Walking down Hanoi’s Lý Quốc Sư Street of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, I, the inquisitive tourist, came across, in close proximity, two Vietnamese landmarks of seeming peaceful but curious coexistence. At the head of the street stands the grand St. Joseph’s Cathedral with a rusted metal statue of the Queen of Peace (Regina Pacis) outside.
The church immediately stands out in the region not only for its great height and clearly Western style architecture, but also because of the open space it is afforded in a region of the city where most streets are as narrow as a single car. As I passed by St Josephs, congregants streamed out of the Sunday morning service, and later, as I was returning in the opposite direction, a young Vietnamese bride in a traditionally Western white dress was taking wedding photographs with her groom, the two effortlessly smiling in the 97-degree heat. A man at a coffee shop across the street tells me I am welcome inside the church, if I want to enter.
Only a few doors down the street, tucked away from the bustle of motorcycle traffic, stands a Buddhist shrine Chùa Lý Triều Quốc Sư (Choo-ah Lee Chee-oo Qu-ohk Soo-er). A young woman sits outside the gate of the temple, selling firecrackers and Vietnamese cone hats. I ask her if I can enter, and after receiving no answer, I step in. A classmate says the Buddhist monks waved her in after she hesitated outside.
Within the shrine monks sit at tables, peeling and eating small fruits, while western dressed Vietnamese men and women kneel shoeless at various altars with their hands together praying. I slip my sandals off and walk towards one of the shrines, noticing a stack of fake American 100 dollar bills in a pile next to a gold Buddhist figure, a pile of curiously shaped green fruits and a poster with about fifty photographs of whom I assumed were former or current congregants in the Buddhist community. One of the formerly praying women smiles at me as she exits.
I learned in my course reading that Vietnam is a predominately homogenous population of ethnically Vietnamese people who have long practiced Buddhism. However, the country has nevertheless struggled throughout its history with how to deal politically and socially with its minority religious and ethnic sects, including its Catholic population which arrived in Vietnam with French missionaries in the seventeenth century. Lý Quốc Sư Street, which itself is named after an 11th Century Buddhist monk (as is the shrine), demonstrated not the struggle between, but rather the peaceful coexistence of different peoples, as well as their welcoming attitude to outsiders such as myself. The two landmarks also showed to me the preservation of the old and historical Vietnamese tradition in the modern world. The church shows wear from pollution with its grey stone now blackened with soot, but happy Vietnamese teens take selfies on iPhones outside. I discover the Buddhist community has an active Facebook page, featuring photographs of boys and girls my age in the standard blue robes praying. A girl comments on one photo about how funny her expression is in the image.