Monday, January 11, 2016

In and Around Hanoi -- and Travels Beyond and WELL Beyond

 In and Around Hanoi -- and Travels Beyond and WELL Beyond

As I'm WRITING, our time in Hanoi and Vietnam is rapidly catapulting toward conclusion.  The photos and commentary of this blog date back quite a while and up to about 2 weeks ago.

First, a couple of pictures that I may have shared on Facebook, but I don't think that I had a chance to put them in the blog.

The first weekend we got here, the local Chabad (Yes, Chabad in Hanoi -- also in Ho Chi Minh City) dedicated a new Torah that had been brought from the US.  Attending THAT event connected us with other members of the Jewish community here -- which led to participating in Chanukah candlelighting at the Israeli Ambassador's residence -- and being invited by a Jewish woman who works at the German embassy to join in rehearsals and performance of Beethoven's 9th with the Vietnam Symphony.  I may have told you about that -- but it bears repeating! What a phenomenal experience THAT was!

ANYWAY, below are two photos from the Chanukah candlelighting the first night of Chanukah -- at the home (and center) of the Chabad rabbi, Levi Laine.  How their sign came to say "Happy Chakunah" is anyone's guess.  But the food, I'm sure, was kosher!

I may have shared this photo before. . . but the view out of Ho Tay -- West Lake --is worth repeating.
West Lake is where most of the ex pat community lives.  We have spent SOME time there -- but it's a long trip -- typically 30-40 minutes or more -- from where we live on the west side of Hanoi.  We do a lot of our transportation by Uber.  Uber, when you can do it, is a great way to travel in a foreign country where you don't speak the language:  Using the App, you call for an Uber and then connect with the driver -- and then type in your address iin the App -- so you don't need to try and talk to each other (though that's okay too.   but Susan has learned enough Vietnamese that when she greets people they start talking BACK to her in Vietnamese, which may be more than we an handle).  Because of the way the App works, you don't need to negotiate, discuss, argue. . . and you can see the route and you don't need to exchange money -- it just goes straight to your credit card.

Like many other things around here, it's unbelievably inexpensive by U.S. standards.  Our typical 30 minute Uber ride costs $3 to $4 -- or less.

Before embarking on a weeklong journey with my sister Carol and her husband Steve which took in Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong River, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (the latter two places being in Cambodia), we enjoyed a visit to the Hanoi Botanical Garden (one photo above and 4 photos below) -- another rare green spot in an otherwise overwhelmingly concrete city.  (That being said, I find myself describing a number of such places in blogs and on Facebook -- so there ARE green spaces to be found -- but one needs to make some effort to find them.)
Badminton is VERY popular in Vietnam.

After our visit to the Botanical Garden, we walked around the area of Ho Chi Minh's tomb and museum and the Government Palace.

We would go back to visit those on another day -- as they were closed on the Sunday that we were there (they are only open until early afternoon most days) -- but doing it THIS way actually afforded us an opportunity to take pictures in a respectful way of the guards at the Ho Chi Minh Tomb shortly after the changing of the guard.  The guards shown are leaving the area of the tomb.  One is prohibited from photographing when standing in the line waiting to get in to see the preserved remains of Ho Chi Minh -- but since there was no line and no one could go in, we weren't (I think) breaking the rules.  Nice photo:

It's hard to overstate that they carry EVERYTHING you can imagine on motorbikes here.
This is, clearly, the SNACK GUY -- or woman.
Livestock (including pigs) and building equipment? Sure.
The traffic here runs from bicycles to motorbikes to cars to trucks and buses --
all co-existing like fish in a sea as described by one now long-time expat resident.
As I mentioned earlier (Facebook, I think), the traffic rarely goes faster than 40 kmh.
Still, you have to be impressed that someone can tie all this stuff securely to one motorbike!!!

Below, we begin our trip to the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City (otherwise known as Saigon).  I almost always call it Ho Chi Minh City -- because that's what the government calls it -- and I think I ought to respect the government in this matter.  Residents, however, are at least as likely to call it Saigon (Sai Gon), in part because it was the part of the country that sought (at least in part) to be separate from the North back during the Vietnam war  A number of our guides on this trip were people who were adversely affected by the events of the 1960s through the 1990s.

In any case, we stopped along the way to see a rubber forest.  What a haunting young girl, seeking to sell small mementos with her family. . . .

The Cu Chi Tunnels are one of those things that are a very complicated experience for an American visiting in Vietnam today.  They were indispensable to the Viet Cong effort to undermine the work of the Americans and the South Vietnamese army.  To today's Vietnamese, they represent the courage and ingenuity of an outgunned military force and local population to defeat, frustrate and terrorize the enemy.

One can only imagine how disspiriting it would be for American soldiers to encounter the dangers throughout this area.

Here is a typical camouflaged  hiding place in the jungle.  Those visiting the site today
are invited to lower themselves into the ground to experience what it was like to be able to
suddenly disappear -- as shown by the person lowering herself above. . . 

completely flush into the ground/tunnel. . . 

and then to emerge when safe to do so.
Yes, that's Susan  And I did it, too -- and my sister and brother-in-law.
 An amusement park spin on a life-and-death matter?  Not really.  But it feels different for an American to do this. . . a European. . . a Vietnamese.  But nothing quite like:

One of at least a half-dozen different kinds of traps that unsuspecting -- or suspecting -- US servicemen were likely to fall into when patrolling the area, searching for the disappearing enemy.
We know that American servicemen weren't  well supported when they returned home -- that they were blamed for the decisions of the U.S. government (and military industrial complex) that sent them off to do this impossible work.

Suffice it to say that it's very very difficult work to pursue the enemy in their country under such circumstances -- and the Vietcong fought and acted as if they were fighting for their very lives and protecting their homeland -- which they of course were -- and had been fighting for this since 1945.

Our guide for the trip to the tunnels was a former member of the South Vietnamese Army -- so he was on the American side in the war.  He acknowledged that the Vietcong benefited from many soldiers who were really playing both sides of the street -- understandable, but again making the American task more impossible.

And although many of us are pleased that we now have a pretty significant positive relationship -- diplomatically and economically -- with Vietnams -- that people like him feel a little abandoned:  He was our friend in a way that the current government wasn't.  And once we established relations with the current government, people like him are forgotten and essentially left out in the cold -- and they already suffered after the war by being sent to re-education camps, etc.

A difficult and complicated situation.  War is hell.  Even more so on the losers.  Or at least the non-winners.

One peculiar element of the Cu Chi site is a place where you can fire the rifles that were used in the conflict.
AK47 -- Russian weapon supplied to the Vietcong -- $1.78/bullet
M16 -- What the Americans were using -- $1.56/bullet
Garang M1 -- American rifle -- $1.34/bullet
Carbin -- Another American gun -- $1.11 bullet
Those aren't what the bullets cost during the war.  Those are the prices people pay today for the "privilege" of aiming at targets.  If they knock over two targets, they win a t-shirt or something.
Pretty weird.  If you're a gun enthusiast, maybe it's of interest.
If you're a Vietnamese, maybe it's of interest.
If you're a European (many visitors are), I'm not sure.
If you're me, fuhgedabout it.

Steps down into a tunnel modeled on the place where the Vietcong leadership met during the War.
Not shown -- some of the tiny places we crawled into or through.  What a terrible time no matter which side you were on
 Well, I think I'll call it a night and continue with our Mekong/Cambodia trip next time.

Thanks for all your kind words and encouragement.

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