MANILA, December 13, 2004 (STAR) By Impy Pilapil  -  So how was Hanoi?" This was the question my friends asked me when I came back from Vietnam. All I could say was, "Poor, but beautiful!"

Hanoi is not anything like Provence in the French Riviera, but its beauty is anchored on its character. Some of the things I noticed were the paved roads, wide sidewalks and the absence of garbage. These things so impressed me that they served as a reminder of what a difference cleanliness makes. In this environment, it was apparent the dignity and sense of pride the Vietnamese have.

I felt the same way when I visited Saigon, another side of Vietnam, some years ago. Now known as Ho Chi Minh City, my tour was unforgettable because it included a visit to the Cuchi Tunnels, a secret underground space where Vietnamese guerillas and the villagers hid and lived to fight a war. One can imagine the mettle of the guerillas, male and female, who dug with their bare hands this secret tunnel to save themselves from the enemy and to survive.

The story goes that the tunnel, which stretches 75 miles, was built beneath the American bases. The American soldiers were both puzzled and stunned at how the Vietnamese appeared from nowhere during their many encounters.

Situated a couple of meters below where I was standing, I saw the hole only because our guide pointed it out to me. It is a small rectangular opening so that one had to be in a certain position to enter it. Once inside, it is claustrophobic. The humidity is so heavy that a pungent smell prevailed. It was simply too much for me to handle that I had an urgent need to get out. Nonetheless, I mustered enough guts to stay a few minutes longer to be able to see some parts of the narrow hideout that had everything: Hospital, school, theater for entertainment, even a special space where couples got married. There were also private spaces for couples and lovers to get together. Just imagine this tunnel was occupied by thousands of people who lived in subhuman conditions in their determination to survive and fight for peace.

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A Brief History Of Vietnam Taken from

Sometime between 200 BC and 200, the intermingling of the Red River delta’s early inhabitants resulted in a distinct Vietnamese people. Virtually from the outset, the Vietnamese were ruled by the Chinese, and they would continue to be until 938. During the centuries of Chinese control over the Red River Delta, two independent states rose to power in what is now central and southern Vietnam. From the first to the sixth centuries, the kingdom of Funan held sway aver the Mekong Delta and the region that is now Cambodia; the kingdom was over thrown by the Mon-Khmer, who founded the Cambodian empire.

Along the coast of central Vietnam, the kingdom of Champa ruled from the late second until the 15th century, when it was conquered by the Vietnamese, who expanded steadily southward after expelling the Chinese. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the Vietnamese would wrest the Mekong Delta from Cambodia, essentially completing the formation of their country.

Of the more than a dozen dynasties that have ruled independent Vietnam, three are considered great. The first was the Ly (1009-1225), whose rulers established Hanoi as their capital in the year 1010, naming it Thang Long, the City of the Soaring Dragon. The Ly built new roads, dikes and canals, and they vigorously promoted agriculture. In 1044, 22 years before William the Conqueror invaded England, the Ly founded VietNam’s first postal service.

The Ly dynasty ended in an overthrow by the Tran, who established the second great dynasty (1225-1400). In 1407, the Chinese reconquered Vietnam. In 1428, the Chinese were driven out by the Vietnamese hero who established the third great dynasty, Le Loi. The Le dynasty, which held power until 1524, introduced a series of remarkable reforms. Arts, literature and education were promoted. Large landowners were forced to distribute their holdings to the landless. Legal reforms gave women nearly equal rights with men.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Vietnam was split by warring factions. Northern Vietnam was ruled by the powerful Trinh lords, the south controlled by lords of the Nguyen line. In 1786, three brothers, the Tay Son, briefly reunited the country.

In 1802, one of the Nguyen lords defeated the Ay Son and proclaimed himself Emperor Gig Long, establishing the last of Vietnam’s dynasties. The Nguyen made Hue their imperial capital, and they ruled there until the last Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated to a delegation representing Ho Chi Minh in 1945.

Vietnam’s contacts with the West began as early as 166, when Roman travelers passed through the Red River Delta. It wasn’t until much later, however, that there was any sustained Western contact. By 1516, a number of Portuguese adventurers had arrived, followed by missionaries and soldiers. Over the next century, a trading center and mission were established in the port of Faifo, just south of present day Danang. The Portuguese were followed by missionaries from Spain, Italy, and France. Everyone seemed intent on converting the Vietnamese, and in the process, cultivating stronger trading ties, but no one had much luck in making a profit from trade with the Vietnamese. The Dutch tried and failed, as did the English.

Off and on for nearly two centuries, the French kept lurking around Indochina. From about 1850s and onwards, the French abandoned diplomatic overtures and settled on a policy of conquest. By 1893, they had carved out an Indochinese empire that included Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The French then set about plundering the immense wealth of those holdings.

The exploitation of Vietnamese by their French masters created fertile conditions for the resistance movements that sprang up over the years. Most of the resistance efforts were successfully put down, but in 1925 a new movement was established by a man calling himself Nguyen Ai Quoc, who in later years would take the name Ho Chi Minh, the bringer of light. Ho’s Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League became the nucleus of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In World War II, Ho formed the League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh, which during its resistance to the Japanese occupation of Vietnam, received money and arms from the United States through the OSS.

The American support of the Viet Minh led Ho to believe that the United States would back his bid for an independent Vietnam. But after the war, the Allies allowed France to reoccupy Indochina, setting the stage for the protracted guerrilla campaign that resulted in France’s ouster in 1954 and the subsequent partitioning of Vietnam into North and South. The recognition and support of South Vietnam by the United States would lead to the bloody conflict that ended in 1975 when the Communists overran Saigon, proclaiming an independent Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

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Today, the city of Hanoi is beaming with energy. Infrastructure has improved immensely. What to me is really enviable are their wide sidewalks, which were considerately planned and constructed not only for pedestrians but also for commuters on bicycles. A common sight in the city, bikes and scooters are a practical means of transportation.

I just love Hanoi’s gorgeous parks, which to me signify a caring government that can offer well-maintained parks for everyone to enjoy. At the center of the city, there is also a beautiful lake surrounded by centuries-old trees. Alternating with these big trees are weeping willow trees, their cascading branches and slender leaves languidly swaying as the breeze blew through them. Such a view can be instantly calming and soothing. It was quite enchanting. Everywhere I chose to click my camera, I was delighted to see the result: Postcard-perfect pictures, each one capturing the charm and serenity I saw and felt.

Construction is booming. There are many new houses and buildings sprouting about. Although there is visual unity in the landscape, I could not quite figure out the kind of architecture being followed. So, I did some research on it and chose the material written by Graham Simmons which described what I saw quite faithfully.

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From Roofs Of Hanoi By Graham Simmons "It’s like a scene from a Walt Disney movie: A wedding-cake skyscape of turrets, cones, and pagoda-like roofs. This is Hanoi, in northern Vietnam.

"The conical roofs that grace the skyline of suburban Hanoi seem to have emerged straight from the marketplace. Modeled on traditional peasants’ hats, these roofs are evidence of the anthropomorphic principle carried over into architecture. Some of these buildings are brand-new, while others date back to way-distant antiquity.

It is said that Gothic architecture in Europe derived its exquisite harmony from a system of proportional measurements based on the human body. In Vietnam, both similar proportions and also similar forms can be seen. Not only are the roofs like hats, but some of the window apertures even seem to have "arms" sticking out at the appropriate height.

"This style of architecture is based on an old Vietnamese tradition, whereby the dimensions of houses in the countryside were based on the owner’s physical measurements. In urban areas, this convention was not rigidly applied, but nevertheless, Hanoi houses evolved similarly. These houses had their own natural air-conditioning systems, with the difference in temperature between the inner courtyard and the outside street creating a natural airflow.

"Even the brickworks that you see in rural areas on the outskirts of Hanoi follow this design principle, with low-slung roofs designed to deflect the rain from stacks of drying bricks. Further south in Vietnam (in the Mekong delta for example), the brickworks are completely different, with a beehive-shaped roof that can be seen many miles away.

"Hanoi’s newest craze, the millionaires’ villas that rear their heads above the other houses in the city’s outer suburbs look like the fantasy creations of a surrealist designer. These new villas, each big enough to hold several families, are testimony to the emerging wealth of the new Vietnam. If you look closely, the windows reveal much about the traditional design principles used in their construction.

"Many visitors to Hanoi have been seduced by its beauty and an impression of harmony: Harmony between architecture and the greenery of trees and lakes, harmony between man and nature, the inhabitants and the town. All pagodas, temples and vestiges found in the capital, bear the stamp of history. The serene and ethereal atmosphere reigning here is created by the architecture itself, both simple and somewhat primitive, still keeping human proportion.

"Most of the architectural works typical of Hanoi are built near a lake or a river and surrounded with many trees. Close relations between architecture and environment, between man and his dwelling places and the richness of Hanoi’s architecture have been considered as characteristics of the capital.

"Concerning architecture, Hanoi can be divided into the following areas: The ancient and old streets, the old citadel and the residential areas and the new quarters. Scattered among those areas are quarters in which the inhabitants build their own dwelling houses and villages, which have been urbanized without any preconceived plan. Thus, we can see villages still existing amidst streets and streets appearing amidst villages."

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I liked the presidential mansion. It was a picture of honor and respect. Clearly, it looked well preserved and not disfigured by some careless restorers who might have changed an original detail or two. Very well maintained, not only was the structure appropriately painted, it was also neatly situated within sparklingly clean surroundings. I was sadly reminded of our own Malacañang Palace, whose surrounding just outside its gates is the extreme opposite.

I was happy to meet Consul General Linda Baisa, who took time to take my friends and me to visit our embassy in Hanoi. I can safely say that order was apparent in this vintage house that represents our country in Vietnam. Even the flagpole was clean, such that our national flag soared on its top with pride and grace. These little things complete a total look that continually speaks a lot about us as a people and a nation.

The next few days in Hanoi proved to be more exciting. I joked to my friends that wherever I go, I seem to attract royalty. After meeting Prince Philip de Bourbon during my last trip to New York, no less than the King and Queen of Norway arrived at my hotel on my second day. I am endlessly amused about the wonderful surprises that come my way whenever I visit other countries.

Sunday Mass is a must when I travel with my two good friends anywhere in the world. So, I was pleasantly surprised to visit a church as big as the one we have in Malate. It was packed. For a country whose religious beginnings centered on Buddhism and the teachings of Confucius, the Catholic faith has reached many in Vietnam. It has one of the largest number of Catholics in Asia next to the Philippines.

The restaurants and coffee shops of Hanoi are full of tourists. Vietnam is a shopping haven. I could not help but notice the fine-looking women vendors carrying woven baskets filled with fruits and local food in the streets. The lithe bodies of the Vietnamese women render flowing elegance to their national costume. They wear their high-slit silk tunics and pants everyday. Hugging their slim figures, they carry them beautifully and effortlessly.

Vietnam is in the midst of a high-speed evolution. One wonders what technology and progress will do to their future. But to a tourist like me, Vietnam communicated a language of freedom, tempered with discipline and nationalism. I believe in that combination.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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