Hoan Kiem lake is aglow with circling motorbikes and ancient illuminated temples. Ha Noi, this city in a river, is quickly becoming one of my favorites. Relentless traffic seems unnerving until I learn to apply a certain Zen. Be one with the motorbikes; like a leaf in the stream.
I am here working with patients’ groups, government and international organizations to advance access to medicines. The politics are sensitive, and the work has been frequently exhausting. I am acclimating with the years. A thirty-two hour trip can feel like taking a mere breath.
I encounter no resentments for the war between the United States and Vietnam. It’s been pointed out to me that the American War was relatively short compared to French colonialism, which was in turn brief compared to 1000 years of Chinese rule. China still worries Vietnam today.
Over a meal at a French-Viet restaurant, I ask a friend about this. She expresses distaste for Chinese attitudes toward the Vietnamese. And Americans, I ask? She pauses.
Americans are different, she tells me. “Americans know how to regret.”
Vo Nguyen Giap, a military leader of Vietnamese forces in the wars with Japanese, French and then American troops, passed away this week at the age of 102. A show I’m slated to play at the Hanoi Social Club is rescheduled to accommodate a national time of mourning. I stop by the memorial parade early on a Sunday. It feels like half of Hanoi must be in the streets.
My colleagues tell me, privately, that the popular reverence for Giap is a silent but well understood criticism of the government. Giap lamented what he saw as burgeoning corruption in recent years; people enriching themselves at the expense of the many.
Hanoi’s youthful society embraces the growing economy. Part of my work centers on a massive proposed economic pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The US and Vietnam are among twelve countries negotiating. Much of the secretive discussion regards proposals for economic deregulation or corporate protectionism. It is an agenda deeply influenced by big business to change the way economies work. Access to affordable generic medicines is one of several public interests threatened by the negotiation.
President Obama now references the TPP in speeches. It is still unknown to most Americans. But the negotiation is big news here. I watch an hour long program about the TPP on state television, in which some individuals we know from the negotiation feature prominently.
Work ends well the following days. On my last night I attend a ballet at the Hanoi Opera House. Hoan Kiem, or Sword Lake, is again my first and last stop in Hanoi. I walk the lake with a traveling friend. We talk of home and our respective next stops. Which are just another breath away.
Learn more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).