Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nghe An and Tuyen Quang Provinces – Famous for Beauty and Leaders

Nghe An and Tuyen Quang Provinces – Famous for Beauty and Leaders

Motorbike Collection
Following is a photo essay celebrating the creative use of motorbikes by the talented Vietnamese drivers! Below you can see “cargo” ranging from pigs, orchids, Tet trees, ceramics, building supplies, fabric – any and everything that is strap-able and can be balanced (talents!).

Tet flowers on the way to market.
What do you mean, big load?

Got anything more to deliver?

You are hogging all the space.

Delivering paper to market, paper is
a big industry in the forest area.

This little piggy goes to lunch and this one ...

Delivering ceramic ware.

Orchids for a celebration or just for beauty.

Murals and Mosaics
Both Hanoi and Vinh have GREAT art – Hanoi is home of the largest mosaic in the world created to celebrate the 1,000 years birthday of Hanoi. And Vinh greets you with a beautiful mural/mosaic at the airport.

Hanoi, city of a thousand years that they celebrated
in 2010 with the production of a several kilometers
long mural on their main city freeway.

Vinh's airport mural celebrating a visit to the
city by Ho Chi Minh City during the war in
a small two engine aircraft.

As we visited the area where Vietnamese leaders launched the 1945 revolution declaring Vietnamese independence, we saw the North's beautiful countryside, rural mountains and villages. Check out the following photos and captions for a glimpse.

Home made. hand made noodles at the market.

Ho Chi Minh's Childhood Homes
Nghe An Province has long been known for its smart people and leaders, so it is no surprise that Ho Chi Minh was born here. His family story is somewhat unusual in that his poor father was a great intellectual whose mentor and teacher was so impressed that he suggested the poor student marry the teacher's daughter and that the couple live with the teacher's family (usually the couple would have lived with the paternal family).
House where Ho Chi Minh's maternal grandparents lived.

First home of Ho Chi Minh.

Inside Ho's first home.
 Vietnam has lovingly preserved both the house of Ho Chi Minh's maternal grandparents and the next-door house built by these grandparents for HCM's parents where HCM was actually born. Both houses are typical architecture. When HCM's father passed his national exams, his paternal family village was so honored that they built HCM's father a new house close to his paternal grandfather's home. So HCM and his family then moved to the nearby paternal family village – which has also been carefully preserved. Surrounding both sites there are still the villages living daily routines so that you really get a feel of on-going village life while visiting these historic sites.
Ho Chi Minh's father's house built by his village
to honor his high scholastic achievement -- 2nd score
in the nation.

Another shot of the family's second home.

In the garden by the first home of Ho Chi Minh with
his maternal grandparents family. 

Tan Lap – Village of Revolution
While we were traveling to Tan Lap our guide mentioned that he had never been asked to take foreign tourists to see this historic site and alerted us that people in the area and Vietnamese tourists would probably be amazed to see two Americans. It's true that we were the only foreign faces and people were so friendly and welcoming, eager to share stories. The mountains, lake, hills and forests of Tan Lap are home to an ethnic group and ancient village that welcomed and supported the Vietnamese revolutionaries dating back to the struggle against the French as well as the USA. The landscape is incredibly beautiful and undeveloped even today (although lots of logging is taking place).

Ho's hidden mountain hut where he formulated plans for
the successfully defeating French colonial forces.

House where Ho Chi Minh stayed in the village.

Village meeting house, note the loud speakers used
for daily announcements and news.

House where General Giap lived and worked in the

Tan Lap Village of the local ethnic group
who hosted Ho, Giap, and the revolution.

Historic banyan tree.

Planting new rice just before or just after Tet.

Tea fields on the hills.
 The region is famous for tea. Under an old banyan tree (it was 300 years old before it finally died in 2008) General Giap announced the formation of the People's Army. Along with other revolutionaries including at times HCM, plans were made here to form the new, independent government of Vietnam in 1945. Before the old banyan tree died successful grafts were made so that the old stump is now surrounded by newly-growing trees to make this historic site. The village houses where General Giap and HCM lived as guests of the resident families still stand and are occupied today. Later HCM successfully evaded the French by living in a small hut nearby and directing the on-going war against the French colonialists. It was amazing to be able to see the areas where these great leaders lived and worked – hiding in plain sight with the support of the people and villagers of the area.

HCM Trail Museum
When we first read about this museum, it was described as being located south of Hanoi. Our experience driving to the museum is that Hanoi has rapidly grown and developed to now spread out to the museum. We passed impressive construction of the Hanoi monorail along with lots of TALL buildings and skyscrapers.
Mono-rail construction

Entrance to the HCM Trail

Statue honoring the soldiers of the trail.

Scaling cliffs along the Trail with

Carrying heavy loads over rock, water
and any obstacle.

Pack Elephant.

Famous hero woman who carried
a load of 70 kilos when she only weighed
about 45 kilos.

Rope ladder used on the Trail

Meetings on the road, this one with General Giap.

Bridges made of any available material to
get supplies to the troops in the south.

Communications equipment used on the Trail.

Camouflage over the Trail to keep moving day and
night under threat of USA bombing.
This museum is an amazing tribute to the bravery, tenaciousness, brilliance and creativity of the Vietnamese to patiently construct, defend, maintain and expand a network of land and water routes the entire length of Vietnam to transport troops, distribute food, provide health care, transport and mobilize weapons, build a fuel/oil pipeline and construct an elaborate and effective communications system which supported the revolution for independence and socialism. We thought we knew a lot about this effort – and were WRONG! Both the museum exhibits and an amazing DVD and diorama/diagram provide incredible facts, materials and stories to bring this impressive accomplishment of so many Vietnamese people alive. Our tour guide added his own father's stories as a HCM Trail soldier to what we learned form the museum.

The people, history and land of Nghe An and Tuyen Quang Provinces will stay with us forever! We hope many of you will get to explore here as well.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Con Dao Island: Hell in Heaven!

In the first two weeks of 2014 we visited Con Dao Island, the City of Vinh and the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh , Tuyen Quang in the Northwest highlands and finally the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum just a bit south of Hanoi. On January 25 we take a final trip to Sapa, HaLong Bay and Hue. So now some highlights from our most recent trips.

100 years old and still weaving her story.
    As we've traveled we seen the diverse and dramatic beauty of the country and met so many warm and friendly people. Almost everyone calls out “hello” to us in English and the children delight in greeting us with shouts of “hello, hello.” Some folks with more English often ask where we are from so we often have brief conversations with many folks. One new acquaintance with whom we spent a few minutes and took some photos was a woman who proudly told us she was 100 years old! She had asked us how old we were and we thought when we said 74 for me and 63 for Leanna that we were being impressive, but she proudly declared her age of 100! She was perched on a stool next to the rural roadway with her grand-daughter and great-grand daughter weaving baskets out of bamboo and selling fruit (she explained her baskets are for carrying piglets and/or chickens to market on motorbikes). The granddaughter was selling ‘Buddha hand’ fruit especially popular at Tet. Of course our talented tour guide, Nang, translated for us. The woman spoke with pride about Uncle Ho and the Vietnamese evading the French.

Con Dao Islands are about a hundred miles east off the southern end of  
Map of French Prison inherited
and used by USA 
 Vietnam in the East Sea at about 8 degrees north latitude.
These islands are pristine beaches, ocean and forests with small towns relying now on agriculture and developing tourism. Our guide Thanh met us with a car at the airport and was very informative. The small town was easily walkable with a typical open market and friendly folks. The population of the island is around 7,000. Behind our hotel (all over the island) were prison walls. We had known that this was a huge colonial prison run by the French colonial government from 1851 onwards to imprison political prisoners, anti-colonial activists, and some common criminals until the French were defeated by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The conditions under the French were horrific – forced labor, no fresh water or food, overcrowding, no medical care, torture and the infamous French Tiger Cages

   where in addition prisoners were dusted with lime and then hosed with water to cause chemical burns. After the French, the puppet regime established in Saigon by the Roman Catholic Church and the US continued to use to prison to torture, mutilate, starve, work to death and kill political prisoners who were mostly Viet Cong and National Liberation Front leaders and activists as well as other nationalists. The number of prisoners and the number of criminal Tiger Cages skyrocketed under the direction and financing of the USA. While this is a significant part of the history, the equally important facts are the militancy and political organizing of the Vietnamese prisoners. For example Ton Duc Thang, for whom our University is named, was a prisoner here for several years and studied, organized and taught political education, Communism, medicine, math, literature, poetry and many other topics to his fellow prisoners such as Pham Van Dong. The prisoners including women were militant and refused to betray their comrades. Several Vietnamese described visits to Con Dao as like a sacred pilgrimage honoring the thousands of known and unknown prisoners who died, struggled and survived in this prison “school of politics.” There are monuments and a large cemetery which tell a very inspiring story of resilience and victorious struggle against the criminal Con Dao prison.

The second day on Con Dao we took a boat to another island to visit a National Park and snorkel in a large coral reef in the leeward side of the Island. It was pretty windy and overcast with lots of bouncing through the waves, but we saw more beautiful beach, mangrove forest, monkeys! (wild ones), green turtles, birds, and explored beautiful views from a path that cut across a narrow part of the Island.

After a couple of hours on the Island we rowed back out to our boat in the traditional small round boat used by fishermen, put on our life jackets, and set out for the snorkeling area. Even with the overcast sky the coral was BIG, impressive and colorful as were the fish - the colors of the rainbow and from very small to pretty large. Every evening we could listen to the wind in the trees and the surf crashing against the sea wall and relax while we ate delicious sea food and had a beer.

There are two museums we can recommend, one focused on the history of the Con Dao prisons and a newer museum that not only educates with amazing displays about the prison but also has great displays about the current development of the islands. The islands were discovered in the early 1400s by a Portuguese explorer and once discovered it was colonized back and forth between the French and British and in the mid 19th Century the French got control and established Palo Condor Prison, an ugly colonial place of torment. The first entry into the prison was just across the street from our hotel – passing through the prison gates you immediately feel the oppression as you see thick and high walls all around you with guard towers and iron bars everywhere. Our well educated museum guide, a woman we met at the Governor's house, explained that the USA built a fake chapel and dining area as a show piece after the “Tiger Cages” were exposed in the media to supposedly show concern for the prisoners. A propaganda church so to speak. Of course, the USA built even MORE Tiger Cages in new prisons further away from town. In the first cell room we entered with few and high barred windows encased in barbed wire we were horrified to find that the prisoners were kept for hours in a prone position with their ankles chained to a long bar that was pushed in and captured each prisoners chains – they were all chained to the same long bar along each wall and then the bar was locked from outside the cell room. The rooms might hold hundreds of prisoners at a time with one to two buckets for excrement. The prisoners were often nude laying on bare concrete. To use the slop bucket the guards had to come and unshackle the prisoner – doesn't take much imagination to see this treatment as torture. In one room there was a rice mill where prisoners were forced to walk for hours in a circle moving the mill with no ventilation or clean drinking water. Ton Duc Thang was one of the prisoners put into harness to push the mill. These rooms were disgusting and demonstrated the same cruelty that the French were know for in Algeria and other colonies (See the movie “Battle of Algiers” for more.).

There were isolation/solitary confinement cells where prisoners were held for years. Behind hidden entrances, we saw the infamous French “Tiger Cages”. These cells often held up to 60 prisoners in a space about 8 by 15 foot or about 2 square foot per prisoner. The women and men held in the Tiger Cages had to sleep in shifts with some sleeping prone while others waited standing up unless they fell asleep standing or leaning. The Tiger Cages did not have a roof in the ordinary sense of the word but were topped by bars that exposed the prisoners to the blazing Pacific sun during the days and the chill of night when the sun set. The floors were made of sand which became blazing hot during the day, think of a beach without shade or wind, and then gave up the warmth quickly during the night. The guards had catwalks over the open barred roof and long bamboo prods that they would use to poke and hit prisoners down through the bars (the walls were probably 15 foot high). If a guard felt a need or a desire he also had buckets of lime and water stored at spots along the catwalk. The guard would pour water on the prisoners and then dump the lime on top of them to viciously produce chemical burns.

Later we went to the USA designed and constructed Con Dao prison that was built after Don Luce, Tom Harkin and Augustus Hawkins exposed the American use of the French Tiger Cages. This was possible because a brave student who was a former prisoner drew a map for the American delegation to help them find the secret entrances.
Student maps which lead to exposure of USA atrocities
at the Tiger Cages of Con Dao.
Cell walls were covered with blood from bed bugs and injuries along with poetry and prisoners etched names. In the face of this brutality and effort to destroy the Vietnamese revolution, it was incredible to see the factual exhibits about the learning, communication systems, songs, art, poetry, “newspapers” and political study organized by the prisoners as they prepared themselves to resist and when freed to build their Vietnam.
School of Con Dao Prison
New Museum still being prepared

Women Prisoners of Con Dao

Beautiful art at the entrance to the new Museum memorializing the sacrifice of the Vietnamese people at Con Dao Prison and the inspiring determination to move forward building Vietnam.