Hanoi – from mausoleum to water puppets

In Vietnam’s case, Hanoi does not boast the elegant restaurants, nightlife, or frenetic activity of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

By BEN G. FRANK
May 16, 2015 22:15
A VIETNAMESE family on a motorbike in Hanoi

A VIETNAMESE family on a motorbike in Hanoi. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)

This past April 30, the world was reminded of the 40th anniversary of the end of a brutal war in Southeast Asia, historically known as the Second Indochina War, or the war between the US and Vietnam.

So we thought it fitting to recount a recent visit to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, especially in these times – when about 8 million international visitors arrive in the country each year.

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Frequently, the well-traveled tourist realizes that capital cities often vie with other metropolitan areas in their nation; Washington–New York City, Jerusalem–Tel Aviv, Rome-Milan and Brasilia-Rio de Janeiro come to mind.

In Vietnam’s case, Hanoi does not boast the elegant restaurants, nightlife, or frenetic activity of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Having said that, however, Hanoi stands on its own two feet for the visitor, especially in regard to the art and culture evident in the museums and the exquisite French architecture, as well as some historic sites – making it well-worth a trip to this capital city of about 6 million, situated in northern Vietnam on the west bank of the Red River, 90 km. from the Gulf of Tonkin.

No wonder this traditional administrative center is called “The city within the river’s bend.”

I recall my flight to Hanoi a few years ago. The country is in the midst of celebrating its 1,000th anniversary (founded in 1010). Greeting me is the Vietnamese flag, a five-pointed gold star centered on a field of red. The color red stands for Communism, officially adopted by the Vietnamese when they declared independence in 1945 from the French – an independence that would be thwarted by France and the US for 30 years.

Although the restaurants, the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake and the shops in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter draw tourists, a main attraction is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, designed by Soviet architects and modeled on Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. Ho was the revolutionary founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party and leader of North Vietnam, recognizable in photos by his characteristic goatee.

But before visiting Ho’s mausoleum, we seek out some fun and relaxation: a visit to the ever-popular water puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, 57 B. Dinh Tien Hoang St., usually quite booked. This is a unique, traditional Vietnamese art, originating from rural festivals. The puppeteers – both men and women – stand waist-deep in water to manipulate the puppets, making them move about, talk, laugh and even dance on the surface of the water; their technical skills are outstanding.

Like all puppet shows, the mood is light and gay, and just as intriguing as watching the manipulation of the puppets in the water is enjoying the musical instruments and the exotic music that comes forth.

The audience loves it, and we walk out with smiles on our tired faces after a long day of touring.

During the day we stop at the Opera House, still grand and modeled after the one in Paris.

We drive past imposing mansions and buildings lining the leafy boulevards of the former French Quarter. It seems we are always passing Hoan Kiem Lake; we notice couples strolling around the lake, people doing exercise or riding bikes, and groups on their way to evening entertainment.

Because we are interested in history, we go over to Hoa Lo Prison, 1 Hoa Lo St. in the Hoam Kiem District, located in downtown Hanoi. Americans know this infamous prison, ironically named the “Hanoi Hilton”; built by the French, it was used during the Vietnam War to house downed US pilots.

THE NEXT DAY, we wait in the hot sun to see Ho Chi Minh, the father of the nation, at his mausoleum – one of the most visited sites in Hanoi. Even in the heat, we must stand still in relatively long lines, and move along with almost military precision.

Schoolchildren go first; uniformed veterans with their green uniforms and red epaulettes join the line. I take their pictures, and they know I am an American; it seems they have forgotten yesterday and look to tomorrow.

Finally, we enter the darkened room where Ho lies in state. Total silence. The guard moves us along; it is all over in less than a minute and we file out into the bright sunshine, into a picnic atmosphere where schoolchildren play amid lively shrieks. They love to be photographed.

I recall that in previous years, I had visited the embalmed Lenin in Red Square, and Mao Tse-tung in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Now I had seen Ho.

From the mausoleum, visitors are directed across Ba Dinh Square to Ho Chi Minh’s house, built in the compound of the former Presidential Palace.

Now a party guesthouse, the palace was the residence of the governor-general of French Indochina, built between 1900 and 1908. Ho declined to live in the palace, saying it belonged to the people, staying in what is said to have been an electrician’s hut in the same compound from 1954- 1958, before moving to a new silt house built on the other side of the small lake. Behind the house is Ho’s bomb shelter; he died in his house in 1969, where he lived alone.

After our tour, our guide meets us and offers up a joke, the type often heard in authoritarian countries where, in private, people josh about their leaders verbally – although they will never criticize the government in public, at least in print. Loosening the safety valve, it might be called. I heard the same type of jokes in Cuba about Fidel Castro, who is still alive.

Here is a Vietnamese version of this kind of joke, which the guide told us after we had left the mausoleum where Uncle Ho lies in state.

“That was very interesting,” we tell the guide.

“Tell me,” he answers. “Did he wave back at you?” We all laugh.

I turn back to snap another photo of that imposing mausoleum, reflecting that Ho, Mao and Joseph Stalin would all be shocked to see that their lands are not only deeply involved in “dreaded” free market activities, but also that they are now being teased in front of tourists from capitalist countries.

Well, the joke is on them, n’est-ce pas?

A small Jewish community is active in Hanoi and welcomes Jewish visitors from Israel, the US, Australia, France, England and other destinations; a monthly community Shabbat dinner is held. Contact: www.jewishhanoi.com

In Ho Chi Minh City, contact the Chabad Jewish Center at 5A (Villa) Nguyen Dinh Chieu St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City; www.Jewishvietnam.com

Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond (Globe Pequot Press); A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, third edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine; and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America (Pelican Publishing Company). Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, Twitter: @bengfrank


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