Thursday, November 08, 2007

Memories of Hanoi

A few months ago, I wrote a travel blog about my thoughts on Paris, since then I have yet to follow it up. With my most recent personal travel news, I have a new interest in traveling once more. So as a logical transition from Paris, I go to the capital of a former French colony, Hanoi, Vietnam.

I went to Vietnam last May, with the group of Nipissing students who I went to China with. From the second we arrived in Hanoi, I knew that I was in a place that was very, very different than anywhere else I had been before. It felt like a strange mixture of the hustle of Beijing, the charming grime of Paris, and the small-town feel of Eastern Toronto, and I liked it.

On of the city's most dubious of features was very obvious as the bus pulled in. Hanoi has horrible traffic. Our speeding bus slowed to a crawl as we entered the city limits. While in the sedentary position, we looked out to see a variety of speeding motorcycles and scooters weave between the standing traffic, a sight we would become all too familiar with.

After settling into our hotel, a few of us decided to head out and explore. We soon realized that crosswalks were either not present or merely a suggestion. I weaved between speeding cars, dodged motorcycles, stepped past scooters, and watched jaw-dropped as Vietnamese pedestrians navigating it all with ease. After calming myself and checking my pulse, I contemplated sleeping in a nearby park to avoid having to cross the street again to return to my hotel.

The next day, our group went to see some pretty phenomenal sites. We started out the day by going to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (pictured). If going to see the embalmed corpse of a communist leader is not enough of a cultural experience, there was a strict protocol to follow. First off, we had to leave all of our cameras, mp3 players, and cell phones with our guides since they were not allowed, and our bags were strictly searched. Secondly, there were guidelines for women’s dress, as they were not allowed to be showing their knees. A few of the girls traveling with us had to go and get their coats and wrap it around their waist to make it appear that they were wearing longer skirts. Lastly, and most shocking of all, the guards had guns. Not just guns, but big ones, with foot-long bayonets on them. All of the tourists had to line up in a staggered double file to fit as many of through the mausoleum as possible. As we entered, there we were told to be quiet and get our hands out of our pockets by threatening-looking signs, and even more threatening-looking guards.

The body itself was a pretty surreal sight. As a history-geek, I took a special interest in the Vietnam War, so seeing the body of one of the key players was a simply fascinating experience. He was flanked by several guards, with several more standing along the walkway. At one point, I slowed down to soak the sheer bizarreness of the moment, but I felt a very firm grip come on my arm, as I was moved to my rightful spot in the line. Judging by the size of the man attached to that arm, and the size of his gun, and the size of the gun’s bayonet, I realized that arguing with him was a bad, bad idea.

After leaving the Mausoleum I walked around surrounding grounds, which features the old Presidential Palace (pictured), Ho Chi Minh’s House and the On Pillar Pagoda. All very cool, but I felt that I didn’t appreciate it quite so much, since I was still absorbing my earlier experiences.

As amazing as the Mausoleum was, it really had nothing on my next stop, the Vietnam Military History Museum. The museum chronicles Vietnamese military history, with special focus on their War of Independence with the French and their war with the Americans.

The courtyard outside of the museum completely set the tone. There was an old tank and fighter jet silently guarding the entrance. There were plaques beside each of the military vehicles outlining each of their terms of duty and stating precisely how many French or American soldiers they killed and when. Growing up in a military town, I have seen all sorts of things like this, any old WWII plane has a swastika for every German they have shot down, but it somehow never occurred to me that a Vietnamese plane would have a star for each American plane they shot down (pictured).

As I entered the museum, things got even more surreal. I was absolutely amazed at the quality and quantity of relics and information presented. There were old battle plans, letters from the French Generals, and a variety of military equipment. What blew my mind even more was the incredible detail that they placed on everything. An old spear had a plaque said “Used to kill one black French soldier, and one white French solider”, while a helmet riddled with bullet holes (pictured) said “A sign of the inefficiency of the French”.

You would think that would be enough to digest right? Well then you would oddly be mistaken as the most startling part came soon afterwards. After you go through the museum you enter the back yard, which houses even more military artifacts, including artillery, tanks, and most obviously, a giant amount of wreckage from an American fighter that was shot down (pictured). There was a plaque outlining exactly when this plane was shot down and who was piloting it. It was interesting to see the wreckage juxtaposed with the anti-aircraft guns.

After wandering around the yard for a while, I came across the most somber section of the exhibition, a collection of bombs dropped by the Americans. There were easily a hundred bombs all supported on poles to walk around with. In the middle there was a large plaque with some frightening statistics. It mentioned how many bombs were dropped on Vietnam, and breaks it down even further to saying how he amount dropped per square kilometer, and the amount dropped per North Vietnamese man, woman and child. Later on it states how many people were killed and how many children were left orphaned. Then it goes onto explain how many people were left with permanent defects as a result of the defoliants used during this time as well.

Now I had read similar statistics before, but to read them surrounded by the bombs dropped in the place they were used made the statistics more than just numbers. History came alive. I commemorated it like someone commemorates any new life. I cried.

I realize that a downer like that is a strange way to encourage a new place to someone, but if you want to see history come alive and be able to put a place to some of the darkest moments of the twentieth century, then I could not recommend Vietnam enough to you. Even if you are not the history geek that I am, there is still a ton to do around there, and the weather is gorgeous, the people are great, and the food is terrific. What more could you want really?

Until next time,


Appendix: Links

Lonely Planet Info on Hanoi

Hostel World - Always Helpful
VietnamPix - A PHENOMENAL site dedicated to the Vietnam War

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