Travel Log: Vietnam – The North

Striving towards becoming borderless involves traveling the world. How else can one really experience a culture without visiting?

Image: iStock

Hanoi is bedlam! Motor bikes, bicycles, scooters, cars and trucks all trying to navigate simultaneously with their horns, rules of the road and traffic signals are completely ignored and pedestrian crossings serve no other purpose than to consume white paint. I have taken to crossing the streets holding out my pointer and tall man fingers like I am going to poke out someone’s eyes should they fail to stop; using this method has succeeded when the throngs of pedestrians are not present. With pedestrians added it is impossible to move by vehicle or on foot; the best analogy is an over attended street fair with merchandise spilling out into the “byways” and all vehicles permitted to go in either direction when they are able to move.

There are 2 “open spaces”; the lake in the center of town where nobody walks on water (but I am sure they would if possible) near the old quarter where we are staying, and the other is the old colonial estate which has become a huge complex dedicated exclusively to “Uncle Ho”.  He refused to live in the old colonial building preferring instead to occupy 2 very small 3 room houses, on the grounds, consisting of a bedroom, a living room and an office which are 800 square feet, at most, each. However his mausoleum is about 5 stories high and every year for 2 months in September and October his body is sent to Russia for “touch up embalming” and entry to mausoleum is prohibited. Needless to add the structure is guarded by soldiers 24/7/365. Lastly is a 3 story museum solely devoted to his life  from his humble family in the 1880s and spanning his entire lifetime in painstaking detail via photos and writings and official papers until about 1980 10 years after his death when ceremonies honoring his life seem to have ceased.   The presentation is amazingly slanted; his only acknowledged imperfections were a lifetime addiction to cigarettes which ultimately caused his death from lung cancer and his total preoccupation with building Vietnam from French colony to independent nation which precluded him from ever marrying and having a family of his own.  Of course there is no mention of his a different woman every night lifestyle, apparently acceptable if not expected in this part of the world, and  like the pre colonial emperors, (some of whom had dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines) or how many illegitimate children he fathered but if anyone came forward claiming to be a descendant of his there for sure would not be any DNA made available to compare and that individual would be imprisoned.

CCO/Public Domain Image of Hanoi Hilton

The Hanoi Hilton also offers insight into convenient memory syndrome; most of it has been demolished and what remains has been turned into a museum with more emphasis on its use and brutality by the French imperialists who originally constructed it than how captured Americans were treated. They take great pains to show the American pilots playing cards, chess, checkers, volleyball, celebrating Christmas Eve etc. But what the French did to their prisoners via torture and deprivation of food and water is painstakingly documented so as to give a neutral observer the impression that American confinement was not so bad.

While we are on the negative I noticed that despite tropical heat and humidity most Vietnamese wear masks on their faces and long sleeve shirts and pants all the time and will not go to the beaches to swim. The reason has to do with racism! Like in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) period in the American South, the darker a Vietnamese person’s skin is the less desirable in terms of physical beauty he or she is thought to be; so much so that the leading cosmetic product sold by far is WHITENING cream!!; think Michael Jackson. Unbelievable.

The rest of my time North of Hoi An was spent chasing history. We visited Hue site of the Tet offensive in 1968 and I explained to the group its importance in turning American sentiment against our continued participation. I tried to  detail the impact of the nightly TV news reports on the nation’s psyche where with half a million men on the ground and though we “won” the battle after 25 days sentiment had changed and the perception became that we could not win this war  and it led to Johnson’s abdication of his presidency and therefore  this was the reason Tet marked the turning point in our involvement in the war.  I also broke away from the group to visit Dien Bien Phu which was the site of the battle in 1954  where the French lost to the Vietnamese and gained independence from colonial rule. Naturally again there is much slanted representation but the experience was portrayed in a factual manner. Numerous areas around the city have been made into historic sites; the battle lasted for 6 months before the French lost, and the center of the city is dominated by a huge bronze monument on one of the highest hills overlooking the city.

What I also learned was that the Americans funded the cost of 70% of the battle and provided all the air support for the French armies. The  North Vietnamese General Giap, architect of the victory, is still alive at 100 years of age but he is unable to leave his care facility. I had to forgo Halong bay an area with unique limestone cliffs and two 4 hour bus rides on consecutive days in exchange for 2 additional 1 hour flights in order to do this but I travel better by air than by bus anyway. I should also mention that I did not see another Caucasian during my visit to Dien Bien Phu and my guide was kind enough to take me to a traditional village about 5 miles outside the city where the rice harvest was on going. I never realized the amount of manual labor needed to grow this crop which is the staple of all the people in Asia.

Next stop….?


Author: Peter Jacob is a globe-hopper extraordinaire. He is an exemplary single father of a 23 year old daughter and a failed real estate professional in Park Slope, Brooklyn who nonetheless remains employed at the same firm for 26+ years and lives in the same non price controlled Park Slope apartment for 23 years. His psychiatrist has been treating his dysfunctions for 16+ years and has concluded he is resistant to change.


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