Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 19, 2006
Dateline Hanoi

Of all the places we have visited during this trip, I find Hanoi most fraught with emotion and association. Hanoi was the enemy, the seat of Communist power in Viet Nam, and the only city we will see that was bombed by American planes. (Unless you count the American planes flown by South Vietnamese pilots that destroyed Saigon's presidential palace after the fall of Ngo Dinh Diem.

I remember the severe bombings at Christmas 1972. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were determined to conclude the Paris negotiations and end direct American involvement in the war. So, as much to appease South Vietnam's leaders as to bring North Viet Nam to its knees, they began the last, most gruesome strategic bombing of the war. Now, here we are in Hanoi, where captured American pilots spent years at the "Hanoi Hilton" and the city was badly damaged—not only by the B-52 strikes of late 1972 but by years of tactical bombing against military installations, power stations, factories, railroads, highways, and bridges.


Thirty years after the end of the war, we saw no evidence of it—no pockmarked or bombed-out buildings, no broken bridges lying in rivers. Yet, despite the lack of physical evidence, the memory lingers. Amid the decorations and flowers with which the Vietnamese are marking Tet (the lunar new year is a week away), there are a surprising number of signs that also say "Merry Christmas." Merry Christmas indeed, I think, silently asking for expiation.

I am sitting in a hotel lobby lounge chair in the quiet of late evening. The Sofitel is festive with lots of red and gold. It's very modern—one of the tallest buildings in Hanoi and situated right along West Lake, which is where John McCain's plane fell in 1967. For reasons that escape me, the Vietnamese have erected a monument along the lakeshore commemorating McCain's capture. They misspelled his last name as "MCCAN," however.


We arrived in late morning and went straight to visit a beautiful old Taoist temple, where the Confucian religion is still practiced. In Viet Nam, the Taoist practice often venerates Confucius himself as a deity. The temple we saw is about 1,000 years old, and all about a huge statue of Confucius were fresh offerings made in memory of dead ancestors—including fruit baskets, bottles of vodka, piles of cash, boxes of cookies and sweets, pretty much anything anyone could ask for in the afterlife.

These Confucian temples are elaborately decorated and beautiful, but I like the Buddhist pagodas more. Even when they are highly decorated and full of images, there's a simplicity to their organization and architecture that is more calm and spiritual than the Confucian. Yet it all depends on the particular local practice, and, in a way, it's all good.

Lunch was a vegetarian meal at an 11th-century Buddhist temple in the heart of Hanoi. The simple but bountiful meal was one of the best we have had in Viet Nam. The pagoda occupied a rather large land area for the middle of the city, and I gathered that this place had been spared confiscation by the state that befell many religious sites after 1954. Certainly, there are fewer Catholic churches here than we saw in Ho Chi Minh City.


Hanoi seems to be much wealthier than the other cities of Viet Nam. The clearest evidence is found in the number of cars—many more than in the South. The streets and sidewalks are in better condition and there aren't quite as many aggressive hustlers on the street. More "real" jobs perhaps.

At dusk, starting with a visit to a modern four-storey shopping mall in the center of the commercial district (step inside, and you are instantly transported to New York or London) and a brief gawking visit to the famous bar at the Metropole (where we saw a photo of Graham Greene), a few of us explored the old city. This district has narrow, crowded streets full of food stalls and wares, with dozens of sellers of a single product concentrated in a single block or two. It was hard walking, dodging speeding motorbikes and hundreds more parked on the sidewalks.

About This Site

In January 2006, a 40-person contingent of Swarthmoreans is traveling to Vietnam as members of the Alumni College Abroad. The trip, led by Associate Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins, will focus on the history, religion, and the vibrant culture of contemporary Vietnam. A smaller contingent will accompany Hopkins to Cambodia, including a tour of the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, has joined the trip to write about it for the magazine. This site is a series of reports filed by Jeff from Vietnam and Cambodia during the trip. Your responses are invited.

Vietnam 2006 Itinerary

List of Travelers

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Blog Entries

Leaving Tomorrow: Jan 9, 2006
From 35,000 feet: Jan 11, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City: Jan 12, 2006
Museums of Vietnam: Jan 14, 2006
Temples and Tunnels: Jan 16, 2006
Stories and a Poem: Jan 17, 2006
Skipping School: Jan 18, 2006
Dateline Hanoi: Jan 19, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi: Jan 20, 2006
Winding Down: Jan 26, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh: Jan 27, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Jan 29, 2006