All in the Family: Meet the Dats and Uncle Ho

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Rolling back into Hanoi at 5AM, we had a neat walk back to the cafe/travel agency/guesthouse where we'd been arranging trips through and leaving our stuff, on the way seeing Hanoi street life being set up for the day before tourists arrive. Walking by and gawking at all from the veggies being weighed to the fish being scaled alive, we hung out by the lake, watched the early-morning elderly aerobics, and had a humorously rancid soaked apple custard shake at the City View Cafe, 5 stories up only providing the best view around.
We met Dat back at the cafe at 8AM to take him up on his invite to meet his family in his village 15km outside Hanoi. Not able to convince him that motorbikes were a smashing idea again, we boarded a series of public buses that took a bit longer but on which we got to meet and talk with all kinds of locals that we'd not otherwise know. Dat's mama was cooking up a storm when we arrived that we shared on a bamboo mat on the floor of the living room. Dad and bro (taekwondo champ) kept pouring the rice wine, and uncle and cousin came over to eat, greet, and laugh as well. Dat's papa was a soldier during the Vietnam war, and Dat translated a few of his stories for us, including a straight walk from Hanoi to Saigon (Vietnam is very, very tall for those who also failed geography) towards the end of the war. It was very hard to imagine such a gentle man, who is now ping-pong champion of the village with his eyes blazing and holding a machine gun looking to kill, but he never showed anything but kindness and joy to us. We also stopped by the town hall of sorts where meeting are held to sort things out in the village as needed, including hosting the very first Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, which happened to be holding its 10th major Congress as we were there in Hanoi, which made for colorful pageantry, propaganda, and police presence all around during our stay.
Dat took us back into Hanoi and to the Museum of Ethnology, where we had volunteered as a guide for a few years to improve his English. The Viet people are the vast majority in the nation, but 40+ ethnic groups abound and we saw real traditional massive and beautiful houses transported to the grounds as well as the famous water-puppet show. It is Dat's favorite place, he even goes there now on days that he's not leading tours just to hang out, though I believe he secretly is just trying to master getting across that crazy rope highwire bridge without falling over.
With one more night in Hanoi, we hung out for a while at the cafe and started on the scorpion wine we bought (two real scorpions and assorted spices and grasses floating inside ... would have gone for the cobra version instead but just too big of a bottle to handle) with an American fella names Rillo who's been travelling for three years, going on five. It was interesting to peak with him because we've met very few Americans while travelling, averaging maybe one a week. Loads of Canadians, Brits, Irish, Dutch, and Aussies, but the dearth of Americans we attribute to both the disparity in vacation time we get (2-3 week in the US in most full-time jobs as opposed to the 7-8 weeks in many European countries!) as well as the career-ist drive in America where taking time off to be a travelling "bum" is looked upon as more frivolous than educational. I'm certainly not immune to the drive-drive-drive mentality, there's no way I would have taken off for five months had I not had grad school already arranged before I left, and it has been interesting comparing notes with the few other Yanks and many others who've made learning about the world through direct experience a worthy priority. In any case, we had a chill night playing darts at a local bar (Dat won every time) and meeting other folks doing the same. Dat beat them too.
We had a final brief excursion the next morning to see Ho Chi Minh who is preserved on display in a very nice mausoleum, or in the spirit of my bad China Mao-soleum joke, a mau-Ho-leum. I don't know what Lenin's will be referred to as, but I'm pretty sure jokes are not made in Russia anyhow. (Editor's note: as of this writing in St. Petersburg, Lenin remains stubbornly the only unvisited member of the dead-guys-on-display tour, not from lack of effort ... more later) Ho Chi Minh is affectionately called "Uncle Ho" by the Hanoians, a stark change to the whispered almost resentment we heard from many about Mao in China. The folks in Hanoi are also very proud of their history, I was informed multiple times that the city will be celebrating its 1,000th anniversary in 2010. Ushered through the viewing room (he looked peaceful), we spent a good while just trying to leave the grounds with guards in turn pointing to every different direction that we'd just come from and blocking its opposite, and finally caught a taxi to the airport. It was certainly one of the strangest airport I've ever seen: while in most airports space is at a premium, the international airport of this country's capitol was sparsely commercialized, with nice smooth space left wide open inside that a roller hockey player would die for. Not sure if it has to do with the nation's policies, we also noticed that Hanoi was one of few places in the world (at least that we'd been to) where you could not find at all McDonalds, Starbucks, or really any American chain brand. Nostalgic for home at that moment, we blew the rest of our dong in the one restaurant on burgers and hot dog and boarded our flight up and away to Thailand!

Moral of the story: I promised Dat I'd help him find an American girlfriend. Ladies: one charming, handsome, multilingual motorcycle is yours for the taking, just let me know ...
Seriously, kind of.
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