Farewell Vietnam

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Monday, June 6, 2011

I can hardly believe how fast time has flown recently but we are already approaching the end of our time in Vietnam! We've been here for almost a month and I am very pleased to report that Vietnam has become one of our favourite countries of the trip; we had no idea of what to expect but the friendliness and strength of the people has ultimately won us over. Our last stop in Vietnam is the northern capital of Hanoi; we stayed here for 3 nights, went to Halong Bay for the night and then came back for another 3 nights. When we first arrived here we were treated to a free room upgrade at our hotel and ended up staying in a huge room with Greek-style pillars and two double beds… result!

During our first few days in Hanoi we visited an old prison which has been turned into a museum; the prison was used to hold Vietnamese prisoners during the French-Vietnamese conflicts and then to hold American prisoners during the Vietnam War. We didn’t know how brutal the museum would be because Asia has quite a reputation for not shying away from the gory details when it comes museum exhibits. However the prison museum turned out to be excellent. It wasn’t too hard-going but we got a really good insight into the life the prisoners held here. We got to see inside the tiny cells which held the prisoners on death-row and also the communal cells which held the female inmates and their babies. We hadn’t realized before we got here that this prison had actually held John McCain (presidential candidate who ran against Barak Obama) when we was captured during the Vietnam War. They had photos of him receiving medical treatment at the prison and also had his parachute and uniform on display… it was a really interesting visit even if it was blatantly one-sided. Later that day we nipped into a small side-stall selling fried snacks and tried to order some spring rolls and fish cakes… however our Vietnamese sign-language is not quite up to scratch yet and we ended up receiving nearly the entire menu totaling 8 dishes. We probably should have guessed that language might be an issue when we realized that we were the only non-Vietnamese people in the café… but the food was great and included some great crab and noodle spring rolls. All in all it only came to £2 so we didn’t mind so much. In the evening we went to watch a Vietnamese theatre performance which included snippets of 5 traditional plays and dances performed in the hill tribes and villages. The show was utterly incredible and I wish it could have gone on all night. At the end of the performance one of the staff members approached us and asked if we would do an interview for the national Vietnamese news channel! I opted out (I didn’t have any make-up on!) but Tom said yes, so the film crew came in and set up the cameras and before we knew it Tom was being interviewed by the reporter with the help of a translator. They must have been doing a report about foreign tourists in Vietnam because they asked him what his favorite part of the performance was, if he was having a nice holiday and how Vietnam compared to other places we had travelled to. It was amazing to watch him being interviewed for national TV with all the lights, cameras and the translator and he was so proud of himself for having done it. What a great end to our first day in Hanoi!

The following day was a scorcher and we only just made it to the Women’s Museum before the midday sun hit us. The museum was really interesting, especially the section about weddings, pregnancy and motherhood in the ethnic minority hill tribes (I don’t think women back home would fancy hanging their placentas from the top of a tree to protect their babies from evil spirits, but that’s what happens in the tribal villages here).   The next day we headed to Halong Bay and when we came back to Hanoi it was time to get ourselves ready for our immeniant trip to China. We have been trying to learn so basic Mandarin with the help of a phrasebook and the BBC online language course, we haven’t been doing too badly and have managed to learn a dozen or so words and three key sentences, but only time will tell whether we can actually communicate with anyone in China.

On our final full day in Vietnam we thought it only fitting that we complete a pilgrimage that many Vietnamese people dream of fulfilling. You see here in Hanoi is a huge mausoleum which holds the embalmed body of Mr Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader which led Vietnam to victory during the Vietnam War. It is extremely difficult to explain the importance of Ho Chi Minh to the Vietnamese people. He is considered their most significant and beloved political leader and is affectionately known as Uncle Ho by many Vietnamese people; the best comparison I can think of is to say he is like a Vietnamese version of Winston Churchill. Everywhere you turn there are Uncle Ho t-shirts, keyrings, posters, cups, plates… you name it and the Vietnamese have probably put Ho Chi Minh’s face on it. So beloved is Uncle Ho that when he died the Vietnamese people decided to embalm his body and put him on display in a huge mausoleum so that the Vietnamese people could come and pay homage to their most beloved leader. I felt a bit weird going to see his body because firstly I have never seen a dead body before and secondly it directly contradicts Ho Chi Minh’s dying wishes; he actually wanted to be cremated and for his ashes to be scattered at three points in northern, central and southern Vietnam as a symbol of his love for the nation. But we figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity so after numerous failed attempts to get to the mausoleum (it’s only open three days a week, for a few hours in the morning and we kept getting our timings wrong) we finally got to see Uncle Ho.

We arrived at the mausoleum at about 10am and there was a queue of well over one thousand people already waiting to get in. The way it works is that there is basically a long queue of people which snakes into the mausoleum and is very quickly ushered into the chamber where the body is and is then ushered back out again. The queue is continuously moving and you are not allowed to stop in front of the body for any reason whatsoever. If you lag behind in the queue a very scary looking soldier with a big bayonet and handgun comes and forcibly ushers you back into your place. You have to go through numerous security checks and scans and you have to give your camera and phone into the registration office before you are even allowed to enter the queue… if you even so much as try to take a photo of Uncle Ho’s embalmed body than you probably won’t live to tell the tale. The security are crazy at the mausoleum and considering that in a queue of over 1000 people we were two of the only Western people we managed to get some very 'special’ attention from the guards…especially Tom, who hadn’t had a shave and they probably thought was some kind of nutcase fanatic. The whole idea of a continuously moving queue line is great, however Asian people don’t really understand the concept of queuing  and by the time we reached the mausoleum entrance the whole scene had descended into chaos. Luckily the guards managed to get everyone into two lines and a few minutes later we were being ushered into Uncle Ho’s chamber. Okay, describing this scene should test my writing abilities like no other! So you are instructed to stand in two lines, almost shoulder to shoulder, on a strip of red carpet. The air-con is set to freezing and most people are covered in goosebumps and then you walk into a chamber about 25 meters squared, with an impossibly high ceiling and made out of concrete. The atmosphere is very sterile, or as Tom later said ‘it felt very Soviet’. There is a raised path around the outside of the room and in the middle, slightly sunken into the floor, is Uncle Ho. Encased in a glass casket surrounded by soldiers is the man who led Vietnam to victory in the Vietnam War. It sounds like a stupid description but he just looked like a very very old man having a nap. His hands were resting very lightly on his stomach and his long, wirey beard reached down to his chest and almost looked translucent. It was such a surreal experience. In front of me was a tiny old lady who was weeping as she walked around the glass casket and it reminded me that this man is loved like a father and savior by many of the survivors of the Vietnam War. And then before I knew what was happening we were ushered out of the chamber and back into the searing heat. The reactions of the people around us were astounding; some people were ecstatically happy, some people were crying, some people were tucking into ice-creams and donuts. Tom and I didn’t really know what to do with ourselves.

Later that day we visited the Temple of Literature so I could get my photo at the temple gates; I was also very pleased to learn that this temple is also Vietnam’s first ever university, so we managed to hit two sights in one visit. The following day we said good-bye to Vietnam and boarded a plane heading to Kunming in southern China. We now have just one month until we return home and in the run up to leaving Vietnam we have both been getting increasingly emotional. I don’t know how we will fare in China because we will probably end up crying for the entire time we are there. Even though we still have a month of traveling left we are already struggling to reflect on all the experiences we have had. If I try to sum up our feelings at the moment the only word I can think of is overwhelmed. We are both anxious about our time in China because we don’t know how much of a problem the language barrier will be, but I think that if we can successfully negotiate China then we really can do anything. China will be our biggest challenge of the trip but we hope it will also be our biggest success. If coming away on this adventure has taught us anything it is that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, no matter how far-fetched or difficult it may be. We have always considered China the pinnacle of our adventure and we only hope it lives up to our expectations. So goodbye Vietnam, you have treated us extremely well and we love you for it.
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