Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Northern Vietnam

Medicine Street, Hanoi
We stayed in the French Quarter, which is home to many young Vietnamese, has a funky and crowded vibe, and looks quite a bit like Williamsburg Brooklyn. The major difference is that no intersections have a stop sign or a stop light, and the continuous flow of cars and motorbikes weave together based entirely on nonverbals. Most drivers are pretty casual and nonagressive, but you get the occasional cab driver who lays on his horn from fifty feet out and doesn't let up until he's fifty feet past. He definitely has the right of way. The whole system is the equivalent of the Asian version of the Audubon: you've really got to know what you're doing. Each intersection also houses the Vietnamese fast-food equivalent. There is never a menu and the only decisions to make are chicken pho or beef pho and iced tea or beer. Pho is Vietnamese noodle soup, is usually made fresh, and you'll often see a full hoof or hind quarters right there, being scraped, and added piece by piece to the broth. There is no inside of the restaurant, it's all done on the tiny sidewalk area, and you sit on tiny little plastic chairs and pull up to a tiny plastic table. We ate at 10PM when traffic had died down a bit, and there were still over 40 other people crowded on our corner. It works. Anyways, to wrap up the intro, back in the day each of the 36 streets in this part of town sold a different good or service, and we stayed on Medicine Street. Free smells everywhere. The only relief was the lake (three blocks away). 

The History Books Tell It, They Tell It So Well
Put simply, Ho Chi Minh is a hero in Vietnam, and rightfully so. He is far from the Talking-John-Birch-Paranoid-Blues-style red scare demon propagated by the U.S. government. Not to say he didn't stand for a socialist style government, but he was hated and threatened by the west because he took a strong stand against western economic dominion, which had northern Vietnam lost the American War, would have essentially resulted in an extension of colonialism. As a baby, Ho Chi Minh was adopted into a middle class Vietnamese family and chose to work on a ship as a cook. By the time he was a young adult, having willingly traveled and worked around the world, he'd learned Vietnamese, Chinese, French, English, Russian, and some German. Among many other things, he organized the resistance to French colonialism (and won Vietnamese independence) and led North Vietnam through the American War (the Vietnam War). During the war, like any leader, he was forced to make very difficult decisions. His troops often abused their power, and of course we know U.S. troops (and leaders) are guilty of the same (take the U.S. Tiger Force for example). Atrocities are an inevitable byproduct of war, but we know that Ho Chi Minh led an effort that fought to not leave his own people behind. He fought for a style of development that isn't at the expense of the poor. Sure, Hanoi isn't Orange County, but it's not trying to be. There isn't a McDonalds at every street corner. The people aren't fat. Generally, the people are as warm and hospitable as the monks at SJU. They are resilient as hell and live in the present. Today, sun shines in Hanoi with a fond memory of Uncle Ho.

Temple of Literature
Just a couple photos from the very first university in Vietnam. Historians have preserved hundreds of limestone tablets with ancient characters teaching medicine to astrology. The thought-level was far ahead of its time and is reminiscent of Plato's Republic. This is the big Buddha. Families come from all over Vietnam to rub is right foot, praying for high marks for their children in school. We rubbed.

Hanoi Cuisine
Green papaya salad and an urban fish fry.

In a Wooden Boat in the Shipping Lane

We traveled straight east of Hanoi to the coast to a spot called Halong Bay. We hopped on a houseboat and cruised for two days amidst three thousand small islands that dot the waters. Caves (quite a bit more grandiose than Crystal Caves), sunsets, floating markets, hidden beaches, and each other. It's tempting to cancel the rest of our trip and keep floating here.