The hectic pace of Hanoi can feel disorienting in its energy. The city is home to approximately 8 million people. It took us a couple of days to get used to the traffic – the streets are nearly impossible to cross safely. Ubiquitous scooters in the city swarm over the streets leaving little room between each bike or pedestrian.
Yet, beyond the initial feelings of disorientation, you find that the seeming chaos is organized in its own unique way. We learned that instead of waiting for the traffic to stop for us, we simply had to walk through the traffic when we needed to cross. Scooters will drive around you at a slow speed like a school of fish.
City life in Hanoi is very lively and social. Locals spend their days outside of their homes, either cooking deliciously aromatic food for sale, enjoying street food, selling goods, or sitting idly by and people-watching. In stark contrast to the city life in Hanoi, the countryside is incredibly peaceful and vivid.
A Brief History of Vietnam
The South Asian land of Vietnam, bordering China in the north, has had a long history of colonial presence in the country, conflict, and revolution. Hanoi is the cultural centre of northern Vietnam, and used to be the capital of the French Indochina state from 1902-1954. The country was under French colonial rule from 1883 – 1945. You can see the French aesthetic in some of the buildings’ architecture. In addition, China has been a major influence in the country’s cultural landscape, especially when Vietnam was under China’s rule during its early history.
During the Vietnam War (1954-1975), American troops fought for Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh city in 1976) in the south against the Communist party in the north. Americans joined the French, who wanted to seize back control of the north, in order to eradicate Communism. The opposing forces controlling the country caused a rift in the nation. After unification in 1976 the country had established itself as a Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The Vietnam War was the first televised war in the world. Many viewers in the U.S. witnessed the atrocities of war and protested the indignities. The destruction of the nation after generations of war and conflict left Vietnam struggling to pick up its pieces and survive economically for its people. It has taken them years to find stability. The country to this day is led by the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Religious Affinity in the Country
Although Vietnam has had many influences from Confucianism, Taoism, and Roman Catholicism, it is a Buddhist majority country. Most of the population practice Mahayana, a sect of Buddhism which emphasizes the Bodhisattva ideal. This ideal encompasses the belief that once someone reaches enlightenment, or before one reaches a state of nirvana, it is their duty to help others who are suffering to reach enlightenment. Mahayana arrived nearly five centuries after the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Theravada Buddhists can be found in the southern regions of Vietnam. Theravada Buddhists follow the original Buddhist teachings much more closely, refraining from a fundamentalist approach. They see the Buddha’s teachings as tools to arrive at truth, but one must arrive at this truth on their own without following omnipotent Gods.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
We stayed in the centre of Hanoi by the Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Legend dictates that Emperor Le Loi acquired a sword from the Dragon King in the lake to fight against Chinese autocrats. After the battle, when he returned to the lake, a large golden turtle sent by the Dragon King asked for the sword to be returned. Emperor Le Loi therefore named the lake Hoàn Kiếm, meaning the Lake of the Restored Sword. At night, the lake and the Huc Bridge is lit up offering a magical and romantic respite from the bustle of the streets nearby.
The Hoàn Kiếm Lake is in the old quarter. Many of the houses we saw in the old quarter are tall thin establishments called “tube houses”, adorned in different colours and stacked side by side. This design was most likely due to economic reasons since the city was trying to pack as many people into a small square footage. A similar architecture can be found in the slums of London during their Industrial Revolution between the 18th-19th centuries.
Chùa Trấn Quốc
In the Tây Hõ district by West Lake, lies a beautiful pagoda called Chùa Trấn Quốc. A pagoda is a tiered tower derived from the stupa, and found most often in South Asia where Buddhism used to be the major religion. The Chùa Trấn Quốc pagoda is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in the city, built during the 6th century. It is ornate and rich with colour. Inside each of the tiers behind the archways are white Buddha statues varying in size as the tower grows closer to the sky.
On the grounds we saw a Buddhist temple and a Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree is an important symbol in Buddhism because at the time of enlightenment Buddha was sitting underneath a Bodhi tree. In Bodhgaya, India, at the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, many worshippers while meditating, rush to retrieve fallen leaves from the tree believing them to be blessings.
Quán Thánh Temple
Situated near Chùa Trấn Quốc by West Lake, is the Quán Thánh Temple. This is a Daoist or Taoist temple from the 11th century, north of the city. Daoist philosophy advocates religious piety and humility.
Quán Sứ Temple
Quán Sứ is a 15th century Buddhist temple. It is the headquarters of the Vietnam Buddhist Association. Behind the temple is a school for teaching people the Buddhist philosophy. The grounds, like so many other Buddhist religious sites, are very colourful, meditative, and beautiful in its design and use of green space. Red lanterns line the buildings, and many visitors pray here lighting incense.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
North of the city is Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh was the former president of North Vietnam from 1945-1969. He was the founder of the Indochina Communist party in Vietnam and one of the purveyors of the anti-colonial movement against French rule, organizing uprisings after WWII to seize back control for the Vietnamese people. He succeeded in claiming north Vietnam under the Communist wing, but the French and American retaliation took southern Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh was a revolutionary against capitalist countries like the United States, and therefore admired and respected in Vietnam. He was affectionately named “Uncle Ho”, and died in 1969.
Hạ Long Bay
Hạ Long Bay is a famous and well-documented destination for travellers. Along the bay, tall beautiful limestone rocky cliffs are scattered in the middle of the jade waters.
The bay lies east of Hanoi, in Quảng Ninh province, and is home to 3,000 rocky islands. Vinh Hạ Long translates to Where the Dragon Descends to the Sea, which comes from a legend stating that a dragon stomped on the land, breaking it into pieces, thereby creating these rocky islands. A similar legend follows that the tail of a dragon tore up the land. It is for this reason that the legend of a dragon named Tarasque, who lives under the water, persists.
During the 19th century the bay was used by Chinese and Vietnamese pirates. Nowadays, many villages live around the bay who use it for their livelihood through fishing and shipping. Hạ Long Bay was declared a UNESCO Heritage site in 1994.
Ninh Bình Province
After a two hour train from Hanoi to south of the country, we hopped off at Ninh Bình province. We visited the Quần Thể Danh Thắng Tràng An complex near the Red River. This landscape is home to many villages, beautiful limestone cliffs, rice paddy fields, temples, and grottos. There are many subterranean waterways connected to the river. Women from nearby villages offer boat tours around the area. We were taken through a dark cave with minimal space between the ceiling of the cave and the water. In order to get through the cave without scraping our heads against the rough ceiling, we had to lay down on the boats. It is an experience not to be missed.
As you ride along in the boat, you are encompassed into a state of tranquility by the large looming cliffs, the still waters, and the growth of various vegetation unfurling around you. The boat drops you off at different temples which indicate that many Buddhist monks use this area for meditation. There is even a gazebo in the middle of the river used for meditation when the the water levels decrease.
Vietnam is a mysterious and curiously fascinating country. The people are incredibly kind and hard working, and I can’t wait to see more of the region in a future adventure.
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