This is not a typical post for the blog, but recently, after obtaining a printer/scanner at home,1 I stumbled upon some old photos I took when I was a student studying abroad in Vietnam back in 2001. I scanned them into digital format on Flickr, but I thought I’d talk a little bit more about my time there first.
I went to the UW and got a degree in East Asia Studies, originally studying about Japan, but at some point I decided to study about South East Asia instead. I can’t recall exactly why, especially given my interest now, but I think it was just my way of trying not to turn into another anime-loving Japanophile (well, I got half of it right anyway), and also just my innocent curiosity about taking the Road Less Traveled. My main area of focus had been Vietnam, and for a time I could speak decent Vietnamese, but my accent was decidedly textbook Northern Vietnamese which is noticeably different than what overseas communities often speak.2
With that said, once I graduated, I got earned a grant and nice opportunity to study Vietnamese in Vietnam with other grad students, as I intended to go into grad school too.3 The program itself was great, and well-organized, but I was 23, loud-mouthed and very immature. I did a lot of other reckless, rude and stupid things at the time, as well as annoying the professors on the trip, and alienating the other students. But then again as I look back, I have to remind myself sometimes that I am not 23 anymore (almost 33 now), and obviously not the same person as before. The years shortly after that were a big change in my life when I first got into Buddhist religion, settled down, got married and such, and I know that lingering shame at the time prompted me to really grow up, so maybe it wasn’t all for naught.
Anyway, now that I am much older and wiser, it’s interesting for me to look at all these pictures I took at the time and appreciate them with a different eye. Part of me longs to go back to Hanoi one of these days and maybe somehow do things right this time. By this I mean it would be nice to go visit Hanoi, see all the things I missed, take better photos this time, and maybe just be a better tourist and visitor. There are sites I only briefly saw then, that would be much more interesting to me now like the Văn Miếu, or Temple of Confucius, or take much better photos of the Perfume Pagoda (more on that in a later post).
But despite all my complaining, there were many wonderful experiences in Hanoi and northern Vietnam at large, and I wanted to share these pictures with a wider audience. This is something of a travelogue I guess, albeit 9 years out of date. I really have no idea if Hanoi looks the same as it did then; I remember it was developing rapidly, but for a city so old, I can’t imagine it’s changed much.
First, let me talk about our lodgings. We stayed for 8 weeks in the ATS Hotel which is near central Hanoi. This was a view outside my window:
As you can see Hanoi has a lot of French-colonial style architecture in its housing. The houses and buildings are actually very, very narrow because in Vietnam taxes on property are based on the frontal width of your property, so smart owners get narrower properties. Also, houses and buildings in Hanoi tend to be elevated from the street a bit due to the torrential rains in the summer which caused weekly flash flooding when I was there. I can remember riding my bike through one such rain, in a lower-part of town where the water collected. My feet would pedal through the water while my eyes were stinging from the rain. I really am amazed I didn’t get hit by a car that day, though on a separate incident, I nearly did but managed to ride into a gutter and telephone pole instead.
The ATS Hotel is actually owned by the Army, and so just outside the gate is the local barracks:
Usually there was at least one guard outside the gate, often a young fellow about 18 years old with an AK-47. The sign at the top reads Quân Đội Nhân Dân Việt Nam which just means the People’s Army of Vietnam. Down the street I knew of a house that sold coca-cola, which was an expensive commodity to get, and one night I remember buying a 6-pack due to homesickness, and as I walked to the hotel, I noticed a couple of young guys at the gate. It was late night, and I felt bad they were standing out there bored, so I gestured for them to have a couple of cans. They hesitated at first, but happily took them. Nervous, we all introduced ourselves a bit (my Vietnamese was barely passable), and said goodnight. I always liked that episode because it reminded me that the younger generation could heal the wounds of war.
Not far from our hotel was the gorgeous Grand Opera House, or nhà hát lớn:
The Grand Opera House is in front of a five-road intersection, so I never failed to go here first before going down another street to another location. By far one of the best parts of Hanoi is the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, or Hồ Hoàn Kiếm. Hanoi as a city sits astride the Red River, and over thousands of years has accumulated many isolated lakes as the river changed course. Hoan Kiem Lake is the most famous due to the legend about Emperor Lê Lợi obtaining a magical sword here from a turtle, and then dutifully returning it when he drove off the enemy. I remember after my first day or so, jet-lagged, I woke up around 5am and was surprised to already see Hanoi bustling. People in Hanoi work about 12-16 hours a day just to make ends meet, and I came to see the lake before all the tourists showed up. I took this photo:
If you get there in the morning, the only people there are throngs of elderly people doing Tai Chi, and younger people going about their work. It’s quite peaceful until later in the day when beggars and scam artists come to assault the tourists. So if you plan on viewing Hanoi, definitely do it early morning or much later in the evening. This is another photo from a different angle.
There is actually a bridge out into the water, and I remember seeing people come to pray in the mornings at the gate of the bridge:
Hoan Kiem Lake itself has a lot of nice restaurants but they’re mostly for tourists or wealthy locals, so I found I didn’t spent too much time here after the first week, and often went just north to the famous Hanoi market streets of the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter had a lot of character, even for a somewhat touristy place, but it also had a lot of Hanoi’s charm as well. The streets still retain the names of the various wares they used to sell there (gold, silver, silk, etc), which is not unlike the streets of downtown Dublin, Ireland where I lived for a time.
Hanoi is a city that felt like it was still frozen in time, both good and bad. While there, I was frequently accosted by Vietnamese students wanting to practice English, or by beggars with practiced, pitiful looks, and more rarely by hostile older Vietnamese. The severe difference in wealth, and my face as a foreigner tended to draw people I didn’t want to deal with, but as I stayed there longer, I learned how to deal with these people, and get to know other locals better. I really feel bad though that so many good people have to live in such impoverished conditions though. People in the West or Japan really have no idea how the rest of the world lives, and it can be very disheartening, but then at the same time, people make ends meet, have families, fall in love and so on just like people in the West. If you changed their clothes and gave them iPods, they’d probably blend in pretty quick. People somehow make things work, and through their struggles it gives Hanoi a lot of character.
I never lived in a place that was so humid and G R E E N either. It was truly stifling in the summer, and seeing green life everywhere constantly invading the city seemed so strange compared to the gray of Seattle. This was the language center where I (nominally) took classes in Vietnamese each weekday:
But again all of it gives Vietnam character.
Next time, I’ll talk about my trip to the famous Perfume Pagoda in the mountains south of Hanoi, and my first encounter (unknowingly at the time) with Kannon Bodhisattva. It was a time when I first encountered Buddhism for real, beyond snooty Zen books written for Westerners, and sure taught me a lot.
1 Epson Stylus NX510. Good printer overall for what we paid. I was pleasantly surprised.
2 For example, in Northern Vietnamese, the “tr” is pronounced like “ch”, unlike the South who does say “tr”. So, the famous Tran Dynasty would sound like “Chan Dynasty” in the Northern Dialect. Also the “r” sound in Vietnamese sounds like a “z” in the Northern Dialect, while in the South it is an “r”. The “gi” sounds like a “z” in the north, but a “y” in the South. The vocab was different too. To say “quickly” in the North it’s nhanh (sounds like “nyine”) but in the South they tend to say mau more often. Slang is noticeably different too.
3 8 weeks with other grad students was enough to make me not want to go grad school after all though. I came back to the US and immediately dropped out, and decided to make my fortune in Computing, which was the only other skill I have. Thankfully that worked out, since I could turn my interest in studying and reading into a way to directly support my girlfriend (now wife).