Sunday, July 1, 2007

Walking Tour

Camera. Water. Malaria pill. Map. Rain poncho. I gathered them up and left for a long walking tour of Hanoi, intending to see parts of the city that I hadn't yet visited.

The sky was full of dark clouds. Rain came down in violent sheets, only to tapper off moments later. It's July now, the month of the monsoon. I walked west through busy commercial streets, my sandles slick from stepping in murky puddles on the sidewalk. Travel agencies and restaurants gave way to light bulb shops and fruit vendors.

Finally I came to the Temple of Literature, built in 1070 by an enlightened king. Beyond the gate there were lush sanctuaries, ponds and various temple complexes, all devoted to the worship and study of Confucius. Scholars would come from all over Vietnam to study the teachings of Confucius and his disciples. After years of intensive study, students took lenghty exams, a sort of SAT for Confuscian scholars. Successful applicants became first level mandarins, and after further years of study and exams could become second and even third level mandarins, the exquivelent of masters degree or PhD. The first exams were administered by the king himself in the year 1076, and the confuscian exam system dominated Vietnamese education until the beginning of the 20th Century. The Temple of Literature is a shrine to Confucius, but the Vietnamese also consider it to be their country's first university, as old as any Aristotelian university in Western Europe.

Grave markers for Confucian physicians, 17th Century. The animal heads are turtles, the one non-mythical sacred creature in Buddhism.

Within the temple, the shrine to Confucious

Two women paying homage to Confucius.

After I'd taken in the Temple of Literature, I walked north through the giant Ho Chi Minh Masoleum area, which was nearly deserted due to the rain. As usual, two white uniformed guards were standing in front of the door to Ho's tomb, which was closed, so I'll have to see his body another day. So I continued walking toward West Lake, through broad avenues lined with tall trees and yellow government buildings.

I came to the edge of West Lake and at a non-touristy burger joint. My burger, fries and coke set me back just two dollars. The food descriptions were in Vietnamese, but I was able to point to what I wanted. I noticed that the title of the burger combo contained the word "My" in it, which as of Wednesday, I know means "American". Nevertheless, it was radically different from any American burger--there were cucumbers and the meat was a sort of spicy beef paste. It wasn't bad at all, but you won't find it at Burger King.

I walked out along the causeway that divides West Lake. It was a very calm, peaceful part of the city, but visually not very spectacular, espcially not with all the threatening rainclouds and puddles.

At the end of the causeway, I came into quiet, non-touristy residential neighborhoods surrounding a corner of the lake that squeezes into a dirty canal. Despite the filthy water, I saw entire schools of fish leap out into the air and several men were fishing with homemade bambo poles.

In the middle of a residential neighborhood I noticed a sidewalk shrine that peaked my curiosity. There was a plack with hundreds of names and dates about twenty years appart. The second row of dates ranged from 1946 to 1976 and included every year in between. I'm pretty sure that this is a memorial to local boys who were killed in Vietnam's various wars.

I came out of the dense residential neighborhood and to the edge of long yellow walled complex. At the start of it, there was an old wall tower. On its wall, a marble French sign commemorated some military even that happened in 1882, probably describing French capture of Hanoi around that time.

View across from the tower

I supsected that I was at the sight of Hanoi's old citadel, based on the tower and the cluster of military buildings that I came upon. I began heading down a mile long street flanked on both sides by high yellow walls, and the scene becam a bit surreal. Between well guarded, high metal gates, I could see imposing military headquarters.

I snapped a picture of one of the gates when I thought the guard wasn't looking. But he saw me and blew his wistle. I shoved my camera in its case and walked past the soldier, a meer teenager holding a submachine gun. He gave me a dirty look, like I'd just taken a dump on the sidewalk and I walked away, embarrassed, crossing the street as quickly as possible.

On the right side of the road, the wall opened up into a fence protecting relics of Vietnam's wars. There were Russian tanks used in Cambodia and artillery captured from the French. And fifth in the row, there were torpedo shafts used to attack the Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. The sign said, "Used by Battalion 135, Regiment 172 of the Navy to chase the American destroyer Maddox out of Vietnam's Territorial Waters on August 2, 1964." I was wary of taking pictures, but this was really special. I looked around and there were no soldiers in sight so I snapped one.

After that unexpected find, I ended up by the War Museum and had an easy walk back through commercial streets to the narrow touristy streets of my hotel. I was just in time, because as soon as I got to my room it started raining so hard that I got alarmed. Even with a poncho it would have been miserable to be caught in that. Of course I know that that will happen many times this month.

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