Impressions of Northern Vietnam

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In the fall of 2001, been invited to give a lecture
on human rights in
Thailand. I was eager to
see Thailand where I had
friends, but I also wanted
to use the occasion to visit
Vietnam. The latter country
had had a significant impact on my life
in the 1960s and 1970s when I was active in
the anti-Vietnam war movement. But my
visit in 2001 was not to be. I had made all
the arrangements for my trip, and my plane
was to have left on September 13, 2001. We
all know why it did not leave.
But I retained the desire to see something
of both Thailand and Vietnam. Fortun
a t e l y, the opportunity presented itself
again this year. On April 14th, I began my
journey: from Champaign to Chicago and
then to Los Angeles (where I picked up my
friend Steve Douglas, a specialist on Southeast
Asian politics), crossing the Pacific to
Hong Kong and transferring to a flight to
Bangkok. A homeopathic concoction called
No Jet Lag proved to be a savior. I spent
four days in Bangkok where I lectured on
human rights to both Thai and Cambodian
students at the National Institute for Development
Administration (NIDA). The intellectual
and personal high points in Bangkok
were my interactions with the faculty and
students at NIDA; the cultural high points
were visiting the palace and temple complex
in the center of the city and a traditional
dance performance; and the gastronomic
high points were virtually every Thai and
Chinese meal that I ate in the city.
Unfortunately, I did not venture out of
Bangkok and its outskirts. This was because
the plans that Steve and I had agreed upon
for our trip to Vietnam required all the
remaining time that we had allowed for our
trip. So, the day after both of us lectured at
NIDA, we were on a Thai Airline plane
bound for Hanoi.
What an incredible contrast there was
between Hanoi and Bangkok. Bangkok was
a huge, sprawling city. Tr a ffic jams were
everywhere and the pollution in the streets
was so great that people who had to work
outside near the streets almost always wore
face masks. In order to drive any distance in
the city, one had to take elevated roads.
Neighborhoods seemed relatively undiff e rentiated
as though zoning was never a consideration.
And Bangkok is very hot and
very humid, especially this time of year. –
middle- and upper-class people seemed to
walk or drive from one air-conditioned place
to another. Walk under the Bangkok sun for
ten minutes and you are soaking wet.
Hanoi is a smaller city. The neighborhoods
are quite differentiated and very
interesting. There is the Old Quarter in
which there are open shops and little restaurants.
Here the people really spend their
work and leisure time outside on the sidewalks
and streets. Most of the streets in the
Old Quarter are narrow and tree-lined. They
are specialized by economic enterprise: if
you want to buy shoes you go to this street,
women’s clothes to another, appliances to
another, etc. In the center of the Old Quarter
there is Hoan Kiem Lake, where people do
their Tai Chi exercises in the early morning,
children play in the afternoon, and lovers sit
in the evening. All around the lake are
restaurants, ice-cream parlors, and other little
shops and stands. Next to the lake is the
famous water puppet theater where puppeteers
enact fun stories by manipulating
their underwater puppets with sticks,
accompanied by a traditional orchestra.
Move a little south and east and you are
in the area dominated by old French architecture.
Most spectacular is the opera house,
which looks like a white version of the
Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. Next to
it is a Hilton Hotel which has adopted an
architectural style that blends in with that of
the Opera House. There is a beautiful boulevard
that leads up to the
opera house with other
splendid buildings dating
back to the French
colonial period. In this
area there are also many
museums worth a visit,
such as the Museum of
the Revolution, the Ho
Chi Minh Museum and
Tomb, the outdoor Temple
of Literature, the
Vietnamese History
Museum, and the museum
of women imprisoned
and killed in the wars of resistance.
Also in this area is the “Hanoi Hilton.” The
former prison was used by the French and
the Japanese during their occupations and
also by the Vietnamese to hold U.S. pilots
shot down during the U.S. war on Vietnam.
A bit farther away and well worth a visit is
the Museum of Ethnology.
In the more outlying areas of the city one
sees the typical three-story houses that many
urban families inhabit. Children who marry
tend to move in with one of the sets of parents.
There is also often a business on the
first floor of the house. The houses are usually
very ornate on the façade, with the sides
and the backs often left in plain cement.
Hanoi is much easier to move around in
than is Bangkok. First, there are very few
cars. Most of the cars that one sees are taxis.
Most people travel by motor scooters or
small motor cycles.
Many also just ride
bicycles. Visitors can
take taxis that are good
for longer distance travel
like to the airport. If it
happens to be hot outside,
all of them are
conditioned. Also available
are cyclos, a sort of
rickshaw driven by a
cyclist behind the passenger
rather than in
front. One can either
rent a motor scooter or
hire a ride from someone who has one, but
just walking is a pleasure in this city that is
usually much cooler and less humid than
Bangkok. While Bangkok is inexpensive by
U.S. standards, Hanoi is even less expensive.
But in both cities the people are
extremely nice to foreigners. Despite the 2
to 3 million Vietnamese killed, the ecological
devastation, the continuing physical and
mental after-effects of the chemicals like
Agent Orange (used by the U.S. government
to defoliate their country), and the
post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by
Vietnamese as well as Americans, Steve and
I were never reproached over the war that
our government inflicted on these people or
over its earlier support of French colonialism.
Two things, troubling things, were
missing in Hanoi. First, I saw few old people.
Second, both in Hanoi, with its treelined
streets and its beautiful lakes, as well
as in the countryside, I heard no birds
singing and saw no birds. I can’t help wondering
if this missing generation and missing
genus were results of our war against
these people and their environment. If so, it
deepens their senseless loss and our legacy
of war crimes, which continues to accumulate
elsewhere even as I write.
Thailand has been losing economic
ground to some of the lesser developed
countries, and I was told that there is now a
significant migration of Thai people looking
for jobs elsewhere. Vietnam, on the other
hand, is a much poorer country but it is
attracting a lot of transnational businesses.
This became apparent when Steve and I
made a trip to Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is
truly one of the wonders of the world and is
so declared by UNESCO. It is a Bay on the
north coast of Vietnam in which over 3,000
narrow mountain-like islands jut straight up
out of the sea. Aside from the natural beauty,
which for me is as spectacular as the Grand
Canyon, there are also the fascinating floating
villages where people who have found it
impossible to make a living off of the land
have built permanent homes. These homes
are on rafts and the people make a living off
of fishing and fish farming. One of the villages
that we visited by sea kayak had 500
people living in it. Ha Long Bay is a great
place to relax on a junk, swim, and kayak.
We did all those things. But to get to Ha
Long Bay we had to travel on the main road
from Hanoi to Haiphong, a port that had
been heavily bombed by the A m e r i c a n s .
Steve, who had been on that road six years
before, warned me that it was going to be a
h a i r-raising trip. In fact, he was stunned to
see a wide and good road with new manufacturing
establishments lining both sides
almost the entire length of the 3 hour trip.
Vietnam is indeed very poor. But Vietnam is
developing with a mixture of private investment
and plant and government-owned
operations. What we saw on the road was
private, undoubtedly attracted by labor that
is cheaper than Chinese or Thai labor. It will
be interesting to see whether this one-party
state will go as whole hog for capitalism as
China is doing or whether it will retain a
greater element of socialism in its economy.
There are, indeed, all kinds of privatelyowned
small shops and businesses in the
towns and cities. But the influx of the manufacturing
multinationals from all over the
world is a newer phenomenon that brings
wealth but that can also have downsides
such a labor exploitation, a very uneven
income and wealth distribution, and threats
to the traditional economies.
Some of the most interesting traditional
economies are in the far north, near the Chinese border. We made a trip up there to Sapa, a mountain
village first created by the French colonialists as a mountain
retreat. The French called these mountains the Tonkinese
Alps. The Vietnamese call them the Hoang Lien Mountains.
Sapa is situated in the traditional lands of several of what
the Vietnamese refer to as “minorities.” The majority in
Vietnam call themselves the Viets (Viet Nam means “Viet
man” in Vietnamese). But when you get into the mountainous
regions of north and central Vietnam, you find people
who are ethnically and linguistically distinct. Sapa is locat –
ed on an elevated position overlooking a valley in which
there is a H’mong village. This village does not have houses
clustered together, but rather houses scattered over an
expanse in which there are terraced rice paddies and animal
husbandry. From the valley, one looks in the other direction
at the highest mountain in Vietnam called Fanispan (3,143
meters). It is a truly beautiful site where visitors can enjoy
trekking through the valleys or climbing Fanispan.
In the city of Sapa there is a market in which both the
H’mong people, who wear predominantly black, and the
Dao people, who wear predominantly red, sell their beautiful
crafts. Some of the H’mong people, especially young
girls and old women (in these mountains, which did not suffer
direct American attacks, I did see many old people) are
much more aggressive about selling their wares on the
streets of Sapa outside of the market. The old women, particularly,
do not hesitate to place a hat or another article of
clothing on a visitor who is protesting that he or she is not
interested in the item. They have even been known to follow
people into restaurants, usually to be hustled out by the
owners or waiters. Whether one finds their persistence
annoying or amusing, what they have to sell is almost
always some of the most colorful woven work that one will
see anywhere in the world. In addition to this, there are several
higher-end stores that feature silk items, such as cloth –
ing and pillow covers, that reflect the fine silk and careful
work of the local people.
While most of the minority people living near Sapa have
had limited, if any, formal education, a number have picked
up English largely from the predominantly A u s t r a l i a n
tourists who have been frequenting the area. Thus they are
not just people dressed and adorned in interesting ways
offering beautiful crafts, they are also often people with
whom one can have conversations and from whom one can
learn things about their products and their everyday lives.
They will often ask about you as well.
My ten days in northern Vietnam were an extraordinary
experience that I would encourage others to share. The
flight is expensive, but there are discount tickets available
(I got mine from Travnet in Chicago). American citizens
need a visa and should have inoculations. Once you are in
the country, the costs are minimal. Meals can be had for a
couple of dollars, hotel double rooms for $15 to $45. For
travel outside of the city, I would recommend going with a
local eco-travel agency. We used Handspan Adventure
Travel (, an agency started by students
at Hanoi University. They are highly recommended by
Lonely Planet’s guide to Vietnam (which I, in turn, highly
recommend to anyone intending to visit Vietnam) and their
service was indeed excellent. Five days traveling round-trip
from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay and from Hanoi to Sapa
included transportation, lodging, a guide, and meals except
drinks other than bottled water. All this came to about $225
per person.
Visiting Vietnam provides one with the chance to meet
some of the nicest people I have ever met in my many years
of travel, to aid their economy, and to reach out to a country
so badly devastated by our government in the 1960s and
1970s. If you cannot afford to travel there but would like to
help them economically, educationally, and medically, consider
a contribution to East Meets West Foundation
( In significant ways, they attempt
to compensate for the extraordinary damage that our government
delivered upon these warm and forgiving people
who refuse to be dominated by others, whether they be
French, Japanese, or American.

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