Raiding Hanoi
April 13, 2016

Raiding Hanoi




(First of two parts)

IF you ever arrange to meet a local in Vietnam, always ask for his first name, said our tour guide Hung when we arrived in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, last February.

That’s because 40 percent of the people in Vietnam are surnamed Nguyen, including him. So if you just say, “Mr. Nguyen?” almost half of the people in the room will stand up.

Nguyen is the name of Vietnam’s last dynasty.

“During the dynastic wars, the Nguyens tried to kill people from other families, so many families changed their name to Nguyen,” Hung told this assortment of journalists and tobacco executives as we motored to our hotel, the elegant Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, a landmark in the city’s French Quarter that first opened its doors in 1901.


The Hanoi trip was part of the prize for the winners of the 9th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards initiated by PMFTC Inc. to encourage journalists to produce stories on the agriculture sector. PMFTC is the combination of the businesses of Philip Morris Philippines Manufacturing Inc. and Fortune Tobacco Corp.

Bonding with this writer from Sun.Star Cebu were the other winners: writers Rizaldy Comanda (Manila Bulletin), Hanna Lacsamana (Baguio Midland Courier), Ian Ocampo Flora (Sun.Star Pampanga) and Henrylito Tacio (Edge Davao); photographers Dave Leprozo Jr. (Manila Standard Today) and Frank Cimatu (Baguio Chronicle); radio and TV program or segment winners Ronde Alicaya (dxCC RMN, Cagayan de Oro) and Ruben Gonzaga (ABS-CBN Davao); and writer-photographer Hall of Famer Mauricio Victa (Business Mirror).

Joining us were Philippines Graphic writer Ditas Antenor; the competition’s media judges The Philippine Star columnist Alfred “Krip” Yuson and BusinessWorld columnist J. Albert Gamboa; and PMFTC’s Bayen Elero-Tinga, Dave Gomez, Didet Danguilan and Marco Angelo Eugenio, among others.

Hanoi Hilton

Located in the country’s north, Hanoi is Vietnam’s second largest city. But even with seven million people, traffic was not that bad. And on our first day out, we quickly arrived at the 19th century Hoa Lo Prison built by the French for Vietnamese political prisoners.

We didn’t know it, though, as the sign on the entrance looked innocuous: “Maison Centrale” (Central House). In fact, this is what maximum security prisons in France are called.

Ravenous for coal and other natural resources, the French had seized Vietnam in the late 1800s. From 1896 to 1954, they kept more than 1,600 revolutionaries in the prison, suppressing their dreams of independence by starvation, torture and execution. Today, images of their shackling, and the remnants of dark, airless dungeons and the guillotine bear witness to the subhuman conditions in which they were kept and the grim fate that met those who dared to challenge their colonial masters.

During the Vietnam War, Hoa Lo held American prisoners of war caught by the North Vietnamese. Bitter POWs gave the prison the moniker “Hanoi Hilton.” A famous former resident is now U.S. Sen. John McCain, who spent five years here after his plane was shot down in 1967.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Breaking out, we turned to a lake with a legend.

Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) hosts the Turtle Tower, so called because lots of turtles lay eggs on the islet where it stands. Turtles are considered holy creatures in Vietnam.

The lake itself got its name from a legend that the 15th century Le Loi, lent a magic sword by the Dragon King with which he defeated the Chinese Ming Dynasty, was now boating on the lake as emperor when a golden turtle surfaced to seek the sword’s return to its master, the Dragon King living underwater. The emperor did as asked, giving the lake its name.

As legend has it, the turtle surfaces from the sea bearing the sword on its back in times of turmoil. This is why the death at the lake of a giant turtle last January was viewed as a bad omen.

Hung said the 200-year-old turtle embalmed and displayed at the Ngoc Son Temple we were entering, for example, had died in 1968, “the year of the Tet Offensive, which we lost.”

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese started an assault on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam during the “Tet” (Vietnamese New Year), only to suffer heavy casualties when South Vietnamese and US forces repelled them.

“Ho Chi Minh (leader of the communist North Vietnam) died a year later,” Hung added.

The Vietnam War was fought after North Vietnam sought to reunify the country by force under communist rule following resistance from the anti-communist South.

The 19th century Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain) on Jade Island is accessed through a red wooden footbridge over the lake. The Taoist temple is dedicated to the legendary 13th century general Trần Hung Dao, who thwarted multiple attempts by the Mongol Empire to invade Vietnam, the scholar Van Xuong and Confucian master Nguyen Van Sieu.

Lunch attack

During lunch at the Anh Hoa Restaurant, we sat so politely at long tables, our 22-member group sharing a meal together for the first time, that I never saw what was coming.

Ditas, the Philippines Graphic writer, heretofore a stranger, launched an attack, asking me point-blank how old I was. I retaliated by seeking her age as well. So we can both keep our dignity, I will not disclose our answers.

What happened next could only be described as a raid.

Waiting for our bus to take us to our 3 p.m. water puppet show, pandemonium broke out when some members of our group reported that the shop next door selling wallets, bags and other gift items was quoting prices in Philippine pesos and accepting pesos as payment as well.

There was no more excuse for those with no Vietnamese currency to stay on the sidelines. “Panic buying,” as a companion called it, ensued.

We arrived 10 minutes into the 45-minute performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, where we received the bizarre instruction to hide our cameras as we entered the building or risk paying a fee for them, while also being told that taking photos during the performance was allowed.

Pedal pushing

Between the theater and the Hoan Kiem Lake was the parking bay for the cyclo ride we took after the show.

We sat like queens on the 45-minute ride to explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the trishaw driver’s slow, rhythmic pedaling feeling right at home amid the street vendors, shops and market sounds in the one-kilometer ancient merchants’ quarter. I made a mental map of the colorful shops, which were just walking distance from our hotel.

Walking in Hanoi is an adventure in itself, for Hanoi’s roads are busily shared by buses, cars, bicycles and motorcycles, the last of which are deemed the most dangerous to pedestrians for their drivers’ aversion to using the brakes.

Hanoi has three million motorcycles for its seven million residents, and it’s not because the Vietnamese just want to show off their balancing skills.

“There is a 130 percent tax to buy a car,” Hung said. “This is to limit the number of vehicles on the road since the infrastructure is not sufficient.”

Incredible political will, if you ask me.

Eat, then pray

Later, chicken, hot soup, spicy noodle salad and beer materialized on our dinner table at the Nha Hang Lao restaurant—just what we needed on a nippy evening in our tavern-like nook.

Eating in Vietnam is a guilt-free affair. Its cuisine’s ample greens give the ladies confidence that no bloating will appear on the stomach or face after the gorging. When the cellphones, tablets and cameras came out, we readily flashed our pearly whites as the clicking went on and on.

Visions of Facebook glory went up in smoke, however, when back at the hotel, we got a stark reminder in front of the bathroom mirror that green, leafy vegetables like to hang around—between the teeth, including one’s front teeth—making them impossible to hide in close-up photos.

(Next week: “Heaven, Ho and Halong”)

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