Imprint Tours recently completed a first successful tour of Vietnam, our newest destination. The tour began in Hanoi, which I found to be a very pleasant city. The city feels fresh and vibrant with attractive old and new architecture. There are lots of green spaces – large parks with lakes and temples where one sees locals picnicking with their families or doing tai chi in the dawn light. One such park, surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake, was an easy stroll from our hotel. A very picturesque temple, Ngoc Son, sits on a tiny island in the lake. It is reached by a traditional red Vietnamese bridge and is illuminated at night, making a very romantic setting.
Also within walking distance was the bustling, densely populated Old Quarter, the traditional heart of Hanoi. This is the Asian cityscape of your imagination with street vendors, motorbikes, narrow and congested streets, and the constant, exotic smells of Vietnamese cooking. It’s a great place to come for dinner. Street names reflect the traditional commerce conducted for hundreds of years, such as Rice, Jewel, or Silk St. Visiting this part of the city, one cannot avoid the in-your-face reality that you’re not in Kansas anymore Toto. I found it exhilarating.
On our first day we visited the infamous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison) and the Temple of Literature, the city’s two top sights. The prison was slightly chilling, as prisons often are. Models and mockups showed the inhumane treatment that occurred, but we had to use our imaginations to get a true idea of what it was like. It was our first exposure to the slanted anti-American propaganda promulgated at any war memorial.
They say that history is written by the victors, and so the version presented is quite different from our American perspectives. I found the heavy-handed versions to be equal parts amusing and thought provoking. However, I must point out, there was no identifiable anti-American feeling or attitude from the people themselves, none whatsoever. They seem a very content people, willing to let the past be the past. Their healthy attitudes translated into a welcoming and friendly visit for us.
I enjoyed the Temple of Literature much more. A peaceful and quiet refuge from the hustle of the city, this religious/ philosophical retreat was quite a contrast to Hoa Lo. Nearly 1000 years old, the temple complex boasts fine examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture and honors the country’s greatest ancient scholars and literary figures.
Formal gardens with ponds and canals surround several courtyards. In the first, 82 stone tablets pay homage to past intellectuals of merit, inscribed with their names and accomplishments. An impressive tiered gateway serves as entrance to an inner courtyard dominated by an impressive wooden temple devoted to Confucius. The interior is dominated by a large, colorful statue of Confucius and wisps of incense add to the non-western ambiance. As Hanoi is not far from the border Chinese influences in philosophy, religion, and architecture are strong here.
Nearby is a different kind of temple - the secular version. The impressive Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh is here in Hanoi. We never had time to visit, but did manage a photo op on our way to Halong Bay. The building is classic communist era architecture: monumental in scale, austere in aspect, and military in style. Uncle Ho, who eschewed pomp and circumstance, would probably not have approved. But it is a fitting monument for those Vietnamese citizens who wish to pay their respects to this highly revered, national father figure. And for us, it is an iconic image of modern Hanoi and a fitting symbol for post-war Vietnam.