What's New in Hanoi

Friends, family, and blog readers,

The last time you heard from us we had left the former capital city of Hue and were heading north. After many hours on the bus, exploring tunnels, caves, and the DMZ, we made our way to the train station. Nobody really knew what to expect for the train ride, and it was an experience to say the least. Our sleeper cars slept four, and despite the tight quarters, it was luxurious compared to other cars where people slept under wooden benches. Regardless of the living conditions of the train, we arrived in Hanoi at 5 am, safely but groggy.

After arriving at our hotel and getting settled, we went to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Many of us did not know what to expect, despite the intimidating presence of armed guards. Reactions among the group varied after seeing the embalmed body of the former communist party leader. Nonetheless, the experience was quite memorable.

Later that afternoon, we were given a presentation about how Vietnamese history, governmental structure, and culture, have shaped their current economic situation. The speaker, Dr. Luc Can, like many other previous speakers we have heard, was very optimistic about the growth Vietnam has enjoyed, and the prospective future growth of the nation. We left feeling more knowledgeable about how Vietnam has developed into one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Our final group activity of the day was to Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation (bluedragon.org). Blue Dragon is a non-profit organization that helps kids in crisis, and one hundred percent funded by donations. They reach out to children who are living on the streets to help keep them safe and get them back to their families. For children that are caught by the police living on the streets, they are arrested and put in Community Protection Centers for three months. If caught again, their sentence will double. Blue Dragon also performs operations to rescue children who are trafficked. The organization also plays an active role in persecuting those who have abused, trafficked, and harmed children in other ways. Hearing stories about children who have found themselves in these awful situations was quite sobering and sad, to say the least. These individuals, working not for personal financial stability, but to better the lives of children are truly heroic. Leaving Blue Dragon and seeing how happy the kids were despite the hardships they have endured, was inspiring and will remain one of our most memorable experiences of the entire trip.

Our visit to Blue Dragon was a striking reminder that despite Vietnam’s rapid economic growth, the prosperity does not find everyone. Vietnam is still developing and issues of human trafficking, child labor, and extreme poverty still exist. We have been told at times that despite the appearance of poverty, poor individuals are very happy. Hearing and meeting children who were forced into labor or sex trafficking because of the extreme poverty facing their families and community, reaffirms the question we have been wrestling with throughout the trip; can individuals in extreme poverty truly be happy?

The next day we woke up early to travel to the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam to hear about the foreign policy of Vietnam. We had to travel earlier than we were expecting because today the Communist Party of Vietnam was meeting today for the 12th Party Congress. We were told that at the meeting the new cabinet and President of the country are chosen and plans for the future are made. What was very special about the academy was that many of its alumni someday become part of the cabinet and are leaders of the country. Dr. Viet Nguyen told us about the policies which have been in force since the Doi Moi reform in 1986. He said the biggest reform was a reform in thinking.

The main goals of the country's policies have been to be a friend to all countries and try and build relationships with all countries. This is almost entirely in an economic sense. The country is growing so quickly and this is in part to better foreign relations with countries in trade agreements and being part of international trading organizations. This has been going quite well for the country, but Dr. Nguyen acknowledged some challenges the country is facing in foreign policy.

The three major challenges were to protect sovereignty in the South China Sea which has been an increasing problem as China continues to create islands in the area, sustain uninterrupted economic growth, and nontraditional threats such as climate change and food/water security. Lastly, he noted the country is not mad with United States and are very glad that finally after 40 years after the conclusion of the war they are able to conduct business and have good foreign relations. He attributed the length of time to the considerable size difference of the country noting the smaller country won the conflict.

After being set loose for lunch and some shopping, we gathered again to travel to a publishing company to hear the head of the company discuss the culture of Vietnam. We have all noticed how proud everyone has been of their country and the progress they have ahead of them. The same was true with our speaker Lam. He told us how the a group of Chinese called the Viet had traveled into the Indochina Peninsula and settled in what today is the northern portion of Vietnam. Nam then translate to South. So the name of the country means the Viet people of the South. This then explains the 1,000 years of rule the Chinese had over the country. In the country's short 2,000 year history, they have been ruled have the time by the Chinese.

This means lots of their traditions have been adopted and expanded on. For starters, the language has changed, but ancient Chinese symbols are still apparent everywhere one looks. He told us how because of this influence other countries such as India also came to the country and left their mark. The most obvious of these is the tradition of Buddhism which is a large part of the country today. The other major influence is much more recent being the colonization by the French. Their coffee, bread, and religion remain part of the country today. With all of these influences, though came war. In the history of the country, there have been over 200 wars fought by the country and in almost every one, guerrilla warfare was used by the Vietnamese. They know their country incredibly well and use it to their advantage in every opportunity they can. Lastly, Lam noted how Ho Chi Minh brought the country to where it is today and seemed optimistic of the future predicting the complete industrialization and modernization of the country in the near future.

To end the day, we watched a water puppet show. As we sat in the balcony no one knew quite what to expect. What we got was spectacular. The traditional Vietnamese music and songs were sang and played to puppets showing the importance of the four animals of Vietnamese tradition. The dragon, phoenix, tiger, and turtle. We had heard their importance from Lam but now were able to see this in the form of puppets. The show was a short but very thrilling 45 minutes.

Tomorrow we travel to Ha Long Bay for our cruise and are very excited! As always, thanks for reading and following along with our journey through Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum from the outside
A view from the balcony of the Water Puppet Show
A rooftop view of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam