Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 20 – The last day in Hanoi

I am back at being a lowly pedestrian L Still, the last day also has 10 hours of daylight, so I might as well do the best I can. My first stop was the Temple of Literature, a vast complex where the first university of Vietnam was established, in 1072 AD, shortly after Vietnam became independent from the Chinese empire. Still strongly influenced by the Chinese system of scholarship and bureaucracy, the university was devoted to the study of the main works of Confucius and other cornerstone writers of his time. The intent was to have a place where scholars could prepare for the national examinations, and having passed those further prepare for examination by the king himself. Those few who passed were elevated to mandarin rank, and were the main bureaucrats of the kingdom.

The temple has several courtyards. One of the courtyards is rimmed by a hundred or so stele, through which the university kept the records of the nearly 2,000 students who successfully passed the examinations over a period of 150 years (the pass rate was definitely low at that time). The back courtyard is where the students lived and studied. Its main building is an imposing two-story building, where the first rector is now enshrined as the tutelary god of the university.

From there I wandered toward the Museum of History, which is housed by a beautiful large building of the French colonial period. The collection is impressive, and tells the story of Vietnam from the prehistory (sites dating as far back as 10,000 years ago), to the Chinese domination period, the independence of what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as the Diet Viet kingdom (ca. 1070 AD), the independent period under the rule of a local dynasty, and the French colonial invasion ca. 1880.

A separate building tells the History of the Revolution, which is not as impressive but gives a bird’s eye view of the unrest under the French colonial rule, the formation of the International Communist Party (ICP), the initial protests under the sponsorship of the ICP against the French (ca. 1925), the Japanese invasion during World War II and the resistance movement in Vietnam (1944 to 1945), and the attempts at “recolonization” by the French with eventual help from the US. US involvement started in 1950, with the usual appearance of military advisors, escalated in 1964 with the arrival of the first US troops, and ended with the retreat of the US in 1973.

Much credit goes to Ho Chi Minh, who after fighting the Japanese was elected president around 1945, and remained the leader of the country until the mid 60’s until his death in 1969. Ho Chi Minh did not live to see his country at peace, but his fighting spirit is well remembered by the Vietnamese who love him deeply (he was a bit of a marketing expert, and never missed a photo op while he traveled throughout the country maintaining the revolution active.

Having exhausted myself in museums I killed a couple of hours people watching and window shopping as I ambled through the narrow streets of the old city center. Incidentally, I forgot to mention that Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th anniversary a few years ago, so the trace of the city center is really, really old. I had but a handful of dongs in my pocket, and I was intent on using them to the last dong, so I bought myself a hat, ate some delicious street food, and will have to drink a couple of beers as I wait for my taxi to the airport.

It has been a fabulous trip, and I am a little sad that it is time to go home. But I will return because I love the country and its people. Next time I will fly to Saigon, and will once again rent a motorcycle. There is no better way to see this fabulous land!

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