Posts Tagged ‘saigon’

Exploring the Bustling Streets (and Waterways) of Vietnam

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Ann Marie Leshkowich, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderAnn Marie Leshkowich, a Smithsonian Study Leader and Associate Professor of Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), has conducted extensive research in Vietnam on gender, marketplaces, economic transformation, middle classes, fashion, social work, and adoption. Read her post below about a recent trip to Vietnam with Smithsonian Journeys.

Throughout our Smithsonian Journeys tour of Vietnam, we witnessed the role of family as the heart of this society. Ancestor worship; weddings, funerals, and reburial ceremonies; preparations to return home to celebrate Tết, the Lunar New Year; and the idea of the country as itself a large, extended family (the word for country, quốc gia, literally means nation-family) – all provide evidence that family imparts a sense of self, identity, and belonging.

It would be misleading, however, to think of this family-centeredness as cloistering Vietnamese in some private world behind the doors and walls of home. Instead, as we walk along streets in Vietnam’s largest cities or cruise down its waterways (for, in Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta, water is, after all, a key thoroughfare), we see that the social world of the family spills out of the confines of the home and is intimately connected to the bustling activity of streets and markets. All the more so as Tết approaches.

Our journey begins in Hanoi about two weeks before Tết. Preparations focus on Ông Táo, the Kitchen God. Through his residence in the home, Ông Táo learns all a family’s secrets. On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, Ông Táo will journey skyward on the back of a carp to give a full account of the year’s events to the Jade Emperor. A proper ritual send-off will sway him in making a positive report. Our first full day in Hanoi ends in the Ancient Quarter with an evening walk down Hàng Mã Street, which specializes in votive paper items and decorations that are used in offerings such as those that will soon be made to Ông Táo. Row after row of housefront shops take over the sidewalk with eclectic arrays of red lanterns, dragons (in honor of the upcoming Year of the Dragon), auspicious messages that can be hung on decorative kumquat trees, red and gold lì xì envelopes that will bear small gifts of money for children, and paper replicas of currency, clothing, jewelry, and electronics that will be burned as offerings to the ancestors. The group tentatively weaves through the traffic, as commuters on motorbikes stop on their way home to buy ritual or decorative items. Other residents perch on small stools to enjoy phở (noodle soup) or grilled meat at streetside cafés. Our local guide reminds us that Hanoi’s tubehouses – long, narrow multi-storied structures – can be cramped, so both socializing and domestic tasks move out onto the street.

Lantern shop in Hanoi

Lantern shop in Hanoi. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user mrbold_fickr.)

The next day, the group journeys through the drizzle to Ha Long Bay, where we witness a different sort of street life in floating villages formed by groups of boats anchored together. These villages include bank branches so that residents can conveniently exchange the money they receive from Chinese and other foreign fish buyers. We stop at the houseboat of one family, where three generations (grandmother, parents, and children) live in a series of one-room wooden structures linked by planks that surround enclosures for raising grouper or oysters. There is a roofed verandah for work or socializing, a drainage system for collecting rainwater, a generator to power television, lights, and other appliances, and a dog to patrol the entire compound. Both friends and customers can easily stop by.

Halong Bay

About a week later in Cần Thơ, we get another view of watery street life. Early one morning, we board a boat at the hotel’s dock to travel about 45 minutes to a floating market. For several hours each morning, boats congregate to trade the bounty of the Mekong Delta region. Produce sold here will be transported to markets throughout the country or exported abroad. Every boat has a bamboo pole for hanging samples of its offerings, including pomelo, turnip, star apple, shallots, garlic, scallions, melons, and squash. In the throng of boats, the poles help customers locate what they wish to buy; the hails used in land markets would be futile over the din of boat engines. We disembark to taste local fruit, including the infamous durian, at a floating store and phở restaurant. Back on our boat, a few detours down smaller tributaries yield a closer view of the houses that line the waterways, the narrow wooden monkey bridges that traverse the numerous canals, and the flowering water hyacinths and morning glory that make the scene so memorable, but which also threaten to clog the boat’s motor.

Fruit market, Cần Thơ, Vietnam

Market in Cần Thơ. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user dalbera.)

In Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon, the pre-1975 name that most residents still prefer, our group gets a different taste of street life. On one of our final days in Vietnam, a few of us venture to a boutique specializing in fair-trade handicrafts. Our excursion takes us through the Tết flower market in the large “September 23rd Park.” Families, couples, groups of schoolchildren, and tourists oggle displays of horticultural virtuosity: delicately patterned orchids, exuberant chrysanthemums, lovingly tended bonsai, and giant kumquats. Some plants are shaped like famous Vietnamese landscapes, while others take the form of a dragon in honor of the coming year. Even in a city as large as Saigon, an outing to the Tết flower market can be an occasion to bump into friends and acquaintances. As we get closer to New Year’s Eve, families and friends will pile onto their motorbikes to cruise around the downtown area – a chance to see and be seen while taking in the festive atmosphere of this most special time of the Vietnamese year. Although Tết is often described as a family holiday, the preparations for it that we witnessed on streets and waterways throughout the country underscore the intimate links between kin and community and between social and economic life in a country where a sense of cultural heritage is paramount.

A bridge on Nguyen Hue Blvd., Saigon

A bridge on Nguyen Hue Blvd. in Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user HudrY.)

Flowers on Display for Tet in Saigon, Vietnam

Floral display for Tet, Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Calflier001.)

Crowded street during Tet in Saigon, Vietnam

Crowded street at night during Tet, Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user robertlafond2009.)

Read more about our small group “Discovering Vietnam” trip here.

Q&A With Study Leader Dana Sachs

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
Dana Sachs is Study Leader on our 2010 Journey Through Vietnam. As a Fulbright Scholar in Hanoi, she conducted research for a book on Operation Babylift, the U.S.-sponsored evacuation of displaced children at the end of the war in Vietnam. Here, she chats with Smithsonian Journeys about her time in Vietnam and her research there.


Woman rowing in Vietnam.

Woman rowing in Vietnam.


Smithsonian Journeys: You lived in Hanoi for two years. What would you especially highlight on our itinerary and what impressions would you hope our travelers will take home with them?

Dana Sachs: One of the things that surprises visitors most when they visit Vietnam is the diversity of the country. The northern Red River Delta region around Hanoi has four seasons, so people on our January and February trips enjoy crisp days and nights when they’ll want to carry a jacket. In Hanoi at this time of year, we get to see people bundled in sweaters and hats, eating dried fruit candies and relaxing together in little street-side cafes with cups of strong coffee. In Vietnam’s central region, the days are cool and misty, perfect for bike rides through the quiet cities of Hue and Hoi An, where people maintain the traditions of fishing and making handicrafts that have been passed down for centuries. In Saigon, the country’s thriving metropolis, the weather is hot but pleasant, just the right temperature to finish up a walk through a teeming market with a cool glass of sugar cane juice or plate of fresh pineapple.

Each of these regions has its own particular highlights. I tell people that they can’t leave Hanoi without taking a walking tour through the Old Quarter, a warren of tiny lanes and back alleys named for the things that have been sold there for centuries (Sweet Street, Silver Street, Prayer Paper Street—the list goes on and on). In the Central Region, I always love to wander through the ruins of the Imperial Purple Forbidden City (also known as the Citadel), and to travel outside of town to visit the overgrown and romantic gardens surrounding the tombs of the kings. In the South, I recommend kicking back on a boat that takes you down the canals and streams of the Mekong Delta. Right from the deck, you can witness the life of a vibrant river culture, with people washing their hair on the banks, or fishing from hand-crafted canoes, or trading in the floating markets that stretch across the river near Can Tho every morning.

One of the great highlights for me, as well, is the fact that visiting this year coincides with Hanoi’s celebration of its 1000th anniversary. It’s a year-long party, and I’m excited about being there for it.

SJ: The Thien Mu Pagoda (Hue) has existed since the early 17th century and is famous throughout Vietnam. What is the story of the pagoda?

DS: Thien Mu, with its beautiful seven-story tower, has become one of the enduring symbols of Hue. That’s appropriate, because the pagoda, like the city itself, is a thing of great beauty that shows the scars of intense suffering. First built in the early 17th Century, it has for hundreds of years served as a center of spiritual retreat for Buddhist monks. In 1963, the pagoda became famous for a different reason. It was the height of the war and the monks had become increasingly frustrated by the treatment of Buddhists by South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a Catholic. One monk from the pagoda, Thich Quang Duc, immolated himself on the streets of Saigon, and the photograph of his burning body, seated in lotus position, became one of the most horrifying images of the war. These days, the automobile that carried Thich Quang Duc to Saigon remains parked on the grounds of the pagoda, and the site has become a place of pilgrimage for those who remember those terrible times.

SJ: From what I have read, the Perfume River deserves its name. It seems that beyond, or perhaps thanks to, its aromatic and languid waters, the river is almost a state of mind. Can you tell us more?

DS: This question reminds me of one more thing about the Thien Mu Pagoda. When we visited on my most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, we travelled there by boat along the river. The boat brought us to the banks below the pagoda and we walked up to visit. From this hillside, you could look out over the river moving slowly past. Like so much of Hue, the scene was quiet and absolutely peaceful. Only a few brightly colored fishing boats slipped by in the current. It made perfect sense to me that, all those centuries ago, a Nguyen Lord decided to locate a pagoda here. For me, then, the “perfume” of the river becomes intimately connected with the fragrance of the incense burning at the altars throughout the pagoda. It’s a lovely scent that, in my mind, seems inextricably linked with the serenity of the pagoda and the quiet of the river.

SJ: Perhaps at no other point in the itinerary will our travelers come as close to the reality of the Vietnam War than in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). One focus of your academic work is Operation Babylift (from Saigon) and its consequences. Please tell us about it.

DS: Looking back, it seems hard to believe that such a thing happened. It was early April of 1975. The North Vietnamese-backed troops were closing in on Saigon and everyone knew that the collapse of South Vietnam was only weeks away. In the midst of this chaos, the U.S. government embarked on a mission to evacuate some 3,000 children and put them in adoptive homes overseas. Most of these children were already living in orphanages run by foreign-aid groups. A significant number, however, were relinquished in the final weeks of war by panicked Vietnamese parents who worried that their children would be killed by the Communists if they remained in Vietnam. After the war ended, it became clear that those children would have survived. By then, however, they had already been placed with new families overseas. The program had taken the children out of the country, but there was no system in place to repatriate them.

My research included interviewing numerous people who were involved in the Babylift, including the foreign aid workers who had taken charge of these kids, local women who cared for them in the orphanages, medical staff, U.S. government officials, adoptive parents, biological parents and, of course, the children themselves. The book comes out in April 2010, on the 35th anniversary of the end of the war. Its title, The Life we were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam, comes from a comment I heard from one of the now-adult adoptees. I had asked him if he harbored any anger over what had happened to him. He told me that he didn’t see a point to feeling angry. “This,” he told me, “is the life we were given.”

SJ: Hanoi finally became “Hanoi” in the 19th century, although it has been a capital or center since the 3rd century BC, and many of the historic sites our travelers will see there date to the pivotal 11th century. Please shed light on what our travelers can look forward to discovering in this historically significant city.

DS: As I mentioned, Hanoi is about to celebrate it’s 1000th anniversary. Like Rome or Athens, it is a city that has existed as an important political, economic, and cultural center for centuries. When you walk down a street in Hanoi, you are literally walking over the remains of the past. Several years ago, while the government was making preparations to build a new parliament building, crews started excavating a piece of land in the center of the city. Not far below the surface, they began unearthing an enormous cache of artifacts. The discovery included, literally, millions of clues to Vietnam’s history: 600-year-old bricks, 15th Century blue and white bowls from the Le Dynasty, celadon platters, even the bones of elephants, which were used for labor in early Vietnam. The discovery marked the site of the royal enclosure of the Thang Long Citadel, the seat of power during the period when Hanoi was known as Thang Long. Scholars had always suspected that it existed but it wasn’t until this modern age, when they were making preparations for a monument to the current government, that they finally found incontrovertible evidence of its existence.

SJ: So many Vietnamese place names are dragon-based, e.g., Ha Long (Descending Dragon) Bay—how did the dragon become the starring figure in Vietnamese mythology and folklore?

DS: Vietnamese culture includes four sacred animals: The phoenix, the unicorn, the tortoise and the dragon. The dragon is the most powerful and, in many ways, stands for the strength of the nation. It’s not surprising, then, that many important Vietnamese names refer to the dragon. The Vietnamese name for the river we call the Mekong is Cuu Long, which means Nine Dragons. For many centuries, Hanoi was called Thang Long, which means Rising Dragon, an image that evokes power within the culture. The famous natural wonder, Ha Long Bay, is named for the “descending dragon” which legend says dove in and out of the water, creating islands as it churned the sea. As we travel through the country, we see these figures again and again. Stone stele of the tortoise, which represents longevity and wisdom, line the pavilions of Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, the ancient seat of learning. Statues of unicorns and phoenixes decorate pagodas and temples from the north to the south. But these images aren’t simply archaic. In Hanoi, a backpackers guesthouse carries a familiar name. It’s called the Rising Dragon Hotel. A charity race in Saigon: Challenge of the Nine Dragons. If you want a clearer idea of the importance of the dragon as a symbol in Vietnam, consider the importance of a flying creature in our own national identity—the Bald Eagle.

What do you want to see in Vietnam? Share below.

See Vietnam for yourself on one of our tours to the country.

Read more about Vietnam in Smithsonian magazine.