More on Hanoi: Women, the Hanoi Hilton, and the meal that brought Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain together

Women in Hanoi

It was surprising, and cool, to see that there is a museum in Hanoi devoted to the women of the country. I went to see it. The first floor was devoted to marriage, family, and women’s roles in fishing and farming. There are a number of tribes in Vietnam in the hills and highlands, and the similarities and differences across the way the tribes carry on traditions of life are fascinating. The tribes are a mix of patriarchal and matriarchal societies and the difference between the two plays out strongly in marriage customs. In a patriarchal society, the bride’s family is responsible for gifts to the groom’s family and vice versa for a matriarchal society. There are traditions to the gifts, which typically will include a pig (or more than one pig), a buffalo, cash, rice, or alcohol, all in specific quantities. These gift requests are written on small pieces of bamboo and, if the family from whom the gifts are being requested objects, a mediator is often brought in. If the family who must provide the gifts cannot deliver the agreed-upon gifts, their son or daughter lives with his or her in-laws until the gift request is met. There are many, many other traditions as well, around dressing for the wedding, rituals, and courtship customs, many of which remained as recently as twenty years ago but are rapidly disappearing. Same for farming and fishing practices. For centuries, up until very recently, most of the tools and methods for farming and fishing were entirely manual and traditional. Men made the fishing baskets, and the women caught and prepared the fish. Now they just buy their fish from a vendor in the village. It’s a little sad, but at the same time, we all love our labor-saving devices so why wouldn’t these Vietnamese villagers?

A traditional wedding party dress of a Vietnamese Tribe – it took the bride months, maybe a year, to prepare the outfits. The bride’s face could not be seen since, she was the most beautiful one that day and the evil spirits may be jealous and steal her away

The museum also has a floor devoted to women revolutionaries who fought to overthrow the French in the colonial days and who, later, fought in the American war. These women were brave and resourceful, some beginning their service as early as nine years of age. One woman, who was a spy, masqueraded as a broom maker to escape notice. She behaved in ways to suggest that she was mildly mentally ill and made such poor brooms that nobody would buy them. She then used the brooms to hide messages she carried back and forth. Another woman, who was a driver, often had to repair her truck herself on the side of the road while shelling was going on and sometimes in the dark. She reported that the shelling didn’t frighten her but that she was afraid of ghosts that lurked in the woods.

The Hanoi Hilton

A sculpture to depict conditions of prisoners who were political prisoners of the French

We visited Hoa Lo prison, known by most Americans as the prison where the North Vietnamese held captured pilots during the war. Hoa Lo was built by the French in late 19th century and most of the exhibits in the museum focus on political prisoners (revolutionaries), both men and women, during the French colonial times. There is also a section that focuses on the captured pilots during the Vietnam War. The museum tells happy tales of the pilots receiving gifts from family, celebrating Christmas, and even tells of a woman prisoner who was granted the privilege of having a pet cat. Nothing there tells about the torture and coercion we know about from our Vietnam vets.

Graphic depiction of a political prisoner trying to escape
Late Senator John McCain visiting Hoa Lo prison in 2000

Bun Cha

In 2016, Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain famously shared a meal together at a Bun Cha restaurant in Hanoi. On our last night in Hanoi, we ventured through the chaotic streets of the Old Town at night to try some of the city’s most famous Bun Cha places, Bun Cha Dac Kim, recommended to us by a delightful young couple from Krakow we met on our Halong Bay cruise. I will tell you now, the restaurant that Obama and Bourdain dined in was not in the heart of Old Town Hanoi, which is the New Orleans French Quarter on steroids. It’s busier, noisier, and grittier than the NOLA French Quarter by a long shot. So, it was definitely not the same restaurant that Obama and Bourdain visited because, there is no way the Secret Service would have allowed Obama to venture into a place like the Hanoi Old Town.  

John at Bun Cha Dac Kim
Other diners at Bun Cha Dac Kim

Bun Cha, by the way, is a famous local street food that originated in Hanoi. It consists of pork/pork meatballs and rice noodles, swimming in a delicious broth, and served with herbs, lime, hot peppers, and garlic that can be added per individual tastes. We had a delicious meal of Bun Cha at Bun Cha Dac Kim, in fact, it was one of our best meals in SE Asia – thanks for the suggestion, Aga and Marek!

One last cool factoid about Hanoi — the city has the longest mosaic mural in the world — it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records – it’s 4 kilometers long! This is one small piece of it. With scooter riders at either end of the frame.

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