Ancient Hall of Fame

One interesting part of the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam, is the third couryard where you find a pool in the middle named The Well of Heavenly Clarity that is flanked by rows of large stone stelaes. There are 82 of these stelaes, and each record the names and native places of more than 1,300 graduates who passed 82 triennial exams between years 1442 and 1779. These were set up to commemorate the achievements of those who had passed the royal exams, and to encourage the present and future generations to study.

The stelaes of the doctor laureates were placed on top of giant stone turtles. Turtle is one of the sacred animals in Vietnamese culture and it’s a symbol of longevity. Placing the stone stelae on top of the turtle symbolizes the everlasting respect to talent. I thought it’s interesting that these stone stelaes are still there almost 300 years later. So these doctor laureates’ accomplisments indeed are recognized for quite a long time.

The photo below captures an interesting practice we observed there. Some folks would come and rub the head of the stone turtle. The practice supposedly brings good fortune (especially to those about to study for exams I guess)…

Rubbing turtle's head

Ho Chi Minh Museum

The last building one would see in a tour of the Ho Chi Minh Complex in Hanoi, Vietnam, is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. This big, imposing building was built in the late 1980s and it was inaugurated in 1990 to mark the birth centennary of Ho Chi Minh. The building was built in a shape of white lotus flower. At the center of the building there is a large auditorium that is used for meetings and conferences. The main exhibition floor shows documents and show pieces that highlight Ho Chi Minh’s life and his revolutionary cause.

By the time we reached the museum, I think we’ve gone through enough displays on Ho Chi Minh that we were not that interested in spending more time there. We decided to rest a little bit, and took photos outside the museum, and then looked for the entrance where we came from to find the place where we could claim our backpacks that we left there before coming in.

I’m not sure what the Vietnamese government officially promoted this museum to be, or what the Vietnamese people think of the content of the display. But considering the stereotype of a communist government, and given everything else that we could see that promoted Ho Chi Minh as a national hero (or even higher status than that), I couldn’t help to think that this place might be part of a propaganda campaign to promote the communism values. It’s still interesting to think that even with such government control in place, life in Vietnam (especially in Hanoi as we saw it) seemed to be nothing different than what we see elsewhere — the signs of economic progress and capitalism could be seen everywhere and it didn’t seem that the local Vietnamese felt oppressed by the government.

The photo below was taken outside the museum. I thought it was interesting to note the sculpture at the front of the building prominently showed the hammer and the sickle, the symbol of communism, and there was also the Vietnamese flag in the front (red flag with yellow star). Not that often you would get a picture taken with such symbols in the background.

With hammer and sickle

The Palace and the Residence

After the unforgettable experience visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Kristi and I found ourselves with other visitors on walkway behind the mausoleum building that led to another part of the Ho Chi Minh Complex. We had the option of exiting, or purchasing tickets to tour the rest of the complex.

There were many people there, and it was somewhat chaotic. The majority of the visitors looked like local Vietnamese. It was very different compared to our visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia that was dominated by foreigners. We saw quite a diverse groups of people too; we could see some people came as a family with kids and elderly grandparents, some others came with their friends. We even saw a couple that was dressed up quite nicely accompanied by a photographer. It looked like they were doing engagement or wedding photo shoots there — a peculiar place for doing such photo shoots.

The first building that we passed was the Presidential Palace. This building was built by the colonial French government as the palace for the Governor of Indochina. After the Vietnamese took over, they wanted to turn it into the palace for the President. However, Ho Chi Minh refused such luxury and chose to stay at a more modest house nearby. That house was also part of the display at the complex. You could see the garage where Ho Chi Minh cars were housed (they were quite ordinary French Peugeot sedans), and you could see through glass windows the settings of the living room and dining room of Ho Chi Minh’s home that also looked quite ordinary. I think the point that they wanted to make was that Ho Chi Minh decided to live a humble and simple lifestyle rather than taking advantage of his power as the leader of the country.

There was also another house on stilts that was Ho Chi Minh’s residence at a different point during his rule. You could walk also and see the interior of the house. It actually looked like a nice, cozy place to retreat, again, quite a simple lifestyle. There was a sizeable koi pond in between the buildings, adding more peaceful ambience to the whole place (despite of the multitude of visitors roaming around the complex).

The photo below was taken just before we started our tour around the residence. You could see the couple getting their picture taken with the Presidential Palace as the background.

Couple at the Palace

Ho Chi Minh

When we visited the Ho Chi Minh complex, our main reason for the visit was to check out the mausoleum and learn a bit about communism and culture in Vietnam. We knew Ho Chi Minh was an important figure in Vietnamese history, but honestly we didn’t think much about learning about the person. But as I recalled our experience visiting the Ho Chi Minh complex, and read about the life of this historical figure, I learned some interesting facts about Ho Chi Minh that I thought is worth writing about.

Ho Chi Minh was born Ngunyen Sinh Cung. He grew up going to a French school in Vietnam, then he got a job as a cook’s helper on a ship that took him to the United States. He lived for a few years in New York City and Boston area, working various jobs including as a baker at a hotel. Then he made his way to England, where supposedly he trained as a pastry chef to the famous chef Auguste Escoffier. After that, he lived in France where he started learning about communism, and then he moved on to Moscow, Russia, and Canton (present day Guangzhou), China. In China he was involved in the political movement, but he also met a Chinese woman and got married there. Then when the anti-communism coup happened in China, he went into an exile in Moscow, then made it back again to Asia by the way of Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Switzerland, and Italy. He stayed in Thailand for some time, then moved to India and back to China. The British government arrested him in Hong Kong, then quietly released him, and he ended up in Milan, Italy, working at a restaurant there before returning back to China. Then as an adviser to the Chinese communist forces, he also led a Vietnamese independence movement that led to the proclamation of independence and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. Later on he also led the North Vietnam to fight against the South Vietnam and eventually resulting in the Vietnam War. While the war was still going on, in 1969 Ho Chi Minh died from heart failure, but his followers continued on the fight, and he was still revered as their leader, and his body was embalmed and until today can be found on display at the Mausoleum in Hanoi. After the war, the city of Saigon in South Vietnam was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.

It’s pretty interesting to observe that the majority of visitors to the Ho Chi Minh complex when we went there were Vietnamese. I didn’t ask what these folks thought of Uncle Ho, as he affectionately was known and respected in the Vietnamese culture, but it’s clear that the government really put him on pedestal as their national hero (though interestingly Ho Chi Minh himself when he was alive supposedly was quite a humble man and did not seek the honor himself).

On the way out of the complex, however, we saw a souvenir stall selling t-shirts for tourists. You could see from the photo below that they had the communist flag and even a caricature figure of Ho Chi Minh on the t-shirts. I’m guessing only western tourists would get these (I couldn’t see a Vietnamese wearing one of these and not feeling irreverent or uncomfortable among their countrymen), but I thought it’s interesting that in the end it seems that even in this communist country at such an important landmark you could see the idea of capitalism was present.

Ho Chi Minh T-Shirt

Hanoi

Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam. The city was established more than 1,000 years ago (on October 10, 2010, it celebrated its 1,000th anniversary), and over the years had been an important political city in Vietnam. In the 19th century during the Nguyen Dinasty, the capital was moved to Hue, but in the 20th century Hanoi served as the capital of French Indochina, then the capital of North Vietnam, and now the capital of Vietnam. Today Hanoi is one of the major ports of entry into Vietnam and it’s the second largest city in population. It’s a popular destination among tourists visiting Vietnam especially for those wanting to learn about the rich culture and history of the city and to taste some of the best street foods you can find in the world (the popular noodle soup dish phở is perhaps the most famous dish thought to originate from Hanoi).

We visited Hanoi twice during our trip to Southeast Asia at the bookends of our visit to Vietnam. Since we only had one week allocated for visiting Vietnam during this trip, we decided to spend it in the northern part of the country (since Kristi had been to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and we didn’t have time to go to the central part of the country). We arrived in Hanoi in a flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia, and then spent several days in Sapa near the border of China, and in Ha Long Bay at the coast east of Hanoi. We went through Hanoi during the transit, and spent some time before and after the trips to these other areas.

It was winter time when we came to visit Hanoi in December, so the temperature was roughly in the 50s and 60s F when we were there. It was quite pleasant to walk around with light jacket on.

We stayed mostly in the Old Quarter part of Hanoi, and for the most part of our stay there we walked to the places nearby that we wanted to visit.

The photo below was taken near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum that we visited on our first full day in Vietnam. This monument commemorated the 1,000th anniversary of the establishment of the city of Hanoi. It’s quite impressive to think of how old this city is.

1,000th birthday

Bakong

Bakong is another temple in the Roluos area near Siem Reap, Cambodia. This temple was the first temple built with a temple mountain design (where the temple has tower(s) that symbolizes Mount Meru in Hindu mythology). This design was then used in constructing many of the temples in the later era in the city of Angkor, including the famous Angkor Wat. Another aspect of the design is to have a moat around the temple complex, symbolizing the ocean surrounding Mount Meru.

Today Bakong is still used for worship. There is a working monastery on the grounds of the temple. When we visited the temple, unlike other temples we visited, we actually saw more locals coming to worship than tourists coming for sightseeing.

This was the last temple we visited, and by that time in the afternoon, I was already pretty tired and I didn’t really feel like climbing the steps up to the top of the temple tower. So I decided to just wait down there with our tour guide Vanna while Kristi went up to see the scenery from up there.

The photo below was taken on the way into the temple complex, after we passed the bridge crossing the moat. You can see the tall temple tower in the distance, and the shape of the tower is similar to what you can find at the Angkor temples like Angkor Wat.

Bakong

Preah Ko

Preah Ko is a temple in the Roluos area outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was the first temple built in the ancient city of Hariharalaya, the seat of the Khmer Empire before it moved to Angkor. Similar to Lolei, the temple was built using bricks rather than sandstone. In the recent years, it had undergone restoration project. When you visit the temple, you could tell, however, the old and new bricks on the temple towers; it’s interesting to see the difference on one side seeing the original structure and on the other side seeing the new, restored structure that gives you an idea what the structure would look like back hundreds of years ago. Some of the intricate sculptures were still there. You could also see some inscriptions on the wall that helped the archaeologists to understand the ancient Khmer culture.

We went to Preah Ko after our visit to Lolei. When we arrived there, there were not many visitors around either. At the entrance, we saw several young children standing and waiting for visitors to come. We saw a lady accompanied by a tour guide walked in, and the children greeted the lady with a bow, saying ‘Hello’ and hoping that the visitor would give them a little cash. For us, they thought Kristi and I were Chinese (well, they were somewhat correct) and they said ‘ni hao!’ Vanna smiled and told them that we actually spoke English, so then they changed to say ‘hello!’ Our tour guide Vanna discouraged us from giving money to these kids, as that would encourage them to pursue the wrong way to earn a living.

Later on we saw a tourist doing something that I thought was pretty admirable. He knew that the poor kids would come and approach him for money. But instead of giving them money, he had balloons in his pocket that he would blow and give to the kids. In the end, kids were kids.. and they were equally happy being given balloons by this gentleman rather than money. I took the photo below as I observed the interaction between the tourist and the children when he gave them the balloons. His travel partner watched and took a photo of that interaction as well.

Tourist handing out balloons