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Hanoi and Halong Bay: Resilient and vibrant despite Vietnam’s painful history

Downtown Hanoi - Photograph: Ben Lopez

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The people of Hanoi seem determined to put their harrowing past behind them and are moving forward with tenacity and fortitude, observes Benedict Lopez.

Mention the name Vietnam to people of my generation and the spontaneous reaction conjures up images of the bloody war which began in 1954 and ended 21 years later.

In the aftermath of the war, the country was finally united after being separated into two countries – North and South Vietnam. More than three million people, including 58,000 Americans, loss their lives during the war. Vietnam’s debts from its so-called friends like the Soviet Union had to be paid back in gold for the arms provided during the war.

Hanoi was confronted with the most relentless bombing during Christmas in 1972, when US B-52 aircraft dropped at least 20,000 tonnes of explosives on the city and its outskirts. According to local sources, more than 1,000 Vietnamese died during the ghastly bombing attacks which rained over the city. Despite this ruthlessness, the Americans could not defeat the steely determination of the Vietnamese or compel them to surrender.

At the end of the war in 1975, Vietnam’s economy was in shambles, and the country experienced major impediments on all fronts with the people living in dire poverty. Many had to eat tree leaves for survival and engaged in subsistence agriculture with basic dietary needs.

Fast forward 43 years later to 2018. Hanoi, the capital city, barely shows any scars of its traumatic experience, just like Ho Chih Minh City, which I visited in 2016. My friend and I visited Hanoi and Halong Bay recently for a short vacation, and both cities left an indelible mark on us. Hanoi has made great strides in its development, apart from its old quarter, which is reminiscent of Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s.

From my observations, the people of Hanoi seem determined to put their harrowing past behind them and are moving forward with tenacity and fortitude. I observed this virtue from the staff of the hotel where I was staying.

Cindy, 21, a waitress at the hotel is pursuing an undergraduate degree in management. I chatted with Cindy for a short while, and she impressed me with her determination. She works in two places earning enough money to pay for her tuition fees and living expenses in Hanoi.

Cindy comes from a family of farmers who live about 100km from Hanoi. Coming from an underprivileged background has not been an obstacle for Cindy and she has not dwelled in self-pity despite her hardship. Instead, this vivacious young woman is full of exuberance with a passion to progress in life.

Hanoi’s flourishing small and medium-sized enterprises all over the city speak volumes for the entrepreneurship resolve of its dwellers. And this is visible all over the city with retailers selling all kinds of merchandise, many of which are bargain buys in comparison with Kuala Lumpur. Last October, when I was in Laung Prabang I bought a pair of scandals for only US$4 which I though was a bargain as I am still using it. But to my surprise, I managed to buy the same sandals in Hanoi for only US$3!

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, which is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh (fondly known locally as Uncle Ho), the most admired leader in Vietnam. His body is preserved in a glass case in the mausoleum in Hanoi. This place is a ‘must visit’ for any visitor to Hanoi.

Central Hanoi is the touristy area of the city, where you have restaurants and souvenir shops. Located right in the middle of the old quarter, it is a lovely setting for an early morning walk around the lake, where you can watch people doing their exercises, and a later visit to the temple minus the crowds.

We also visited Truc Bach Lake in the North West of Hanoi’s old quarter. Although it is not of significance, it is noted for its history. On 26 October 1967, Air Force Lieutenant John McCain’s (currently US Senator from Arizona) plane was shot down as he flew his A4 on a bombing mission over Hanoi.

Monument marking the spot at Truc Bach Bay where John’s McCain’s plane was shot down – Photograph: Ben Lopez

McCain was dragged from the lake water by angry locals blaming Americans like him for the destruction caused to their city. He was later incarcerated as a prisoner of war in the notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton’ for more than five years. An ordinary monument marks the spot where he was pulled from the lake.

Hanoians seem to have an obsession for coffee. Cafés and coffee bars have sprouted all over the city, frequented by locals and expats alike. Drinking a cuppa seems to be a social ritual here. I bought a few small boxes of Vietnamese coffee and can vouch for its premium quality.

Halong Bay, which is four hours’ drive from Hanoi, is perhaps Vietnam’s most precious treasure, attracting scores of tourists from all over the world. A Vietnamese fable describes the bay area where a dragon once descended. Local myth presents a vivid account of how the island in the bay were designed as the dragon moved swiftly from the mountains towards the coast.

Chicken Island, Halong Bay – Photograph: Ben Lopez

The four-hour cruise on the ferry was indeed mesmerising allowing visitors to marvel at the wonders of nature. Of all the islands that our ferry cruised through, Chicken Island was the most interesting, resembling the statues of two chickens about to kiss. The trip to Halong Bay reminded me a lot of the splendour of the fjords in Bergen, Norway.

Vietnam has made tremendous strides in its economic development since the end of the war in 1975, and this is evident in Hanoi and its outskirts. Astute planning and policies have propelled economic development and transformed Vietnam from one of the poorest nations in the world to a lower middle-income country.

Vietnamese deserve a break after their excruciating past.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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