Humidity punctuated the heat of the day with a wetness that counteracted showering and rendered makeup useless. Sweat found its way into everything, leaving us dehydrated to a dangerous level despite the fact that we were constantly soaking wet. Water everywhere and on everything. Incidentally, water is not potable in Vietnam. It has to come from a bottle. Oftentimes, we would just drink beer instead. (This is not recommended. Ever.)
We came up with a curious way to get around our language barrier. We learned how to say “How much does this cost?” (“Bao nhiêu?”) and “That’s too much.” (Qua’ nhiê’u tiê’n.) Then we would hand over however much money we were intending to pay. The result is that usually, we were able to fake our way into getting better deals by pretending we knew the numbers. True story. Often they would hand us change.
Still I have no idea how to say anything else. Except “thank you.” (Cảm ơn).
Our second day in the city was spent exploring the downtown area. Hanoi, being the capital city of Vietnam and the capital of North Vietnam during the war, gave off a heavy vibe of politics. No, politics is the wrong word. Everything about the city felt Communist. The shape of the buildings reminded me of Russia. The gates on the buildings. The colors in the advertisements. Everything in Hanoi proudly proclaimed that they were proud of their nation. And by “nation” read “government.”
There were frequent nods to other great communist leaders. Like Lenin. And Castro.
We walked out to visit Uncle Ho. Ho Chi Minh, the great leader of the nation is still housed in a mausoleum downtown. You can visit to pay your respects before noon.
He is still on display, like a wake that’s been going on for over thirty years. They’re very strict about respects in visiting him. Like visiting a temple, dress must be respectful: women must have shoulders and knees covered. Men must not be wearing shorts. We watched people pulled out of line; tourists with no idea there was a dress code. Visiting Ho Chi Minh is a solemn thing, and we file through the mausoleum quickly. He’s guarded with a full dress guard armed with AK47s. There’s to be no smiling. There’s to be no laughing. No talking. No! You must be respectful, keep moving, and be on your way.
So we waited for about an hour, saw the dead guy and then continued on our way. One thing that we were excited to do was see some museums, to get a feel for the other side of the Vietnam conflict. I was curious to learn more about the other side of the story.
To start off, Vietnam was so fought over that they refer to each of their conflicts by the name of the aggressor. So instead having 12 “Vietnam Wars” they call it the “American War.”
There was a serious history lesson for me and a stark reminder that history is not determined by those who are right, rather it is determined by those who are left. For most of my past, I’ve been content with the knowledge I have about the war. Content with the history books and what the media told me.
Seeing the other side of the story was sobering and unsettling. Hanoi’s version of events was along the lines of celebrating their victory against the aggressors. (You know. Us.) More on the war in the Saigon posts. There were military displays on war equipment and tactics.
More importantly, there was air conditioning.
Our next stop was the temple of Literature or Văn Miếu in Vietnamese. Let me preface this by saying if you have never been out of the US, its hard to appreciate something like this. I’m not saying that its a bad thing, only that there is nothing at ALL in the USA that can compare to a place like this.
Because this temple was built in 1070.
Blows my mind.
Really, when you think about the history that we have in our country, it pales. Restoring a building back to the way it was in 1647 or in 1776 does not have the same effect. A temple that was built before history was even being recorded correctly. Not to mention that its still standing despite wars and bombings and all of the strife that Hanoi has seen.
It humbles me, but also reminds me of how much world there is. How much history there is. How little I have had a chance to experience. It makes me want to see everything…
Dedicated to Confucius, the temple is split into five courtyards. The main gate opens into three pathways which continue through the temple complex. The central path was once reserved for the monarch. The left path for the administrative Mandarins and the Right path for military Mandarins. Since I’m a princess, I walked in the middle. The first two courtyards are quiet areas with ancient trees and trimmed lawns, where scholars would relax away from the bustle of the outside world. The noise from the traffic and the bustle of Hanoi fell away. There was such peace, such symmetry as I walked into the temple. A stillness blanketed the area, and I realized that everything was balanced. Every tree, every plant, everything for a millennium had been meticulously trimmed, nurtured and cultivated so that each plant on either side of the main path was mirrored.
Walking into the second courtyard, the peace continues. Wikipedia tells me that “The ‘Constellation of literature pavilion’ is built on four white-washed stone stilts. At the top is a red-colored pavilion with two circular windows and an elaborate roof. Beside the “Constellation of Literature pavilion” are the “Crystallization of Letters” gate (“Suc Văn”) and the “Magnificence of Letters” gate (“Bi Văn”). These two gates are dedicated to the beauty of the content and the form of literature.” Which is not immediately evident when you walk in, but its still really pretty.
The stillness in the second courtyard really moved me. I wanted to just stay and write. There was a tangible feeling of inspiration, a humming to the air that made it feel electric. The overcast sky and threatening weather did not make me feel any less centered in this area. There was something that pulled at the innermost feelings of my being. Mysticism or magic, whatever you might call it- everything about this temple vibrated.
Insistent on seeing everything before the sky opened up to pour on our already soaked selves, we moved into the third courtyard.
Really, it just looked like a pool. With a lot of algae. I wondered if at one point it had been used for bathing, but I can’t find any evidence of that. It was, however, around for over a thousand years, so I really can’t complain much.
We wandered through the other courtyards of the temple and dodged a rainstorm by hiding out in a gift shop that had once been a classroom. We got beautiful gifts for loved ones at home and enjoyed the serenity that balances out the chaos in the rest of the city.