Last year, I also visited the city of Hanoi around this time of year to attend the Board Governance and Leadership Workshop at UNIS Hanoi, an international school that hosts the workshop. As a member of the Shanghai American School board, I attended this workshop together with dozens of other board members from schools all over Asia and as far away as South Africa. On the weekend of Sept 2-3, I attended the workshop for the second time and once again it proved a very valuable and rewarding experience. The 130 or so board members and administrative leaders from a few dozen schools who attended the workshop together constitute an amazing gathering of intelligence, knowledge, and experience. These people have lived, worked, run schools, and done business in many different countries and regions around the world and have amassed decades of experience doing so. The stories they share about the experiences, trials, and ordeals they have gone through in different countries and their international outlook in general makes me feel very provincial by comparison. While at the Board Workshop last year, I had a chance to explore a bit of the city along with my fellow SAS board members. We were staying at the Metropole, a famous landmark hotel in the middle of town in the “Old Town” district. I enjoyed walking around the small lake in the middle of the Old Town known as "Sword Lake" ( Ho Hoan Kiem) which though quite touristy has its charms.
This time, the workshop organizers put us up at the Intercontinental Westlake Hotel, which is closer to the school. It proved to be a very fine hotel, built on the lakeside with a great lake view and also a large pool which I’ve been using regularly for exercise. My room was quite roomy with a balcony looking out onto the pool and lake view. I highly recommend this hotel for family vacationers. Mostly I encountered Korean and Chinese guests at the hotel, but there were quite a few other foreigners as well. After the workshop ended on Sunday and my fellow board members went home, I remained in Hanoi for a few more days in order to visit some international schools and introduce Duke Kunshan University’s new undergraduate program to them. The responses were very positive and I envision many students from Vietnam going to DKU in the future.
Since Monday was a national holiday, I had a full day to relax and enjoy the city, which I took full advantage of especially since I had been on the road and in meetings and conferences for over a week by that time. On the advice of some folks I met at the conference, I began the day by touring the National Museum of Vietnamese History. Located in the old town area, the museum is composed of two separate buildings that lie across the road from each other. Both are grand old buildings. First, I visited the modern history building, which is divided into multiple rooms showcasing the history of the country since the 19th century, and going through phases of colonialism, resistance, war (WWII), and of course what we call the Vietnam War, followed by a final phase of independence and nation-building which has lasted to today. It was an eery experience to visit this part of the museum, as the building was cavernous and nearly empty. I imagined that on a national holiday celebrating the country’s birthday, there would be plenty of Vietnamese people there, but no, I think I just counted around five people in all, and mostly they were foreigners. I guess that the Vietnamese people are mostly too busy thinking about their future to recall their past. Among all the photos, letters, and other paraphernalia (and there was a ton of interesting stuff, even though the signage was mostly in Vietnamese) the most remarkable item I found in the museum was a guillotine used by the French colonialists to execute people.
The other building contained a treasure trove of artifacts dating back to ancient times. Overall I was left with a profound sense of how much influence Chinese civilization has exerted on this country (or the kingdoms and territories that eventually composed this country) but also how the ancestors of present-day Vietnamese invented their owns modes and twists of cultural expression within that framework. There was also a section on Indian influence, which was much smaller and shunted off to the side, suggesting that the Vietnamese are more proud of their Chinese-influenced heritage. Even so, I’ve heard many times that Vietnamese people are not too keen on China in the modern and contemporary era.
After accepting a bicycle rickshaw ride from an old man who huffed and puffed his way up an incline into the center of the old town by the lake, I strolled over to the stately old St. Joseph’s Cathedral, another icon in this part of town dating back to the late 19th century. The weather was very hot and humid and I was in a constant sweat as I strolled around town. This is a very touristy part of town with streets and alleyways filled with shops, cafes, restaurants and travel agencies dedicated to the international tourist trade. Hundreds of European, American, and Asian tourists flock to this area to shop for knick knacks and souvenirs or plan the next stage of their adventure in Vietnam. Sure enough, the photos and maps in the numerous travel agencies looked very enticing, beckoning travelers to other parts of the country. Amidst the shops there were several selling revolutionary posters which bore a resemblance to those in Mao era China. Most of them appeared to be knock-offs, though when I asked a seller she told me that the big posters were going for 150 to 300 dollars and were genuine articles. That seems very cheap to me, but could be the real market price. I’m sure they will rise in future as they’ve done in China after collectors went in in the 1990s and hoarded them.
The streets of the old town are organized by trade, with each street devoted to a particular type of good. Walking around that part of town, I found myself in a labyrinth of streets featuring rows after rows of shops. On one street they were selling bedding, on another locks, another had paintings, and one street was dedicated to Chinese medicine. On some of these old streets, there seemed to be continuities going back centuries.
There were also quite a few small old temples and guild halls interspersed among the shops on these streets and I enjoyed exploring those as well. The temples and guild halls were of Chinese origins—there was a guild hall for the Fujianese merchants for example. Even so, the eclectic, colorful decorations and the images of Ho Chi Min inside some of the temples indicated we were in Vietnam. All this persistence of tradition made me wonder if the country had indeed undergone a communist revolution. Clearly the revolution in Vietnam wasn’t nearly as destructive of traditional cultures as was the Cultural Revolution in China.
Or was it? Appearances can be deceiving, but it seems like Hanoi is still an ancient city in many respects, with a strong Chinese inflection but also a more modern French influence layered upon it. Cafes and restaurants lining the lake area gave it that feeling.
Yet a visit to the Temple of Literature reinforced my strong impression of the deep influence that Chinese civilization left on Hanoi, with its tributes to Confucius and Mencius and its stele recording the Chinese names of scholars from the Song dynasty period of neighboring China.
While Vietnamese have their own distinctive culture, there is no denying the Chinese influence in this part of the country. With its temples and shops, its crowded, narrow streets, with folks noshing on local food on stools in alleyways, and countless people flashing by on motorcycles and in rickshaws, it felt in many respects like a small Chinese city, though one untouched by the Mao years.
The folk music I heard and the ambience of the streets somehow reminded me more of Taiwan than Mainland China. All in all, my second visit to Hanoi left me with a thousand questions about the history and culture of the Vietnamese people, both ancient and recent—-questions that will have to wait for my next visit, when hopefully I can spend more time in the country and see more of it. Ho Chi Min City awaits!