Smoke and mirrors

We picked the worst time of the year to come to this part of the world, according to our AirBNB hosts (but we picked the nicest place and host). He recommends October and November. At that time it might even be cold up north. People wear coats and hats.

We had another kind of Pho breakfast before going to the Temple of Literature which is one of the oldest universities in the region, founded by Confucius. It is a beautiful arrangement of buildings, portals, courtyards and water reservoirs. It is graduation time here and this is clearly the place to go and have your class pictures taken. We saw hundreds of slender young Vietnamese, the women in their long silk and satin dresses with the split on the site and the pants underneath and the men in white shirts and dark creased trousers, graduation robes and caps slung over their arms or dumped on the ground, much too to wear.

Schoolkids also made the trip to the temple, with their white blouses and red handkerchiefs around their necks, reminding me of the Komsomol youth I saw when traveling around the USSR in 1974. They said their prayers and burned josh sticks. Two boys with offerings places them next to the large than life size statues of the Chinese educator and his disciples: cans of Fanta and beer, dragon fruit and Choco Pies. Here too the ancestors like Choco Pies, just like in Mongolia.

Nearly every statue in the compound sat on a turtle, symbol of longevity I learned. I was reminded of there being turtles all the way down.

Afterwards we went to the Hi Chi Minh mausoleum. We were whistled from underneath the covered walkway which was, we assumed, reserved for party officials – of whom we saw none. That too reminded me of my travels behind  the Iron Curtain back in the 70s. The whole area is destined for parades and shows of force and cohesion and didn’t do much for me. The inside was unfortunately closed for the day. I would have liked to see pictures ‘from the other side.’

We escaped to the Hanoi Social Club to take a break from the unbearable heat and humidty. It is a hangout and workplace for hipsters and trekkers. When we traveled eastward from Lebanon, nearly 30 years ago, we didn’t have to worry about power sources (there was nothing in our small luggage that ever needed charging), or internet connections. We were informed by old guidebooks and word of mouth. Now the amount of information about where to go and stay can take days to sort through.

We had a lovely (vegan) lunch and set out for the Vietnam Women’s Museum. Downstairs we learned about the social and cultural life of the women of the various ethnic groups in Vietnam while upstairs we learned about their role in the two colonial wars, first with France and then with the US. Pictures of radiant and beautiful young women, some barely out of their teenage years, holding their klashnikovs or wading through muck and mud. They weredetermined to mow down the enemy and the tally below their pictures showed they had dne so indeed. Few survived.  Display cases held artifacts and pictures from their short lives; handkerchiefs, diaries, and stuff they hid secret documents in. There were pictures of the underground tunnels and lives that went on: babies born, midwives at work, kindergarten, women selling pots and pans.

During downtimes I am reading the backstory of the beginning of the American role in Vietnam in Seymour Hirsh’s ‘Dark side of Camelot.’ It is maddening to see how much of the suffering was caused simply by selfish men (the rules of society did not apply to Jack and Bobby) with too much testosterone for their and our good. I am nearly at the end of the book and this is the only conclusion I can draw; gone up in thin air the ones I thought heroes and statemen. It was all smoke and mirrors.

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