I left Hanoi feeling humbled


This is the real Hilton – Hilton Hanoi Opera.

Gratitude lifts our eyes off the things we lack, so we might see the blessings we possess. – Max Lucado

WHEN Donald Trump left Hanoi ‘defeated’ in probably his biggest diplomatic setback in March, one headline screamed: ‘The art of the no deal.’

The summit was a disappointment for the US, North Korea and even host Vietnam. No doubt about it.

It didn’t live up to the Vietnamese government’s expectations of contributing to the peace and denuclearization processes but neither should it spell the end of the story.

In the aftermath of the collapsed Hanoi summit, I landed in the Vietnamese capital as a tourist. I have wanted to visit Hanoi for years. But for some reasons, all my friends thought since I had visited Ho Chi Minh City, I must have been to Hanoi as well.  So they planned the trip without me.

Just as I thought I would travel solo to Hanoi like I did to Chiang Mai last year, a friend called to tell me about her predicament.  She said she had planned a trip to Hanoi and it was for three persons as one of the trippers had decided to bring her mother along. The friend hoped she could get two more persons on board to justify hiring a bigger car to move around while in the city. So there we were – the five of us making a ‘triumphant’ entry into Hanoi.

The sun shines bright in Hanoi and the streets are filled with vehicles and ear-splitting honkings. The people are early risers, busily going about their business as early as 5am.

It’s a fast-growing city with a unique blend of old and new in a dynamic environment packed with young, old and friendly faces.

I was impressed with the French Quarter during a walking tour – the unique beauty and the romantic fragments of the city, adorned with fine Gallic architecture.

The attractions of French architectural work are reflected in the Hanoi Opera House. The massive theatre with a total area of 2,600m2 (??) was built over a long period of time – from 1901 to 1911.

The Opera House took its inspiration from Opera Garnier Theatre in Paris. It’s the venue for many of the country’s historical rallies and demonstrations against foreign rule. For the record, the National Assembly of Democratic Republic of Vietnam first met in 1946.

The hotel where Trump and Kim stayed is just next to the Opera House. Hotel Sofitel Legend Metrpole is considered an icon of Hanoi’s colonial works with grand and timeless charm. It was built in the heart of Hanoi in 1901.

Few tourists will bypass St Joseph Cathedral, built in 1884 and completed in 1886. French architecture brings unique beauty and religious fragments to Hanoi.

I wasn’t too keen though on Hoa Lo Prison, built in 1896 by the French to jail anti-colonialists and Vietnamese revolutionaries. Prisons usually have a past with shades of heroism but mostly pain and cannot be pleasant to visit.

However, a visit to Hoa Lo Prison was on my bucket list while in Hanoi. I wanted to know why it’s called ‘Hanoi Hilton Hotel’ by its American inmates.

The tour of this jailhouse was not very pleasant to be sure, starting from the darkest corners of solitary confinement and death row cells to watching documentaries on how the prisoners were treated in a video on the cruelty of the Vietnam War.

Prior to my trip, I read an ABC news report about a group of Vietnam War marines who reunited to heal some old battle wounds and remember their fallen comrades.

Lt Col James Page of Florida who was part of the Marine Corps 7th Battalion, said: “This is one of the worst places … mostly aviators were imprisoned here. I think we all try to put the past behind us and look to the future that we have and to be in cooperation with particularly Vietnam as it moves towards expansion and personal freedom for the people of this country.”

Did I find out why such a creepy place is called Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners? Was it because the conditions were so bad that the American POWs sarcastically gave the prison a new name – Hanoi Hilton?

Oddly enough, there’s a section, showing photos of American pilots ‘enjoying’ the facilities in the prison – good food and cigarettes – in addition to information that the Vietnamese government was spending more money on maintaining an American prisoner than providing for needy Vietnamese.

Perhaps, the answer to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ question could be found in Lt Col James Page’s words – Hilton chain of hotels could not be ‘one of the worst places.’

So it takes a giant like Page to put the past behind and look to the future.

My tour guide suggested that the POWs had to tell their families they were doing well in prison, likening it a stay in Hilton Hotel. Whatever it was, I reminded myself that most times, we tended to take freedom for granted and from Page’s great heart, I learned some of the very things we hold on to the most are the very things we need to let go of.

Of course, Hanoi is more than the French Quarter. There is also an Old Quarter where I took a walk with a tour guide.

According to the locals, this part of the city where you can feel the fusion of past and modern life is the spiritual symbol of Hanoi.

Within the Old Quarter is HoanKiemlake. Like most famous lakes, it’s named after a myth.

A certain Le Loi found a sword inscribed with the word ‘Thuan Thien’ (harmonious with heaven). With the sword, he won the war against a neighbouring country. Le Loi then became the King.

One day, he was at Thuy Quan Lake when a tortoise raised above the water and shouted to him to return the sword to the Dragon Lord. He apparently did so and renamed Thuy Quan Lake as HoanKiem (returning the sword) Lake.

The lake area is filled with activities for both young and old alike – day and night.

I believe the Trump-Kim summit has given the city a significant boost.

Trump said of the walkout: “This wasn’t a walk away like you get up and walk out. The relationship was warm and when we walked away, it was a very friendly walk.”

I didn’t leave Hanoi empty-handed but I was sure humbled. For me, it’s also not a ‘walk away’ for I’m going back to Vietnam again soon.

It will be another day, another story.