Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Bat Trang

The weekend gave me the chance to work on some of my photos of Vietnam. I have posted pictures of our time in Hanoi, including our boat trip on Ha Long Bay and a ceramics factory in Bat Trang on my Picasa website.

To continue the trip narrative, we were driven to the Shanghai airport from our hotel in Suzhou on September 15 where we boarded a China Southern flight and flew to Guangzhou, then transferred to another China Southern flight and flew to Hanoi. It was a bit of a long day, but no real difficulties.

Being in Vietnam was kind of strange, given the country’s association with such strong memories of our high school and college years. It was strange to see the Vietnamese flag flying everywhere when my previous memories of the flag were all from TV news clips portraying the enemy we were fighting. I can remember that as a high school student, I was ready to serve, was ready to be drafted, though I preferred to be able to go to college first. As it turned out, I had two options for college in 1972, a scholarship to the University of Chicago or an appointment in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) at the University of Washington. I chose the University of Chicago, the institution of my experimentalist/theorist physicist hero, Enrico Fermi. UC did not have an NROTC program or I surely would have joined. In fact, I knew so little, had such poor high school guidance counselors, that I considered the lack of an NROTC program at UC to be a negative. In the event, the issue of my being drafted was made moot, as the war was winding down at that time and I drew a draft lottery number that made it very unlikely that I would be called up and I decided to attend UC despite the “negative.”

I later came to see the Vietnam war as a tragedy for both sides. Generally, I see the US as trying to do what is right and just in the world, but we are often ignorant and naive. Communism was born of an idealism at least as pure of heart as Jeffersonian democracy, but had been perverted in practice and needed to be opposed. But in Vietnam, we did not recognize the nationalist side of the Vietnamese revolt, did not reject the French colonial past in Vietnam, nor did we have a credible set of national leaders in South Vietnam to support. In no way do I mean to excuse or justify the often vicious, cruel, tactics of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, not their own coercive method for taking over the south rather than to pursue a diplomatic or “soft” revolutionary solution. The whole situation spawned a human tragedy for both sides. Subsequent history showed that the feared “domino effect” was a flawed idea as Vietnam stung China’s military when fighting broke out between the two countries over a border dispute a few years after Vietnam’s reunification. Vietnam has staunchly defended its independence from China since it gained that independence around the year 1000 CE. Now, Vietnam has turned into a developing country that has embraced the free market, if not yet free elections, and one could do a lot worse than to invest some money in the Vietnamese economy these days. Of course, the US should do what we can, well short of war, to encourage a transition to democracy as well.

America stumbled once again in the region. Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia at least partly due to the chaos that ensued when we bombed Cambodia to try to cut Ho Chi Minh’s supply lines to South Vietnam during the war. Never mind that it was the North Vietnamese who first violated Cambodia’s sovereignty, the US bombing created great hardship and displaced many people in Cambodia, who did not have the military strength and or (perhaps) the political will to keep the Vietnamese out. (Shades of Pakistan and Afghanistan today!) The bombing was also spectacularly ineffective in reducing the supplies reaching South Vietnam from North Vietnam. The megalomanical fanatic Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge tried to implement a “pure” form of Communism that would have made Mao blush over the modesty of his proposals for the Cultural Revolution. According to the Vietnamese I talked to, Pol Pot eventually got around to attempting to settle by force the (not completely without historical foundation) Cambodian grievance that the Mekong River Delta historically belonged to Cambodia. That prompted the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese. Incredibly, given the nature of the Pol Pot regime, the US and Thailand backed the Pol Pot regime at least for a time. Further tragedy for the Cambodian people ensued when diplomacy broke out and UN peace-keepers entered Cambodia allowing the Vietnamese to leave the country. While few could argue that a diplomatically establish peace was a bad thing, in the event, a unintended side effect was that the UN peace-keepers brought AIDS with them to Cambodia, where it is now a national epidemic.

That was kind of a long side trip from the narrative of our visit and, of course, one should consider the source if you are a student of history. But I bring it up because we encountered no, none, nada, not even one instance of anti-Americanism from the people we met and talked with in either Vietnam or Cambodia. They say that they are looking ahead and that is the best way to move forward. Lingering in the memories of the past only leads to more unhappiness. Given our relatively recent history in Southeast Asia, I find this astonishing. Cynics might say it is just an act; they just want our money, but I found no trace of insincerity in the attitudes of those we spoke with. I find this mindset to be almost as amazing as the peacemaking process between whites and blacks in South Africa where the only obstacle to being forgiven was to fail to tell the truth.

I should say that there is some institutional anti-Americanism, or at least things that can be taken to be anti-American. We, too, were not interested in dwelling in the negative aspects of the Vietnamese War and so chose to bypass most of these sites. For example, in Hanoi, we did not go to see the “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain spent many hard years. Though not an example of anti-Amercanism, per se, we also did not visit the “Killing Fields” in Cambodia. I will describe in a later post our visit to a war museum in Saigon, however.

After recovering from our flight to Hanoi, our first “touristing” took us to the area of Hanoi that is devoted to the memory of Ho Chi Minh. He might have been our enemy, but he is clearly seen as a George Washington-like figure in modern Vietnam. It probably adds to Ho Chi Minh’s heroic appeal that he died not long after reunification. Mao went from god-like hero to goat in he eyes of most Chinese because while he was a great leader in his successful struggle to rule China, he was, in fact, terrible at actual ruling China. I have criticized Bush and Cheney for letting their ideology interfere with their perception of reality, but Mao’s blindness make Bush and Cheney look like pikers. What is it about fanaticism that seems to sustain a movement during hard times, but blinds a movement to reality once it has the opportunity to implement its program? Or is it just that a person needs such different abilities to lead a struggle than to manage the results of the struggle’s success. In any case, Ho Chi Minh died before could despoil his reputation.

I see I have taken another side-trip from my trip narrative. To get back to it: The photos show Ho Chi Minh’s massive tomb. We were spared having to see his actual remains as the mausoleum was closed that day. Nearby the mausoleum, the Vietnamese have also preserved the two houses where Ho Chi Minh lived while governing Vietnam and, oddly to a Westerner, his cars. In what I am sure would make “Uncle Ho” roll over in his grave, there is a gift shop on the grounds of his memorial park.

After that, Kris and I  went for a “cyclo” ride through the streets of downtown Hanoi. A cyclo is a tricycle with a bench mounted on front that seats one American or two (or three or four) Vietnamese passengers. The passengers are pedaled through the streets by a man with strong legs. The cyclo drivers spoke a little English, gave us fresh lychee to peal and eat, and were remarkably opinionated on what one should take pictures of. Our two drivers stopped from time to time and pointed out sights they thought were interesting and would not continue until we took a picture of same. All in all, this was a pretty nice way to see Hanoi. The cyclos were quieter than a tuk-tuk, very slow moving to enable photography, and presented us with pretty nice view views of the street life. Hanoi is an old city, not as busy and crowded as Saigon, and many of the streets are pleasantly shaded by old, broad-leafed trees. Of course, cyclos are strictly for tourists. Residents are in more of a hurry (see also my post on Personal Vehicles).

The next day, we drove to Ha Long City, about two and a half hours from Hanoi and on the opposite side of the Red River Delta from Vietnam’s third largest city, the port of Haiphong. There we boarded what turned out to be a beautiful, luxurious boat. Like our boat on the Yangtze, the berths were only about half full, so the passengers were not tripping all over one another. I had long dreamed of visiting Ha Long Bay with its karst islands. A particularly good movie depiction of Ha Long Bay can be found in one of the later Bond films where Bond chases a deadly assassin with three nipples to a limestone island and is greeted by the dwarf from Fantasy Island (“the plane, boss, the plane…”) and wins a shootout in a circus arcade setting.  (If anyone can recall the title of this film, please submit a comment so I can add it to this post.) If you have seen this movie, you might understand my excitement about visiting  and photographing Ha Long Bay. And, in what has gotten to almost be a cliche about our trip, it is a World Heritage Site.

After a night on Ha Long Bay, we were driven back toward Hanoi. On the way, we stopped at Bat Trang. Bat Trang is famous historically for its fine ceramics. That tradition continues, though with modern methods. In tourist-land, this means that we visited a ceramics factory and then its gift shop. I will say that it was a modestly interesting tour and that the ceramics seemed to be of high quality and very inexpensive. Finally we returned to Hanoi and put on the night train to Hue. I have already posted about this adventure and so I will get back to work on preparing the pictures that I took in central Vietnam (Hue, Danang, and Hoi An).




  1. Ben said,

    November 10, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    The Bond movie was “The Man with the Golden Gun.” The three-nippled assassin was played by Christopher Lee.

  2. Tim said,

    November 11, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Thanks, Ben!

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