From February 29 to March 15, 2016 we made a long anticipated trip to Southeast Asia. This included stays in Hanoi, Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Tokyo. This narrative recounts some of the highlights of our trip and offers reflections on things we learned.
To begin, this is a good moment for many parts of Asia. Yes, there are storm clouds. North Korea, the air pollution that comes with rapid development, China’s mercurial stock market. But this part of the globe is at least relatively far from the madness of the Middle East, and its economies are thriving. Here’s a snapshot of a group of Japanese students with whom we shared a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat). Their evident joyfulness captures the upbeat spirit in this part of the world.
Hanoi beckoned because a friend and colleague of Mary Jean’s, Jack Yeager of LSU, is teaching there this term on a Fulbright grant. During the Vietnam War years, Jack learned Vietnamese and is now a renowned specialist in Vietnamese literature. His knowledge of Vietnam eased our adjustment to the city. Here’s a snapshot of Jack who hosted us during our visit.
HANOI. What can one say of this bustling old Imperial capital? First, one notes—one must note—the traffic. This snapshot shows the endless stream of cars, busses and motorbikes—above all motorbikes.
Crossings at traffic lights are scarce and the rules governing them arcane (“right turn on tourist” seems to be one). Crosswalks exist to lure naive pedestrians to their death. Here’s how we were instructed to get across a street: “First make sure there are no busses or cars. They will not stop. Then close your eyes and walk slowly across. The motorbike drivers will dodge around you. But don’t run or they won’t be able to miss you.
Motorbikes are the all purpose means of transport, having replaced the trams of the colonial era. They carry everything from trees:
Because of air pollution, many of the scooterists wear facemasks. As I write, today’s English-language Vietnamese newspaper reports that Hanoi’s air is seven times more hazardous than WHO’s maximum allowable level. In our nine day visit a foggy haze constantly blanketed the city.
Our hotel is located next to the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, which serves like Central Park in Manhattan to offer a refreshing break from the city’s pace and congestion. Here’s a view of the lake looking northward toward a small island with a temple reached by a colorful red bridge:
At the other end of the lake is a small pagoda
Legend has it that a semi-divine turtle lived here and furnished an ancient emperor with a sword to liberate the city. A stuffed replica of this turtle is found in the temple reached by the red bridge:
A descendant of that turtle who actually dwelled in the lake died recently of old age and there is talk of restocking the lake with a Chinese relative.
Hanoi is the capitol of one of the world’s surviving Communist states, but it’s a free market, small capitalist, entrepreneurial festival. Its streets are lined with small shops, tiny open-air restaurants, including countless “Pho” (pronounced Pha) shops serving hot rice-noodle soup or fried snacks, and individual vendors touting all kinds of wares.
Women, young and old, traverse the streets carrying baskets of goods suspended from their shoulders.
A parenthetical word here about gender. Of course a foreigner cannot easily know the intimate power relationships within families, and there is evidence that as in America women assume a disproportionate share of household and child rearing work. But outwardly, Vietnamese society seems remarkably gender-equal. Women participate in every aspect of society, whether as shop owners or functionaries. Fathers are seen tending children. Women’s dress outfit, the attractive Ao Dai features light skirt-like back and front panels that conceal sensible pants. Here’s a specimen:
There are no veils or mandatory head coverings here as in Riad or Jerusalem. (And while I’m at it let me celebrate the easy availability of beer, wine and pork. This is not a land of taboos.)
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2
And there is much good food. On the evening of our arrival, we met Jack Yeager and some of his friends for dinner at the Com Viet, a beautifully preserved old townhouse become restaurant. (This place is so esteemed that, as you can see by the photo on the wall, Hillary dined here during one of her state visits.)
Dinner was our introduction to North Vietnamese cuisine, a food tradition that combines the abundance of Southeast Asian agriculture with Chinese and French culinary finesse. Here’s our table, spread with nems (fresh and fried rolls) and diverse stir-fried plates.
THURSDAY MARCH 3
HO CHI MINH MAUSOLEUM
Our first full day on the ground began with a must-do visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. If anyone is the father of this nation, it’s Ho Chi Minh. For thirty years he led his nation’s independence struggle against the French, the Japanese, the French again, and then the Americans. I personally regret that I became aware of Ho’s committed lifelong leadership only at the onset of the “American War” in 1965. In a small act of contrition for our own country’s tragic and foolish involvement in Vietnam, we visited Ho’s mausoleum.
The authorities handle the daily influx of thousands of visitors with great aplomb. We joined a line that snaked for nearly half a mile through the compound but took less than an hour to traverse.
Much of the line was populated with school groups. The kids were all similarly outfitted in bright (“Scooterists beware!”) jackets bearing individual school crests on their shoulders.
The mausoleum itself has all the marks of Soviet-era design.
Inside, Ho’s body glows gently under subdued lighting and the line passes quickly by. (Photos are not allowed, but you can find a rather poor picture here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ho-chi-minh-mausoleum). I’ve now seen Lenin’s mummified body in Red Square, Chairman Mao’s in Tienanmen Square, and Ho’s here in Hanoi. Catholicism’s love of saints’ relics pales in comparison to these atheistic pilgrimage sites. (In fairness, Ho wanted to be cremated but after his death, the party thought otherwise.)
Just beyond the mausoleum is the compound where Ho lived and worked before his death in 1969 and during (what we call) the Vietnam War. Here’s his office.
Mysteriously, the U.S. never bombed the compound during our merciless pounding of Hanoi. Was our intelligence as lame as the war itself?
THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
A short walk from Ho’s compound is the ancestor of all ancestor sites: Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. Dating from the 11th century, this was long a center of Confucian learning for the nation’s elite Mandarin leaders. The complex stretches over several acres, with shrines, pagodas and assembly rooms.
Housed in their own building, these stelae record the names and honors of several centuries worth of outstanding scholars.
In a bid to tradition, newly married couples visit the site for a photo shoot.
(Note each member of the couple’s lovely Ao Dai). And here, near the center of the complex is a shrine to Confucius himself.
I suspect that to understand Vietnam, even its Communist incarnation today, one has to appreciate this long tradition of Mandarin leadership.
FRIDAY MARCH 4
Museums are closed on Fridays, so our main event for the day was a morning cooking class on North Vietnamese cuisine at the Hanoi Cooking Centre. Our instructor, “Eee” (I can’t imagine how he spells this), greeted us at the door to this school-library-restaurant and immediately took us a short walk away to the outdoor market that nourishes the Centre. Here is Eee holding a “Buddha’s Finger” fruit. These are inedible but are used for offerings at Buddhist shrines. As you can see more clearly in the fruit on the table, it does indeed look like a collection of fingers.
The market itself was a flurry of activity, with motorbikes coming and going at high speed down the narrow lanes between the food stalls.
Everything edible, and some things un-edible to us, can be found here. Sausage:
All sorts of rice:
And, yes, roasted dog:
Newly purchased ingredients in hand—not including the appetite-dimming canine offering—we returned to the Cooking Centre.
Our first assignment was to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls using transparent rice paper. Here, Eee shows how it’s done:
Another dish was banana flower salad, made by taking a banana flower (note the little bananas growing inside)
and thinly slicing across the tubular flower to get this main ingredient of the salad:
I confess that this somewhat chewy concoction was not my favorite dish of the day, so I don’t regret that the Wellfleet General Store—or for that matter anyplace on Cape Cod—doesn’t carry banana flowers.
Our final dish was a stir-fried and then clay-pot-roasted chicken dish, which miraculously turned one small chicken leg into a meal for two. A keynote of Asian cooking is the use of small portions of expensive but savory foods to flavor and supplement the hunger-allaying rice.
We celebrated our morning’s class with a graduation photo and a luncheon at the upstairs restaurant featuring our own creations. This is the third cooking class I’ve taken on Asian travels (I had previously done one in Thailand and in Cambodia), and I heartily recommend this as a way of better understanding local culture.
WOMEN’s MUSEUM. Early afternoon was spent visiting the fascinating Women’s Museum. You’re welcomed into it with this large sculpture said to symbolize the status of Vietnamese women.
She carries the nation’s future in the form of a child on her shoulder, and with her right hand is making a gesture of confidence. The museum’s three floors document, respectively, the lives of women in traditional Vietnamese society, women’s role in the struggle for independence, and contemporary fashion. I skipped the latter but dwelled on the important part played by women in what is here called “the American War,” where 40% of the combatants were women.
One panel displays photos of “Heroic Mothers of Vietnam,” who earned that title by having lost a husband, more than two children, an only child, or their own lives in the struggle. In 2008, more than 50,000 women were awarded this title, some posthumously.
Equally poignant was a display devoted to Dang Thuy Tram, popularly known as the Anne Frank of Vietnam.
She was a 27-year old doctor in 1970 when she died in a firefight while defending her hospital from US attack. Her diary was found on her body by an American intelligence officer, who realizing its value, preserved it for thirty-five years until its publication in 2005. (You can read more about Dang Thuy Tram and her diary here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/diary-of-a-vietcong-doctor-the-anne-frank-of-vietnam-317801.html. As in everything associated with this visit to Hanoi, I feel both contrition for our own country’s terrible role in this conflict, and admiration for the spirit of the Vietnamese people, not least of all its women. Their courage is symbolized in one other item among the exhibits: a facemask worn by female political cadres during meetings in which they sought to rally villagers to the independence cause. These masks were needed to keep their identity from enemy collaborators.
SATURDAY, MARCH 5
Today was spent visiting sites around Hoan Kiem Lake: the still elegant French quarter with its Vuitton and Gucci shops, the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, the utterly congested shopping quarter above the lake, and a water puppet performance
The Museum of the Revolution had the expected grainy black and white photos of events during the Vietnam War. Two exhibits caught my attention. One is this 1953 photo of Richard Nixon visiting the country (still under French domination).
Nixon, in his role as a cold warrior, prepared the way for so much that followed, which is not to exonerate Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, again, Nixon or Kissinger for this ill-considered involvement that continues to poison our national political life. (I regard Donald Trump as a late blooming karmic fruit of the divisiveness and class and partisan hatred spawned by this senseless war.)
The other exhibit is a bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh delivering Vietnam’s declaration of independence in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi (right next to the site now of Ho’s mausoleum) on September 2, 1945.
The declaration almost plagiarizes our own Declaration if Independence and France’s Rights of Man. How different might the history of the late twentieth century be if Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiments had prevailed, and if we had had the good sense to support this nationalist leader from the end of the Japanese occupation?
A difficult photographic environment prevented me from getting worthwhile images of the water puppet show. In any event, in visiting Vietnam, whether here or as we had in Saigon twenty years ago, one must take in one of these shows, where large puppets weighing up to fifteen kilos are manipulated by puppeteers behind a silk screen using long bamboo poles and strings under water. This art form stems from the culture of North Vietnam’s Red River delta region, where rice farmers developed it as seasonal entertainment. (Later this week, we visited Hanoi’s wonderful Ethnology Museum where one can see a full reconstruction of such a puppet theater. Here’s a photo:
And here’s a shot of the interior with a boatload of puppets ready for deployment:
Following the performance, I did manage one decent shot of the puppeteers emerging to take their bows:
SUNDAY, MARCH 6
Today’s destination was Halong Bay, the remarkable formation of small mountains that march across a coastal bays 170 kilometers east of Hanoi in the Gulf of Tonkin. The daylong visit began with a four-hour bus trip to the coast across an agricultural and village landscape. As this photo shows, rice culture predominates:
Since agricultural land is so vital, homes in the small villages or towns we passed reach upwards from small footprints:
Arriving in Halong Bay, we encountered a remarkably well-run operation. Visitors by the hundreds are met by appointed boats:
Lunch aboard was promptly served
You’re taken to a floating platform, where bamboo-bottom boats or kayaks await to let you explore an inlet or two.
Our oarswoman had all the spunk and charm of a Vietnamese lady:
Next stop was a mammoth cave on one of the islands. Here’s one shot of its colorfully illuminated interior:
As we prepared to return to the boat and the long evening drive back to Hanoi, we passed a sign imaging Halong Bay on one of its sunnier days (though I’m not sure whether air pollution any longer permits such a thing.) This gives you an aerial overview of why it is a world-class site:
MONDAY, TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY MARCH 7-9
After a day of travel, Tuesday marked the beginning of a two-day excursion from Hanoi to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the Angkor Wat temple complex. I had visited here in November 2013 (see my account https://ronaldmgreen.com/category/travel/page/2/) and was so impressed that I promised Mary Jean that I would take her there one day. That day had arrived.
I won’t recount here my previous descriptions of these magnificent temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (the Bayon) or the prolifically overgrown Ta Prohm. But here are some up-to-date snapshots of these wonderful structures followed by a few pictures of a return visit to Tonlé Sap lake with its colorful floating fishermen’s villages.
The Bayon (at Angkor Thom):
And Ta Prohm that was used as a setting for the film “Tomb Raider”:
A floating restaurant on Tonlé Sap lake:
And some youngsters frolicking in their watery “front yard.”
We returned to Hanoi on Wednesday night March 9. Sitting on the plane, reading the downloaded latest results of U.S. primary voting on my iPhone, I found myself reflecting on contemporary Siem Reap, the booming urban conglomeration that surrounds the temple complex. I was reminded of another unintended consequence of our intervention in Vietnam and our expanded bombings of Laos and Cambodia: the terrible rise of the Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge regime, during which a fifth of Cambodia’s eight and a half million inhabitants were murdered. One never encounters a guide in Siem Reap old enough to have survived those years without his or her own horror stories. I asked myself, how can one square this gentle Buddhist people who today so warmly welcome foreigners with the Khmer Rouge thugs who murdered and tortured millions? The only answer I can come up with is that the possibilities of good and evil are always resident in human beings and that bad political decisions can turn even gentle people into monsters. Today’s news reports the new electoral triumph of Donald Trump and his egging followers on to violence. Cambodia’s tragic history reminds us that ill-considered political choices can have fateful—and fatal—consequences.
THURSDAY & FRIDAY MARCH 10 AND 11
Our return to Hanoi afforded us two days to see the several museums we missed following our arrival. Front and center on Thursday morning was the outstanding Ethnology Museum. Although the museum has an interesting building with exhibits of the dress, implements and festivals of the many different ethnic groups that compose the Vietnamese nation, its special attraction is a large exterior garden with many reconstructed dwellings of the country’s various ethnicities. I could include here dozens of photos of these buildings’ interior and exteriors, but I’ll leave it to you, my readers, to plan your own visit to this wonderful site. To tempt you, I include shots of only one building, the magnificent Bahnar Communal House from north central Vietnam. As you can see, like many of these buildings, the house is elevated on stilts to protect it from flooding and rot:
Here’s the interior, with its bamboo mat flooring:
And here the vaulting rafters:
As videos within each building show, the construction of these houses is a communal enterprise combining skilled artisanry with the strength of many workers. All the buildings at the museum were constructed on this site by workers from each ethnicity. In its entirety, the Ethnology Museum testifies to the ingenuity and dedication of the various peoples of Vietnam.
HOA LO PRISON
In the afternoon, I weaved my way on my own through Hanoi traffic to the vestiges of the large prison compound that served for decades under the French as a detention center for Vietnamese revolutionaries, and then briefly, from 1965-73 as the prisoner of war camp for U.S. aviators (including Senator John McCain) captured in the bombing of North Vietnam and then dubbed the “The Hanoi Hilton.”
Here’s a photo of the site in its heyday (only the lower left-hand portion remains):
And here a sculptural rendition of how insurgent nationalists under the French were manacled and confined:
Here, a photo of the real people:
Those condemned to death were kept in darkness in tiny cells:
Although laws dictated a months-long appeals process prior to an execution, many insurgents apparently waited only days before meeting this executor of French “justice”:
A set of rooms in the compound housed the American prisoners of war. Although it is reported that some early prisoners were subject to abuse and even torture, after 1969 conditions improved. The accounts offered here by the Vietnamese contrast the destruction visited on the region by American aviators, particularly during the “Christmas bombing” of 1972,
(Bombing of the Hanoi railroad station, December 21, 1972)
with what is described as the relatively privileged existence of the POWs, including opportunities to play chess and volley ball.
It is one of the great ironies of history that one resident of Hoa Lo, Captain Douglas Peterson, a pilot who crashed his Phantom fighter-bomber and was captured in April 1966 (below), returned to Vietnam as the first American ambassador in 1996 (further below).
FRIDAY MARCH 11
Today began with a surprising and pleasant encounter. On our way around the lake to the Museum of Vietnamese History we met a group of students. From left to right, here are Dugan, Lan, Han and Han:
Jack Yeager informs us that these students are often escorted to tourist areas by their teachers in order to practice their English and exchange information about their country with visitors. These four seem to be attending a trade or commerce school, so the chance to sharpen their communication skills is relevant. After learning we were Americans, Dugan volunteered that he and his generation bear no ill will to us, since “we Vietnamese live in the present and future, not the past.” However, it was also added that none of them like the Chinese!
I will not recapitulate the subsequent visit to the Museum of Vietnamese History. Less interesting and less well presented than the Museum of Ethnology, this complex of buildings recounts Vietnam’s unrelieved history of invasions and oppression, from the Mongols and Chinese during the early second millennium up to the French and Americans in the modern period. Vietnam, with its warm climate, rich waterways, and fertile and well-watered lands, is clearly a prize possession. Although its current government is far from perfect, at least the foreigners are out.
TOKYO, MARCH 13 and 14
We ended our trip with a two-day stopover in Tokyo on the way back home. In May 2005, I traveled to Japan to research questions raised by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, visiting both cities as well as Kyoto. But I’ve never been to Tokyo, and this was a chance to do that.
Our stay began with a Sunday morning stroll from our central, Ginza hotel to the imperial palace. Despite the throngs of bus-transported Japanese visitors, it proved to be contain little more than a large flat and bare urban park
bordering a hilltop palace complex that (at least on this Sunday and most other times, it seems) was inaccessible to tourists:
But this unrewarding stroll was more than offset by our afternoon visit to the Edo-Tokyo museum.
Getting there was a challenge, requiring us to navigate the excellent, but complex, Tokyo metro and elevated train system: I hope to return in the future to Tokyo for a longer stay and I look forward to becoming conversant with this clean and efficient mass transport system.
The museum is a modern structure rising on gigantic stilts almost seven stories above an elevated platform.
To enter you take an elevator to the top floor and descend to exhibits on the floors below.
We were extremely fortunate to be greeted by Michie Shigehara, a retired teacher who volunteers here as an English-speaking docent. Her explanation of the exhibits added greatly to our visit. Here she is with Mary Jean. I learned that Ms. Shigehara was born, as I was, in 1942. Thus an interest in history brought together two people born in nations that were then a world apart and at war with one another.
To enter the exhibits, you traverse a partial reconstruction of the huge and beautifully crafted Nihonbashi Bridge.
During the Tokugawa era (1603-1867), Tokyo was known as Edo. Power was exercised by a long line of Shogun warlords, while the emperor was sidelined in Kyoto. This bridge served as entry into an extensive mercantile area which, along with the Shogun’s palace, was the heart of the nascent metropolis. One of the first exhibits is a detailed scale model of the bridge district as it looked in its heyday.
Nearby stands an almost full size replica of a kabuki theater:
And here is a nearly life-sized bronze of one of the Shoguns:
What is most impressive about Tokugawa-era Edo, is the high degree of civilization shown by life in the city. As one of the exhibits states, Edo was an “information city” in which printed books and pictures proliferated, theater flourished, and citizens congregated in public places to share news and gossip. The following are just a brief selection of images of Edo life:
Skilled craftsman, like this woodworker, practiced their trades:
Popular books with text and images were mass-produced:
Schools educated the young:
And exquisite multi-tone woodblock prints were produced and bought:
The commercial side of Edo was equally alive. Here’s a model of a large drygoods emporium in which ladies and men sought out beautiful kimonos:
On the streets, sushi, in its early form as large pieces of vinegar-preserved fish gained popularity:
And off the streets, Tokugawa Edo possessed a full infrastructure for water provision and waste removal. Here is an elegant Edo-era urinal:
The museum continues its exploration of Tokyo’s history well beyond the Tokugawa period with exhibits proceeding through the period of Meiji imperial restoration and modernization in the late nineteenth century and through the tumultuous twentieth century, especially the Second World War era and booming post-war recovery, the period when Japan became a technological wonder. Images and artifacts from the war years evidence the city’s devastation by U.S. incendiary bombing raids in 1944 and 1945. With so much of the older city gone up in flames, there’s really very little history of Tokyo in the form of existing buildings and neighborhoods. Thus, Edo-Tokyo lives on here, in this wonderful museum.
SUNDAY, MARCH 14
This was our last day in Tokyo and the final day of our trip. High on the list was a morning visit to the Tzujiki fish market and sushi brunch at the Daiwa restauant. If sushi has a Mecca, this is it. Here’s a glimpse of corner of the busy market, where very early each morning tuna are auctioned off at astronomical prices to feed the nation’s ravenous hunger for “maguro.”
And here’s the hour-long but well-managed line outside Daiwa:
Here’s the sushi bar inside:
And here’s a closeup of our skilled and kindly older sushi chef. When you’re seated, he asks simply: “Settu?” Since everything is in Japanese, we avoided à la carte ordering and accepted his offer of a “set meal.” Pieces of nigiri sushi are put on your plate as he finishes preparing them.
And what a meal! The Platonic form of sushi. Here’s a shot of my platter mid-meal. That’s tuna on the right and uni, sea urchin, on the left.
Nearly twenty years ago, Mary Jean was hosting an end-of-term dinner for her French teaching colleagues at a Toulouse restaurant. Sushi was not widely known in France in those days, and for some reason I found myself, at one end of the table, explaining it to a curious tablemate. He asked, “And what is your favorite type of sushi?” I quickly replied, “Uni, Oursin de mer.” Sea urchin. “Pourquoi?” he continued. Why do you like sea urchin? “Parce que, lorsque on le mange, c’est comme si on mangeait la mer,” I replied. Because when one eats it, it’s as though you’re eating the sea.” I paused and was astonished to find that all heads at the table were turned my way. At that moment, I better understood what animates the French: food and words.
But then I had not yet eaten uni at Daiwa. If you can imagining experiencing the essence of the briny sea, uni at Daiwa is it. I’m afraid I will never again be satisfied with uni elsewhere.
A CLOSING THOUGHT—ABOUT TOILETS
I’ll end this blog post with a reflection on a very mundane feature of our lives: toilets. On the way to Hanoi, during our stop on Haneda Airport, Tokyo, I witnessed the first of the amazing toilets that populate Japan’s public restrooms, and I sent this picture to an American friend who had alerted me to them.
These wonderful devices do everything: seat lids raise and close automatically, they flush automatically and they have jets of water and air that clean you up at your request. But even more impressive than the toilets are these other devices that are mounted on the walls of each toilet stall:
Can you guess what this is? Answer: It’s a fold-up child seat. The Japanese have solved a problem that we Americans don’t even realize we have. What do you do with your infant while using the toilet? If you leave the baby outside, you risk his or her disappearance. Not a problem in Japan. You just set the child in this seat as you go about your business. I note, too, that these seats are in both men’s and (I’m told) women’s restrooms.
Why do I end on this note? Because I believe that one of the major purposes of travel is to get out of your parochial worldview and see how other people live. Travel not only broadens your horizons, it challenges your assumptions and forces you to understand the limits of your own culture.
This trip did this for me in two ways. First, the stay in Hanoi brought home once again the horrors our own ignorance about Vietnam, both of its history and its people. That ignorance plunged us into the Vietnam conflict. If Americans, and above all our leaders, had understood Vietnam’s long and legitimate struggle for national independence, millions of Vietnamese lives and tens of thousands of American lives could have been spared.
Japan—its toilets, trains and strikingly clean, efficient and courteous society—challenges the smug American assumption that we are an “exceptional” modern nation set off from a backward world. The reality is that there are places in Europe, Asia and elsewhere from which we have a great deal to learn in technical, economic, social, and moral terms. Perhaps if more Americans traveled abroad, we could temper the arrogance that has so damaged our relationships with one another and with the world.
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