Peace Works Travel Blog

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Francis Parker Exploring Southeast Asia

Wednesday, Feb. 11: A Country of Opposites

Vietnam is a country of opposites. From order to chaos, from communism to captialism, and from old to new. Today, we explored these seemingly incompatible worlds.

Walking in a single-file line through the covered corridor at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, it seemed as if we faced a new guard at every step. Despite the guards’ stern appearce with their pressed and intricate uniforms, we were suprised to see them smile at our light-hearted “xin chao”s. However, as we neared Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, the atmosphere suddenly shifted to a more serious tone. The tomb was silent, and all attention was on the angelic body that lies at the core of the Vietnamese communist identity. The tomb embodied socialist architecture through its square, imposing shape, and the sentiment that all who were present were witnessing something much larger than ourselves. Even as foreigners from America, we were able to grasp his ever-lasting legacy. This understanding was deepened when we visited Ho Chi Minh’s humble living quarters, and his conscious decisions to emulate the lives of his impoverished nation.


“Our great president, Ho Chi Minh, lives forever!” the banner hangs aside his Mausoleum. Photograph by senior Olivia Fidler.

Group photo in front of the Mausoleum.

After exiting the tomb, we stood in the square and reflected on the tomb and the government buildings surrounding us. Though the government is technically democratic, the Parliament building was situated between Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and the Communist headquarters, clarifying the firm hold the Communist Party has on the Vietnamese government (85% of the Parliament belongs to the Party). This was only the first of many contrasts that we would experience today.

Transitioning from Vietnam’s recent history, we stepped back into the 11th century through our visit to the Temple of Literature. In the thick of modern Hanoi, the Temple of Literature shifted our focus from the power of the collective population at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb to the opportunities of the educated elite. Vietnam’s first national university was restricted to the few that could afford to be competitive; the Confucian meritocracy of old Vietnam was not open to all. The names of graduates were engraved on stone tablets, resting atop tortoises (a Vietnamese symbol of longevity), representing their ever-lasting achievements.


Pictured in the bottom left is a yellow fruit which locals call “Buddha’s hands,” serving as a common offering in Vietnamese shrines, such as this one at the Temple of Literature. Photograph by senior Olivia Fidler.

Shifting from our morning’s focus on the grandeur of Vietnamese history, we met with our pen pals to get a taste of everyday life in modern Vietnam. Becoming acquainted with everyday life in Vietnam was as simple as sitting down with our pen pals at a street cafe. In our small talk, our interests in each other’s differences brought us as close together as our similarities. After lunch, the schedule was ours to control.

Most of the group decided to walk through a market in the midst of rush hour traffic. The stands around the streets were as busy as the traffic, and we were able to buy goods from propaganda posters to cheap toys. The competitive nature of business being done at the market was a stark contrast to the communist ideals we were exposed to earlier in the day.

With horns blaring and motocycles whizzing by, crossing the street with a group of over 20 people quickly became a formidable challenge. Photograph by senior Pedro Gallardo.
To escape from the hustle and bustle of the streets, we retreated to group coordinator Son’s favorite eclectic stop. Our time at Cafe Nola was spent with further bonding with our pen pals over mochas and piano renditions of pop songs.

This four-story-plus, hole-in-the-wall coffee shop specialized in New Orleans’ cuisine. Photograph by senior Grace Sellick.

The singing carried on into the evening as the group headed over to a karaoke bar. We were suprised to find that our pen pals seemed to know the words to American songs better than we did; it was clear that Western culture thrives alongside the Vietnamese tradition. Bonding over less-than-stellar performances of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold,” karaoke was a great final send-off from the pen pals who now seemed like old friends. The farewells were certainly difficult, but we were reminded of the brief but meaningful times we spent together in Hanoi.

Group picture with our pen pals in Ly Thai To Square.

Over the past couple of days were immersed in many contrasts, both cultural and political. We are interested in seeing how Hanoi will change in times to come and hope to visit again to see these changes for ourselves.

— Zak Brownlie, Olivia Fidler, Pedro Gallardo

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