Hanoi – Understanding Pho


Hanoi is the political capital of Vietnam. All the “Good Communists” (those with documented multi-generational support of the “Party”) come from here and are shipped out to be mayors and governors for the other areas of Vietnam. Being so far North, we are greeted by the typical winter weather of 55 degree drizzle. We often like to travel during these slower times as the domestic and foreign tourists are fewer and people are more relaxed as they deal with the normal day to day activities.

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The old center of Hanoi is watched over by 100 year old French colonial buildings that push in over the narrow streets. Ornate rusty metal railings seem to melt back into the buildings that grew them and colorful plaster attempts to create new and exciting textures as they dissolve. Amazing ancient banyan trees, on the corner of most streets, add an extra obstacle for the fast paced traffic of mo-peds, bicycles and a sprinkling of tiny taxis occupied by wide-eyed Europeans.

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The city seems to consist of two types of people; modest young men and women rushing to work on straining mopeds and tiny women on bicycles selling some form of food or clothing to those that that live in their area.

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Our wanderings around the city takes us pass an promenade Lenin statue that, unlike most countries we visit, is polished and well cared for. It was not surprising to find the National War Museum near our “Comrade Lenin”. The museum documents the countless invaders (Thai, Khmer, Chinese, Japanese, French, American and many more nations that always seemed to have one reason or another to be in Vietnam. Of course the Vietnam War is here called the “The American war”. The people (alive now) have absolutely no ill feelings against Americans, they are seen as just another group of people that failed to impose their will on the still young and hopeful country. Having said that, the propaganda at the Museum (and the history that is taught in schools) does the term “propaganda” proud. I saw one artillery piece that “while operated by the proud Mothers of Vietnam, sank 5 American ships during the battle of……”.

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We had a young university student (Thao) who volunteered (she would not even take a tip) to show us around Hanoi for a few hours . She mentioned at the War Museum, that American men were forced by the American government to fight. She was surprised to hear that some of my family and friends went to prison (18 months or so) because they refused the military draft. Even my Father had to face the draft board and explain why he would not join any military action, regardless of the consequences. I know it was many years ago but it made me so proud that some decided to obey their Bible trained consciences even if it meant prison. One of my good friends who did two tours of duty as a helicopter gunner during the War, said he wished he had the chance go back and join those that stood fast.

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One of the best part of travel is learning surprising things about yourself. We had the opportunity to do so when Thao asked us about the concept of “Personal Space”. She had been told that Americans (and Brits) become very uncomfortable if you move within a specific  distance to them. “Is this caused by childhood experiences or where does this come from?”, she asked. Most Asian people literally do not understand the concept of personal space. I have yet to grasp how I (we) have developed this special requirement and why it is so important to our social interaction. I bet I could find a book on it but it will likely remain a mystery for me.

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The Food in Vietnam is amazing and one of our favorite foods to eat.  Heaping piles of spicy fresh vegetables, flavorful curries and complex broths that can require days and dozens of ingredients to prepare. To get a better understanding of this side of the country, we joined a cooking class that had us preparing 4-5 of the more common dishes the locals enjoy. We learned to make Prawn cakes, Pho (a wonderful soup eaten for breakfast), green PawPaw salad (crunchy  veggie salad), spring rolls and a dipping sauce made from vinegar, garlic and spices. It was an enjoyable experience that had our teacher helping us find and taste the many different foods available in this area of the world. Yes they eat goat, dog and cat but they call cat “Little Tigers”, so I think it is ok.

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The Brothers in Vietnam are under a government ban. While they MAY not be thrown into prison, they are picked up by the police, interrogated, searched, questioned and detained if caught preaching or with Bible Literature. It is not Christianity that the government dislikes, it is Jehovah Witnesses, because they refuse to join the “Party” or the military. A friend told us that they have to hold conventions (in the 100+ summer and 40 degree winter weather) under tents in a parking lot because they are unable to rent a venue. Preaching is very difficult as you have to be sure that they or their friends are not informers or part of the police. The friends here are truly ones we should pray for.

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A Oregonian friend of ours has lived in Vietnam for many years. He assists the friends here as an elder (Coordinator, School and Secretary) and has spoken Vietnamese for over 20 years. He and another local friend (no need to for names) picked us up with their motorcycles for a day out visiting their friends. One of our stops was a small food cart that is owned by a extremely poor, widowed friend. She spoke as much English as we did Vietnamese but her kindness was truly expressed through her food. It was obvious that she found much joy in serving us, heaping our plates to bursting with noodles, grilled meet (beef or goat?) and fresh and pickled vegetables. It would have been so great to learn more about her from her own mouth. Just one more thing to look forward to in the future.

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The people of Hanoi have an eggshell thin veneer of seriousness that is cracked with just a smile or a “Sin Chow” (hello). After that they are almost universally kind, modest, friendly and a type of mild that is my new goal in life.

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After just a few days, Tamara and my feet were itching to see more of this unknown area of the world and so started our long travel South via train. More updates as they come!

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  1. #1 by Vicky Tinsley on February 22, 2014 - 6:57 pm

    It is good to see you truly enjoying your adventures and the people and places you are seeing. It is always amazing to experience our christian brotherhood. Thanks again for sharing. Love Mom and Dad

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