A short stay in Hanoi

Trip Start Oct 15, 2010
Trip End Jan 11, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hanoi Delux Hotel

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sometimes I think we're not good tourists. We returned to Hanoi and did, well, very little. We did make an effort the first day and visited the Temple of Literature, which we both found entirely unspectacular and mysteriously overrun with other tourists, so we had a quick lunch before returning to the sanctuary of our hotel room. In our defense, neither of us were feeling that well. Nathan was suffering from side-effects of his antibiotics and I, typically, had developed stomach problems of my own just as his improved.

We were really smitten with Hanoi though. It's an amazingly busy city. From the moment we stepped outside the doors of our hotel there was always something to watch, hear and smell. By this time I was totally in love with Vietnam and Hanoi was a real highlight. As in Ho Chi Minh City, the traffic is out of control, yet Hanoi consists of narrow streets rather than wide boulevards intensifying it even further. The city is dotted with lakes and open spaces that provide some relief from the chaos but even these are incredibly busy, in part due to the seemingly endless stream of wedding parties posing for photos. 

On the second day we woke up early. A few weeks before leaving Auckland I met a guy on the bus who had said he would be home in Hanoi for the Christmas holidays. Via email we had arranged for Phu and his brother Kien to pick us up from our hotel. Now, if Hanoi traffic seems crazy as a pedestrian, on the back of a scooter it's even more so, particularly if your driver is chatting away distractedly and barely paying attention to the road. After driving around lost for some time (even Kien, who lives in Hanoi permanently, wasn't sure where we were) they pulled up at a cafe. They ordered an excellent breakfast of pho (beef noodle soup) for us all, served with savoury donuts that we dipped into the broth - incredibly yummy - followed by deliciously strong coffee. We chatted away happily with them for an hour or so. Nathan and I had met up with Phu one other time before leaving New Zealand. The difference in him when in his home town was amazing. He had lost all of his Auckland shyness; he was funny and outgoing and even seemed a lot older (previously we thought he was in his late teens, now we think probably somewhere in his early 20s). It also surprised us that we now found him a lot easier to understand. A few months ago we had really struggled and now it seemed to us that he spoke perfect English. It occurred to us that it was our ability to understand that had developed, rather than his English skills.

Phu and Kien told us a bit about living in Hanoi. It seems that the city has changed a lot over the past few years with an increased amount of immigration from rural districts, and the 'original' Hanoi residents, such as their family, resent this change in culture and lifestyle. On the other hand they also seem to enjoy the way these changes have enhanced their social life.

From breakfast Nathan and I made our way to the Museum of Ethnology on Kien's recommendation. The most interesting part was an exhibition about HIV, which, like in many Asian countries, has become a problem in Vietnam. It included many moving stories about people who have contracted the disease, the discrimination they have suffered, often from their own families, and how they cope with their HIV positive status. It was heartening to learn about government programmes that attempt to alter the stigmatisation of people with HIV and I guess the exhibition itself is an example of this. The rest of the museum focused on the country's many different ethnic minorities. It was well put together and included good explanations but didn't captivate us. I have to admit neither Nathan or I are really museum fanatics, we find them interesting for a little while but we bore quickly. Having recently visited many 'real' ethnic minority villages during our trip through the Central Highlands, the endless displays of instruments and cooking equipment seemed a little romanticized. At about lunchtime we high-tailed back for more chilling out and wandering around the old quarter.

We were determined to make the most of our last day in Vietnam. However, we managed to sleep in longer than we had intended and by the time I woke Nathan up we had to rush to get to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum before it closed at 10:15am. When our taxi driver stopped he pointed in the direction of a large building. This, it turned out, was not the mausoleum at all, but the museum. Our driver had dropped us at the back entrance and we spent some time rushing around the vast complex trying to locate the mausoleum itself. By the time we passed through several security checks it was bang on 10:15am, so we were pleased to have made it just in time. A long queue of many tourists, but even more Vietnamese, wound its way passed the stern guards in perfect white uniforms into the imposing concrete building. The temperature dropped as we entered the room that contains Uncle Ho's glass sarcophagus and, within it, his body itself. His skin is almost as white as his long pointed beard and the crisp sheets he is tucked up in. A very bizarre sight. It should be noted that Ho Chi Minh never wanted to be preserved in this way and had requested a simple cremation and for his ashes to be scattered across Vietnam's regions. This did not, of course, satisfy the Communist Party requirement of grandeur. It made Nathan wonder to what extent Uncle Ho's personality cult existed during his lifetime or whether it was encouraged only after his death in 1969.

Since we were already at the complex we decided to drop into the Ho Chi Minh museum. After about ten minutes inside Nathan announced that this was his favourite museum yet and I had to agree it came out amongst the top for me too. It was as if a large number of Dali influenced artists had been commissioned to put together revolutionary inspired pieces. More an art gallery than a museum, the exhibition was surreal to say the least.

I was starting to get a bit hungry so we stopped off for some Bun Cha. Despite having been in Asia for over two months it's incredible that it's still difficult to overcome 26 years of hard-wiring that it's not a good idea to eat at rubbish-strewn streetside stalls. The rewards, however, were great. Bun cha consists of a sweet, vinegary broth into which you add your own mixture rice noodles, veges, herbs and spices. The dish's crowning glory are the mini minced pork patties and bacon strips that have been char-grilled over coals right there on the side of the road. Spectacular.

We then jumped in a taxi to the Hoa Lo Prison prison. This was originally constructed by the French and housed many political prisoners during the colonial period. Later, when American prisoners of war were held here, including one John McCain, it became known sarcastically as the Hanoi Hilton. The majority of the prison is dedicated to the suffering of the inmates held by the French, enhanced by dim lighting, cells of life sized, emaciated, chained up figures and horror movie background music. It sounds gimmicky but is actually surprisingly effective and I found the visit quite a spooky experience. However, overall it was one of the most one-sided exhibitions we have seen in Vietnam. If the museum is to be believed, despite torture and execution all the Vietnamese prisoners remained loyal to the communist cause. In contrast, the American POWs were treated with the utmost dignity and respect and had a cruisey lifestyle (this is backed up with photos of Christmas celebrations and basketball games). While there may be some truth in this I got the feeling that we weren't told the full stories of both scenarios. According to wikipedia at least, the POWs brought home a rather different version of events at the prison, including having undergone years of extreme torture.

For our last Vietnamese meal we wandered the vibrant streets of old town, stopping off at at various stalls for street food and beer. True to our recently discovered sense of culinary adventure, the highlight was undoubtedly barbecued pigeon. A dark, succulent meat with crispy skin it makes a perfect snack, although I have to admit we left the head uneaten. A final drink at a cafe overlooking Hoan Kien lake and one of the city's busiest intersections and it was time to head to bed in preparation for our early flight out of the country. It had been a busy day. Perhaps we're better tourists than I had thought.

Before leaving New Zealand, everyone I talked to who had been to Vietnam and everything I read gave me the impression that it is a deeply divisive country. People seem to either love it or hate it. Good friends had told me of the unfriendliness with which they were treated by the locals, even bordering on hostility. Aside from Hanoi's fruit vendors, who really are a grumpy bunch, I was really pleased that this was not our experience at all. Generally we were treated well and met with welcoming smiles. The Vietnamese are an extremely industrious people and as a result there are people trying to sell you something almost constantly, especially in the tourist centres. While this can be tiring, for me, it adds to the country's character, its intensity and its vibrancy. We loved almost every part of the three and a bit weeks we spent in Vietnam and my only regret is that we did not have longer to explore it.
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Dorli on

Hey guys, so good to hear from you, loved both entries very much. You
could have enjoyed the delicacy of barbecued, or steamed, fried, .......
pigeon many times over at home in Ballarat St., Yvonne! Enjoy the last
few days! See you soon, yay!

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