Vietnam & Cambodia travel blog

Hanoi from the window of the hotel restaurant

Ten percent of Vietnamese are Catholic thanks to the French




Dance lessons around the lake




Ti chi

In and around the French Quarter


The Opera House, built by the French







Herbal apothecary

Herbal medicines

The metal street, each street offers a different product









Ha, our guide

This morning we visited a different part of the city. We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and the French Quarter. The lake is in a more upscale part of the city and is a widely used park. At 7:30 am the park was sprinkled with older people doing tai chi to wake their bodies up, small groups of friends visiting on benches and walking together, many people walking their dogs off lease; everyone enjoying the beautiful morning. In one area was an outdoor tai chi class, and in another was a group learning partner dancing to music! Apparently outdoor dancing lessons is a “thing”. In another area of the park instructors had their own booth and music, demonstrating their steps with an invisible partner, hoping for a student to hire them.

In the middle of the lake is a temple. Everything has symbolic and metaphorical meaning which I love to learn. The numbers 5, for the elements and 4, for the seasons, and 9 for the combination, are used a lot in architectural design. The tiger, a symbol of bravery and strength is king of the forest/land. In ancient times the forests and jungle were filled with tigers and hunters would tattoo their faces to look like the devil and scare the tigers away. The dragon, a combination of crocodile and snake, both were plentiful in the rivers, is king of the water. Fisherman would paint dragon faces on their boats to scare them away. The Phoenix is also an important symbol (but I don't remember for what). So these animals are painted, carved and tiles in most ancient structures. The large tortoise has a prominent place in the store of this lake and was tasked with the job of bringing back a sword on its back ( gash, I wishes I could remember these stories in more detail!)

The French quarter seems to be the cultural, business and luxury shopping area. The boulevards are open and airy, unlike other parts of the city that feel dark, gritty and cramped. Some buildings are sleek and modern, others clearly French, and on the side streets two and three story upscale but warn looking shops, restaurants and many coffee shops with apartments above. The Opera house is an impressive stately building. Weirdly I later we were in the Hoa Lo Prison ( dubbed the Hanoi Hilton by the Americans) and saw it in a grainy black and white photograph of war time, bombed out Hanoi. The war torn history of Vietnam Nam, peeks its weary head out in so much of what we see and learn.

Our next stop was the Hoa Lo Prison. Only one section is preserved, the majority of rhe sight is now a high rise apartment. The Prison was built in the 1890’s by the French and was as stark and inhuman as you would imagine. During the “American” war it housed the downed American fighter pilots, including John McCain. A huge photo essay illustrated the devastation of the bombings and the relatively good treatment of the pilot prisoners (accurate or glorified?). It is haunting to be reminded of that black time in our history and be standing at the site of our misdeeds. The tone of the exhibit was on making sense of the past and moving on. I am so curious about the Vietnamese people’s feelings about Americans and the war, but it doesn't feel like a question I can ask or that would get a honest answer. I suspect the feelings are very complicated as we bombed brutally but also bring millions of dollars into the country as tourists.

This trip is evoking many complicated thoughts and feelings about tourism and travel. The flight from Hanoi to Hue was on a large plane filled exclusively with tourists, almost all white westerners. In fact the whole airport was the same demographic as was the flight to Hanoi. Tourism is the primary economic booster and has boomed in the past 15 yrs, particularly as air travel from the west got easier and less expensive. I think about my own interest in travel; learning about and witnessing other cultures. At times it feel voyeuristic, like the third world is a big amusement park for the wealthy, myself included. We help your economy, in return we get to gawk at your poor people. That dark view is softened by also feeling our guides’ genuine (I think, but you can never really tell) proud desire to share their culture, to have us understand and appreciate it. I also know that they rely on my tourist dollars so I try to buy local handicrafts from shops rather than stores, and tip liberally. I also try to reserve any judgements, to approach each situation with a “beginner’s mind”.

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