They Save Umbilical Cords Here

With the slightest of groans and the merest of lurches the overnight train started to move, pulling out of the station in Hanoi.

I will spend tonight on the rails, in a four bed berth that I share with two travelers from Holland and a young Vietnamese man who does not speak English. I am headed to the Sapa Valley, in Northwestern Vietnam.

But that is the end of the day. Today began, as always in Hanoi, at Hoan Kiem Lake, not far from my hotel. I have circled the area a few times, but hadn’t yet stepped foot onto the small island in the middle. Here, at the end of the graceful arc of a red lacquered bridge, stands Ngoc Son Temple, commemorating the defeat of invading Mongolian forces in the 13th century.

I sit here for a while, just feeling the energy of this place, isolated within the city, where the din drops just a bit and the surrounding roar recedes from consciousness.

From here I had two options – the Old Quarter and the French Quarter. The Old Quarter seems to be mostly vendors packed densely into overcrowded streets, some of which I have walked through already, so I choose the French Quarter. Honestly I have few things on my list here, but definitely would like to see Hoa Lo prison.

Standing on the edge of the French Quarter is St Joseph’s Church, built by French Colonists in the 1880s. It is a beautiful structure, but there is something always off about the churches built by colonists. They are trying to rebuild something they had at home using local materials and artisans, and the end result is a bit like looking in a fun house mirror. I had the same experience in Lima.

I continue my trek further south in Hanoi. Around me I feel the press of the sticky humid heat of the late morning sun. Risking my life to cross the street, I finally come to the remains of the Hoa Lo Prison, or in the US: The Hanoi Hilton.

This prison was built by the French Colonists at the site of an ancient village to hold local political prisoners. It had a brutal history of overcrowding and torture long before its use in the Vietnam War. Many of the heroes of the Vietnamese fight for independence from the French were held here.

It had a guillotine. Those sentenced to death were officially given 30 days to appeal, but in reality most were executed within just a few days.

As I move through the museum I come upon its display relating to the Vietnam War (here they call it the American War). This is my first real taste of the propaganda machine at work, although I have seen it elsewhere. They have display after display demonstrating how wonderfully the American prisoners were treated. They played volleyball. They decorated Christmas trees. It was a Hilton the hotel chain would be proud of.

It is a curious place to be, to be looking at propaganda like this, knowing that I am of the opposite perspective. It is informative. I wonder, do the locals recognize it for what it is? Do we recognize our own propaganda? And how would we know?

Most of the prison has been torn down now, with just a small section remaining as a museum. Overhead two apartment buildings make better use of the land.

After lunch I wended my way through the French Quarter, stopping briefly at the Women’s Museum, eventually finding myself at the Vietnam Museum of History. Here I am told there are bronze age relics.

So I went inside and went upstairs to find: French colonists in the 1800’s. And as I moved through room after room dedicated to the resistance to colonialism, I find faded photographs and references to “Japanese Fascists” as well. The photo above is about as interesting as it gets.

And more fighting against the French. Where is my bronze-age relic, I wonder?

And now I’m back in lead-up to the Vietnam War. And more propaganda.

Now the threads start to weave together for me, however, even though I didn’t come here seeking revelation. And to be honest, perhaps I’m just starting to accept what the propagandists want me to believe, but it strikes me that to some of the Vietnamese people the Americans were just another in a long line of foreign invaders and colonists. And if that is in reality a fair assessment, did we even stand a chance?

I continue through the museum, finding nothing prior to 1800. I’ve clearly missed something, because there are signs indicating older displays. I inquire at the desk and the woman directs me outside, where I find a gift shop. This can’t be right. I pause and look around debating my next course, and then spot a sign. It isn’t in English, but clearly shows my current location in yellow, and another location, across two streets, in yellow.

I hazard the crossing and find what I was seeking: Bronze Age relics.

The 2500 year old ploughs were very cool.

And this massive drum from the same era was pretty spectacular.

But these lengths of rock were just breathtaking. They are 3000 year old musical stones. And I only wish I could hear their song being played again.

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