Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 20, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi

January 20

Today, we visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum area, including the "house on stilts," where Uncle Ho lived from 1958 until his death in 1969. The mausoleum itself was closed on Friday mornings, so we didn't get to see the body. Too bad. One member of the group was particularly disappointed because she had already seen Lenin and Mao. I guess she wanted to complete the trifecta, or, as Jeff Scheuer said, "the three Red stiffs." We'll try again on Sunday.

Hanoi is strikingly different from HCMC—much wealthier, fewer beggars, more cars, better sidewalks, taller buildings, better roads, etc. To the victors go the spoils, I guess, even though the claim is that "Viet Nam defeated foreign aggressors" rather than "North Viet Nam defeated South Viet Nam." Unification in 1975 apparently did not mean equalization of the wealth and power, although there's still a lot being spent on infrastructure in the South, such as a new airport terminal at Than Son Nhut. It's pretty clear that, as a economic engine, the South is stronger, but the seat of government is here, and that counts for a lot.


I saw my first firearm in Viet Nam here in Hanoi, which makes sense because it's the national capital and there are several military installations in the city—including a large military reservation in the middle of the city, not far from the mausoleum. Several such installations were guarded by solders with Kalishnikovs and sidearms, although the ordinary police (we saw very few overall) are not armed. In fact, the Presidential Palace—or Yellow House—was guarded by two uniformed men with white batons and whistles, just to keep the tourists behind a couple of thin barriers.

The president of Viet Nam does not live at the palace, however, using it only for meetings and receptions. He lives in a residential neighborhood a few blocks away, following the example of Ho Chi Minh, who refused to live in a palace, preferring a three-room house on stilts near a lake nearby. We toured this simple home, built in the country style, and saw where Uncle Ho spent the last 11 years of hi life.

We also toured the Temple of Literature, a complex of buildings and gardens in the middle of the city that served as a Confucian "university" in the days of the imperial examinations for mandarins. (The Vietnamese had an examination system similar to that in China.) It is a lovely oasis of quiet, with a Confucian temple and many fine old buildings behind high walls that block much of the noise of Hanoi.


There, we heard a history lecture by a Professor Ngoc—one of the highlights of the trip. He's 82 years old and has seen much of the modern history of Viet Nam, and, in one hour, he gave an account of the whole sweep of the country's past, with excellent use of a large white board to draw maps, make connections between ideas, and list the key points of the talk. He has traveled widely, written books in Vietnamese, French, German, and English. His final point was that Viet Nam is at a crossroads where economic security and "progress" in the Western sense are in a delicate balance with the preservation of the culture. He was not optimistic about the latter, yet he seemed to think that his people would ultimately get it right. I hope so.

January 21

Today, we rode a bus for nearly 4 hours to go about 120 miles to Ha Long, where we cruised for about 2 hours on a "junk" in Ha Long Bay. It was a little foggy, so I didn't take a lot of pictures, but here are a few examples.

Why did it take us 4 hours to go 120 miles? Driving is very slow on two-lane roads crowded with motorbikes, trucks, cars, livestock, railroad crossings, etc. (We stopped twice for the same little narrow-gauge train.) So you creep along at about 25 miles per hour. The bus also stopped at a craft center—once each way—where we could buy stuff. Most of us dutifully purchased a souvenir or two.


We got back to the hotel about 7:30 p.m. The long days are wearing on everyone, but the Viet Nam part of the trip is almost at an end and about half the group will return to the States tomorrow. The rest of us will go on to Cambodia for a few days to visit the temples at Angkor. I feel like we're about to turn some far away corner and start back home.


January 22

Several of us went back to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum this morning and stood in line to file past Uncle's body. It was waxen, like a Madame Tussaud figure, but very powerful nonetheless. I can report that Uncle Ho is emphatically dead and looks as if he will stay that way. The military honor guards stationed at the four corners of his bier were so stiff and straight at attention that I thought they too were wax figures. Strict decorum was enforced, and you had to keep moving. It was weird. Ann Schneider '55 was with me; she took the trifecta, having seen all three of the Red stiffs. Sorry, but there are no pictures of Ho. Security was tighter here than at any of the Vietnamese airports we have passed through.

Steve Hopkins is fascinated by the cult of Ho and how it fits into the traditional ancestor and hero worship of the South Asian religions, particularly the Taoist practices. Buddhists venerate heroes too. In a pagoda in Hue, we saw the automobile that carried the Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in 1963 when he burned himself to death on the street. (The famous photo was taken by Swarthmore alumnus Malcolm Browne '52.) His fellow monks had built a special shrine to house the car and photos of Duc. So the veneration of Uncle Ho—against his expressed wishes to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the three regions of Viet Nam—is not surprising in this context.

Today, 18 of us went on to Cambodia, including my roommate, Koof Kalkstein (have you been following his blog at http://kooftravels.blogspot.com?), although he is going to be touring with his own private guide. Our guides here have been great, with the possible exception of one in Hue. She was bossy and strident, and her English was spoken in a mechanical monotone that, although understandable if you concentrated, lacked intonation. I found this strange, because Vietnamese is all about intonation—it is a five-tone language: flat, down, up, up-down, and down-up. Depending on the tone, a word means different things. The historian who lectured to us the other day, Professor Ngoc, joked that one of the other meanings of his surname, if mispronounced, is "idiot."

I'll close this section with a few additional views of our time in Hanoi. My next report will come from Cambodia in a day or two.


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

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