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Reflections on historical memory: Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 4 July 2011

Much more so than Thailand, Vietnam seemed to wear its past on its sleeve. When you think about it, the country has had a series of particularly unfortunate circumstances, between the French and American interventions. It’s pretty easy to see how those historical circumstances could lead to a strong sense of collective nationalism, resulting in the communism that tore the country’s economy apart in the ’70s. Though the government has taken a China-like tact since then, liberalizing the economy while maintaining tight authoritarianism politically, the nation’s socialist identity was evident from the moment we got our visas, which proudly proclaimed that we were welcome to one visit to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (It’s also worth noting that Vietnam was the only country that required us to get a visa.)

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On our first morning in Hanoi, during our first walk through the city, we walked by a statue of Lenin on our way to a museum celebrating the great things Ho Chi Minh did for the nation, leaving there for a museum of party-approved Vietnamese art. Though we didn’t appear to have minders watching us, it was still a pretty surreal feeling. The most interesting part to me about all that is that the value system it reflects: above all else, communism — but above that, communist leaders. Sure, the nation Lenin was running didn’t turn out hugely successful, but at least everyone was equal. Well, except for Lenin, who was even more equal. It’s a different sort of truth. Uncle Ho did do great things for the country, in a certain sense. Vietnam was able to become an independent socialist nation, and if that’s your standard of evaluation, then he did an excellent job.

Similarly, at the Hanoi Hilton, the total denial that the Vietnamese soldiers did anything untoward to their American prisoners isn’t exactly doing the country’s reputation any favors. We haven’t forgotten that terrible atrocities were committed in that prison, even if the prisoners did leave alive, and lying about it is repugnant as well. I’m not exactly sure what they should say in their little museum, but perhaps that’s why you shouldn’t torture people. Much of the prison has been demolished to make way for a high-rise; maybe they should have demolished the whole thing.

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Unfortunately, the country, which is the world’s 13th most populous at 90 million, appears to have remained totally underdeveloped. As soon as we drove away from the airport when we arrived, we were surrounded by rice patties separated by dense jungle reminiscent of any Vietnam War movie. Hanoi sprung up out of nowhere, starting with a few ramshackle buildings and growing into the dense center of the city, which wasn’t all that much more finished.

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Interestingly, this apparently proud and defiant national identity didn’t seem to be reflected in the city’s restaurant scene. We found that the best, most authentic Vietnamese food was to be had on the streets, not in the city’s fine restaurants. Perhaps this is just because the nicest restaurants are funded by outside investors with the purpose of attracting outside tourists, but it didn’t suggest a culture of exalted national cuisine. In fact, I get that impression more from Vietnamese restaurants back home, which very much embrace the idea of bringing out the best from Vietnam.

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Our time in Vietnam was fascinating in a very different way than any of our previous stops. Hong Kong and Thailand are changing, even dramatically, but neither had quite the sense of truly being at a crossroads that I got in Hanoi. As I read the latest from each of the countries we visited, I’ll have a very different perspective on all of them after having been there, but I’m particularly intrigued about what lies in Vietnam’s future. In the meantime, I’ll have great memories of some delicious food.

Visiting Hanoi’s past

Written by Emmy on 29 June 2011

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a complicated web of 36 winding streets, linked together to form a thriving marketplace. Unlike the wide boulevards in the newer part of the city — near the monuments and large hotels — the Old Quarter is crowded, hazardous to pedestrians, and filled with the sights and scents of local life.

On Thursday we took a walking tour to get a better feeling for the more traditional part of the city. We never found a map as great as our Thai ones, but the one advantage Vietnamese street signs have over their regional counterparts is their use of Roman script. Though we still found ourselves lost a few times, we could at least sound out the names of the streets where we were. The use of the familiar looking letters stems from Vietnam’s longtime colonization by the French, but they managed to throw in some of the strangest looking accent marks I have ever seen.

Our walk wove through tiny side streets, each specializing in the sale of a different product. One street sold tires, another sold toxic-smelling paint. We perused a row of stalls that all sold paper money for burning in religious ceremonies. Some streets were entirely dedicated to fruits, others to crabs and still-flopping fish. Many of the saleswomen were wearing my new favorite outfit, complete with a rice hat. And while making our way through the many shops, we narrowly avoided several encounters with rogue motorcycles.

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On one block, we saw three iPhone vendors and a small child being bathed in a basin on the street. It was contrasting moments like this that really reminded us we were in a developing nation. The exhaust streaming out from the motorcycles, the open air meat markets and uncovered fish, and the women carrying baskets of pineapple across their shoulders were also signs of the economy of yesteryear.

In Bangkok, we had been offered rides on a tuk-tuk at every turn. In Hanoi, locals were equally eager to get us onto their motorbikes. We declined, but everyone else in the city seemed eager to hop on board. Entire families on one bike, with small children sitting on the handlebars and babies crammed between two seated adults, were pretty typical. Though we saw an impressive number of adults wearing helmets, very few children were outfitted for safety. I read in one of our many online guides that ambulances in Hanoi can take at least 45 minutes to get to roadside emergencies because of the insane alleyways and motorbike traffic. Yikes. But despite the sheer insanity of the motorbike driving and their people-weaving skills, the whole system seemed to move pretty smoothly.

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In addition to our streetwalking, we also perused a large market. The first floor was filled with all sorts of interesting foods: entire stalls devoted to different mushroom varieties, barrels and barrels of dried shrimp, more raw meat, and beautiful, bright-colored fruits. The upstairs was packed with wholesale clothing and make-up, reminiscent of many of the other markets we’ve seen on our Asian journey.

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IMG_2841After spending the whole morning in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we paid a visit to the Hanoi Hilton in the afternoon. The Hoa Lo Prison was given its nickname during America’s war with Vietnam, but it was originally built by French colonists to imprison the local political opposition in the late 1800s. The French used the prison through the mid-1900s, keeping large numbers of Vietnamese men and women in — according to the Vietnamese — subhuman conditions.

Much of the prison was recently demolished for new development projects, but the wing that remains has been turned into a museum. The exhibits show the small cells that the Vietnamese were forced into, as well as evidence that they were abused by their French captors. The museum honors the many local political heroes who spent time in Hoa Lo.

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese army repurposed the prison to jail, torture and interrogate American pilots who had been shot down. From the museum exhibits, you would think the Americans — John McCain among them — were in summer camp. They made Christmas cards, wrote poems, played cards, joked with their captors and received excellent medical attention.

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From the Vietnamese perspective, it seems that life in the Hanoi Hilton was rather bucolic for the American soldiers. Memoirs written by the American pilots in the decades since would probably disagree.

It was also interesting that the Vietnamese took a prison that had jailed so many of their own people, and repurposed it for their own uses (and abuses). It definitely gives the whole establishment a bit more of an eery feeling.

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Reflections on historical memory: Hong Kong

Written by Chaz on 10 June 2011

As we explored Hong Kong, several things kept striking me about the contrasts we observed throughout the city. Hong Kong felt very much like it could have been any major Western city: it was cosmopolitan, busy, modern and vibrant.

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Of course, this is in large part because there are still so many holdovers from Hong Kong’s former life as a British colony. Some of these are obvious on the surface. Unlike the rest of China, one drives on the left side of the road in Hong Kong. Just like on the streets of London, flashing yellow globes atop lampposts warn drivers of a crosswalk. And many, even most, of the white people on the city’s streets that I thought might be American turned out to have British accents on closer inspection.

But there was also a more intriguing sense that the former dynamic of an external colonial master, so to speak, has not completely gone away since Hong Kong’s transfer back to China in 1997. The hordes of domestic helpers assembled all over the city on Sunday right away suggested a city in which there are plenty of people who have the means to take advantage of the ready availability of relatively inexpensive labor in their homes. And many of the street markets — in particular, the jade market, where dozens of stalls were selling the same wares at what cannot have been great margins — suggested that there is a large underclass of people barely scraping by. The low cost of taxis also suggested that, in spite of the city’s incredibly development, there still exists a big labor surplus.

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This stood in stark contrast to much of what we saw as we walked around in the city’s trendy central district, which contained outlets of nearly every upscale brand I’ve ever heard of. It was Gucci, Armani and Prada at every turn. Though we saw many, many Western brands, we did also visit one upscale Chinese store, Shanghai Tang. Western food brands like Starbucks and Subway are also all over the place. I imagine these stores cater to a mixture of wealthy expats and rich Chinese who come over from the mainland to shop. The contradiction between these beautiful, over-the-top shopping centers and parts of the rest of the city could not have been more stark. Even my aunt and uncle’s role in Hong Kong — working at an international school — illustrates the two worlds that collide in the city.

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In spite of all this, I also got a sense during our time in Hong Kong of the ancient majesty of its Chinese heritage. Both in the tranquil gardens we visited and in the chaotic dim sum restaurants, it was clear that Chinese culture permeates every part of the city, in spite of the overtones of colonialism that were evident in other ways. Food from every region of China can be found everywhere, from street carts to the finest restaurants, alongside the food of every other world cuisine, not least from the West. Interestingly, though Mandarin is so widely taught in the United States — and, in fact, it is the dialect of Chinese taught at my uncle’s school — Cantonese is the most popular language in Hong Kong, spoken by 91 percent of the population.

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Hong Kong was a great way to start our visit to Asia, not least because staying with my aunt and uncle was a much easier way to get accustomed to the time change and culture shock than if we had gone directly to a hotel. But it was also a fascinating introduction to the region’s rich cultural history. Seeing the vigil in the square and realizing we were technically in an area ruled by the oppressive Chinese government and then seeing the opulent malls, replete with dozens and dozens of escalators, that could have fit in on Fifth Avenue was an interesting lens for beginning to unravel this part of the world, and I couldn’t be more excited about the rest of our trip.