We started our journey through Vietnam in the north, in the capital city of Hanoi. We were excited to tour all the sights in Hanoi, as well as the opportunity to experience the vibrant city.
I'm not sure what we expected to see getting off the plane, but we were surprised to find a sprawling, vibrant, well-developed city. Evidence of communism is more subtle than we expected: the media is controlled, residents need a special permit to view CNN, foreigners need special permits to visit certain regions, and at a newly opened chain supermarket, import items we'd consider common-place drew big, excited crowds.
Our hotel was in Hanoi's "old quarter." We loved the old quarter's charming narrow streets, each of which specializes in a particular product, from toys to cookware to grave stones (yes, really!). We were lucky to be in Hanoi for Independence Day. The city filled past it's normally overcrowded state & the streets were jammed with people and motorcycles, and outdoor stages hosted singers and acrobatic acts. In the more residential areas people were burning paper replicas of material goods (money, clothing & even cars or motorbikes) for their ancestors.
We also visited the mausoleum, house, and museum of Ho Chi Min, a key figure in Vietnam's fight for independence -- the Vietnamese affectionately call him "Uncle Ho"! The mausoleum was a bizarre experience. We walked 2 by 2 in a long line, no stopping, no pictures, no talking around a large glass case containing Ho Chi Min's body on a bed. He looked unbelievably life-like, as if he could wake up if anyone made the slightest sound! Shhh. We learned that his body is sent to Russia for 3 months every year for "maintenance". We're not sure what this entails or why it takes so long, but having seen the results, we've come to admire Russia's art of preserving the dead. Uncle Ho's house was an austere two-roomed building set amongst a large, gorgeous garden, all of which was meant to convey how much he identified with and lived like the people. His museum was filled with surreal displays and baffling symbolism intended to rouse patriotism and convey propaganda -- typical displays included a gigantic table with fruit representing Vietnam's bright future, and an erupting volcano representing how Vietnam's hard-fought freedom was spreading to the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America! We would have never guessed this much without the English explanations!
From Hanoi, we took a day trip to one of the most famous pagodas in Vietnam, the "Perfume Pagoda", which is built inside a cave and is visited by tens of thousands of Vietnamese every year for Tet. Getting there was more interesting for us than the temple itself: we took a bus through rice paddies and small towns for an hour, then paddled in a canoe on a river in a picturesque valley for another hour, and finally hiked up lush, steep, and slippery hill slopes for a 3rd hour!
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