Hanoi, Part II.. same same, but (way) different

Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
Trip End Apr 04, 2006

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Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends

- Maya Angelou

2 Becomes 4
As already noted myself and Cal made it to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, in one piece where we hooked up with a mate of mine from home, Pat. Pat brought his mate Dave with him... for company I guess. These poor souls are taxpayers back home in Ireland so they are on temporary release from work, having 3 weeks to get from here to Bangkok for the flight home on September 24th. Wow, only 3 weeks. No much time. Anyway, Pat and Dave from here on out will be referred to in this Travelogue as, ahem... Pat and Dave.

Catching up
So what has happened since 2 became 4 a few days ago? Well, we passed a few good days in the city seeing a few sights interspersed with adequate amounts of socialising. Highlights? There were many but the two main highlights revolved around consumption. First off, the food. I had almost forgotten (but not quite) how amazing, both in its simplicity and in its taste, Vietnamese food is. Another highlight was consuming Bia Hoi, Vietnamese street beer, on the street corners of the Old Quarter. It's officially the cheapest beer in the world. It's even cheaper than water. Honest. See the pictures posted here for more information. Generally the city itself hasn't changed much since I was last here in December 2002 but how I spent my time in the city this time around was much different considering the availability of Bia Hoi and the company I was keeping..... as I said; same, same, but different.

Familiar Surroundings
Like most budget minded tourists in Hanoi we found ourselves staying in the aforementioned Old Quarter of the city, an area of narrow, tree lined, scooter infested streets full of ancient traders and general mishmash unique to Hanoi. This is also where I stayed the last time I was here. The Old Quarter has been a lively trading centre since the 13th century, and its narrow streets have had the same names for centuries. Each street was named, in Vietnamese, after the principal commodity produced and sold on that street: Paper Street, Silver Street, and Hat Street, for example. While most of the streets now focus on different commodities, several continue to produce the same goods they have for hundreds of years. It's an amazing place to stroll around, full of the classic sights and sounds of Vietnam; traders in conical hats, traditionally dressed schoolgirls on their bikes, people zipping here and there on their scooters.

Being Tourists
On the pure touristy trail we visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, an attraction that was closed, for whatever reason, the last time I was here. Ho Chi Minh, lovingly referred to as Uncle Ho, is seen as the father and liberator of the country. The Vietnamese lived under Chinese domination for 1,000 years, followed by almost 100 years of French colonial rule (1858-1954). In 1930 Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese Communist Party and in September 1945 declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). After a long, but ultimately successful, resistance struggle against the French (who were defeated in 1954) and a civil war (commonly referred to as the Vietnam War fought between the American supported south and communist north), the country was officially reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976. Today Vietnam remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Although its economy suffered during the Vietnam War, most of today's economic problems result from government policies implemented since the unification of South and North Vietnam in 1976. And after the fall of Saigon (the largest city in the south of the country) to the communist North the name of the city was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City, but most Vietnamese still call it Saigon.

Uncle Ho
Now Ho Chi Minh is viewed as a God; his face adorns all the coins and notes and you're never too far away from a picture of him, smiling down on his adoring public. And even though he expressed no desire for a mausoleum after his death in 1969 they went and built one anyway. Umm. It's an enormous concrete cubicle, surrounded by guards in snowy, bleached-white uniforms. It's a free tour and it's interesting to see how the visitors, from elderly VC comrades who have made the pilgrimage from Southern Vietnam, to student groups from foreign nations, react to the sight of old Uncle Ho. Though the Vietnamese as a whole are disappointed with communism (now there's a generalisation), most show deep respect and admiration for Ho himself. He is seen as the liberator of the Vietnamese people from colonialism; the country's subsequent economic mismanagement is often viewed as the misdoing of Ho's comrades and successors.

Easy Tiger
Visiting the mausoleum was a weird experience, not to mention a somewhat frustrating one for me as the guards seemed intent on gently manhandling me along the line even though I was keeping pace with the other few hundred people passing through the room. "Easy tiger, I'm sure a night in a Vietnamese prison isn't pleasant." That aside the experience of visiting the mausoleum was very similar to the Mao mausoleum in Beijing which I visited last year. It's a close run thing as to which of the 2 look the most wax like but at a push I'd say Ho Chi Minh. And so to complete the trilogy all I have left to see now is the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow. I'd say if the 3 boys (Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh) could get together today they would have a few things to say on the direction of their respective countries.

Messed up
So with our trip to Madame Tussaud's over we hopped over to the Ho Chi Minh museum. I'm not quite how to explain this one. If I wasn't aware it was a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh I would have thought it was some sort of arty type museum. Or one for weirdo's. According to our guide book it's recommended that you get an English speaking guide "as some of the symbolism is hard to figure out". They got that right. But there's definitely no need for a guide in the areas detailing the Vietnamese success against the U.S.A. in the Vietnam War. It's easy to figure out their 'they came, they saw, we kicked their ass' message from those displays. One word to sum up that museum; weird.

Where are you going Dude?
The day we visited the mausoleum was our last day in the city. That evening we were leaving for Hue, the old imperial city, a 12 hour overnight bus trip from Hanoi. Definitely not one of the highlights of my last trip to Vietnam and so I wasn't looking forward to the 7pm departure. It started off interesting enough as just getting to the bus turned out to be a bit of an adventure (certainly more interesting than the trip itself). We were put in a taxi by the local tour official to be ferried to the bus which was waiting on the outskirts of the city. Turns out the taxi man had no idea where to go and, as he hadn't a word of English and we hadn't a word of Vietnamese we were unable to communicate. As a result the driver seemed content to keep driving, which he did. Was he was just expecting the bus to appear? Anyway, we eventually stopped him after we realised quite a bit of time had passed since we got into the taxi, the driver seemed to have no idea where he was and the bus was due to depart 10 minutes ago. Luckily one of the other travellers in the taxi had a mobile phone (that was a stroke of luck; who carries a mobile phone backpacking in Vietnam?) so we were able to call the tour operator. He informed the taxi driver where he was supposed to go and informed the bus driver to hang on for us. Pat and Dave had no such issues. Those high rollers had an evening berth on an overnight train to Hue.

That whole incident probably didn't warrant a whole paragraph in this update (I guess it was one of those 'you had to be there' moments) but at least it brings me nicely onto our next destination, Hue.
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