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GOOD SPIRITS IN HA NOI

By H. Clark

Good Spirits 1On my most recent trip to Sai Gon, Viet Nam, in December 2015, I used the occasion to visit Ha Noi and Hue for the first time. I was born in Sai Gon and it is still beloved, but I am disappointed to see new high-rise buildings that are sprouting up everywhere. It felt suffocating! It’s a shame that modernization has changed the face of Sai Gon to the degree that it confuses me as well as many Vietnamese living there. In addition to the new buildings, many of the street names have been changed, which only added to my sense of confusion. An older taxi cab driver that I met shook his head as he told me that he sees new changes going on every month. Looking at a construction site at the intersection of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi streets, I felt sad, because in that place will rise yet more modern buildings. In my opinion, this is the ongoing process by which Sai Gon and Viet Nam as a whole are being brought into a more modern world.

Good Spirits 2Ha Noi and Hue gave me the feeling as if I had traveled back in time because of the way they had been preserved, just as I had read and imagined. I was impressed! I considered myself lucky to have been able to visit such historic sites. Of the two cities, I particularly loved Hue for its serenity.
While in Hanoi, I decided to take a one-day tour of the country’s ancient and now abandoned capital, Hoa Lu (Flowers of Reeds), which is about 68 miles to the south. It was a nice way to break up the routine of sightseeing in Ha Noi as it represented a giant step back in time. Hoa Lu was the first capital city of Viet Nam from 968 to 1009 AD. It was a relatively small city of about one square mile, yet it played a significant role in the history of Viet Nam.

Good Spirits 3As I walked around what was left of the temples, palaces, pagodas and pavilions of this ancient city,
I was still able to come away with a perspective and greater understanding as to its place in the history of Viet Nam. I think one can get the most enjoyment out of a visit to this ancient city if one would try to learn some of the history of Hoa Lu in the 10th century.

Archaeological explorations of the site have developed information that, during its lifetime, Hoa Lu was a magnificent royal citadel. It was protected from invading armies as it was surrounded by large mountain chains and the Hoang Long (Golden Dragon) River. These two geographical features were the primary factors in ensuring the country’s on-going independence from the Chinese.

Good Spirits 4Vietnamese have long held a mystical belief in the power of dragons. I can easily imagine that the residents of Hoa Lu knew that the karst topography (limestone formations that have become eroded over time leaving underground caves and streams, sinkholes on the surface along with steep, upward spiraling rocky cliffs) of the area could be the perfect place for dragons to live. In some places, the peaks overshadowed other mountains. Passing clouds of mist would only create more mystery as to the dragon’s existence. To this day, I continue to hope that my imagination might be proven to be real. I have this hope because not until in the late 1930’s the giant panda was thought to be a mythical creature. We can still hope!

Hoa Lu marks a splendid historical period in the history of Viet Nam. Viet Nam was occupied by China from the first to the tenth century AD. In 968 AD, Hoa Lu became the capital as well as the economic, political and cultural center of Vietnam following years of civil war and secessionist movements against China. The capital was established by the first King of Viet Nam, Dinh Tien Hoang, and existed for 41 years, during which the first 12 years belonged to the Dinh Dynasty. The next 29 years were ruled by the Le Dynasty. It became a place where many important issues of the day were raised, discussed, debated and established.

In 1010, King Ly Thai To decided to move the capital city from Hoa Lu to Thang Long (now Ha Noi), where it remains to this day. In 1802, King Gia Long decided to rule from Hue relegating Ha Noi to the status of a regional capital for a century. The Kings reigned from 968 to 1945 and the rest is history.

Ha Noi hosts more cultural sites than any other city in Viet Nam, and boasts more than 1,000 years of history. Much of the architectural structure of Ha Noi from the past 100 years or earlier has been well preserved. I was only interested in visiting a few places that are meaningful to me such as Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) founded as a Confucian temple in 1070 (Viet Nam’s first university), Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword), and St. Joseph’s Church (the oldest church in Ha Noi).

The weather in Ha Noi was cooler than in Sai Gon, in the 70’s compared to the 90’s and less humid. This cooler weather proved more favorable for me as I walked to all the places I wanted to visit. I was also thankful Ha Noi didn’t seem to get the nasty pollution from China, being just to the north. I noticed the people of Ha Hoi wore jackets and sweaters while I was comfortable in my summer clothes. On one early morning, around 6:30 a.m., I met a nice lady on the street. She was curious when she saw me without a sweater. She asked in her lovely, but sharp, northern accent: “Co khong ret ha?” (Aren’t you cold?) I gave her a smile in response, as she used the northern adjective “ret” instead of the southern’s “lanh” for the word cold.

One thing I enjoyed most in my travels in Viet Nam was to hear the different accents and dialects spoken in each region. I adore the northern accent because of the clarity, whereas the southern one is more laissez-faire and freer flowing.

On the day of my visit to old St. Joseph’s Church, I became excited when the church first came into view at the end of the street. Just as I had expected, it was very old and in dire need of repair. Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to pause a moment to pray for peace and feel spiritually at home while away from home.

Good Spirits 5While standing in front of St. Joseph’s church and observing the surrounding area, I was intrigued by the look of the old quarter. I took a picture of an old building directly across the street from me. I was intrigued by a sign on the second floor of an old, yellowish colored building wall, partially hidden by tree branches, that read “Hanoi House.” I didn’t know what Hanoi House was, but I was drawn to the font of the letters that reminded me so much of the “Google” font and to the mysterious look of the building.

This picture also holds great intrigue for me, because when I look at it more closely I noticed a lady dressed in black sitting on the second floor balcony. She was smoking while reading a book. I also took note of the orange looking sign on the left side of this picture, just beneath the old lady. It was interestingly written in English and read “Hanoi House – Please follow the stairs inside.” This felt rather spooky to me at the time, but thinking about it now, it could have easily been a small hotel for all that I know.

During another one of my many walks, I noticed that Christmas decorations were starting to appear on the major streets and many stores had already begun to display their Christmas lights. This made my visit all the more special as it was good to see Ha Noi celebrating Christmas.

Good Spirits 6During this same walk, I came across an ornate temple. Its address had the number 33, which reminded me of the infamous beer 33. The black sign on the wall reads:

Bo Van Hoa Thong Tin (Ministry of Culture & Info)
Di Tich Lich Su Van Hoa (Histotric Culture)
Chua Thien Quang (Thien Quan Temple)
Da Duoc Xep Hang (Ranked)
Cam Xam Nhap (Do Not Enter)
33 Tran Binh Trong, Ha Noi

I wondered why a Ministry of Culture and Information is in a temple and why is this temple off limits to people? One more mystery, I could say.

Good Spirits 7Even more interesting was my disappointment in not encountering even one American during my trip. I missed not being able to speak English. Then all of a sudden I ran into this “American Storm, Ice Cream and Juices” store. It appeared to be a hangout for younger people but was closed for siesta time, so I just walked on. This made me wonder if this type of store was popular in Ha Noi and how I would have liked to have found a Baskin Robbins store somewhere during my walks.

I was getting thirsty, so I tried to find a store to buy some water. I found a small store that sold soft drinks and bottled water. I noticed a sign on the shelve that read:
Nuoc Coca Cola – 22,000 VND/can. (Nuoc = Water)

In another cold case, I noticed some more familiar stuff. I first spotted Heineken, then my eyes darted to the signs on the lower shelf. They read:

“Bia 333, 12,000 VND”
“Bia Sai Gon Special/can 15,000 VND”
“Bia La Rue, Blue, 11,000 VND”

(The rate of change fluctuated almost daily between 22,600 to 22,680VND = 1 USD).

I must admit I never saw a bottle of beer 33 until a few years ago in a photograph somewhere, while I was reading, but where? How good or bad the beer really is, I would not know, because I don’t drink alcoholic beverages. The new modern era has them called “beer 333” and they are now also in cans.  At least from the display, they appeared clean and cool, just like the other beers.

Now when I think about it, most Asians believe the number 9, or 333, or any number combinations thereof, are lucky numbers. This year 2016 is thought of as a lucky year, because 2+1+6 = 9. A few more examples such as 01-01-16, or 01-10-16, or 10+1+16 are also lucky numbers, because 1+1+1+6 = 9.

Who knows, this might bring me the best of luck in the coming new year, as I spotted 3 beer 333 cans all in a row = 999.

There are tremendous differences between the cultures of the North, Central, and South Viet Nam. They shape both traditional and modern Viet Nam. Despite these differences, I feel fortunate, because it has been my long time wish to be able to freely visit the North. Hoa Lu, in particular, made me feel as if I was in a different time. My surprises didn’t stop with my visit to Hoa Lu alone, as I also found the other places visited during my trip had a level of interest and uniqueness that surpassed my pre-trip imagination.

Happy 2016!

Chao Mung Nam Moi 2016!

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