Weird stuff in Hanoi-BBQ dog and Uncle Ho

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
Trip End Nov 09, 2010

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, August 21, 2010

8 million people. 6 million motorbikes. And a bunch of cars that just seem to get in the way! If that doesn’t conjure up an image of pure unadulterated chaos, I’d like to see your definition! We had several locals ask us, “have you learned how to cross the road yet?” The answer is something like, “just close your eyes and hope for the best!” I’ve never seen anything like it. You just decide to start crossing and hope they see you. It was scary at first, but we sort of got the hang of it after a couple of days. You don’t really run either, but rather slowly drift across which gives the drivers enough time to see and swerve around you and the swarm of other motorbikes on each side of them.

One of the first things we noticed about Hanoi is that it is still a communist country. There are propaganda posters and hammer and sickle flags everywhere. Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho) is considered a saint. Every morning there are loud speakers on every street corner that blare out pro-communist hoorah messages and encouragement for the humble working people of Hanoi. It was surreal and seemed to be in conflict with the free market economy that is clearly having its effects (both good and bad). This is a busy place with everybody selling something (even if they didn’t have what you wanted). For example, if you want a cold coca cola, and they don’t have one, they run down the street and find you one. That’s hustling! I can compare this with the former Soviet union in the early 90’s when I would have to wait for the cashier to finish their cigarette, phone call, whatever to take my money! The Vietnamese people work very hard.

The first morning, Jeff got up really early and went out to walk around the lake. He came back full of energy and very excited about what he had seen. All of Hanoi, young and old, go to the lake for their daily exercise. He had photos of ladies dancing with fans, doing Tai Chi, men playing some sort of foot badminton and doing whatever else--all around 6am before the speakers started blaring the “get to work” messages! Half the people were still in what looked like their pajamas! There was even a young girl selling live baby chickens she had strung together. Life in Hanoi starts early!

Later that day we went to the Hoa Lo Prison museum which was ironically dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the US soldiers who were kept there. This was actually a French prison used during the 1800’s to punish Vietnamese Revolutionaries and had some pretty gruesome photos of how they were treated. This was not an exhibit flattering to the French occupation of Vietnam…which was in sharp contrast to the small exhibit about the American soldiers. They presented the captured American soldiers as beneficiaries of a “lenient and generous policy by affording them a normal life in the detention camps…” This was accompanied by photos of them playing sports, getting gifts, having a big Christmas dinner and being treated better than any of their own Vietnamese people. It was very strange, and I’m sure this description will incite anger in some of our readers. I should say now that while we did see a lot of reproductions of anti-American propaganda posters in the galleries (I confess those made my stomach turn), no one treated us badly-in fact all of the people we spoke to were friendly, many had learned English from American teachers and they wanted to know about life in America and wanted to visit America.

For us, one of the most exciting parts of all this traveling is trying the different foods. In most places this is pretty straight-forward, you go to a restaurant, choose what you want to eat from a menu and voila. In Vietnam, we tried to go with the more local experience of eating in the “one stall eateries”. (I did become decidedly less adventurous, however, after seeing the BBQ dog for sale by one of the street vendors) We saw lots of places that seemed to have the same name “Bun cha” (vermicelli noodles with pork) or “Pho Bo” (noodle soup with beef). They basically just put what they serve on a sign out front (most of them live above or behind the “restaurant”). So if you walk into one of these places, no language skills necessary. You sit on a tiny plastic stool about 6 inches off the ground and they bring out your dish. No ordering, no menus, no choices! And, it costs about $2. We ate some delicious food this way, just tried not to look at the surroundings and of course I couldn’t put hand sanitizer on everything!! We never got sick from eating this food either. We attribute it to always drinking beer --the beer is made daily, and while it is pretty crappy tasting, it costs about 20 cents a glass and kills whatever doesn‘t belong in your stomach! We spent 3 hours after our bun cha meal sitting on a stool in a round-about drinking this beer and watching an incredible amount of activity zip past. We had the same people come around and offer us donuts, hats, baskets, plastic pens, wallets and to repair Jeff’s shoes. We ate some donuts but declined the other offers. Declining does not deter these salesmen. They say “buy something from me”; You say, “no thank you”. they say “later, okay?” and if you fall into the trap of saying “ok, later”, they hunt you down and remind you ;) (this is how the donuts were purchased by the way…)

That evening we went to a uniquely Hanoi experience --a water puppet show. The water puppets are a quirky tourist attraction that has roots from thousands of years ago and is probably still utilized in some villages today. It is about entertaining yourself while working in the wet rice paddies. We watched both an indoor version and outdoor version, both situated on a pond. The puppets are on sticks that jut straight out into the water (not from above as we are used to) and the puppeteers are behind a curtain standing in the water. There is a band and singers singing the stories of the great lion dance, dragon dance, and scenes from village life, such as fishing. It was pretty silly and of course we couldn’t understand any of the words, but entertaining nonetheless!

The next morning we had signed up for a city tour--we decided that would be the most time efficient way to see the highlights of Hanoi since we didn’t have much time. We saw several pagodas, which are basically the Vietnamese version of a temple. Interestingly, they had the same Buddha images we have seen in Thailand and Laos, PLUS the fat happy Buddha images we associate with China. Our tour guide told us that the fat happy Buddha is the image of the future Buddha, while the other Buddha is the present and a child image is the past (although I didn’t see any of those). Apparently, there are two types of Buddhist religions, which I didn’t know!

The highlight (morbid!) of the city tour was the viewing of Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. We had to “dress appropriately” (long pants and covered shoulders) as if we were going to a sacred place. We had to wait in line for about an hour (and this was the “tourist line”, which was short compared to the line the Vietnamese were standing in). Then we went into the bulky, dark granite, soviet style building to see Uncle Ho embalmed in a glass casket. There were many guards, all hushing everyone, and you could tell this was a very sacred place to them. He looked like a wax model, but not shiny. It was… well….weird.
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KO on

HMMMMMMM! Pho Ga! My fav!

DAD on

you guys will have a resilent stomach when you get back.

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