As the last few intense days settle into some form of normality we are off into Hanoi for a more regular tourist look into the sights, sounds and smells of this crazy town. Through the washing machine of seeing a young life take steps towards forgiving himself, hearing of a heart wrenching past and feeling a loving family kept adrift by social demands we now see Hanoi with clear vision again. Clearer at least. We’re thankful for the precious gift that has been given to us, the insight into a life, a family and a culture that has left us spent and a little dizzy. The precursor to all this drama is really the culture we’ve been lapping up all this time, a culture ingenious, industrious, resilient and full of life. The strength behind culture that could never be defeated comes at a price though; the steel that forged a nation doesn’t bend so easily, that steel was forged in that name of one man above all others; Ho Chi Minh.
We’ve soaked in the upsides of this cultures strength and in the last few days we’ve seen the balance to all the fanfare, the only part missing is the man himself. He’s long since dead but we can go and see the great man, the name that rallied a nation as his body lies in state: well the mannequin replica of his body at least. To much protocol and security we enter the immense grounds of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum amused at how chaos reigns unabated in this city yet as we step through the gates formality presides as if we’re entering a Swiss bank vault. I assume everyone knows it’s a dummy, or maybe they don’t; either way the ruse is upheld with much vigour, we could nearly be in China for all the pretentious formality that surrounds us.On the strict pathway to the crypt Charlie makes a good point: “It’s communist countries that put their heads of state on display, but they’re meant to be all about the people”. But history does tell us that communism is really a dictatorship with a better PR department; brand maintenance is vital. In truth Vietnam is far from a communist culture; laws prevail granting the state great control and power but on street level it’s capitalism all the way, currency rules as the Dong is king. Although the elections are routinely spoken of as a comical sham they have them none the less in what can only be thought of as a precursor to a more positive future. Surely watered down communism is better than a strictly held ideal? History would say yes.
Dummy or not the charade persists and I confess to being somewhat dragged in, statue still guards in perfect white uniforms line the path into the crypt creating a sense of fanfare and solemnity with great effect. This is where communism comes into practical effect, there’s a red pathway and you follow the pathway, you don’t talk, you don’t stop, you don’t touch anything; you follow the path and when you’re done you say ‘thank you’. After our lap we’re spat back out into the heat and sunshine a little excited, there’s absolutely none of the reverence that a great name of history deserves but it’s a stage managed thrill none the less. Great names cast a shadow through history and that shadow we’ve been living in for about six weeks or so now has a face. The short man that blocked the sun has a shadow as unavoidable in Vietnam as it is conflicted with good and bad outcomes; to be fair, more good than bad for the Vietnamese.Saigon, the great capital of the south might be named Ho Chi Minh city now but the power of this nation originates from and lies still in the north. Tung the tour guide is back in full swing as we walk through the elaborate gates of the Temple of literature, Vietnams first university. Established in 1070 the temple drips with Chinese symbolism as befits the ethnic layout of the era with a series of courtyards leading a bullet straight line into the heart of the university. The outer courtyard features lotus pools flanking elaborate gardens, the lotus that grow in muddy water a lesson to those that from the humblest beginnings anyone can grow tall and beautiful with the right application. How the first students must have been inspired on this procession.
At the passing of each courtyard steps raise us up before lowering us down again to teach the proud that there is always a return to earth regardless of any height you soar to. Symbolism drips from every feature of this aged beauty, window frames carved as the Mandarin character for happiness offer views inside while clams and fish scales adorn roof tiles to keep away the rain. The stork representing nobility stands on top of a turtle representing the common people, a tale of the symbiotic need of both for each other: the stork for somewhere to perch in a flood and the turtle for an airborn lift to water in drought. Each story is elegant and powerful, it’s also just a story and conflictingly the prelude to the type of blind belief that really crawls up my nose sometimes. The story is pretty but the symbolism is there; the stork sits proudly on top of the turtle. How things should be?As conflicting as old stories can be, the grace of this place can’t be denied and indeed it feels wrong to think so cynically. Where much of this country was bombed heavily in the American war, this university remains intact, one step inside these walls shouts at any visitor telling stories of hope, integrity and learning. The stories and symbolism add layers to the story here but they’re only really the icing on the cake; just being in here fills us with all of the messages even if we might not put them in the same concise words. Possibly the greatest of the long list of great achievements this place boasts is it’s mere survival; so rarely do great buildings survive the changing of dynasties, wars and national identities but here it stands intact, its integrity overpowering turmoil and change.
Leaving on a cloud of enchanted thought we graduate from the temple of literature with more lessons than we are able to identify. It’s time for food. Around the posh west lake area of Hanoi we pull up to spring rolls in another of Tung’s little secret finds. Silky spring rolls pile high on a plate stuffed with herbs and beef to be troweled through our little bowls of fish sauce, delicious. As is the norm, this very Viet day finishes on a procession of food and drink even though we need no food after the binge that was Tung’s mum’s onslaught. We’ve spent so much time seeing the outcomes of powerful cultural shadows cast and today we have the chance to see some up close. Be they institutions or people, time turns them all into thoughts and thoughts can cast grand shadows indeed.