While visiting Hanoi a few months ago, I spent some time in the Văn Miếu—Quốc Tử Giám (Temple of Literature—The School for the Sons of the Nation.) The name is a bit deceiving as one would expect some sort of large edifice. Not so. Rather, it’s a leafy oasis with several courtyards and a handful of old yet modest-sized structures spanning several blocks in the city. I was spellbound.
Many things captivated my attention. To stand where scholars and poets walked and talked, pondered and studied back in the 11th century was a thrill beyond measure. I marvelled how this place could survive the numerous dynastic and ideological changes in Vietnams’ long history, let alone survive the destruction that took place during the American war. (Note: the war is not referred to here as the Vietnam War.)
I was also intrigued by the juxtaposition of quiet inside this enclave with the noise on the adjacent streets; the utter calm inside the gates and the utter chaos I knew existed outside.
Later, in a travelogue, I’ll share some photos and more information about both Hanoi and the Temple of Literature. Meanwhile, I chanced upon meeting a group of high school students. They were dressed in traditional garb, taking photographs of each other for a class project in the “Great Middle Courtyard.”
These girls were so graceful and beautiful, I found myself gawking. They were also having a whale of a time and I wanted to cash in on the fun. Like a magnet, I was drawn closer and closer. Pointing to my camera, I mimicked taking photos (sign language asking for permission). They giggled and nodded.
And so we passed the next hour or so together. They posed for each other (and for me), changing positions, checking the photos, re-arranging their props of flowers, switching partners checking the photos again. I didn’t set them up for any shots; they were totally in charge.
At some point I realized that they weren’t actually “posing” for me, or for themselves. They simply had a natural stage presence without trying to be on stage. And therein lies the magic. It wasn’t about making a statement or trying to impress anyone. They eased in and out of hundreds of postures as if slipping in and out of a dream. They were so in the moment—at ease with themselves, and with me.
That afternoon I felt as if I were 16 again. What a gift! I’m grateful to this group of young women for sharing their time and space with this chubby old broad. Now, looking at their photos, I find myself gawking once more.
Gifts From Hanoi – Gallery
(click images for larger size)
All Photos by Sandra Phinney – All Rights Reserved
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