January 19, 2006
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
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
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
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
Respond to these posts
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