Posts Tagged ‘vietnam’

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.

Book: Vietnam, Rising Dragon

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Required reading for any curious traveler to Vietnam, Bill Hayton’s Vietnam, Rising Dragon takes the reader through the culture and history, as well as complex politics and burgeoning economy ofo this changing nation. A BBC journalist, author Hayton is an expert craftsman who weaves anecdotes from everyday life into a larger narrative of where Vietnam has been, what social and economic changes mean, and what’s next for this magnetic, engaging country.

Explore Vietnam with Smithsonian Journeys—click to learn more about planning your next adventure there.

Click to see all of our blog posts on Vietnam, from our experts who have traveled there.

The History of Hoi An, Vietnam

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Mark McLeod is currently researching intersections between culture and politics in 19th century Vietnam. He is an expert on Vietnamese history since 1802, so Smithsonian Education Manager Sadie McVicker took the opportunity to get his thoughts on Hội-an, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Q. Hội-an is a World Heritage Site, essentially a living museum of what was one of the most active Southeast Asian seaports of the 15th-19th centuries. Can you tell us something of the long history of its rise to that preeminence? And why it fell out of favor over 200 years ago?


Woman in rowboat, Hoi An, Vietnam.

A. In addition to the advantages presented by the port itself, the Thu-bồn River system, which has its origins in the Annamite Range and drains into the South China Sea (which Vietnamese call the Biển Đông or Eastern Sea, not wanting to concede China’s ownership of it), forms one of Vietnam’s largest river basins, which served to link local, regional, and international trade. Furthermore, the surrounding area, roughly comprising the area of modern Quảng-nam province, in addition to natural products such as cinnamon and ginseng, was an artisanal producer of textiles and ceramics, which attracted foreign traders, Asian as well as European.

Evidence from shipwrecks demonstrates that Việt and other Asian ceramics, shipped from Hội-an, traveled at least as far West as Egypt! It is no wonder that 18th-Century Chinese and Japanese merchants considered Hội-an Asia’s premier trading destination. However, trade declined from the late 1700s with the Tây-sơn Rebellion and the resulting conflicts that were not settled until the founding of the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802. After that, for political as well as practical reasons (the mouth of the Thu-bồn River silted up, blocking access to larger ships), the focus of trade shifted southward to Đà-nẵng. This trend has continued to the present, as Đà-nẵng is now Vietnam’s third largest port, after the ports of Hồ Chí Minh City and Hải-phòng, whereas Hội-an now survives primarily as a tourist attraction, thanks to the well-preserved architectural structures, museums, and crafting traditions, the value and interest of which have earned it the status of United Nations World Heritage Site. Indeed, Hội-an is one of the most successful examples of preservation of an area of cultural and historical value in contemporary Vietnam. One measure of their success in this regard is the fact that modern filmmakers desiring an unspoiled or colonial-era setting often film at Hội-an. For example, many of the urban scenes of the 2007 Vietnamese-American historical epic The Rebel (directed by Charlie Nguyễn) was shot in Hội-an rather than Hà-nội.

All of this makes the city a treat for travelers, who can visit museums and architectural attractions by day and enjoy tea by the river in the evening, watching the sun go down behind these beautiful buildings. Among the sites of interest, I enjoy the Chùa Cầu, literally the “Bridge Pagoda,” but usually called the “Japanese Bridge,” which was founded by 17th-Century Japanese traders. It is a “covered bridge” of lacquered wood, very solidly built and well restored over the years. Although it is called a pagoda, it was not devoted to Buddhist worship, but rather to local animistic spirits, with the two entrances being guarded by statues of monkeys and dogs.

Ready to visit Hội-an? Click here to see our journeys to Vietnam.

Discovering Vietnam

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Study Leader Dana Sachs is the author of three books and numerous articles about Vietnam. Having lived in Hanoi, she loves to share her favorite places with our travelers. Click  for more on Dana and traveling with her. Click here to see upcoming tours to Vietnam.

Vietnamese Ancestor Temple. Photo: Stan Shapiro.

Vietnamese ancestor temple. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Travel is so rich and deeply stimulating that sometimes a single day on the road feels more eventful than what we could experience during an entire month or year at home. If we race through our travels too quickly, however, we risk losing our ability to absorb all these new experiences. That’s why it’s so important to slow down sometimes, step out of the car or bus, and start strolling.

Our group did just that one morning by taking a walk through a farming village on the outskirts of Danang in central Vietnam.  It was a mild, sunny day and, as we walked past the well-tended vegetable patches and kitchen gardens full of herbs and flowers, the land seemed so fertile that you could almost see the new sprouts shooting up before your eyes.

For days, we’d been discussing many of the most important themes coursing through Vietnamese society—the role that religion plays in the family, the rhythms of agrarian life, the shifts of balance between rural traditions and the growing influence of the city. Now, though, walking on those narrow village paths, we could see how such themes actually play themselves out in daily life.

Over the past few days, for example, we’d talked a lot about Vietnamese spirituality. At temples and pagodas in other parts of the country, we had already seen the beauty of religious art and architecture. The crowds of worshippers leaving offerings at the altars of a Hanoi monastery had shown the popularity of Vietnamese Buddhism, which combines traditional Mahayana Buddhism with Confucianism and Daoism, strongly emphasizing ancestor worship. It was hard to understand the depth of that spirituality, however, until we took that walk through the village.

Not far from the main road, we came upon two buildings standing on a single plot of land. The bigger of the two structures was a house, old and fairly run-down, but still inhabitable. On the other side of the plot sat another building, tiny but new, with a fresh coat of paint, pretty tiles on its roof, and two large pots of bright yellow chrysanthemums on either side of the entry. Looking in through the open doors, we saw that this building had been constructed as a family temple. It had a large ornate altar at its center, in front of which had been placed a wide array of offerings: pyramids of fruit, vases of flowers, “fake money” for the ancestors to use in the next world. Here, clearly, was the nicest spot on the property, not only a place to pay tribute to the ancestors, but also a lovely structure for the living members of the family to enjoy as well.

Saffron noodles drying in the sun. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Saffron noodles drying in the sun. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Farther down the road, at another home, a family was busy preparing to commemorate the death anniversary of an ancestor. Seeing our group approach on the lane, they quickly invited us into their courtyard, offered us tea, and explained that they were honoring a ba (a grandmother) who had passed away. The lunch party was a way to remember her and also bring the extended family together for a festive meal. Would we like to stay for lunch as well?

Unfortunately, we had to continue on our walk through the village (a home-based noodle-making enterprise was just up the road!), but the moments that we shared with the family as they prepared for their commemoration gave us a clear sense of the powerful connection that Vietnamese feel with those whom they regarded as having travelled to the world beyond. By taking one simple walk through a village, we gained a deeper understanding of one of the most important factors in contemporary Vietnamese life: the central obligation of the living, we saw firsthand, lay in the act of honoring the dead.

Learn more. Click here for more on Dana and traveling with her, click here for Dana’s other blog posts, and click here to see upcoming tours to Vietnam.

What did you learn on your latest travels? Please share.

Hoi An – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010
A Vietnamese woman travels by boat in Hoi An

A Vietnamese woman travels by boat in Hoi An

The old town of Hoi An in the South Central coast of Vietnam is a well-preserved example of a traditional trading town during the 15th to the 19th centuries. The shift of the trade routes from Hoi An  to Da Nang resulted in the virtual abandonment of the village—leaving it in much the same state as it was nearly 200 years ago. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the small town on the coast of the South China Sea has seen an increase in the number of tourists and backpackers in recent years.

Hoi An was initially part of the Champa Empire, but did not become a major trading post until about 1595, under the rule of the Nguyen Lords. The town became one of the most important ports on the South China Sea because of its ability to ship goods, especially spices, down the river system between highlands, Laos and Thailand, and the lowlands. During the 16th and 17th centuries, many foreigners settled in Hoi An.  As trade relations developed between the French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish, Hoi An incorporated a unique blend of foreign and local influences.

The decline of Hoi An as the premier trade port makes this town unique because very little modern Vietnamese influence has infiltrated the culture or cityscape since the 18th century. At the end of the 1700s, Hoi An experienced a sharp decline in trade activity due to the collapse of Nguyen rule. The new emperor, Gai Long, repaid the French for their aid in conquering the Nguyen Lords by giving them exclusive rights to trade in Da Nang, thus establishing Da Nang as the primary trade route in central Vietnam.

Today Hoi An serves as a key cultural destination with numerous arts and crafts shops as well as several Internet cafes, bars and restaurants along the riverfront. Hoi An is famous for the Cao lầu noodle, locally prepared for centuries. Travelers can walk the streets of Hoi An enjoying the magical mixture of cultures of a trade town largely untouched by modern Vietnamese influences for the past 200 years.

Join us in Hoi An on one of these Smithsonian Journeys tours.

What’s your favorite cultural destination? Share below.