I’ve finally arrived at my last stop in southeast Asia–Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. I can’t believe how quickly these 3 weeks have flown by, and how much I’ve seen and experienced. As soon as we arrived in Hanoi yesterday afternoon, I was struck by how busy, narrow, and winding the streets are. Hanoi is only slightly smaller than Saigon (and NYC) at 7.5 million people. And as in Saigon, everyone seems to drive motorbikes and there are very few traffic signs.
One of the first things we did in Hanoi was visit a water puppet show. While a few weeks ago I didn’t think I would be interested in this, I am so glad I decided to go last minute…it was so cute! The play was conducted in Vietnamese, so I tried to follow along as best as possible. The traditional music was really nice too. The dragons breathing fire over the water and the story involving the war general and the turtle were my favorite parts.
After getting a late start to the day this morning after a late night last night, a few of us went to the Temple of Literature. This was by far my favorite part of Hanoi! The temple was the first university in Vietnam and was built in the 11th century as a temple to Confucius. Students would travel from far away to take the entrance exam given once every 13 years (meaning if you failed, you had to wait 13 years to try again). Once admitted, students lived at the temple and studied the theories and philosophy of Confucius, as well as literature. Math, history, and sciences were added to the curriculum once the French arrived in Vietnam in the 19th century.
The temple features rows and rows of stone turtles with names engraved on tablets on their shells. These names represent the graduates of the university. If any graduate did something to shame his family, his name was removed from the tablet. Sadly, women were not allowed to attend the university. Apparently, one brave girl dressed like and pretended to be a guy for years, and graduated with honors. Only after accepting a position in the king’s court did she reveal her gender. The king was furious, but allowed her to keep the position. However, he still did not open the doors to women to study (women were allowed to attend in the 19th century).
Legend holds that it is good luck for scholars to visit the temple of Confucius and the statue of the turtle, which is a sacred animal in Vietnamese culture, before their exams. As I walked throughout the temple, I couldn’t help but think about my decision to go to law school and how the next 3 years of my life will be so completely different and challenging. I felt a lot of peace about my decision to go to graduate school, and I hope the good vibes I felt in the temple will carry me through 3 years worth of law school exams and the bar exam! Especialy after the visit here, I feel excited and ready for this next page in my life.
In the afternoon, I struck off by myself to enjoy some solo wandering around the city. I enjoyed sitting in a tiny child-size chair (which is the norm in Hanoi) and sipping tea, as well as walking around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. I also had some traditional Vietnamese coffee and green tea cake for lunch (so nutritious haha). Vietnam has amazing coffee, and it should be a destination for any coffee lover.
The most shocking part of my visit to Hanoi was the Hoa Lo prison. This prison was used to imprison Vietnamese rebels during the French war, but was also used by the Vietcong during the US war. This is the famous “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain was held captive after his plane was shot down over Hanoi, as well as many other US soldiers. I have very mixed feelings about my visit to this prison. A good portion of the exhibit focused on the sacrifices of the Vietnamese prisoners during their war of independence against the French. Many exhibits had lifelike statues of prisoners in the dark cells and rooms, and I found myself wishing I had not come here by myself! It was really creepy.
Towards the end of the exhibit, the materials focused on the US war and the treatment of US war prisoners. According to the museum exhibit, American soldiers “deeply appreciated the humane treatment of the government of Vietnam.” The exhibit claimed “their privacy and personal time were also well respected.” I really had to bite my tongue. The torture that so many American soldiers endured in this prison was not mentioned a single time. It was tough to stomach reading such a one-sided representation of history. Even though most would agree the US made some terrible policy decisions in Vietnam, it seems unjust for the suffering of US soldiers who were willing to fight for their country (even if it was a flawed calling) to be so glossed over.
It was extremely interesting to see John McCain’s flight suit and parachute from when he was captured near Hanoi in 1967. McCain was notoriously tortured at Hoa Lo by the Vietcong, and to this day cannot raise either arm above 80 degrees because of the torture he endured. However, I learned through outside research (not at Hoa Lo of course lol…) that he has spent part of his political career to work towards improving relations with Vietnam, which I find extremely admirable.
Sadly, Hanoi is the only place on my trip thus far where someone has tried to rip me off. It’s happened twice so far–once in the bar where the bartender just did not bring me my drinks after I paid (he finally did after I insisted), and a second time with a rigged taxi meter (my friends and I paid about 4x what we should have because the meter was running so much faster than it should have been). Although all of my other experiences here have been positive, this of course leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. However, there are so many other things about Hanoi I loved, like the Temple of Literature and Hoan Kiem Lake (but not so much Hanoi Hilton!), that overall it’s been a very positive visit.
Tomorrow, I leave Hanoi for Lima, Peru, with layovers in Qatar and the US. It will be great to be in the US for a few hours!! To everyone who has made my time in Asia so special, I say khob khun ka, arkoun, and cam on…thank you in Thai, Khmer, and Vietnamese 🙂