The sights

Trip Start Nov 30, 2004
Trip End Feb 04, 2005

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Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hello everybody,

Hanoi is an interesting city.  I've left and I miss it already.

To start off, I did a walking tour of the old city.  There's no rhyme or reason to the streets.  You walk two blocks and the name changes.  I think there are 36 total and each is named after an item, like jewelry, blacksmith, paper.  And that's exactly what you get.  All the vendors representing that item congregate together.  Turn the corner and you get a new surprise.  I stopped in for a haircut at one place.  Watching huge vats of water being heated by charcoal fires on the sidewalk was too much to resist.  Also got a scalp massage, face massage, shave, shampoo and rinse.  Was enjoying it so much that I stopped paying attention.  My hair is now shorter than in my baby pictures.  And when I left, they asked if I'd be coming back soon.

The next day I walked over to the opera house to see what was playing.  Next door was the Hilton, so I got a picture of this historic landmark.  Sat down in the restaurant for an orange juice to read up on its history.  Lo and behold, the real prison is a mile down the street.  A few days later I went for a tour.  Hoa Lo was actually constructed by the French in the mid 19th century to hold Vietnamese activists.  One thing I didn't expect was two guillotines.  From the Vietnamese perspective, the French rule here was pretty brutal.  The prison only held American POW's for a few years towards the end.  John McCain was one of the prominent prisoners.  His whole flight uniform and accessories used during capture are on display.  Pete Peterson was held there too.  He later became the first American ambassador to Vietnam in 1996.

I signed up for a city tour to see the major landmarks.  The first place they take you is to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh.  At first, I wasn't real excited.  But as I got closer, I could tell how important this is to the Vietnamese people.  Many make a pilgrimage here once a year.  First, you have to surrender any recording equipment and bags.  Then there's a long line to enter.  And two security checks like at the airport.  Then a few sets of guards as you enter the building.  Finally, uncle Ho, as they like to call him.  There are special lights focused on his head and hands so he kind of glows.  They embalm his body periodically so it's pretty well preserved.  I was surprised how highly the Vietnamese regard him.  At least in the north.  At the HCM Museum, I saw lots of pictures of him in group shots.  All the attention falls on him.  Just like pictures I've seen of Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali or JFK.  The Vietnamese look at him as the one who led their country into freedom.  First it was Chinese domination for about eight centuries.  The Vietnamese were able to absorb the good from their culture and integrate it.  Next they were ruled by feudal lords for another 800 years.  Then it was the French for about 100 years.  Two different eras here:  one of colonization and one of conflict if I remember correctly.  Lastly, the American war.  Ho Chi Minh was the only leader who did not need a translator.  He could speak fluently with every foreign leader he met.  He died with no children or family, which are highly esteemed here.  So they put his mausoleum in the heart of Hanoi so that every Vietnamese could be his child.  I mentioned that to a few shopkeepers when I see his picture inside and they just nod and smile.

Also in the tour I saw some prominent temples and pagodas.  As yet, I still can't tell the significance of any one from another.  All I know is that temples are run by common people with long hair.  Pagodas are run by bald monks.  One sight that I think gets easily overlooked is the Museum of Ethnology.  Inside were several exhibits of the dress and housing used by several of the ethnic hill tribe peoples.

My tour guide continually talked about Vietnam's political reverence to China.  What I kept seeing, however, were eager, entrepreneurial vendors approaching tourists.  At the end of the day, I sheepishly asked, "is Vietnam still communist?"  She was a little shocked.  "Of course!!"  Whatever communism they practice, it's sure not East-Bloc.

What else about Hanoi?  Eight days in Vietnam and still no sun.  Somehow I thought it was always hot here.  One thing I like is that vendors just set up along the sidewalks and alleys.  Restaurants too.  All that's needed is a pot and some plastic stools and people show up.  I've eaten lots of street food and it's usually pretty good.  I just don't ask what's in it.  There's only one word you need to know to get by in Vietnam - "No."  I've gotten pretty good at it too.  There are so many eager vendors here.  Sometimes it does get annoying.  Also, many intersections don't have lights.  No reds, no greens, just a constant state of yellow.  It was unnerving at first.  Either you forge your own space through traffic or you just stand there.  A few different times I turned my head just as a motorcycle cut in front of me by inches.  One trick I learned is to just follow the locals and let them create interference.

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