Last two days in Hanoi and... Vietnam !
Trip Start Jun 16, 2011
69Trip End Nov 10, 2011
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I basically had two days to do whatever I wanted in Hanoi so I took it easy. On the first morning, I walked to the Temple of Litterature. It is a beautiful place, really. It reminded me of the imperial palace in Hué, only much smaller of course, but incredibly aesthetic and proud. It used to be the place where the literary "elite" of the country was being educated. Most of their work consisted in studying Confucius. Do you see yourself studying Confucius for three years ? Wow. I guess it must have been less frustrating in those times when the domain of possible learning was much more restricted. Today there is so much we can learn that 10 lives would not be enough. Doesn't that get on your nerves sometimes ? Well it often gets on mine ! So I stayed a bit in this very peaceful place and admired their love for beauty and harmony, their respect for knowledge and their understanding that a "good" nation can only be built with the help of educated people. The Khmer Rouge should have paid a visit to the temple of literature... Not all knowledge comes from the corrupted west. Far from it. Fortunately for the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh was aware of this and was definitely doing his best to provide education to the people.
This whole topic reminds me of the discussion I had with Ismail and then later my dad about elitism. I had a long discussion with Ismail where he was fiercely against the concept of elitism and shocked that I could include him into the elite of Egypt (because he was a lawyer, despite the fact he gave it up to become a diving instructor). My dad and I got the explanation later when we were in Cambodia. If you check the French and the English definition of elite, it's completely different. Whereas in French it is assimilated to someone who is well educated and has to be good in order to be an example to the rest, and help out those who are in need, "beautiful people", the English definition sums it up to people who are close to power and have privileges which they use for their personal benefit, not caring at all for the needy... Mmmhhhh. Interesting, isn't it ?
After the temple, I stopped quickly for lunch and headed back to the old quarter. I had decided to visit one of the old houses in that quarter, that had been renovated with the help of the city of Toulouse (cot cot cot !) and that showed the very original architecture of typical Hanoi houses. It is hard to believe that this area (Ma May street) was actually on the riverside (check the map, you'll understand my astonishment...). The house is, like almost all houses in Vietnam, not wider than 3 meters, but about 30 meters long...
Before continuing this story, I would like to elaborate on this :-) when you go to a country and you see something strange like this, that is widely spread, you can be sure this is due to some tax law !! And indeed, tax on housing in Vietnam is proportional to... the width of your house :-) this is why you get those narrow buildings everywhere, with 3, 4, 5 floors... Not very aesthetic and not very practical to live in, believe me... Unless you have your own lift ! In Syria, we didn't understand why houses were never finished. You can see the rooftops with metal poles sticking out of the concrete roof, yo show that another floor will be there soon. But there never is another floor. They do that because they start paying housing tax when... the house is finished ! So basically, they never finish it !
Back to the old house. It is gorgeous. I'd love to live in a house like this. Imagine a cube first, separated in two levels, with a stairway. The ground floor is a reception area, for guests, our living room. The top floor is where the ancestors are worshipped, the temple (that would make a perfect master bedroom !). Continuing in the length, you then have an open sky patio, a bit like in Arab houses. That's where the family gathers in the evenings, after dark, to benefit from the cooler temperatures (did I say Hanoi is excruciatingly hot ???). Continuing further, you have another cube, with the family bedroom on the ground floor. Yes, they all sleep in the same room. This is weird for us, westerners, but basically, this is how they do it in most parts of the world... On the top floor, it is either the parents bedroom, if they chose to, or a guest room, or an office. Further again, you have a new open air patio, that is mostly dedicated to doing the laundry, or barbecuing, or children playing. This is the messy patio, to sum up :-) when the first one is as clean and peaceful as it gets. Then, last, come the kitchen and the bathroom, where the water is ! All the structure is in dark wood, with carved doors. Of course, like in most places in Asia (and throughout the world), you come in without your shoes so the wooden floors look brand new. It has this deep charm of old houses and gives an incredible feeling of serenity and beauty. I loved this house.
After that, I went to the water puppet theatre. You do not get cuter than this. Puppeteers are behind the scene, not above it, and puppets float. These are scenes of everyday life in Vietnam as well as legends. It is supported by a traditional orchestra. Oh ! I fell in love with this traditional Vietnamese only instrument, the Dan Bau (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Đàn_bầu) and some people might just think like me : this is the very very close cousin to the Brazilian berimbau ! Except the sound is so so so different ! Mesmerizing ! It makes this sound that irritates us so much in Asian music ! But during the puppet show, there was a Dan Bau solo and it drew some tears from my eyes ! I was so impressed. The grace of the musician is equally important in the performance. It looks like time is stopping. A must see ! (I didn't manage to watch it because youtube doesn't work properly here... But i think that's the song i heard : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vthl0e7tIts)
Well, I know it looks like I didn't do much.... And indeed it wasn't much. But you have to understand : the heat in this town is simply unbearable. My clothes were wet, I was wet, I couldn't wait to go back to my hotel for a cold shower and some air conditioning ! So I did... And didn't leave until the next morning...
The second day was a bit busier : I went straight to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, to pay my respects to uncle Ho. The building is impressive and the guards too. They look like American navy officers with their white uniforms except that the uniform ornaments are red instead :-) you are not allowed to laugh, wear sunglasses, wear a hat, talk loud and... stop in front of the body. You just walk past it. I managed to see a vietnamese woman trying to stay as much as possible, joining her hands in respect to uncle Ho towards him. It's very formal, very impressive. The body looks as if it was coming right from Madame Tussaud. It feels terribly wrong too, knowing that nobody respected Ho Chi Minh's will to have his body cremated and spread in various spots in Vietnam... At least they don't make you pay for the visit...
I of course went to the beautiful park, wih the pond, where Ho Chi Minh had his house and then a very simple stilt house, close to the presidential palace where he always refused to live. I take my hat off to this man. Maybe the propaganda is working great on me, but I have a huge amount of respect for this man. By visiting the Ho Chi Minh museum after that, you learn that he left Vietnam when he was a young man, learnt French perfectly (his official replies to some political people in France are simply impressive), saw what the world was about (France, UK, Spain, USA, Latin America, Africa...) and got back to Vietnam to lead his country to freedom. I know it sounds very naive of me, summed up like this but really, you have to be in Vietnam to understand the influence and the GOOD influence that he had on his people ! It looks like the country is going down the drain in terms of ethics and culture only since Uncle Ho died... A pity really. I want to read his biography. Definitely. Not now cuz I'm too busy with yet a new country but later, definitely.
The other dimension of Vietnam that really forces my admiration is... Vietnamese women ! I went to the gorgeous women's museum, which has just been revamped. Jeez. Not only those women do absolutely everything in this country, but they also fought and fought hard in the war. I am so impressed by these women... Vietnamese men are lucky bastards, these (mostly) drunk and lazy misogynous shits. I understand why Vietnamese women want western husbands, even those that we, western girls, would not want in a million years... Anyway, the museum was fantastic, retracing the life of women through marriage, motherhood, house work, field work, clothing and... heroines in the war. I loved it.
I finished with the ethnology museum which is in two parts : one indoors (a bit boring after a while... Ohh ! This is a spoon ! ooh ! This is the traditional costume of ethny so and so - knowing there are 54 of them... Ooh ! This is a bowl !) and one outdoors. The outdoors part is great. They built around 7 or 8 traditional houses from various ethnic groups in Vietnam. All those houses are really really different. Funny enough, the one I liked least is the one of the dominant ethnic group... I loved the traditional Cham house as well as the Tai one, made out of bamboo, wood and palm tree leaves, on stilts.
I ended the afternoon looking for a new digital camera ! I managed to find one, not the latest one from Lumix but one that is similar to the one I had before. It is quite expensive in this country (taxes...) and I really regret that i wasn't in Bangkok then... I made the right move to buy it in town and not wait for the Hanoi duty free... The Internet is great and I soon found out that Hanoi airport duty free sucks big time... And it's true ! Not one single camera for sale there... So I made the right move (because believe me, I was not going to find one in Luang Prabang...)
In the evening I had dinner with Nick and his wife Son at the Metropole hotel (whether I do it on purpose or not, it seems like I cannot avoid 5 star hotels in capital cities...). We had a fantastic evening ! Great story : Son is a Vietnamese composer and founded some years ago a girls band, the equivalent to the Spice Girls really. Son was the most known of the band because she was the one creating the music. She left the band a couple of years ago when the ambiance started to deteriorate. The band continues without her but went down in the charts because ... So did the quality of their music. So of course Son is extremely well known in Vietnam and pretty soon, we had a private table (table for 6 while we were 3), actually the only table that was allowed to smoke in the restaurant... It's as if I s having dinner with Victoria Beckham ! And Son was actually so modest about it ! We had a very fun evening, an exquisite meal, loads of laughing and some more insight to Vietnam. All this paid for by FX ! Thank you FX !
I was in bed at 1 am... Knowing I had to wake up at 5:45 am to leave at 6:00 in order to catch my plane for LP at 9:00... Bye bye Vietnam !
I will be doing a wrap up of my trip at the end of it. What I can say right now about Vietnam is that it creates mixed feelings. Sometimes you love it, sometimes you hate it. Having people trying to rip you off in tourist places about each and every transaction can really get on your nerves. Their insistence to sell to you, grabbing your arm, following you in the street is equally a pain. But people in the highlands are lovely. As soon as you get off the beaten tracks, they are smiling and share stories with you if they speak your language. I will keep in mind forever my trip on the Ho Chi Minh trail, Dalat, this little bar in Mui Ne, the diving in Nha Trang, the ecological park of Vinh Long and the hidden beauties you can find in Saigon or Hanoi if you look well enough and past the noise, the pollution and the agitation. I will try to forget Ha Long, Chau Doc, Hué, Hoi An. I will remember Tan's hangover, the chemist and the smiling and laughing kids on their water buffalos in the phosphorescent green rice fields, the jungle road.
I don't know if I'll ever go back, probably not. But thank you Vietnam anyway for an overall great month in your company ! Thank you uncle Ho, thank you courageous vietnamese ladies.