture of the place.
The communication technology in the last office that the President of South Vietnam occupied consisted of three rotary dial telephones; one was pink, the others were white and red . The war room in his palace was commensurately primitive compared with that of his ally, the United States of America. It was no bigger than 10 by 15 feet, with a map of Vietnam on the wall indicating the location of troops, and not much more. The working desks in the palace were grey standard issue American army. On April 30, 1975, the day after the world saw the emblematic picture of Vietnamese clamoring to climb on the helicopter of their evacuating American employers, their President also faced his unpleasant fate. The Communist colonel who rammed his tank into the presidential palace brought the hapless President to the balcony facing the American Embassy in the distance down the street. The President tried to save face. He said “I transfer power to you,” our guide said. “No! You could not transfer what you don’t have,” the colonel responded. “‘You say I surrender!’ The President obeyed.” From that balcony we could see those tanks which have been left on the grounds of the palace that has since been renamed the “Reunification Palace.”
Our guide had sided with the South in the war. “We could not win the war because we did not have a clear target. The north had reunification: fight till win. The south just defense and not winning,” he said. We were now driving to the Cu Chi Tunnels which became legendary for their contribution to the Vietcong’s control of the rural district only 20 miles from Saigon. The use of these tunnels began during the French war, but there were only 25 kilometers then. They were expanded to ten times as long toward the Cambodian border during the American war. The Vietcong, “defining themselves as “workers for the Viet people,” our guide said, helped the local farmers dig them “because they had to hide,” our guide said. There were three levels in the tunnel. “The upper level was kitchen, etc.; the bottom level connected to the river for escape,” our guide said. American bombs, artillery attacks, and ground operations could not eliminate the tunnels. We saw disabled American tanks , a crater made by a B52 bomb, and several types of booby traps made of bamboo]. “The same kinds had been used in the past to kill animals,” our guide said. “They were used here to slow down the enemy soldiers.”
We were led into a room to see a video about the place. Maps on the wall showed American bases, South Vietnamese bases, and areas of fighting. A young woman who wore the simple black pajamas of the women fighters of the day, with sandals made of abandoned car tires, was our host. “She is the granddaughter of a guerrilla,” our guide said. “Look at her scarf, checkered black and white, like Yasser Arafat’s”. She showed us the simple tools used to dig the tunnels, and then introduced a video which was a grainy black and white film from 1967. A woman narrator talked about the “bombs from Washington, several thousand miles away which were dropped here and killed women and children.” Two American women from among us walked out to take pictures. The others remained silent.
We could hear shots outside. “These are by tourists. You could pay and try the old rifles,” our guide said. We went to see one of the tunnels. The narrow opening was camouflaged. I went in . It was dark. Several feet later there was a drop which I could not see and I fell. I limped for a while but the injury proved to be minor. In the war when the bombing proved ineffective, defoliants, “especially agent orange, were used here,” our guide said. The landscape, however, now looked normal with rubber plants. “They grew back faster than expected,” the guide said.
Many of the refugees who left Vietnam after the war are coming back. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Vietnam has actively sought Western investment. The U.S. established diplomatic relations in 1995 and has encouraged Americans’ participation in Vietnamese economic development. “A large part of foreign investment in Vietnam has been by Vietnamese ex-pats in the U.S.,” a guide briefed us. “The largest private employer in Vietnam is Nike. It has 8 foreign employees but 25,000 local employees here.” This is “the China plus one foreign investment policy of Western companies - in case China goes bad.” He reported that “Nike pays its workers about 70 dollars per month. They are hired through Korean-owned contractors. 75% of them are women. There is a long waiting list of applicants.”
In the spa of the hotel, I met some prosperous Vietnamese guests. I asked one what his profession was. “I am a banker,” he said. He had studied at Cornell. He said he had been in Los Angeles the year before to “make a memorandum of understanding with the East-West Bank, but then the economic problems in the U.S. happened.” He was optimistic: “it will be O.K.” He pointed out that in Vietnam most banks are government owned, “Our system is communist.” His bank, however, was privately owned. I asked his opinion about the editorial in that day’s Saigon newspaper recommending that since Western countries economic problems reduced their trade with Vietnam, this country should actively promote neighborly “South-South” trade. The banker said he doubted that it would work.
If the bustling Saigon projects the future of Vietnam, the almost somnolent Hue reflects its past. As in Saigon, the Chinese, French, and Americans have left their influential footprints in Hue.
We crossed the moat that surrounds the old Citadel and through the gate marked with a flag pole entered the Imperial Enclosure with its six meter high walls. Here amidst a number of bare gardens were several ceremonial buildings which at one time served as the government palace of Vietnam. Hue has been called Imperial City as it was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty. The Nguyens were the lords of this area ever since the 16th century, but it was only in 1802 that their new chief, Gia Long, called himself the Emperor of Vietnam. He claimed credit for having united Vietnam for the first time in more than 300 years, although dynastic rule had begun in the 10th century, following 800 years of Chinese domination.
Gia Long who began the construction of the Citadel in 1804 modeled his private residence, Forbidden Purple City after Beijing’s Forbidden City. The only servants allowed in were eunuchs so that the king’s concubines would be safe. The Nguyens styled themselves as the Emperor of the Southern Imperial Court implying that the Chinese were the northern Lords. Similarly, in the various names which they gave to their realm, the reference was always China. Gia Long preferred Vietnam (southern Viets); while Minh Mang chose Dai (Great) Nam, and Bao Dai called his domain The Empire of Vietnam.
Vietnamese rulers’ attitude toward China has always been complex. It is far from abject submission. As our guide summarized it “we say receive, reject, adopt from China.” Long before the Nguyens, the Trung sisters (12- 43 A.D.) gained a heroic reputation as the Queens of Vietnam for their resistance to the Chinese. The Nguyen kings had another foreign power to worry about. They enjoyed independence for some 80 years, but when they tried to extend their writ to the French missionaries in their realm, they gave the French government the pretext to land forces and in quick order subject them to French control.
When the long tenured Emperor Tu Duc died in 1883, the crisis of successions which saw four Vietnamese kings in one year facilitated the French objective. Vietnam signed a Protectorate Agreement with France that year. When the new Vietnamese king rebelled against the Agreement, the French arrested and deported him to their African possessions. This was also the fate met by two other future Vietnamese monarchs. The French recognized the Nguyens as no more than the ceremonial kings of just a part of Vietnam, called Annam which included northern Vietnam (Tonkin) and Annam proper (central Vietnam). In fact, they were puppets of France.
We were discussing this history in the Imperial Enclosure at a site which happened to be the scene of a bloody battle of the American War during the Tet Offensive of February 1968. Our guide wanted to talk about that battle, but not before he told us that once when he was telling the story of the French colonial humiliation for a group of French tourists, a French woman protested: “It was not my fault!” Then the guide told us about an American sergeant who returned here 30 years later to remember the 15 men in his platoon who died in the Tet Offensive. “He sobbed,” our guide said, “and told me ‘they were inexperienced and did not listen to me.’” The guide was reflective: “in the Tet battle, Ho told the Vietnamese to ‘fight for independence till the last man and the last bullet.’”
The Nguyen kings were intent on building monumental tombs for themselves. There are seven such tombs in Hue, one for each of the 13 kings except the 3 who died in exile in Africa, and 2 who together reigned less than a year, and the last king who abdicated before his death. “We celebrate death days; we don’t celebrate birth days,” our guide said. “In my calendar I have marked March 16, as that is the date of my father’s death. On our father’s death we go to our village and remember him. When two women get into a fight at the market, they insult each other by saying I swear on your father’s tomb.”
The Minh Mang tomb and the Tu Duc tomb both consisted of several buildings. They are considered to be the best examples of Vietnamese architecture of the mid and late 19th century. Minh Mang’s is in an expansive park like setting. Tu Duc’s, which he is said to have designed himself, has a lake and an island. “He often went to that island to write poetry,” our guide said. When the Emperors died their concubines and attending eunuchs continued living in those compounds. There are huge idealized statues of the kings’ major counselors in the entrance courtyards of Tu Duc’s. On one side is their military general: fierce looking and dark. On the other side is their Mandarin advisor. He is white and scholarly. “Rumsfeld and Condie Rice,” our guide said, oblivious both to the fact he had the colors wrong and that they were no longer in office.
Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb was built in1923. It combined traditional architecture and some Western elements. His picture was on the mantel with a sash in the royal color yellow slicing in front. Another picture of him doing Chinese Calligraphy was on the wall. Our guide could not read the script because Vietnam now uses Roman, but he pointed to the characters on the entrance to the building which he said meant “purity and peace for peaceful thoughts!” The tombs were directed according to the Vietnamese tradition, our guide said, “Head toward the mountains, feet toward the sea.”
All of this looked modest but at the time the Khai Dinh’s tomb was built it caused an outcry among the Vietnamese nationalists and Communists. Khai Dinh was considered to be especially subservient to the French and he imposed an unpopular tax demanded by the French; he used a part of the proceeds to finance the building of this tomb. Ho Chi Minh, his contemporary, wrote a popular play, called the Bamboo Dragon, mocking the Emperor. Our guide said “there is no monarchical sentiment in Vietnam today. The kings are considered to have collaborated with the colonial French against the interest and independence of their own people.”
The High School
The residence of the French commanding general in Hue is still standing on the other bank of the river from the Tombs and the Citadel. It is called La Residence. In the American war it became the residence of the American commanding General, William Westmoreland. Almost facing this edifice on the other side of the street is Vietnam’s most famous high school, Quoc Hoc.
When Khai Dinh was king, Ho (whose original name was Nguyen Ai Quoc) went to this high school. He was expelled because of his activities in opposition to the government. Another student at this school was Ngo Dinh Diem who became the President of the South Vietnam government in 1956; indeed his father founded the school. Diem was an ardent Catholic and it was during his rule that the Buddhist monks played a significant role in opposition. Hue was the center of Buddhist opposition to Diem. When a Buddhist immolated himself in Saigon the picture became an iconic symbol of the politics of Vietnam during the early 1960s. We saw the car that drove the monk that day to the site of immolation. Preserved in the peaceful grounds of Tien Mu Pagoda, it is a jarring reminder.
A third notable student of the Quoc Hoc high school was General Vo Nguyen Giap of the Dien Bien Phu fame-the battle that finally convinced the French to leave Vietnam- and also the successful strategist of the American war. On the day we passed by this school, there were some students who were wearing red scarves. “They are the Communist Elite,” our guide said. “They are chosen from the best students and they will become government leaders as members of the Communist party. There are only 3 million Communist party members and they rule this nation of 87 million. There is only ‘ism’ left of communism, like Black Label on the empty bottle of Scotch. There is election but the candidates are selected by the Communist Party. It is like we are told we could have only rice or noodles, not hamburgers. We have gotten used to it. We are pragmatic. We don’t deal with government. When I have a quarrel with someone, I don’t go to court. We settle it ourselves. I don’t know what a lawyer does. I have never sued or been sued.”
Our guide said that he was a high school student in Hue during the American War. He was eager to learn English and had done some work for the American forces. On the day Hue fell, “I rode my bicycle home and got rid of all my English books. For some time the only English words I used were those the Russians had made current: imperialism, solidarity, Sputnik -and not Apollo.” Only a long time later, when “Vietnam opened up to the Western tourists, I saw another American language text. It was a copy of the New York Times that a guest had left behind in your hotel.”
He arranged for a cyclo to take me back to my hotel. I got in front of the cyclo only reluctantly as the driver seemed too old to be able to peddle. He surprised me by his vigor. I could not fully appreciate his efforts to be a tour guide. He kept tapping me on the shoulder and pointing out sites as we went along the street, but his descriptions in Vietnamese were incomprehensible. I only figured that one place he was pointing to had been heavily bombed during the war as he kept saying “boom, boom, boom!”
Hotel Morin was an establishment that was successfully renovated to recapture its “colonial charm.” Many of the tourists were from the Colonial motherland. The hotel brochure quaintly promised such amenities (conforte de la chambre) as desk with a lamp (bureau avec lampe) -alas, it was too dim for reading. In the halls of the hotel with an old picture of one of the Morin Freres looking self-satisfied, the speakers played the same music, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, incessantly. In the hotel’s spacious dining garden the show was folkloric music and dances. Later I went for a walk along the Perfume River fronting the hotel. From the bridge, the river was majestic. A man on a motorbike pursued me. He rode against the Bridge traffic as I strolled on the sidewalk of the bridge and called out “ride?” I said no. “Woman?” I said no. He repeated and received the same answer. Then he said “boys?” I repeated, no! I exhausted his patience and he drove away.
A few minutes later a sign welcomed me “to the Valentine’s Day.” Young girls were sitting on the wide sidewalk of the boulevard by the river, selling flowers, while older women were selling grilled corn. Our guide said “this is new. My generation knows nothing of Valentine’s Day. For us heart is not the place for love. It is our stomach.” Then he proceeded to tell us how his parents met and got married. “My father was a member of Vietminh, which means ‘alliance for independence of Vietnam,’ in the fight against the French colonial government. He was arrested and sentenced to collecting garbage from the French General’s house. My mother was good in embroidering and had been hired by the General’s wife to work in their house. My mother felt sorry for my father always looking underfed. She started leaving potatoes and eggs at the bottom of the barrels of the garbage. Then eventually she begged the General to set my father free. The General released him. He came back and married my mother. See, our love is through stomach!”
There was no sign of famine in Hue’s bountiful Dong Ba open market. This was a true farmers’ market, established by the Emperor some 120 years ago outside the walls of the Citadel at the intersection of the Perfume River and Dong Ba Canal. In the mist of the early morning I could see boats transporting people and cargo against the backdrop of the city to the market on the bank of river. In narrow walkways of the market, women were dicing, cutting, preparing and selling produce, meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and cooked food. Men were hauling goods, and then taking a rest. Vendors also took time to eat. Much garbage was produced. There were no toilets. Men and women were discharging themselves in the open. Younger women had cell phones. The older ones posed for me. One turned her friend around for pictures. She then pursed her mouth, opened her purse and pointed to some money. I offered her some bills. The amount was not enough for her; she took out bigger notes of the hugely inflated Vietnamese currency and waived them at me.
The boats that had transported the cargo were now empty and anchored at the bank of the river. A woman in one offered rides to the hotel across the river. I chose to walk back on the bridge. The sun was rising faintly red against the damp air. Men and women were using the poles of the bridge for calisthenics. The food kiosk on the other bank of the river near the hotel had not yet opened. Several men had brought their own tea and were sitting down to drink and chat. A big mural of Che Guevara on the closed door of the kiosk loomed behind them.
Our bus snaked up the green mountain that separates North Vietnam from South Vietnam. The serene lush green fields of rice belied the ominous appellation of the region. This was the “DMZ,” the demilitarized zone five kilometers on each side of the Ben Hai River --so called, after the French left, to mark the border between the warring Vietnamese Communist and anticommunist factions. It was the battlefield not only during the American War but also in others before because of its strategic location. The natural beauty of the area was capped by the Hai Van Pass, at a peak so often shrouded in its namesake “ocean clouds.” We were fortunate as today there was visibility. Soon we could see the South China Sea in the distance.
For some eight hundred years beginning in the late 2nd century this was the land of the kingdom of Champa, before it was absorbed by the Vietnamese in their relentless southward expansion. Once claiming a magnificent civilization, the Chams are now a small minority of about 100,000 in Vietnam. In Danang, by the sea, we visited the Cham Museum which with its world’s largest collection of Cham sandstone sculptures is a principle source of our information about the Chams. As the golden afternoon sun painted an arabesque of tree branches in the courtyard , we wondered through these 300 pieces of telling sandstones laid out in open air.
One was a distinct three- in-one stone lingam symbolizing Shiva in its smooth round surface at the top, Vishnu in its octagonal rough middle, and Brahma at its bottom, reflecting the Chams’ belief in Hinduism. Such belief was also echoed in the many- breasted sculpture symbolizing fertility. The sculptures of beautiful Apsaras, “the nymphs of Indra’s Heaven,” spoke of the Hindu legendary story of their causing war between their rival suitors, Gods and Asuras (Demons). In a sculpture of polo players, the Chams’ origin from the islands of South East Asia was evidenced. As in the art of Java’s Borobudur, the horsemen here were animated in contrast to the size and weightiness of the horses.
Danang was the main base for the American Navy during the war. Looking out toward the South China Sea I sat to listen to the war stories of a fellow traveler. Jack spoke of the ships, planes, and choppers; of ambushes, patrol, and rescue missions. He was not a “regular,” just a “draftee.” He said that even the Vietnamese made the distinction. “We got your number,” the boys taunted the “regulars,” as the fortunes of war turned against the Americans. Jack was grateful to his “regular” sergeant, however, who saved his life in his last days of service in Vietnam. “You don’t need to go on this last mission so close to the end of your tour,” the sergeant told him. As it happened, hardly anyone came back alive from the group that went on that patrol assignment.
A loud roar woke me up that night. I thought of helicopters, but in the dark of the sea outside my room I could not see much. As the noise did not stop, I called the hotel’s receptionist. He did not have an explanation but said that he would find out. “It is the fishermen in big boats going out to the sea,” he said when he called back.
When the sun pierced the haze of the morning, it revealed miles of unspoiled beach. Ours was a big resort  and there were plans for many more on the China Beach of Danang. After a recent storm, the government moved many of the small houses further away from the water and widened the street, allowing a future project “by South Korea to build almost a city here,” our guide said. In the manicured garden of the resort, a German tourist had a few things to tell me on that subject. “Too much production,” he said. “I have two cars and all the clothes I need; no one wants to buy.” This was his diagnosis of the economic crisis gripping the world in this February of 2009. He blamed the Americans. He said he was an engineer and had gone to study business administration in Chicago. “After one year, I told my wife ‘this is bullshit.’” Look what is happening, he said to me, “35 million dollar bonuses; people could not afford health care. I had a tooth ache in Chicago, doctors wanted cash to pull the tooth. The best German banks were enticed to be in the business of selling real estate as securities, claiming they were rated triple A.” His outpouring was due to an exasperated frustration at what he considered global excesses.
The market on the road just outside of Danang was a universe apart from the imploding world of business school geniuses. The squatting farmers were selling piglets and chicks which they raised to make a living. They integrated the intruding signs of the modern world in the form of the helmets they wore on their traditional straw conical hats. They wore masks against the sun to keep their skin pale. “Dark is bad,” our guide said, “and so is hair. People with hair are called monkeys.” Some women, on the other hand, had painted their teeth black. This was a form of make up, as our guide explained. “It is a sign of beauty; they believe only animals have white teeth.” He said “it takes ten days to dye the teeth so that they look like watermelon seeds.”
These farmers also spit red on the ground. This was due to chewing a mixture of areca nut, betel leaf, and lime. This is a stimulant but with a more profound cultural significance. “In my parents’ generation,” our guide said, “marriage proposals began with beetle nuts.” In fact, we were told, in Vietnamese the phrase “matters of betel and areca” is a reference to marriage. Chewing the areca nuts begins the conversation between the parents of the couple about the wedding. According to our guide, the folklore is that “combining the betel leaf and areca nut is so good that they should never be separated, just the same as for an ideal couple.”
A few miles from the market a bridal party had assembled for picture taking before the 14th century Japanese Covered bridge in Hoi An. This small town was lucky because it was spared from damage in recent wars as it lacked “strategic significance.” Paradoxically, its picturesque old buildings have their origin in the times when Ho An was a strategically vital trading port in the global maritime commerce that replaced the silk trade road in the 15th century. For the next four hundred years ships brought silk and other fabrics, spices and food stuff, and medicine to this river city for international exchange. Recently, it has become a center of commerce again, this time as a tourist destination. The enthusiasm for foreign visitors seems to have no bounds. Banners strung on the main street of the little town, included the flag of Paraguay, presumably to appeal to the unlikely tourists from that far away land.
“That was the site of the first French Catholic Church in Vietnam,” our guide pointed to a building in Ho An. The French missionaries came here in 1624 and introduced Catholicism to Vietnam. We found the Chinese influence more elaborate. In a Chinese temple we observed preparations for a funeral; a banner on the wall said “We wish 1000 farewells. ”The expatriate Chinese-Vietnamese are renovating their ancestral homes here. We entered one where we were welcomed by the residents who served us tea.
“In Vietnam they give you tea first thing,” our guide said “even before they interrogate you as a suspect.” Pictures of the ancestral suspects were on the wall. The host pointed to the similarity between the shapes of his ears and theirs. There were jars of salt, rice, and water in the house and the industrious women were making spring rolls for the garden restaurant in town where we later had lunch. The spring rolls were superb, but what made me an aficionado of Vietnamese cuisine was the meat and noodle soup pho with its multitude of rich flavors.
Presently, we were guided to a tailor shop where we made purchases of sur measure clothing so affordable none could resist. Mine was a silk shirt with dragon embroidered on it which was delivered the next morning to our hotel some 20 miles away. Our guide was also sending some clothing to the United States. He lived in Danang and his wife met us in the airport to give us a package for their daughter who was attending a community college in Texas, studying nursing and rooming with “17 other Vietnamese girls.” An exceptionally attentive and intelligent young waiter had befriended me in the hotel. In our limited conversation I told him that he should go to college and become the manager of the restaurant. He said that was impractical as his means were limited. On the last day, his parting words to me were: “May be you will help me come to America.”
The road from the airport to the city of Hanoi was flanked by rice paddies, the common landscape that graphically connected this ancient Capital with the rest of Vietnam. “We are the second biggest rice exporting country in the world,” our guide claimed. The relatively small plots of farm were divided by dirt ridges, sometimes with a low mound over them. The mounds were the “graves of our fathers,” the guide informed us, “they are there to make sure that the inheriting sons would not leave the farm. Respect for our dead fathers keeps us there.” Farming framed the world view here. “We use the expression ‘your view does not go beyond the hedge of the bamboo,’ to mean ‘you are narrow-minded’,” the guide continued in his introduction to the local culture. In Hanoi this was a culture dominated by the water of the Red River, so called because of the color of the silt. The delta of this river here was the cradle of the Vietnamese civilization.
Hanoi is almost exactly 1000 years old. That is what the big digital clock in downtown told us as it counted the days in English and Vietnamese to October 1010. Hanoi literally means inside the bend of the river. The city is in fact under the water level of the Red River. It is protected against flooding by a series of dikes. We went to see the distinct manifestation of its ancient culture in the Hanoi’s famed Water Puppet Show. The picture in the lobby indicated that Ho Chi Minh himself once conducted its musicians.
This evening, to the accompaniment of the music of several traditional instruments and two women singers, we saw a total of seventeen dances by puppets in a pool used as a stage. They ranged from Dragon Dance to Catching Frogs, Rearing Ducks, Fishing, Boat Racing, to the famous Legend of the Restored Sword -which is supposed to be in the Hoan Kiem Lake right in the center of Hanoi. At the end the eight puppeteers came out knee deep in the water and took a bow by joining us in the clapping.
The oldest monument in Hanoi is the One Pillar Pagoda, which was first built in 1049. Its architecture of a lotus of purity emerging from an ocean of suffering is unique. On the day of our visit art students were sketching it as a class assignment. Worshipers were burning effigies in the kiln outside the adjacent Buddhist temple. “This is a good example of Vietnamese religious promiscuity,” an American Buddhist scholar who was traveling with us pointed out. “Look at the clergy in the temple; he is more a Chinese Taoist priest, certainly not a Buddhist monk.”
The Buddhism practiced here was mixed with Chinese religious traditions, including Confucianism. It is “the late Chinese style of the Mahayana version” which is different from the Theravada version of Buddhism common in neighboring Laos and Cambodia on the other side of the Annam mountains.
To our local guide, the differences were in the communal aspect: “driving alone in a car on the right lane is Theravada; car pooling with others and not alone is Mahayana,” he said. “At meals, we bring our plates to the common food dish, not the other way around. No wonder communism succeeded here.” In Theravada there is a Buddha for each era; there have been seven so far. In Mahayana there have been Buddhas all the time and everywhere. The basic concept of Buddhism was present in Vietnamese beliefs, our guide stated: “There is an ocean of suffering; the cause of the suffering is desire (lust, greed); the solution is to stop the desire and so stop suffering and reach Nirvana in this life, not in the other!” The Vietnamese Buddhas, which are carved in wood and not in sandstone, are “fat, because we suffered one thousand years of starvation; so our Buddhas are shown as having many layers of neck.” The guide continued: “our Buddhas have many eyes better to see and many arms better to help” The American scholar explained that the most popular Buddha figure here was Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who cares about your mundane problems with a thousand arms and a thousands eyes; he is active and seeing and helps everyone.
Hanoi is only 100 miles south of the border with China. The Chinese invaded this area in the late 2nd century and stayed for almost a thousand years. The Vietnamese response was a mixture of resistance to the Chinese rule and adoption of the Chinese ways. “We have always feared and learned from China,” our guide said. “They demanded loyalty.” This was true even after the Communists took over Vietnam. The Chinese did not like the new Vietnamese regime’s overly friendly relations with their rival the Soviet Union. “They decided to teach us a lesson of loyalty,” our guide said referring to the 1979 invasion of Communist Vietnam by the Communist Chinese forces. “The Chinese general reminded us of the big difference in our powers,” our guide continued. “The general said there were so many more Chinese than Vietnamese that all the Chinese had to do was to line up at the border and relieve themselves; that would drown Vietnam.” The war was over in 17 days. The lesson was learned. “The first thing the new Vietnamese Prime Minister did was to visit China,” the guide concluded.
Tonkin, which was the old name for this area, literally means eastern capital in Chinese, Beijing being the northern capital. Vietnam’s oldest institution of learning is the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. It was a Confucian academy. On its portal we saw a carp and a dragon. “The carp eventually becomes dragon, in Vietnamese beliefs,” our guide said. “Here the carp represents the freshmen at the Academy, but it also meant Vietnam. We dream of becoming like the four dragons, which are China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Carp can only swim but dragon could do several other things too.”
Inside the Temple of Literature were 82 steles, each stone tablet marking the accomplishments of one of the best students. They had been chosen, in the Chinese Mandarin tradition, for high administrative posts by the emperor as long as Hanoi remained the capital. Our guide said: “These remaining steles are national treasures, our most valuable. They have defined our national identity since the 14th cent.” The steles were each on a turtle which signified “patience.” Over the turtle in the steles was the design of a crane “which symbolized heaven,” the guide said. In the crane’s mouth was a pearl which was “for longevity. When we die they put a pearl in our mouth” the guide said.
In a Hanoi art gallery later that day I bought two hand colored pictures from a French newspaper (Le Petit Journal, Supplement Illustre), dated July 28, 1895. One depicted the imaginary scene of testing in “Tonkin,” perhaps in the Temple of Literature itself. A handful of students were sitting on the ground engaged in Chinese calligraphy while three proctors in raised towers hovered over them and two more walked among them. The formalistic education of the Vietnamese Mandarins exposed them to charges of being greedy fools, a dominant theme of Vietnamese humor as told in the Trang Lon (Doctor Pig) stories. The second picture from the same edition of the French Journal juxtaposed the examination of young women in France. A woman was at the black board drawing geometric shapes. The Vietnamese no longer use Chinese characters. Our guide could not read the writing on the stele, his cherished national heritage. At that cost, Vietnamese is now written in the easier Latin script, unlike Laos and Cambodia where the script is still “like worms,” in our guide’s opinion. The change in Vietnam was brought about by the French missionaries; they did not target the other two countries of Indochine.
The picture of the man who gets credit for “inventing” Romanized Vietnamese as a national script, a French Jesuit priest called Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660), was in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology  which we visited next. The French had not been especially careful in distinguishing the diversity of the Vietnamese population of 54 ethnic and linguistic groups. The Museum labeled as the “Kinh Coran,” a Qur’an in the Arabic script of Kufi on palm leaves, which was in fact a Cham artifact rather than a Kinh (the specific Vietnamese ethnic group). While the Kinh pushed the Chams southward, the other minorities represented in the Museum had been mostly pushed up the mountains.
A striking example was the arts of the Giarai, now of the central Highland in Vietnam. The sexually explicit carvings and those of pregnant women encircling a Giarai tomb] on display in the Museum were symbols of fertility for Austronesians, a linguistic group originally from the Southeast Asian islands.
The prominent esthetic legacy of France in Hanoi are the wide leafy boulevards and the old colonial style houses which are mostly in the neighborhood emanating from the central plaza that is anchored by the venerable Opera House and the Metropole Hotel. Around the corner was the Faculty of Chemistry of the Hanoi University of Science, established by the French in 1904, where the students’ dining room still consisted of long tables and short stools outdoors in an alley.
Ho Chi Minh
Our guide said of the French that they came to Vietnam “with Bible in one hand and a sword in the other hand.” That pretty much summarized the sentiment of resistance they met here. Hanoi was the capital of the French Indochina and its Government House here was their seat of power. When Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France in 1945, he refused to move into that building, saying that “the Government House smelled of Colonialism,” our guide said.
The most successful resistance to France came from the Communists who were first organized by Ho in 1925. They were also the group that put up a serious resistance to the Japanese occupier in WW II, and defeated the French efforts to reassert control after the war and the American campaign following the French. “We all love Ho, even the Southerners who fought him,” our guide said when we were touring the abode that Ho chose instead of the imposing Government House. The bare and austere bedroom , dining room, and office could not be simpler. Even after Ho moved to a stilt house next door in 1958, the rooms were no less modes. This was one place where we saw many Vietnamese visitors: old women, students, be-medaled people who were mostly teachers and veterans.
Ba Dinh Square where Ho read Vietnam’s declaration of independence is now the site of a lotus-shaped mausoleum bearing his mummified body which is refreshed by Russian technicians every September. This is against Ho’s wish as he wanted to be cremated and his ash divided three ways in north, south, and central Vietnam, symbolic of his cherished unification. For their alternative vision, Ho’s successors had designed an exacting protocol. As we entered the mausoleum to see Ho we were instructed not to stop, laugh, have our hands in pocket, or take pictures. To enforce these admonitions there were uniformed soldiers, notably taller than the average Vietnamese, and men in black suits. A woman ahead of me was told to take her hands out of her pocket. Ho’s body lay with his arms on his sides in a recessed area. Four soldiers stood on his corners. A flag of Vietnam and a flag with a hammer and sickle were on poles above his head.
Outside, a banner hung on the face of the mausoleum recalling a saying by Ho: “Nothing is more important than liberty and freedom”. On the left of the Mausoleum was this writing: “Long live the Socialist Republic of Vietnam;” on the right: “Ho Chi Minh lives forever in our memory;” and in the middle on the top the man was identified as 'President Ho Chi Minh’.”
“In Vietnam some make Ho to be a saint,” our guide said. “They even say ‘he did not ever need to go to toilette.” The guide continued, “There are rumors that the current Secretary General of the Communist Party is Ho’s son from a mistress. But there is no proof.” Ho was a celibate and told his countrymen that they should not do “two things as I did: smoking and being celibate,” our guide concluded. That night, in the book Reminiscences of Ho Chi Minh by 21 of his Vietnamese comrades, I read the following summation by the sole French contributor: “Ho Chi Minh was possessed of these virtues of the Vietnamese people to a high degree: he was modest, frugal, hardworking; he tilled the land like a farmer and caught fish like a fisherman. His (sic) incontested authority came from his political acumen as well as the example he set.”
The guards at the Metropole were shooing away street vendors from the front of the hotel as its Western guests walked to the row of cyclos which would take them to see the city that once was Ho’s capital. By far the biggest building in sight now was the Ministry of Finance. The center of commerce still was the “the Guild District” with clusters of shops selling the same merchandise. Food was served on the low stools of red and blue on the sidewalk. McDonald’s was expected soon to open where Bobby Chinn, a long-time favorite restaurant of the American expatriates, used to be. The Vietnamese receptionist at the Metropole was delighted with this development: “about time!” she said. The visiting matron from Bryn Mawr turned to me: “Such gentle people; despite the war they are so nice to us.” There is already a Hilton Hotel in Hanoi. I did not see the more famous “Hanoi Hilton” that housed the prisoners of the American War. Instead, on the way to the airport we stopped at a marker by the lake which indicated where John McCain’s plane had crashed. He was saved from the threatening mob by an elderly man who insisted on leaving the matter in the authorities’ hands. As the guide related this story, he said that the U.S. also refrained from bombing the dikes that would have surely drowned many in Hanoi.
Copyright © 2009 Keyvan Tabari. All rights reserved.
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