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One chilled out Uncle Ho in Hanoi

VIETNAM | Thursday, 11 June 2009 | Views [1729]


Following the tour crowd off the bus from Halong Bay lead us to the Blue Star Hotel on Bat Dan Street. They tried to give us a really pokey windowless room for $12 but on declining a much better room with Air Con and wifi became available for the same price. Ok so someone had left what looked like a load of fish entrails in the minibar and the AC could only be on (“never off” said the manager) but it was fine. We hightailed it back to the original guesthouse to collect our bags and then could properly shower and change out of our stinky clothes. As my friend Ailish, who had done her own round the world a few years ago would say, we had been at one with the “tinker within”. The oppressive heat in Hanoi had made that become even more pronounced.

We had been harbouring quite basic ambitions for the evening – a pizza and a movie. After going out into the heat to collect our bags we had no desire to leave the AC again and had suddenly become really tired – it had been a pretty high octane few days for lots of reasons. So we ordered a delivery pizza and watched a movie on TV. Perfect.

The following day the heat was even worse – Joanne had suggested a swimming pool near her house but we were in the mood for AC all the way. We got an AC taxi from the door of the hotel to Vin Com Towers, a plush shopping mall with the Air Con on permanent overdrive. After a Asian-Western fusion lunch on the food court and a wander around the shops we caught a movie: Star Trek. I was, and still am a huge Star Trek fan in the next generation days. Claire had never seen an episode of any variety ever. The fact that we both loved it is testament to its wide appeal. By some ironic twist (in a big city like Hanoi) the couple who had stayed at the hairdressers on Cat Ba island watched it at the same time. For the second time! Go and see it if you can it's a great movie.

Joanne and Mike had offered us a motorbike tour of Hanoi in the evening so we had to rush to get back in time. After turning down so many Vietnamese blokes shouting “Motorbike tour! Very cheap!” in every single city we had been in since arriving it was nice to finally get one without any strings attached. They picked us up at the hotel and we were off.

I've already mentioned the madness of Hanoi traffic – well it doesn't get any better when you have a vehicle. How they moped around every day I just don't understand. What does become apparent after a while is the organic, almost natural way in which the traffic works. There aren't any rules but there is a lot of common sense. The small vehicles get out of the way of the bigger ones. Apart from a few boy racer types everyone drives slowly enough to stop if there is a sudden need to. Mike said that the closest analogy he could think of was water. If you block part of a river the water finds a way around the obstacle. Hanoi mopeds work in the same way.

After a quick run around the French quarter with its opera house and elegant tree-lined bouevards and Parisian five storey buildings, we rode through a bewildering maze of side streets and alleys. There was no way I would have been able to find the way back and I usually have quite a good sense of direction. It had taken Mike almost 3 years to find the place – a sleepy residential square of houses surrounding a small lake. During the war an American plane had crashed into the lake and was still there. I'm not sure if it was a case of the government not bothering to do anything about it or wanting to preserve the sight. It had almost entirely sunken in but parts of the fuselage and I think a wing was still obstinately jutting out of the water. A strange and strangely compelling sight, particularly as the neighbourhood did not seem to care in the slightest bit about a large piece of foreign military hardware in their lake.

Back through the complex maze and on to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, where Vietnam's famous communist leader had been preserved. The guys said it was a much more impressive sight at night than during the day. The mausoleum itself, a simultaneously impressive and somehow humble granite structure stands brilliantly floodlit at the end of a large lawn, criss-crossed by paths. No-one here walks on the grass, hence the paths.

We took a few snaps, one of which I am particularly proud of (below), before a traffic cop firmly but politely moved us on.

Next up was Joanne and Mike's favourite Bia Hoi. We were a bit surprised to see that it was located inside a military base but anyone and everyone was allowed in. This Bia Hoi was totally different from the touristy one we had been at previously. It was enormous and filled with loudly laughing Vietnamese men. There no women at all. Apart, of course from Claire and Joanne who provoked a few stares as we walked over the discarded peanut shells on the floor to reach our table.

A frothy jug of Bia (Beer) Hanoi was poured out and we tucked into some peanuts as I began to recount the story of what had happened on the Halong Bay trip. Well over an hour later, after some fabulous local food – scrumptious pork - and a couple more jugs I finally finished the tale as the place was thinning out . I'm not sure whether they were glad or sad they weren't able come.

Back on the bikes and past a huge statue of Lenin overlooking a concrete plaza. What was remarkable was not the statue itself, which is pretty impressive, but the rampant modern capitalism in progress under his watchful eye. Hundreds of kids were careering around in rented electric cars. Those who weren't actually driving were at the controls of remote control cars, also rented by the quarter of an hour. Dance music blared and the five and six year old were having the time of their lives as their parents turned a blind eye to their very appropriate introduction to the streets of Hanoi. My siblings with kids would I'm sure be shocked to know that it was almost 11pm. At least there were no rental mini mopeds. Apparantley on most nights a group of break and street dancers practice. What would Lenin think I wonder.

As we got back to Hoang Kham lake we stopped off at a bar to see how the other half of the Vietnamese live. It was a huge contrast after the down-to-earth nature of the Bia Hoi – a swanky expensive bar with leopard skin couches and a fashion conscious twenty-something clientele.

We could have been in London, New York or Paris. For some reason tiredness hit us all at the same time and we parted ways, turning down the guys' kind offer to run us home in favour of a walk along the lake.

We had been looking forward to getting back into the world of AC but the cleaners had turned it off in our room, which as the manager had warned as we checked in, meant that it couldn't be turned back on. It was a furnace in the room. The receptionist clearly saw the sweat pouring down my face as I came down to see if anything could be done. He didn't know how to switch it on. Finally I persuaded him to give me a fan of some variety. The only two around were those screwed into the wall of reception. He duly unscrewed one of them and handed it to me. Relief!

The next day troops of people seemed to come in and out of the room looking at the AC unit for most of the morning – eventually we got sick of it and cleared out. We hit the Kangaroo cafe, an Aussie run place with great burgers for lunch. I had been thinking about getting rid of my beard. Neither scissors not razor had touched my head since Chiang Mai, about 10 weeks before so it was high time. I was starting to share physical traits with a well known terrorsist.

I asked the waitress if she knew a place which could help me and she produced a card for a beautifying health spa where ladies of leisure go to get their highlights and a cheeky mani-pedi done. I politely explained that I was in the market for something a bit more rough and ready. She thought for a while and directed us to a street a few blocks south of the cathedral.

I couldn't have wished for more. It was a man in a white coat with a barber's seat literally in a hole in the wall. It was going to be a street shave and short back and sides. I took my place in the queue (a few plastic chairs in a row down the street) beside some locals and waited my turn.

When it came the barber smiled and asked me to take a seat. I gestured at him to take it all off – face and scalp. It took a bit of clarification a gesture of a blade 3 but once he got it he was off to get some extra tools. He came back with an ingenious set of pump action manual clippers and got to work. Claire worked the camera while the curls were shorn. He needed a bit of encouragement to get rid of the beard – easily the most massive I have ever grown. I looked about 10 years younger when he was finished. All for the princely sum of 40,000 dong, a little over a pound.

By the time we got back to the hotel the AC had been fixed. We enjoyed it for about 15 minutes before the electricity went. On checking with the front desk we discovered it was localised – to the entire street and that it was a regular occurrence during the summer. Too many people using AC and not enough power to go around. We went for a stroll around to try and kill some time – the room was just too hot to stay in. We were a bit tired and very hot. After checking back to the street we discovered that it was still off. Our only option was the Bia Hoi a few blocks down the street, at the end which did still have power. They had fans and peanuts and cold beer. We actually didn't want any beer but they didn't serve anything else. Ah well mustn't grumble. What a terribly challenging life we lead! The electricity men had sorted the issue out by bed time thankfully so it was back to the pearly gates of AC heaven by bedtime.

Next day we had arranged to visit the man himself, Ho Chi Minh with Nick. The meeting place I suggested, right in front of the mausoleum seemed sensible when I had made it. There were tons of people milling about in the criss cross park the evening we had done the motorbike tour. During the day however it is not a place to be I discovered. We were running late and the taxi driver had left us off, quite sensibly at the entrance to the mausoleum which happens to be nowhere near the mausoleum or in view of it – the meeting place. I was all out of dong so ran around trying ATMs for a while before striking green on the fifth attempt. We were also running late which didn't help.

I left Claire at the ticket office while I took a moto to try to find Nick. The driver took me around to the strangely uninhabited park and I ran down one of the cross paths towards a shape that looked like Nick. Suddenly there was a loud whistle behind me which I assumed was for some traffic infringement. Another, louder whistle to my left got my attention. The whistle blower was an armed soldier dressed in full bottle green communist scary regalia and he was pointing his baton straight at me, waving me off and approaching. I froze. Behind me the first whistle-blower was coming towards me and waving me away too. I had clearly done the wrong thing by being in the park so began to retrace my steps. I hadn't even touched a blade of grass! I managed to call out to Nick and gesture at him to meet me at the side of the park before the game was up. The soldiers kept their eyes trained on me until I had gone back across the road. My moto taxi man gave me a grin of commiseration, gave me back my helmet and took me to meet Nick. He had already been through to the Mausoleum as we had been so late so we agreed to meet for lunch after we had seen the enbalmed one.

With all those shenanigans out of the way we were free to go in and visit the mausoleum itself. It's free in but there is an entire employment category of people involved in making sure all the right things happen. I had assumed that they would be pretty hardcore about making sure no photos could be taken so went first to a left luggage counter. I handed over my bag, they had a root and took out the chewing gum and bottle of water, put an elastic band around it, made me put my name on the water in a blig black marker and then gave the bag (containing a camera!) back to me.

Then we joined the queue which stretched about 2km around the back of the building but moved quickly. They were thoughtful enough to put in a shaded path. When we got around to the other side there was a checkpoint where we were asked to put all electronic devices in a yellow bag and then were scanned, airport style. Then we had to hand in the yellow bags in exchange for a numbered token. After all that we joined another, slower moving queue to the entrance itself, monitored all the time by soldiers dressed in smart white ceremonial uniforms. Every so often one of the eagle eyed soldiers would come over to the queue and tell someone politely but firmly to remove a hat, cover a shoulder or stop talking(!!).

The guards increased in number and rank as we entered the fierce cold of the air conditioned angular granite building. It was a welcome relief from the heat (we found out there was a heatwave while we were in Hanoi) but the AC itself seems to be a fundamental element in the preservation of HCM's corpse. He is only open for viewing 3 mornings a week, hence the queues and crowds and is jetted off to Moscow for two months a year for ... repairs and maintenance. I guess they're the experts having kept Lenin fresh and bright on display for so many years. I'd like to think of them getting their hair done together, past comrades of the proletariat revolution.

Uncle Ho lies in a large dark room, colder than the entrance corridor, wearing a smart communist style grey suit and a serene, almost happy expression on his face. He is surrounded by a group of glaringly serious guards and a polished glass screen. Claire and I agreed that he looked like a nice man for what our opinion is worth. We were respectfully shuffling around his body when the girl in front us' mobile phone rang the Nokia tune. I had visions of Dom Joly taking out his gigantic comedy phone and screaming “HELLO! I'M IN HO CHI MINH'S MAUSOLEUM!” before being dive tackled by the scary guards. The girl was mortified and silenced it before too many people could notice. Once we had left the room I quietly said as much to Claire and was promptly told to be quiet by a guard.

Back outside I exchanged the token for my camera which had somehow managed to make it all the over from the other side of the mausoleum. I'd like to think it was via secret railway, perhaps the same one that take;s Uncle Ho to Moscow for his annual overhaul.

Next up was Ho Chi Minh's House, were he lived from 1954 to his death. It was modelled on an ethnic stilted house and remarkably small and modest. The upstairs consisted of a simple bedroom, study and dining room while downstairs was an open air meeting room where the politburo committee sat. He lived a very spartan life for such a widely revered and powerful man. In fact his final wishes were to be cremated and his ashes spread over the hills of his beloved Vietnam. His view was that it would save more land for agriculture. It seems that the Vietnamese Communist party felt that these final wishes would best serve the nation by being broken.

Delving into Ho Chi Minh's life had worked up a hunger so we were glad to be finished and moving along to meet Nick for lunch. As we were leaving the next day we wouldn't see him again so we bade our farewells and promised to keep in touch. He passed on his girlfriend, Kali's details in Singapore so we could meet up when we made it all that way South. The afternoon consisted of packing up and preparing to leave. It was most fitting that we capped off our last day in Vietnam with one more meal with Joanne and Mike. They had suggested an Indian but when we arrived a bit early the whole street was in darkness, the electricity out as had happened on our street a few days earlier. We took a candlelit seat in any case and about 30 seconds before the guys arrived it tripped back on. We had a great meal, made all the more interesting by Mike's hot-off-the-press news of having just found about an Aunt and cousins he never knew he had.

Our flight to Bangkok in the morning was with Air Asia, SE Asia's much more palatable answer to Ryanair. We checked in and I got pulled up at security – I'd stupidly left my swiss army knife in my carry on and they wanted to confiscate it. Obviously I was keen to hang on to it. We managed to agree a compromise – I would have to go back out to check in and see if they could help. They could not but suggested asking a passenger to put it in their checked in luggage for me and giving it back in Bangkok. I felt quite strange hanging around the desk with a pen knife rehearsing the line: “Sorry I know this sounds weird but would you be able to help me get my knife to Bangkok?” A group of Vietnamese students declined as they had no check-in luggage but thankfully an American girl obliged. Back in through security we bumped into a kiwi girl we had met in Vang Vieng tubing and passed the time before an outrageously priced sandwich in Hanoi airport's only eatery. It cost something like $20 for two sandwiches and 2 OJs. If you're there, buy a snack beforehand or on the plane – it'll be worth your while!

It was time to leave Vietnam after a fabulous, exciting, unexpected and hilariously topsy turvy three weeks. What had we learnt? Well, for starters we knew a lot more about the complex Vietnamese history and culture and had gained a real appreciation for the people's welcoming nature, tenacity, practical way of 'just getting on with it'. We'd also learnt to watch out for hustles and scams and for people's sometimes understandable desire to make the quick buck – if you come across something nasty deal with it patiently – losing the head just doesn't work. A final piece of advice that I'm happy to share with anyone hoping to get to know Vietnam is about the open bus tour. Buy a sleeping bus ticket with your eyes open – don't plan on sleeping. Try one journey and see how you get on. I believe the trains are lovely (and slow).

Tags: barber, fan, guard, heatwave, history, mausoleum, moped tour, movie, power cut


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