After clearing customs in the Hanoi airport Friday afternoon, we met our guide, Mr. Pham Ngoc Thuan (Thuan, as in “Twan”-rhymes with “swan”). The tropical humidity fogged our sunglasses as we stepped out of the air conditioned terminal to the Toyota SUV waiting at the curb. We were about to enter yet another world, as different from Japan as Japan was from Texas. The 50 minute drive led us past flooded rice paddies tended by farmers in rubber boots, ankle deep in the muck, bent over to harvest the rice crop by hand sickle; past half-built relics of developments of all sorts, houses, apartments, retail, abandoned when the big corruption-riddled credit boom turned to bust 7 years ago and the money ran out; over the muddy Red River; into the heart of Hanoi.
(Note for our readers: As you may have noticed by now, the blog post is devoid of the unique flair and verve you have come to expect from Madeleine’s posts. This post comes to you from her guest blogger father. Madeleine graciously agreed to let me post a few blog entries as a Father’s Day gift. Beats another red tie!)
Hanoi is like a giant beehive. People are everywhere going places doing things eating working working working. The city has 6.5 million people and I bet we saw most of them. The streets are clogged with motor scooters swarming to and from the hive. Hanoi traffic rules don’t exist — the swarms magically divide and converge, passing around pedestrians, water buffalo, trucks as if guided by a group intelligence. Intersections are initially terrifying white knuckle affairs to Westerners, until little by little the craziness starts to feel normal and the heart rate settles down. The city is a jumble of shops and houses crammed together amongst parks, lakes, and beautiful French Colonial buildings occupied by the various departments of the government. More about the city later. By the time we reached our hotel, the beautiful Hotel Metropole, built in French Colonial times in the center of the city, our senses were on defcon 5. We didn’t know what to make of this place.
Our first stop after check-in was to a tourist-friendly performance of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. The ticket price was 100,000 Vietnamese dong per person, or 5 bucks. US dollars are accepted everywhere; in fact, they are preferred. The official inflation rate is 10% although Thuan said it’s really more like 20%. In any case, the show was very charming and featured some wonderful traditional Vietnamese music. After that, a quick dinner at a fancy restaurant and to bed at the Metropole.
Friday morning, 6 am, I am up to take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, where locals gather at dawn for tai chi. Unfortunately, when I step outside I realize that it is literally raining buckets — an early taste of Monsoon season. By 9 am the rain has turned to a light drizzle and we met Thuan to tour the sights of Hanoi. First stop: the Temple of Literature, founded over 1000 years ago as a temple to Confucius and a place of learning for the nation’s elite. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Presidential Palace was next. We joined a seemingly unending line of Vietnamese eager to pay their respects to “Uncle Ho,” the father of modern Vietnam, and filed through the cavernous monument, around the resplendently dressed body of Ho Chi Minh. This was a serious affair; the honor guard of military police meant business, no sunglasses, no hands in pockets, no getting out of line. In his will, Ho had requested that his body be cremated and then his ashes scattered around the country. The Communist Party had other ideas, however. The mausoleum looks like a Communist Party period piece (which it is), complete with huge red banners proclaiming Communist slogans in bright yellow letters.
Ho Chi Minh is a giant in Vietnamese history — it’s hard to overstate how much he is loved here (think Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Ghandi). French colonial rule of Vietnam began in 1862, and it was brutal. When Ho’s revolution finally kicked out the French in 1956, the population was on its knees. Ninety percent of the people could neither read nor write. Food was scarce, largely as the result of the French government’s forced conversion of rice farms to cotton. Two million people starved to death, out of a population of only 23 million. Once the French were finally gone, war with the US commenced, slowly at first and then escalating into full blown national conflict. Ho passed away in 1968, at the height of the War with America, as they call it.
Next up: a walking tour of street food in the Old Quarter, led by a local chef. The Old Quarter is like the center of the hive (although we never found the queen bee!) The narrow streets are packed with people and scooters, with beautiful purple-flowering trees and unbelievable tangles of utility wires overhead. The houses and shops are 2 to 4 stories high and are very narrow, each about 4 meters wide. Each street has a unique personality, some are dedicated to food vendors — butchers and fish mongers and spice merchants; all are there. Most Vietnamese don’t have refrigerators (no money and no room), so they shop everyday for food. Other streets are lined with scooter repair shops or paper products or toys. The Old Quarter — or Guild District — has it all. Whether you are craving a head of lettuce, a live frog, or a framed memorial picture of Michael Jackson, this is your place. Many of the vendors offered street food for immediate consumption, with patrons either standing as they ate or, more likely, perched on the tiny little plastic chairs that are ubiquitous here, the same red, green or yellow chairs that we use for our pre-schoolers’ birthday parties. If Vietnam had a National Furniture Contest, little plastic chairs would win hands down.
After lunch, we visited the Hao Lo prison, a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton.” The prison was built by the French to house Viet political prisoners. Hoa Lo means “hell hole” and unfortunately, the prison was well named. Conditions under the French were subhuman, overcrowded to the extreme, with prisoners shackled by their legs to the floor. The Vietnamese government would like visitors to believe that they treated their American prisoners much more humanely, and they even say with straight faces that the nickname Hanoi Hilton suggests that prisoners loved the place. Obviously, the prisoners that survived the tortuous ordeal tell a very different story.
We wrapped up the busy day with a tour of the Museum of Ethnology (very interesting look at the 54 different ethnic tribes that make up Viet Nam) and a cyclo tour through the Old Quarter. This final opportunity to breathe in the amazing vitality of Hanoi was the highlight of the day.