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Rajen Bali

Actually, it should be “Good Morning from Vietnam.” It is a glorious, sunny, bright morning as I sit under the shade of the large spread of branches – almost touching the water – of a weeping willow-type of tree. I am sitting on one of the many comfortable stone benches provided all over the promenade which runs around the shores of the historic and picturesque Hoan Keim Lake, in the heart of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The beauty of the lake with its shimmering and rippling waters, its ring of greenery punctuated by myriad colors of many kinds of flowers and the waving reflections of the skies have me spellbound. I have already been about a week in Hanoi and whatever else I may have seen and done, my favorite pastime has been to come and sit on the lakeshore and take in the unmatched beauty that surrounds it.  The lakeside visits are an almost total experience of the extremely satisfying kind. The magic of the lake is such that when I sit here, all the universe and the goings-on in it are whisked away and ‘all’ is compacted in a time-capsule of ‘here and now’. Even though there is a great deal of interesting human/canine/feline activity around, I cannot but help fall in to a reverie, every time.

The spell cast by the lake is broken on this occasion by two young girls approaching me and in a very apologetic and diffident manner, saying: “Sir, we are university students, do you mind if we sit with you for some time and practice speaking English?” This has also been a regular feature of my lakeside visits. Young people – students and professionals – approaching me with the same request of wanting to speak with me to improve their English. It turned out that most young people aspire for good jobs with multinational corporations and companies. For this to happen, a reasonably high standard of English is a must. Over the week of my stay, I have already had almost a dozen individuals/small groups, as my temporary ‘students’. Even though the people changed every time, all had some standard questions like – “Where do you come from,” “How long have you been in Vietnam?” “Do you like Vietnam?,” “Do you like the Vietnamese people?,” “Have you heard of Ho Chi Minh?,” and “What do you think of Ho Chi Minh?” They were all extremely happy and proud when I told them that not only did I know about Ho Chi Minh but I was also convinced that he was one of the greatest leaders ever born anywhere in the world at any time.

These two girls, Trang and her friend, were studying engineering in a Hanoi university. Their English-speaking was just about adequate and during our conversation, whenever I spoke a word that was new to them, they would ask me to explain it to them along with its usage. Out would come small notebooks and all was diligently written down. Their basic problems were limited vocabularies, lack of confidence and fear of making mistakes. Trang and her friend spent about six hours on each of the two days that we were together. I got quite a few meaningful insights in the minds of the young people of Vietnam, their lifestyles and their aspirations. It appeared that the young in Vietnam have put away all the horrors, hardships and extremely traumatic war years behind them. They are very friendly, kind, helpful, smiling, deeply religious and aspire for a better life for themselves in the service of their families, communities and their country. There is total reverence for Ho Chi Minh, and a great pride in him and their country.

Trang-and-friend decided to ‘adopt’ me. I was treated to a lunch of Pho – the noodle-soup dish with lots of meats and vegetables which must qualify as the National Dish of Vietnam, and then ‘kem’ (ice cream}. Then, I was taken on guided tours to the historic St. Joseph’s Cathedral and through the maze of bustling streets of the Old Quarter with a whole world of interesting shopping – textiles, shoes, basketry, coffee, various kinds of packaged food and much, much more. The girls were extremely solicitous about my well being and would frequently ask me to rest a while and have a drink of water. Even though we endlessly roamed the colorful streets, we spent most of our time by the lakeside. When we parted after two days, the girls had disappeared for a while and had returned with broad smiles and a big package of fruit-jelly sweets – a gift for me. I was deeply touched but I also had a sense of achievement in thinking that in our short time together, I had not only managed to improve their English a bit, but also suggested easy, practical ways for continued improvement. It was joy coupled with a sense of being useful – these ‘language classes’ I ran for my young Vietnamese ‘students’ for about ten days.

Hoan Kiem Lake has some very interesting history. Literally, the name of the lake means ‘Lake of the returned sword’. The story goes something like this. From 1407, the Ming Chinese dominated Vietnam and caused great hardship to the people. A nobleman, Le Loi, pledged to free his country from the cruel claws of the Chinese, rebelled, and waged war against them for many years. In the beginning, Le Loi had only about 500 people, but his support kept on growing as the rebellion spread to all parts of Vietnam. Le Loi’s forces had grown hugely, and by 1825, the occupation Ming army had been mostly destroyed. The new Ming Emperor sent an army of over 100,000 to regain Vietnam. But Le Loi had at his command a much larger force of about 350,000 soldiers and he also had horses and elephants. Le Loi also used Psychological Warfare with the principle of “It is better to conquer hearts than citadels.” In the final battle at Tot Dong in 1826, Liu Shan, the Chinese general was captured and executed. Then, the Chinese army was lured to Hanoi, surrounded and destroyed in a series of battles, losing around 70,000 soldiers. Le Loi had become the King of Vietnam.

The connection between King Le Loi and the Hoan Kiem lake, is his sword. Like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, Le Loi is also said to have a great, magical sword. The blade of the sword came from the Dragon King in his underwater palace. Inscribed on the blade were the words: “The will of the heaven” and it was caught by a fisherman, who later joined Le Loi’s army, in his net and gave the blade to Le Loi. The hilt was found by Le Loi in a banyan tree.  It is said that when Le Loi used this sword, he grew very tall and had the strength of many men. Another version says that Le Loi took the magic sword from the mouth of a giant golden turtle coming out of the waters of the Lake. When Le Loi was having the victory parade at the shores of the Lake, the turtle appeared again and demanded the sword back and before Le Loi could do anything, the sword flew from his hands to the turtle’s mouth and the turtle disappeared under the waters. Le Loi built a temple (The Turtle Pagoda) for the golden turtle which stands till today on a little islet in the middle of the lake. The lake was named ‘The Lake of the Returned Sword’. The sword played its part in making Le Loi one of the greatest heroes of Vietnam.

In the mornings, the lakeshore becomes a scene of hectic physical activity. It is invaded by fitness freaks of both sexes and of all ages – ranging from toddlers to almost ancient ladies and gents with snow-white hair. They all have their different methods of keeping in trim, ranging from brisk walks, pushups, knee jerks, systematic exercises for all parts of the body, roller skating, jogging, tai-chi, indigenous games played with their feet kicking about a kind of shuttle, badminton and other rather original fitness formulae. And they go about their fitness routines with extremely serious intent but with loads of smiles and loud laughter. Perhaps the best were the groups who appeared to believe that the ideal form early morning fitness tunes is dancing individually, as couples or as a group. The accompanying music ranged from Beethoven to Beatles- and- Beyond! Many brought along their children, cats and dogs too. It was an amazingly vibrant happy-making spectacle.

Hanoi – ‘The City in the Bend of the River’ – among many other great attractions, has the great quality of converting one in a Great Believer in God and Other Fellow Humans. The traffic is chaotic, intense and appears murderous. The only people with no apparent rights are the pedestrians. Crossing the road is a frightening affair.  The two saviors who can get you across safely, are the Almighty, and the keen ability/ apparent desire of zooming (mostly) two-wheeler drivers to manage to swerve around you!

Once again, Good Morning from Vietnam.