Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #69: Hanoi & Northern Vietnam: A Courageous People Have Arisen Again – Hanoi, Vietnam

#68: Hanoi & Northern Vietnam:
A Courageous People Have Arisen Again

13 NOV 2002
In Hanoi, Vietnam (Country 100)

I have arrived in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, after a 23 hour bus ride from Laos. And yes, what a world of motor bikes! Hanoi is full of them! Never seen any city with so many.

This is month 11 of my travels, and I am nearer to home than ever before. And guess what? Vietnam is also for me, the 100th country and political entity I have ever visited. Probably doesn’t mean much as the count includes some small (and a few large) countries where I didn’t spend a lot of time. Whatever – I feel great and ready to complete the rest of my journey through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and then home – Singapore!

21 NOV 2002
Charming Hanoians and Old Friends

Now back in Hanoi, I’m taking an overnight bus on Friday night to the central Vietnam city of Hue and should arrive Saturday morning.

Guess what happened at a highway toilet stop on the way to Halong Bay 2 days ago? I met my old Dresdner friend, Susana, and her husband! What a small world! They too, are travelling through Vietnam. We have since met up a few times.

The Vietnamese people are such a charming people. The hotel manager, despite messing up my room reservation arrangements, actually succeeded in persuading me to even part with a few more dollars for a more expensive room! (Few can normally succeed in such attempts). She charmed me further by telling me that she would be “so sad” that I was leaving Hanoi tomorrow, and she said in such a way that I briefly (well, by a few seconds) contemplated extending my stay! No wonder at least two guys I knew in uni have married Vietnamese women.

The Vietnamese people are culturally very close to the southern Chinese. I feel at home here. The food is great, and very similar to southern Chinese cuisine, and perhaps healthier. Their language is full of Chinese adopted words, and the locals often mistook me for one of them – until I begin speaking, at which point they recognise the Singapore accent immediately. They like Singaporeans too, and the numerous Singaporeans travelling and working here seemed to have impressed them. There is a lot of goodwill towards Singaporeans here.

With lots of Singaporeans, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, and a surprisingly large number of Mainland Chinese tourists and businessmen/investors, Mandarin Chinese appears to be the alternative foreign language here (i.e., almost as important as English). Many tourist attractions have Chinese signboards. As a Singaporean, I have had Vietnamese coming up to me to practise both Mandarin and English.

Vietnam is a rapidly emerging nation. Like China, the people are full of energy and entrepreneurial drive I have hardly seen anywhere else. They are also highly educated and disciplined, as well as endowed with a largely Confucianist work ethic. With a population of 80 million, I think this is an emerging Korea or Taiwan. Watch this nation. I think it will be a new economic power.

25 NOV 2002
Hanoi, Vietnam. Early morning mist, damp, dirty streets, plus that decaying smell of the tropics. I strolled along the Old Quarter’s Street of Bamboo (Hang Cot). It is one of the thirty-six ancient streets here, each of which was once home to thirty-six different trade guilds. I came to the Street of Chickens (Hang Ga), Street of Wooden Bowls (Bat Dan), Street of Baskets (Hang Bo) and then to the Lake of Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem) via the Street of Silk (Hang Dao).

Elderly Hanoians practise Vietnamese tai’chi on the banks of this beautiful willow tree-lined lake. According to legend, Emperor Ly Thai To returned a magical sword to a giant turtle sent by Heaven. He had used this sword to unify the Vietnamese people and to chase out invaders from Ming China.

I had a delicious bowl of beef pho (noodle soup) at a roadside stall along the Street of Silversmiths (Hang Bac), followed by a cup of caf� chon. This is the highest grade of Vietnamese coffee (Vietnam is now the world’s second-largest producer). It is made from beans fed to a rare species of weasels and then collected from its excrement. It might add a new meaning to the expression “shit coffee” but it certainly doesn’t taste anything like shit.

Ho Chi Minh, Father of Vietnam, proclaimed the independence of this country on September
2nd, 1945. Inspired by the American Revolution, Ho Chi Minh and his Vietnamese nationalists fought bravely for the freedom of their nation against the Japanese and later, the returning French colonialists. They had hoped to obtain American support for their righteous cause, but the United State had just entered the Cold War and regarded Ho Chi Minh and his nationalists as Soviet agents. Thus, it decided to side with the French. The rest is history.

Vietnam was faced with another nine years of fighting the French reconquest, followed by an additional thirty years of conflict, directly and indirectly with the U.S. During this second conflict, more than four million Vietnamese perished although the world largely remembers only the fifty eight thousand Americans who died. The nation was devastated – villages were bombed, no bridges remained in the northern half of the country and twenty percent of all land cover was damaged by conventional and chemical weapons. Two million Vietnamese continue to suffer from the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical weapons. This was an unfair war between a small country and an overwhelming power.

At peace for the first time in the past half century, Viet Nam’s new policy of economic reform and liberalisation is transforming the nation. The rice bowl of Asia is recovering. Investors have poured in to take advantage of its young and educated workforce. Like China, the people are full of energy and entrepreneurial drive. They are also highly educated and disciplined, as well as endowed with a staunch Confucianist work ethic. With a population of eighty million, this could be another Korea. Watch this country. It will be a new economic power in twenty years.

I arrived in Hanoi after a twenty-two-hour bus ride across the mountains from Vientiane, Laos. Hanoi, previously a notorious staid and a boring communist capital, is now a bustling boomtown. Flashy new restaurants and caf�s are everywhere. Numerous shops are packed with consumer goodies. What catches the immediate attention of the visitor, however, are the motorbikes. There are 1 million of them in a city of 2.5 million people! An expat told me that merely five years ago, this was a sleepy town noted for its bicycles. Now you could be run down by the motorbikes! They are everywhere and they have little respect for road signs and directions. Beware!

Even then, Hanoi remains a charming city. Its Old Quarter is full of two- to four-storey shop houses that remind me of those in many parts of Singapore’s pre-development. Ladies sell delicious noodle soup and local snacks, many of the latter found in the Singapore of my childhood. The traffic congestion, over-crowdedness, bad plumbing and poor hygiene conditions aren’t things that the locals enjoy. Some parts of the Old Quarter will have to go, and certain parts conserved for tourism and aestheticd. Let’s hope not too much of the old magic gets lost.

I visited the National History Museum, a monumental structure built by the French during the colonial days in proto-Vietnamese-Chinese architectural style. Over two thousand years of Vietnamese culture and history for the visitor!

The Vietnamese are a remarkable people. During the first millennium of their history, they were under Chinese rule. It was during this period that they adopted the Chinese written language, Chinese arts, religious beliefs and customs. Despite this, they have always been conscious of their ethnic separateness. They have rebelled many times finally succeeding in the 10th century in throwing out the Chinese. Since then, they have fought bravely against all invaders.

Their sense of nationhood spurred young men and women to work day and night under candlelight in the bunkers of the National History Museum copying as many of the ancient artifacts as they could while American bombers flattened much of Hanoi. This reminded me of the brave museum curators of Sarajevo who tried their best to preserve Bosnian history and culture while under the barbaric bombardment from Serbian forces.

Singaporeans and Vietnamese are culturally close. I feel at home here. The food is similar to southern Chinese cuisine. The locals often mistake me for one of them until I begin speaking. They like Singaporeans. We are one of the biggest investors here. Tiger Beer appears to be the dominant foreign beer and the locals are glued to Singapore soap operas (dubbed in Vietnamese) on prime-time television.

With lots of Singaporeans, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, and a surprisingly large number of Mainland Chinese tourists, businessmen and investors, Mandarin Chinese is the alternative foreign language (almost as important as English). Some tourist attractions have Chinese signboards. As a Singaporean, I have had Vietnamese coming up to me to practise both Mandarin and English.

I went to Sapa in the mountainous northwest of Vietnam for a few days. This is a charming hill station first established by the French near the border with China. Surrounded by misty rice terraces, sleepy Sapa wakes up on Saturday, its population multiplied as nearby tribal groups like the Black Hmong (Miao in Chinese) and Red Zao appeared in town for market day, mobbed by an army of tourists and backpackers, the latter armed with cameras to capture the locals in their colourful costumes.

This is also an opportunity for young people from the Hmong and Zao villages to meet their counterparts from other villages. They dress their best and then meet again in the evening at the famous “Love Market” in the stadium nearby for a more private rendezvous. These days, however, the Love Market hardly functions for the platoons of overzealous tourists who snap away in their disregard for local traditions.

I also dropped by Bac Ha. It is even more colourful than Sapa and attracts ten minority ethnic groups for the Sunday market. It made the painful ten-hour bus ride through Vietnam’s northern mountains worthwhile.

Not far is the city of Lao Cai – the scene of intense fighting between China and Vietnam in 1979, when China invaded Vietnam for about two weeks (and then withdrew). Some Chinese say, “to teach Vietnam a lesson,” for invading Cambodia and expelling more than half a million Vietnamese of Chinese descent. Fresh from ten years of fighting the Americans, the Vietnamese put up a tough fight and won!

Today’s Lao Cai is a booming border town. China’s emerging economic strength and Vietnam’s own recovery from decades of conflict have sparked a booming bilateral trading relations. In fact, despite continuing disputes over islands in the South China Sea (Spratly and Parcel Islands), Chinese citizens can visit Vietnam without visas, a privilege denied to most nationalities. Casual observers can see the hordes of Mainland Chinese tourists in Hanoi or Halong Bay these days. Money overcomes historical conflicts and disagreements.

The Halong Bay World Heritage site across the Red River Valley from Hanoi is an amazing area of tall limestone mountains sticking out of a large bay in the Tokin Gulf. I joined a two-day tour to Halong Bay and the Cat-Ba Island (eighteen dollars with accommodation and food included!). The place is a little disappointing given the awful weather. The best thing that came out of it, though, was meeting my old London friends at a highway toilet stop on the way to Halong City. What a small world!

After a good time in the northern part of Vietnam, I got on a bus southward to Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam – another landmark of destruction and revival.

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