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Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Dien Bien Phu

Dr. Bob McElvaine's 2010 Vietnam Journal


May 17, 2010

Well, I never expected to be here. The exotic, melodic name "Dien Bien Phu" is my earliest memory from a television newscast, when Douglas Edwards of CBS News spoke it repeatedly in the spring of 1954, as the French forces were besieged here by the Viet Minh and were forced to surrender, ending France's colonial role in Indochina and beginning America's.

I am sitting on the balcony in front of my room at the Him Lam hotel, a sprawling complex with ambitions as yet unrealized to be a nice resort. The grounds are very nice, as is the outside appearance of the buildings with guest rooms, but the latter leave much to be desired. A pleasant breeze blows intermittently - a nice contrast to our full day in Hanoi and the past two days here.

From where I sit, in the valley that the French foolishly chose to make their stronghold, I can look up at the surrounding mountains from which General Vo Nguyen Giap's army shelled the French in 1954.

The trip so far has been wonderful. Apart from being briefly detained at the airport in Guangzhou, China, by the Chinese authorities, who took our passports without explanation, even though we were only in transit, not even entering the country (they soon gave them back-again without explanation-and all was well), the trip over was uneventful. We zipped through Vietnamese immigration in minutes (as opposed to hours in January, but I think that was because their computers were down).

The group in Hanoi

The students are all wildly enthusiastic about what we are doing and seeing. Our day in Hanoi began with a walk through the streets of the old quarter and the market, immediately providing the students with their "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" moment. "I was immediately in sensory overload upon hitting the streets of Hanoi," Anne Waldrop said - a condition she surely shared with her fellow students. "This city is like nothing I have seen before," Kate Sundell said. "It's loud, fast-paced and rushed, but it's still slow and traditional."

Then it was on to view the body of Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum, which was mind-blowing for my "troops." Following tours of the complex around the mausoleum and of the Temple of Literature (where I learned that the phallic-shaped bell that is usually seen on one side of Taoist temples or palaces represents the yang/male and the drum on the other side represents the yin / female - very interesting), we had the customary sensational 7-course lunch at Anh Tuyet and everyone was totally pleased. The afternoon included a visit to Hoa Lo prison (the "Hanoi Hilton"), another remarkable experience for the students. We had dinner at a different restaurant from the one at which I ate on my first evening on my two previous trips, and this one is much better.

On Thursday, we took the long ride to Ha Long Bay, through the rice paddies of the Red River delta. Unfortunately, it was cloudy, although the sun popped out briefly a few times while we were on the boat, and even without the sun several students said that Ha Long Bay is the most beautiful place they have ever seen. They all got to swim, diving (or jumping) from the upper deck of the junk. I passed on that.

Here's what Sharon Yoo wrote about our day at Ha Long Bay:

Today was by far one of the most beautiful days I have ever experienced in my life ... We arrived at the bay and it was like I was having a hallucination. I felt like I was in, not a dream, but a day dream. It was a completely different world. As someone mentioned, it was like the scenery from the movie Avatar, which seemed like an exact replica. The depth of my feelings could not be explained in words because there were no words to describe that place.

Dan Garza was the source of the Avatar comparison: "I literally felt like I was in the film Avatar ... The rock outcrops are something one can't describe but must witness firsthand."

Ha Long Bay

"This site was easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen," Mary Rebecca Martin said. "The limestone islands with all the vegetation was unlike anything I've seen, and there were hundreds of these islands." "It is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen," George Holmes agreed. "Swimming in the cove will be a memory I will cherish forever."

Anne calls Ha Long Bay "quite possibly the most beautiful sight I have ever seen ... We embarked on a wooden boat - all to ourselves! The 360 degree angles of mountain cliffs sprouting jagged out of the sea surrounded our boat. I have no comparison to sights such as this in my life ... I occasionally had to pinch myself - who have ever thought I'd be jumping off boats in Vietnam?! Ha Long Bay was surreal to say the least."

"Today was one of the most amazing days of my life," Fran Tubb said. "Ha Long Bay was probably one of the most awe inspiring things I've ever seen. Our boat was amazing and beautiful with a really cool dragon head on the front ... After I landed in the water I would stop and look around every time. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. I felt like I was on a movie set."

Everyone was crazy about Ngoc, who was our guide in the north when George Bey and I were here, but not when the adult group came in January. They particularly liked Ngoc's response to several questions about what Vietnamese people think about this or that, "Oh, they Vietnamese, they LUUUF it!" Ngoc speaks English well, but is more fluent in French, and when he and Anne Waldrop had a long conversation in French, he was amazed. He said he had never heard an American speak French so well. That's quite a feather in the Millsaps cap!

The seafood lunch on the boat was amazing and, as always seems to be the case in this country (for tourists), far too much to be finished. When we got back to Hanoi, everyone was exhausted and we ate at the restaurant in the hotel, which turned out to be Italian and with a remarkable array of dishes from which to select. It was good, but not great.

Phuc, a.k.a. Our Man in Hanoi (OMIH), is accompanying us on our venture to Dien Bien Phu. We flew up on a turboprop, which had Dan Garza extremely scared. It was a totally smooth, uneventful flight. Northwest Vietnam is a beautiful mountainous area, with much green and sparsely settled in many places.

I had picked out a man on the plane with a Charles DeGaulle nose who appeared to be about the right age to have been at DBP in 1954 and guessed that he might be returning to see the site of so much hardship and sorrow. He turned out to be staying at our hotel, but we never got to talk with him. Anne spoke at length with another French man, and I talked with him this morning. He was not at the siege himself, but his brother was. He told me that coming here was a very heart-wrenching experience for him.

Kate, George & James on French tank, Dien Bien Phu

We went to a museum of the battle and saw interesting artifacts from the siege, along with a film and a light-up map describing the battle. It was the same film and map that George and I saw in the war museum in Hanoi on my first trip to Vietnam. The students got to play on tanks and artillery pieces (mostly American) that the French had used, along with some of the artillery pieces that the Viet Minh had used against them. Then we climbed up hill A-1, one of three positions the French had fortified in DBP. (I later learned in a guidebook that the French name for the hill is Èliane, the name of the Catherine Deneuve character in the film Indochine, which certainly adds to the symbolism of that great movie). It is beautiful now, with flaming trees (they have bright red flowers) and the mountains in the distance. Being here is the only way to truly understand how the French position was so hopeless once the Viet Minh had moved into their positions on the surrounding mountains.

Thursday night Phuc ordered us a set menu at the hotel restaurant and then broke out a bottle of rice wine, from which we had shots. Excellent. After dinner we had planned to do karaoke, but the equipment was being used for a performance by Black Thai dancers for a visiting delegation from Hanoi. James Bridgforth said the delegation was the Young Republicans of Hanoi, and I don't think he was far from the mark. They were from the finance ministry and are representative of what could more accurately be called the Capitalist Non-Republic of Vietnam.

Phuc told us about the Thai, a mountain people who are divided into black Thai and white Thai. Unfortunately, we have no tuxedos with us. As I understand it, these people came from China hundreds of years ago and don't seem to have much, if anything, to do with Thailand. Among the more interesting aspects of the Black Thai is that women who are married display prominently in their hair a large coin, indicating that they are taken - bought and paid for, I suppose.

There was more rice wine and dancing over closing bamboo poles. I passed on the latter.

Black Thai woman in Dien Bien Phu's Market

Yesterday we journeyed over a terrible excuse for a road up into the mountains to see General Giap's headquarters during the siege of DPB. It is an area inhabited by ethnic minorities, including the Black Thai and the Hmong. We saw some Hmong out in the open and Phuc told us that one of the practices of this culture is that a male who sees a girl he wants finds out where she lives and goes at night to kidnap her and take her to his home for three days. If during that time she eats or drinks anything in his home, she is his for life. Homo sapiens is such an interesting species!

The area where Gen. Giap made his headquarters in 1954 is beautiful. We visited a Black Thai village, Pa Khoang. The women always wear traditional dress, which includes a full-length black wrap-around skirt. We went inside one of the houses, where there was a child who was quite ill, but they wouldn't consider taking him to a doctor. They rely on their own traditional medicines. On the other hand, several of the houses on stilts, with large gaps between the floorboards and pigs living beneath them, have satellite dishes on the roof.

In the late afternoon, Phuc arranged for the students to rent motorbikes, which I thought was a very bad idea. It turned out to be a fiasco, with only Sharon able to handle one. Fortunately, they were so bad at it that they never got out on the road. George became our first casualty in country when he got a burn on his lower leg from the hot engine of his bike. We'll defer a decision on amputation.

Some of the gang went out this morning to ride as passengers on the backs of motorbikes. This worked out fine and they really enjoyed it.

On to Hue.