B. and I bounced quickly through Vietnam, from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. If we'd had more time (perhaps a future trip?), we would have meandered slowly along the coastline, making our way north.
Hanoi is to Ho Chi Minh City as Beijing is to Shanghai. Ho Chi Minh City is more modern, more international, bigger and more fast-paced. It is the business capital of the country. Hanoi is smaller, more traditional, more cultural. Aside from a hundred year gap in the 1800s, it has been the political capital of Vietnam since 1010. Interestingly, while Facebook was fully accessible in Ho Chi Minh City, it is often (but unofficially) blocked in Hanoi.
We stayed in the Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem Lake (aka "Sword Lake" or "Lake of the Returned Sword"). The name refers to the legend of emperor Lê Lợi,* who was boating in the lake when his sword was grabbed by a turtle. Despite search efforts, both the turtle and the sword disappeared. That sword was originally given to Lê Lợi by the Golden Turtle God; thus it was said that the Golden Turtle God had reclaimed the magic sword. At least one of these turtles still lives in the lake today. Turtle Tower sits on island in the middle of the lake.
Near Hoan Kiem lake, we watched a traditional water puppet show. These puppets glide on water, depicting vignettes of Vietnamese history -- starting with the birth of the Vietnamese people (from a dragon father and a fairy mother, who laid 100 eggs and gave birth to 100 sons). The highlight for me was the final scene: the puppeteers stepped out from behind the bamboo screens, allowing us to see how they controlled the puppets while standing waist-deep in water.
At the Temple of Literature, I learned the Vietnamese phrase for "Keep off the grass" -- a familiar sign after years in Cambridge! I thought Cambridge was an old university, having been founded in 1208. Vietnam's first national university trumps that by over 100 years: it was founded in the Temple of Literature in 1076. The depth of Asian history, like European history, is entirely foreign to oh-so-young America. The sprawling temple grounds also featured ancient architectural styles, stone tortoise stelae with the names of those who passed royal exams, altars to Confucius and his disciples, and an impressive array of old bonsai trees.
Our next stop, at Bai Tu Long Bay, was magical. Stay tuned.
* The Vietnamese language used to be character-based, using a modified set of Chinese characters. Today, however, the language is based wholly on the Latin alphabet, with diacritical marks for tones (5-6 tones depending on the region) and certain letters. Wikipedia notes that the shift in writing systems, which occurred in the 1920s, has dramatically increased literacy rates. It has also, however, cut most Vietnamese off from their traditional literature.