Sorry… internet issues last night.
I had a really enjoyable few days in Hanoi. Besides the xe drivers who drive like they are racing demon spawn, the pace of life is actually fairly laid back. I spent my first day there just wandering. I walked around and saw the city. I didn't plan to go anywhere and thus didn't end up anywhere. The city is a combination of old French style building, French boulevards, alley ways, and buildings that are much more Asian than French. French colonialism has left a visual mark on everything in Hanoi. But what surprised me the most was the mark of Chinese cultural “imperialism” that had a much deeper and older impact on the culture. While ther are some major mountains between Vietnam and China, Vietnam has fallen under the influence of China in ways that no other part of Southeast Asia has (except perhaps Malaysia with a very strong immigrant Chinese population).
One of my first stops was Hoa Lo prison (sometimes referred to as the Hanoi Hilton). The prison was built by the French to deal with Vietnamese prisoners and revolutionaries. After the French, the government used it first as a place to hold/torture their opponents. During the Vietnam war, it was used for housing American POWs. To me the most interesting aspect was the propaganda factor. The prison was portrayed as a horrible place were many many Vietnamese died and then a fairly luxurious space for the American POWs, with pictures of decorating for Christmas and having fun playing card games.
After the Hoa Lo prison, I headed to the Temple of Literature, one of the grandest temples in Hanoi. Here I could really see the Chinese influence in Vietnam. The Temple of Literature looks mostly like any other Confucian temple I have ever seen. It is also the site of the first “university” where scholars would go to study the Confucian classics to prepare for national exams. The university was originally founded by the Ly dynasty (I think) around 1050.
The Ho Chi Minh museum was near Uncle Ho's mausoleum had a bland exhibit about the Vietnamese communist party and then a surprising interesting exhibit about the social conditions in the world in the late 19 th and early 20th centurys that allowed for the foundation and growth of the communist movement. (I think the exhibit would have been even more interesting if I could have read what all the signs said… ) There was definitely a propaganda element and glorification of Unlcle Ho abounded, but it was actually a well presented exhibition. Outside the museum was a pagoda built on one big-ass pillar (and by pagoda they mean a small one story temple.) It is a fairly well known Hanoi sight and there were lots of tourists and worshipers.
Finally during my final evening in Hanoi, I went to see a water puppetry show. It was tourist kitsch, but it was a fairly amazing art form. The stage was a large pool of water and puppets controlled on the end of long poles (I assume) danced and “performed” on the surface on the pool.
I also have a picture post of extra pictures from Hanoi…