Impressions of Hanoi

I stayed in Hanoi for five days.  I didn't know that Vietnam celebrates the lunar new year just like the Chinese until being told by a friend of mine, who is mother of a student I taught in Chicago.  Her husband runs an airplane leasing business in Hong Kong (he is British) and does business with Vietnamese Airlines, and she was kind enough to arrange a hotel room in Hanoi for me, for 35 US dollars a night.

My first impression of the city was that it looks like a provincial Chinese city in early 1980's.  After living there for a few days,  however, I noticed many differences and now I find it hard to explain my first impression.  Yes, there are no tall buildings in the city, but it has many very nice French colonial style mansions and villas, quite unlike the dull gray buildings put up by the Chinese after 1949 everywhere in China.  And yes, there is the Hu Chi Minh Mausoleum, the National Assembly Hall, and the big square in between the two, but these are in the Soviet tradition copied by the Chinese too.  The same is true for the red flags, the red national emblem (it looks almost exactly like the Chinese one except that the Chinese one has five red stars whereas the Vietnamese one has only one), and a song called Hu Chi Minh, which sounds like a pirated version of Dong Fang Hong (the Chinese song that deifies Chairman Mao).

The Vietnamese copied a great many things from China during the one-thousand-year rule of the northern half of Vietnam by the Chinese.  Two-thirds of the words in the Vietnamese language has their Chinese origins.  Until a French missionary devised a written language using Latin alphabets in 15th century, the Vietnamese had been using Chinese characters.  Today, very few people understand them any more.  The hotel owner probably had the roll of calligraphy with Chinese characters hanging on the wall for a long time, but he had to ask me for the meaning of the words.  The Vietnamese ruling class was under the heavy influence of Confucianism for a long time, which can be seen from the Temple of Literature in the heart of Hanoi (that's the place where Jane Fonda made her famous recording during the Vietnam War.)  The Temple was built in honor of Confucius, and as in China, its real name is Confucius Temple.  Inside, writings in Chinese characters overwhelmingly dominate writings in Vietnamese.  On the New Year's Day, I witnessed a ritual paying tribute to Confucius.  Of course I couldn't understand that much about what was going on (the ritual was possibly mixed with indigenous Vietnamese elements of ancestral worship), but as a Chinese, I wondered how many Vietnamese in the Temple that day understood the origin of the ritual.  I was more amazed that day when I saw many people playing Chinese chess in the yard of the Temple!

I had the impression that the Vietnamese have some inferior complex feelings toward the Chinese, the same way some Chinese feel toward the Westerners, and the Japanese feel toward the Americans.  I arrived in Hanoi on the New Year's Eve and had the luck of celebrating the New Year with the family that owns the hotel.  After breaking some trees in Hanoi to bring home some branches for good luck (it's against the law but the police were not there to stop people from doing damages to the trees, either because it was too costly to do so or they had changed their clothes and were breaking the branches themselves),  we had the first meal of the New Year around 2 in the morning.  The son has been to the States and acted as a translator.  In the middle of the meal, the father asked me if I liked the food, which was basically some rice noodles with chicken, pork and beef.  I said it was good,  but sensing that I wasn't too enthusiastic about the food, the father said that Vietnamese food is no good because the Vietnamese did a bad job in copying it from China.  I had more Vietnamese food in the five days, but I have to say that I don't think Vietnamese food is all that great.  To me the problem is that it is not as refined as Chinese food or Japanese food.  The only thing I liked was spring rolls from Saigon,  but then it was probably from China too, only they did a more innovative job on that one.

While I wasn't impressed by sophistication of the Vietnamese culture, I came back with a great appreciation of their immense national pride and heroism in fighting foreign invaders.  During the one-thousand-year rule of the Chinese, the Vietnamese never gave up their sense of independence and their own culture.  The Chinese had to put down numerous uprisings by the Vietnamese.  Many pagodas in the city were built later to commemorate the heroes during these uprisings.  The Chinese finally lost the control of the northern half of Vietnam with the collapse of Tang dynasty in 10th century, but they would try now and then to take it back.  There is a lake in the center of the city, which according to the legend was the place the King of Vietnam returned to a turtle the magical sword that he had borrowed to defeat the Chinese Ming dynasty invaders in a twenty-year struggle in 15th century.  I spent some time on the name of the lake, which in Vietnamese is spelled as Hoan Kiem, and figured out that it literally means "return sword,'' which in mandarin is spelled as Huan Jian.  It was after the Vietnamese finally drove away the Chinese when one of their most famous poets wrote that "The Vietnamese are different from the people north to them......In no time does Vietnam lack heroes.''  The French apparently didn't understand this most important part of the Vietnamese history when they tried to subjugate the Vietnamese to colonial rule after WWII.  The Vietnamese suffered many casualties in their struggle against the French, but Hu Chi Minh made the famous statement to the French that "You could kill ten of my men for each man I kill of yours, but still you will lose and I will win.''  The Americans proved to be a worse student of history than the French and they paid for it with more than half of million lives destroyed or ruined.

It is curious thing that today the young Vietnamese welcome anything that's American.  On New Year's Eve, the family of the hotel owner prepared a small altar with gifts to their ancestors.  Among the gifts were a can of Coca Cola, a Marlboro, and fake American 100 dollar bills.   To the young people, the war was more a curiosity than anything else.  Of course young people everywhere in the world are the most forgetful, but it surprised me a little when I showed an empty bullet case from the war which I bought on the street to the young members of the family, they did not recognize what it was.  After all, the war ended only twenty years ago in Vietnam.  I also bought a compass and a flashlight, both original from the war, taken either from dead bodies of American GIs or POWS.  The compass proved to be very handy when I walked around the city.

Vietnam seems to me to have a bright economic future.  The people are tough and smart.  The values of socialism are not entrenched as in Russia or China.  Indeed, the southern part of Vietnam has a socialist history of only twenty years, which explains why Saigon is ahead of Hanoi in economic transformation.  It also helps that the Americans, with a mixture of nostalgia and admiration for their old enemies, are coming back, with dollars instead of guns.