HANOI 3

Western traders—Dutch, Portuguese, French—began arriving in the early seventeenth century, and hot on their heels came Jesuit missionaries followed by the Paris Foreign Missions. The town fell into decline and the imperial court was moved to Hue. In 1831, Emperor Tu Duc renamed the old capital Hanoi, or “City on the Bend in the River”—ha means “river” and noi means “inside”—and set about restoring some of the old splendors. His timing was bad, for France was looking for alternate trade routes to ship goods from China to the Mekong, and Hanoi’s location on the right bank of the Red River—at a wide, sweeping bend—offered strategic control of the entire northern delta. Paris sent Francis Gamier and a small expeditionary force to Hanoi in 1873 to reconnoiter. They did their evaluations and then—offering the unlikely explanation that they feared attack—destroyed the Hanoi Citadel. Tu Due, stunned at how much Gamier had accomplished with so few men, acceded to French de¬mands. Nine years later Hanoi became the capital of France’s new protec¬torate, Tonkin. Vietnam would remain under foreign domination for nine decades, that is, until the Americans fled Saigon in 1975.
The expatriate community I found in Hanoi numbered only a few thousand, small for a capital with 3 million residents. But unlike other places in the developing world I’d lived, I didn’t hear much complaining. The Westerners lived in Vietnam by choice. Their lives were more exotic and unpredictable—and, I suspect, interesting—than they would have been back in New York or Sydney. In Cairo and Nairobi, where I once lived, longtime expats used to lament the state of decay and yearn for a past era. “You should have seen the place back then” they’d say wistfully. In Hanoi, foreign residents talked about the present as being the good days. They had encountered Hanoi at the perfect moment—after the long, dark years of isolation that followed the Vietnam War and before the city succumbed to the inevitable rush of bulldozed development that had already stripped other Southeast Asia capitals of their charm.
The first change that Hanoi wrought in me was making life simpler. Back in the States, my key chain bulged with a dozen keys to double- bolted house doors, two cars, alarm systems, padlocked windows, a bike lock, a security door to the office. Now it held only two, one to our apart¬ment, the other to the Times bureau. I didn’t make notes at night on what I had to do the next day, and my office answering machine didn’t blink with a score of voicemails if I left for a few hours. I owned a bicycle but no car. And I could safely walk any street at any hour of the day or night. Because civilians didn’t own guns and the military didn’t abuse guns, the crime rate was negligible, even by the standard of the tamest U.S. city. That, too, made life simpler, giving me an unfamiliar sense of freedom and well-being.
I had never lived in a communist country before, and although every¬thing was new, nothing felt so alien as to be unsettling. There were no soldiers on the streets and few policemen. No one paid much attention to the red banners with slogans that the Communist Party occasionally hung across a street, and the man from the People’s Committee who used to wander my neighborhood, keeping an eye on foreigners, never caused me any trouble.
Busts of Ho Chi Minh—“Uncle Ho,” as the Vietnamese call him— were everywhere, in shops and homes and offices, and every day thou¬sands of Vietnamese lined up outside his mausoleum in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square, the place where he had declared Vietnam’s short-lived independ¬ence in 1945. Inside they would file solemnly past the open coffin contain¬ing the eerie corpse of Ho, waxen-looking, not a hair of his stringy beard out of place. They carried children and whispered not a word. Many wept quietly.
Ho had asked that no monuments be built in his honor and that he be cremated, with his ashes sprinkled on three unmarked hilltops around the country. He wanted trees planted where his ashes lay because they would “multiply with the passage of time and form forests.” If he died before the end of the war against the United States, he said, it would please him if some of his ashes were sent to the “compatriots in the South.”
But Party leaders had no intention of allowing their most important symbol of struggle and nationalism to slip from public consciousness. When Ho died in 1969, at the age of seventy-nine, with the war still rag¬ing, his body was secretly whisked to a farming town thirty miles from Hanoi. He was embalmed by Russian technicians and the town was placed off-limits. He was not seen by the public again until 1975, the year the war ended, when the Party put him on display in the recently com¬pleted mausoleum, modeled after Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. No doubt Ho, an unpretentious man who lived modestly and never cared about wealth or pomp, would have been appalled by the or-nate marblc-and-granite edifice. But it is impossible to look at this small, fragile man who lies under glass, his brown suit without a crease, his pale lace relaxed as though in sleep, without remembering how much he influ¬enced the lives of those of us who lived through the Vietnam War era.

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