Day 2: John McCain's Crash Site, Temple of Literature, Museum of Ethnology

I can’t sleep because I keep thinking about my book. So many thoughts and ideas. I feel Deborah and Alex must come here. Vietnam must be included. Duc tells me that the U.S. lifted the embargo in 1992. Shortly after the liberation of Kuwait. Things changed rapidly after that, he says. So, Deborah could have taken her father to Vietnam in the ‘90s. That would be different from what I have now—but a little research and imagination should allow for an accurate depiction.

Deborah and Alex should meet with a Vietnamese veteran and visit a village of an indigenous tribe Alex remembers as they explore. He tells her in pieces about Vietnam, how it changed him, and how he died there. In the end, he dies in Vietnam. A thought about a Vietnamese/American conversation concerning abuses of human rights: Do not try to be the teacher until you have finished being the student.

Yesterday was a crazy fun day. I wandered around Hanoi all by myself avoiding the swarms of scooters buzzing around like bees—always threatening to sting you if you impede their way. The constant honking took a while to adjust to. And walking along the narrow streets felt pretty terrifying at times. But it was fun in a way—like a game. The smells in the town were varied, but somehow in harmony. The charcoal-grilled meats, the pho soup, the urine and human stench of a back alley, the perfume of a passing stranger, the smoke of a man outside a shop, and always the smog. Many people wear masks and I can see why.

The lake surrounding the small temple was beautiful. I saw my first rat scurry away into a bed of perfectly groomed flowers. What a funny juxtaposition.

I got lost a lot and ended up walking for about 4-5 hours. Finally had some pho in a local shop. Very tasty! Hope I don’t get sick! Bed calls…

6:20 PM

Today was an exploration into Vietnamese spirituality. I learned so much about Buddhism. Pagodas are places to worship the Buddha, while temples are to worship any spirit. Offerings are brought and incense is burned to draw the spirit to the statue. Once there, you can commune with the spirit in much the same fashion as any other prayer.

There is much symbolism in Vietnamese culture. The four sacred animals are the dragon, turtle, crane, and phoenix; red and yellow are the favored color—yellow being a symbol of prosperity and luck, and red being a symbol of power and good fortune. The crane and turtle combined represent unity. Many Confucian philosophies have made their way into Vietnamese culture including Feng Shui, which incorporates the ideals of balance and dictates bamboo, fish, wells, and a house pointing towards the water all help bring peace. Vietnam is the country of dragons who are often depicted playing in the clouds. Bamboo is a symbol of the Vietnamese spirit—always standing tall even after great storms that bend the reeds, they are standing upright again.

There is a great deal of national pride here. As can be seen at the Ho Chi Mihn complex. His body lays perfectly preserved. Apparently, he wished to be cremated and his ashes spread to northern, mid, and southern Vietnam, and anyone who visited to plant a tree so a huge forest would grow around him. But the communist party thought it better to preserve him. He spoke much about unity and lived a solitary life with fish and the radio, preferring a simple almost monk-like existence.

Next, we went to the one Pillar Pagoda where the French and Americans had both partially destroyed the building, but it had been rebuilt.

Next, we saw the Temple of Literature which apparently was a Confucian school. The architecture was ancient and balanced, but some of the buildings were new due to bombings in Hanoi.

I also saw the Tran Quoc Pagoda and Quan Thanh Temple. They were both beautiful places of worship—clearly places of reflection and devotion for many.

The Museum of Ethnology was fascinating, but so much information all at once. I hope they have a web page I can reference!

There are two sacred trees as well here that are never cut: The Bodhi tree and the Banyan tree. They both have spiritual significance. The Bodhi is where Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment (sitting under it).

The city is crazy! Duc asked me to share my draft about the city, so I guess I should write one…


Hanoi is a city of Yin and Yang, a city in search of peace amid the smog of ambition. Full of scooters like a million bees buzzing through the city streets inches away from catastrophe, all while elderly men and women practice Thai Chi before a serene lake crowned with a gentle fountain. The streets are lined with vendors selling, here today and gone tomorrow, cheap Chinese knock-offs while in the Temple of Literature and Philosophy the ancient Chinese and Confucius are preserved in steles that ride on the back of turtles. Symbols wind around the city like a banyan tree around a root, and yet Deborah could not decipher them, much like the events in her father’s past. And yet, Vietnam, with all its mystery, she felt sure was the cipher to understanding her father.