The new North Vietnam

A visit to Hanoi and environs reveals the complicated legacy of the war.

Topics: Travel, Asia,

Here was the plan: two leisurely weeks in North Vietnam. We’d explore Hanoi, sampling the local cuisine and sipping sweet coffee at lakeside cafes. When the city got oppressive we’d visit the northern hill tribes, or bask on the beaches of spectacular Halong Bay. I’d even brought my astronomical binoculars, hoping for an unadulterated look at some stars.

A word to the wise: Never go to a communist country to relax. For a cultural awakening, absolutely. For an education, definitely. But not to relax.

Why should this have surprised us? What were we thinking? At what point in their history, Diane and I wondered in retrospect, did the Viet Cong have time to mix up a few mai tais and sun themselves by the pool? And why on Earth should an American’s visit to North Vietnam be any more relaxing than a visit by O.J. Simpson to his in-laws?

But here, as travelers invariably discover, lies the Great Yankee Paradox. Never mind that we conducted a secret war here, backed a coup there or refused to buy a country’s papayas for 30 years. Most foreigners (with the exception of a few Muslim clerics and beret-capped fanatics) are actually quite happy to see us.

Vietnam in particular has enjoyed a renaissance of relations with the West. For the past 10 years the country has been a hot tourist destination; not just for budget travelers, but for Vietnam veterans as well. Buddhist monks such as Thich Nhat Hanh have led retreats during which American soldiers meditate on forgiveness with their former Viet Cong adversaries. News like that, I think, makes it possible to believe in evolution.

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We taxied into town from Noi Bai airport in the late afternoon, on a hazy gray day when the world looked as bleak as a communist chalkboard. It was January, and we suddenly recalled how cold Asia can get. The first thing we did was head for the Old Quarter, starting at Hoan Kiem — the Lake of the Magic Sword — and wandering north, into a maze of streets and markets that awaken visions of old Shanghai.

The Old Quarter is a place of cells, districts of enterprise where hyperspecific goods spill from open storefronts and crowd the sidewalks. We strolled, amazed, through enclaves selling tombstones, pith helmets, xylophones, paper clothes (burned to benefit one’s ancestors), Ray Bans, whole roasted pigeons and plastic fighter planes. One entire block is devoted to bamboo ladders; another to tinned cookies.



By nightfall we knew Hanoi would be no place for astronomy; we’d have to find an alternate evening activity. Coincidentally, the Old Quarter’s worst source of light pollution was our best bet for the night. On the north shore of Hoan Kiem, emblazoned with candy-colored neon marquees, stands the Thanh Long Water Puppet Theater.

As the late show was sold out, we ducked into the 6:30 performance. At the front of the room was an artificial pond, surrounded by colorful curtains and a sort of miniature village. A platform stage to the right supported four musicians, sitting behind traditional Vietnamese instruments.

The lights fell, and the haunting strains of a dan bau — a one-stringed instrument with a sound as otherworldly as a theremin’s — filled the theater. One by one, the water puppets emerged: brightly lacquered human and animal figures that seemed to be suspended on the pond. They unfurled banners, spewed fireworks and created general havoc. No puppeteers were visible; the troupe stood in knee-deep water behind the backdrop, manipulating the figures with rods and pulleys concealed beneath the surface. There was an element of magic about the performance; indeed, the techniques of each troupe are closely guarded secrets.

Water puppetry is an art unique to Vietnam. It started centuries ago, and was originally performed in actual ponds. Unlike its cultural equivalents in India and Indonesia — all-night marathons that recount the great Hindu epics — water puppetry has no narrative thread. The entire performance, which took only an hour, was a series of disconnected vignettes. The program listed 17, including “Catching Frogs,” “Fairy Dance” and “Returning to the Native Land After College Graduation.”

The short skits were clearly intended for kids, and their manic energy, fireworks and simple themes reminded me strongly of their Western equivalent. “The Indonesian wayang kulit is to water puppets,” I remarked to Diane, “as Opera is to MTV.”

No story about Hanoi would be complete without mention of the traffic. It
is total chaos. Our host in the city was an old friend of mine, a
good-humored population education advisor named Don Chauls. Don has lived
in Vietnam for three years. During his three years in-country, Don has
compiled a long list of “Rules for Driving and Walking in Hanoi.” Here
are three of them:

  • All vehicles shall drive on the right side of the road at all times –
    unless the driver prefers to drive on the left side of the road.

  • Any vehicle that breaks down should stop immediately to be repaired. If
    it breaks down on the edge of the street, it should first be moved to the
    middle of the street.

  • Anyone may drive any type of vehicle, as long as he or she can almost
    reach the pedals.

The best way to get around Hanoi, we found, is by moto, or
motorcycle-taxi. In search of an authentic local teahouse — we’d read
about one called the Co Ngu, on the north shore of West Lake — Diane and I
hailed two motos and climbed aboard. Our drivers twisted their
throttles, and we began a wild ride that took us up side streets, down
alleys and along back roads where the day-to-day life of Hanoi was in
full swing.

We navigated districts selling only bird cages, and whole blocks where
crazy displays of suspension springs decorated storefronts like surreal
spiral sculptures. There were rows of silk flower stores, cane furniture
weavers, watchsmiths, whiskey sellers and dentists. We skirted the
dirty-diaper aroma of the durian markets and continued through a
spectrum of scents: clouds of incense, a fish market, vats of kerosene.
When we were finally dropped off, near the ancient Tran Quoc Temple on
West Lake’s east shore, we felt like the hero in H.G. Wells’ “The Time
Machine”: It seemed that centuries had passed before our eyes.

A half hour’s search brought us at last to a doorway with the words “Cat
Walk” over the lintel. Above the neon, the name Co Ngu appeared in
dark letters.

We climbed three flights of funky wooden stairs, arriving at a terrace
overlooking the lake. A bird cage hung from the rafters, along with some
paper lanterns advertising Tiger Beer. The view was superb. Just beyond
West Lake we could see White Silk Lake, where the Skyhawk piloted by Maj.
John Sidney McCain — later the U.S. senator from Arizona — was shot down
in 1967. McCain was a POW for more than five years. The plaque
commemorating his capture contains the only statue of an American remaining
in Vietnam, unless you count Mickey Mouse.

There was something oddly disconcerting about sitting at that cafe,
looking out over the lakes and skyline of Hanoi. Thirty years ago, the
idea of visiting this country was the most terrifying thought I could
harbor. Now here I was at a North Vietnamese tea house, drinking rice
liquor and dispensing American dollars in a city that my government had
tried to annihilate. Often, in Vietnam, the shame of American folly is
almost too painful to bear.

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-

On the five-hour boat trip to Cat Ba Island, we saw a speedboat pass by
in the distance. It bounced along the surface of Halong Bay like a
flying fish, sending up showers of spray.

The two-dozen travelers aboard the Cat Ba ferry watched it from the
prow.

“Typical tourists,” an Aussie backpacker smirked.

“What sort of person,” I remarked, “takes a speedboat through scenery
like this?”

“Wave to them,” an Italian suggested.

We did. But we couldn’t see their reactions; the hydrofoil’s windows
were tinted.

“Magical” and “immense” are words typically used to describe Halong Bay,
a vast preserve of scattered karst islets lying on the Gulf of Tonkin,
125 miles northeast of Hanoi. A great place, our guidebook chortled, “for
swimming, caving and diving, not to mention enjoying fresh seafood.”

That would be in the summer. In January the sky was pewter gray, and a
thin drizzle soaked through our parkas. Even so, the islands were
lovely, like a scene out of an Asian fairy tale.

Most tourists take day cruises among the beautiful and mysterious islets,
which tower above Halong’s waters like a pirate’s wet dream. Some boats
allow passengers to visit the most scenic caves and explore the prettier
islands, which often conceal green lakes or lush jungles within their
cores. But Diane and I, intrepid travelers that we were,
signed on for two nights on Cat Ba, the largest of the islands. The
package tour included all connections, two nights’ accommodation, meals
and a hike through Cat Ba National Park. With luck the weather would
clear — and I’d get in a night of serious stargazing.

Imagine our surprise when we turned into the harbor and beheld the
lights of Cat Ba Town. A wall of cement blockhouse hotels towered above
the promenade, clearly inspired by Soviet gulag architecture. Celine
Dion blared from karaoke bars and the coital thump of a dredging
machine echoed off the hills. Rain or no rain, there would be no stars;
a pall of fluorescence washed out the sky.

We settled into our room, a hot-pink cubicle with a spectacular view of
the dredging machine. Though dinner was included, Diane and I broke from
the group. We wandered the waterfront in search of local color. Since it
was offseason, most of the eateries were empty. We found one with an
imaginative menu and ordered marinated fish, pumpkin curry and french
fries. The proprietor took our order, set two raw potatoes on the
kitchen counter and fled.

An hour later, we sent a search party out to look for him. He’d caught a
fish, but had found no pumpkins. We fried the potatoes ourselves, and
washed them down with a bottle of Dox whiskey: the world’s best
sleeping pill.

The following morning we set off on a group hike through the national park.
It had rained during the night. The trail up to the viewpoint in the
national park was a slippery slope, lined with razor-sharp stones that
tore the rubber off our sneakers. We clung to wet branches and vines for
support, sweating in our rain jackets. For the length of the hike we
were followed by two local women clutching covered buckets. They never
left our sides, pausing when we paused and waiting when we tarried.
“They’re probably carrying first-aid supplies,” Diane half-joked.

At the last moment they hurried ahead, reaching the summit before us. As
we struggled onto the peak, anticipating a view over the cloud-shrouded
archipelago, they thrust the contents of the buckets squarely into our
faces.

“Hello? You drink Coke? Yes? You drink Coca-Cola? Hello? Cheap price.
Hello?”

During the bus ride back to town, Diane and I stared through the fogged
windows. We were wet, cold and covered with scrapes and mud. Best of
all, we had another 30 hours on the island. Diane turned to me. “Are
you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I think I am.”

Riding the speedboat away from Cat Ba Island, we saw an outbound ferry
pass by in the near distance. Several dozen backpackers stood huddled
on the prow, watching us with droll amusement. They waved at us; we had
a pretty good idea what they were saying.

We waved back, but they couldn’t see us; the speedboat’s windows were
tinted.

North Vietnam’s reconciliation with the West is nothing short of
phenomenal. To get some sense, imagine Mecca overrun with Jewish
tourists. (This sort of fence mending has certainly not occurred with
the bordering Chinese, whom the Vietnamese still despise with a
millennia-old passion. Had JFK’s policy makers appreciated this fact,
they might have avoided the conflict altogether.)

The other great irony of Vietnam is that — economically speaking — the south
actually won. Capitalism reigns supreme. New Hondas jam the streets,
and vest-pocket tour agencies fill Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The grounds of
the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” long a prison for Vietnamese nationalists
(under the French) and downed U.S. airmen (under the Viet Cong) is now
the site of a high-rise business center. If America’s goal was to make
the world safe for Coca-Cola, we succeeded.

Nonetheless, the political victory of the Viet Cong was a miracle of
military determination. The more one reads, the more astonishing was
their courage and ingenuity.

The cornerstone of the north’s victory was, pure and simple, the
leadership of Ho Chi Minh. An indelible nationalist from his 20s
on, Ho traveled broadly. He spoke six languages and worked at all kinds
of jobs: sailor, waiter, photographer and journalist. A lifelong
activist, he spent years in and out of prison. In 1945 he returned to
Vietnam and proclaimed the country a democratic republic. But his
appeals for help to France, the United States and the United Nations were ignored — and
his lifelong struggle to unite Vietnam began in earnest.

A visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is an essential stop for any visitor
to Hanoi. Not just to understand the mind-set of the Vietnamese, but to
witness exactly who the Americans wished to destroy.

Our chaperoned group left from a waiting room in Ba Dinh Square, where
Ho Chi Minh made his historic 1945 speech. We proceeded silently, in
single file, through a lot, along a sidewalk and into the mausoleum
itself. Led up a flight of stairs, we entered the cool, darkened
chamber where Ho’s body is preserved.

There is something truly awe-inspiring about seeing Ho Chi Minh in the
flesh. Here is the man who, leading the most tenacious fighting force
the world has known, fought off the combined might of the world’s
superpowers for 35 years. Boc (“Uncle”) Ho lies in a
transparent casket, with beams of light focused on his face and hands. It’s
no miracle that the body of Vietnam’s greatest hero, 30 years dead,
looks so fresh; every fall, the corpse spends two months in Moscow for
touch ups.

The atmosphere in the tomb was stern and ethereal. Three poker-faced
guards kept us moving; their bayonets gleamed in the low light. But
there was plenty of time to examine the body, which was dressed in a
clean white tunic. Diane nudged me; somehow, Ho’s jacket seemed to be
missing a button.

The path from the mausoleum leads onward through the compound, passing a
lotus-filled fish pond and winding through a grove of palm and mango trees. We
soon arrived at the “House on Stilts” — perhaps the most tasteful lodging
ever inhabited by a head of state.

Ho chose not to live in the Presidential Palace, with its Edwardian
architecture and colonial vibes. In 1958 he built this traditional
abode, perched on tree-trunk pillars. On the open-air ground floor,
between the pillars, rests a long conference table surrounded by 10
chairs and three telephones. This was the “war room” from which Ho
strategized against the Americans. His bedroom and study are upstairs,
surrounded by a long porch. There is nothing ostentatious about this
home, where Ho Chi Minh lived nearly until his death, at age 79, in
1969.

I’d tarried by the open windows of Ho’s study, hoping to see the
portable typewriter upon which he’d typed his Declaration of
Independence. Somehow, the guards lost track of me. The rest of the
group was well ahead when, descending the stairs, my foot struck
something beneath the edge of the runner. It rolled out. Unable to
believe my eyes, I bent down and hid it in my pocket.

It was an hour later when, far from Ba Dinh Square, I reached into my
jacket to show Diane what I’d found: a single silver button, emblazoned
with eight tiny stars.

“My God,” she gasped. “Do you think it’s …?”

“Probably not,” I shrugged. “But it’s the first constellation I’ve seen
in Vietnam.”

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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