Ho cultivated a persona to lead his people in what was a very perilous task (many of his predecessors had been summarily executed by the French), and he himself had been sentenced to death in absentia in 1930. To his people, he became Bac Ho, Uncle Ho. There were two posters we saw of him in the Mauso shop talking with young children. In both, he had a fag hanging out of his mouth. So not really a paternal type, in spite of the hype. Then again, those were the times.
Apparently there was some suggestion that he was married (in stark contrast to the party line of celibacy for the revolution) but the journalist who raised this possibility was summarily dismissed from her post.
When Bac Ho was turned down by Truman for support against the Chinese at the end of the war (rather dismissively, I seem to recall), he reluctantly acquiesced to having the French back in power (they had continued to administer Vietnam on behalf of the Japanese throughout the war, a Vichy relationship). He did this to lessen the chance that China would pursue its border incursion any further. Ho is reported to have said of this temporary rapprochement with his hated archenemy and erstwhile host: "Better to sniff French shit for a few years than eat China's for a lifetime." As I said: what a legend.
Anyway, he died in 1969 on 2nd September, and asked to be cremated. As this was at the height of US involvement, the new apparatchiks decided that a deity was required to rally the war weary people and so did not accede to his request. Instead, they prevailed upon the top Russian embalmer to come, equipped with a special refrigerated plane, and do his business. Apparently Bac Ho was one of this embalmer's master works, unlike Mao's corpse, for whom the Chinese refused Russian help, and whose body unfortunately began to rot.
They also constructed this massive great tomb, which we were about to enter.
We filed around silently, having more or less caught up with the Koreans in their white hats. The Mauso was chilled perfectly, in keeping with the (you guessed it) cold marble. Up the stairs we went into the room where his body lies in state, encased in glass. At each corner of the glass is a guard, visor down, ramrod straight, thousand yard stare. There are also guards shepherding the queue along. His body looks waxen (after 40 years, who wouldn't?) and about 1.5 times lifesize. Unnaturally so, but as I told Steens, this was probably due to the thick glass. You are allotted almost no time to examine things too closely however, and of couse there is no pointing (oh look! see how big he is!) or talking aloud. As we exit Steens starts to whisper something and we are quickly shusssssshed.
You come out the back of the Mauso, where you go down a path to the Governor's House, a beautiful ochre coloured building which was deemed too grand by Ho. On the way I picked up my camera , which was retrieved immediately.
HO lived in a small house on stilts next to a pond, guarded by another ramrod detachment, this time in the sparkling white uniform. When we reached the house, across the pond some Korean woman, a tourist, had squatted down to dip her hands in the water (who knows why?) and quickly receives an ass-blasting from the guards.
After the Mauso, our plan is to walk to the National Army Museum, supposedly with bits and bobs of destroyed US hardware. There is also a B-52 museum which is dedicated to showing off chunks of these invisible marauders (the bombs hit without ever seeing the planes, 17,000 feet up) which caused havoc during Operation Rolling Thunder, as the Bomb the North Campaign was called. This was not included, however, in our self made itinerary.
We find the museum after asking a series of soldiers/policemen in their bright green getup and talking to a Colombian woman who is equally lost. It turns out the Museum isn't very far at all, on Dien Bien Phu street (the generals are named after battles). Alas, the museum is closed for lunch (11:30-1:30) and all I can do is fire off a couple of snaps of a T-62 tank and the statues of Lenin across the street. It must be said that this whole miltaro-nationalistic thing all looks a bit out of puff, as if noone is really interested. Certainly not the youth (60% of the population was born after 1975). A group of teenagers are kicking a fooball around under Lenin's gaze,one of them sporting a ManU shirt with AIG on it. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Thwarted by the turn of events and in spite of the steady drizzle we decide to walk back to the hotel and then catch a cab to a restaurant named in Footprint on the other side of town.
A quick word about the streets (besides their size). They are mostly called Hang Something. They also can change names at intersections (eg. Hang Bong suddenly became Hang Dai, a popular street near our hotel.) It takes a while to get the Hang of it...yuk yuk. Yeah I know, crappy pun.
It is thus easy, especially in the Old Quarter, to get yourself turned around, especially when there is no sun to orient yourself. Thus, if you are learning pigeon Vietnamese, you should throw in the phrase: Where is my hotel? Shopkeepers are happy to help, if not all that accurate or helpful, if you catch my drift.
Suffice it to say that we took a few wrong turns, doubled back on ourselves, and came back to Hang Manh Street from the opposite side that I thought we would.
But we survived. No shots fired.
The restaurant we had chosen was in a hotel in the French Quarter (generals and colonels for roads) called the De Syloia. The resto is called Cay Cau. The hotel is a step up from ours, but Perhaps not as conveniently located. Something to save for next time.
The food was delectable. The obligatory spring rolls (nem or cha gio) with dipping sauce of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chili, wrapped in lettuce and basil and mint (and some random herbs I could not identify). These were thoughtfully presented with each roll skewered on a toothpick and stick into a small pineapple. Then fried soft shell crab and a hotpot of fish, clams, shrimp and whatnot. Mmmmmmmm. All this with an ice cold Hanoi beer. Need I say more.
We then made our way back to the hotel, and decamped after a slight zizz (you must remember if you fly out this way, you can count on spending at least two hours in the middle of the night contemplating your navel or ruminating about global warming or the world economic system or why there are no boxes of tissues in Vietnam and do we really need them anyway when bog rolls will do quite nicely thank you very much). Or otherwise put, jet lag. So quick zizzes are unavoidable.
We emerged into more drizzle (a fine mist really) to walk out on Hang Gai and do some shopping. Our friends Eve and Adrian in Hong Kong had come back with very few puchases from the South. In Hanoi this was certainly not the case. We found silk shops, lacquer ware, art shops, clthing (sport and otherwise), knapsacks (though the snap did break before leaving the country). We went into many art galleries (most utter shlock, it must be sai) but happened into one where we saw a oil painting covered with lacquer which I like and bought. The painting was commissioned by the owner who instructed the artist to paint something about Buddhism and the material world (according to his wife, who was minding the store). I saw it leaning up against a wall where, judging by the fine patina of dust, it not attracted much interest, or at least anyone willing to wipe off the dust. No matter. I happened along and was curious enough to ask what it meant. Steens didn't particularly like it, but for me somehow it resonated. The painting has a buddhist monk (dressed in red, colours of strength and warmth.) There are six parts to it. The monk is trapped by two vertical lines at either end, to which have been affixed old coins. These represents how we are all slaves of the material world, whether we like it or not. Next to the monk is a shattered group of fragments of what she said was the tortured soul, which is being called up to heaven by a kite. Another soul is making a journey, its fragments, gradually being pieced together into a whole. There is a drum and a baton, used by the monk to summon the soul, and a moon with a constellation.
I put down a deposit, not really sure if I was going to buy it, and asked for a hook to be put on the back and to have it cleaned. I also said I would like to see it before it was packed to be shipped.
That night I dreamed of the painting, and that sealed it for me. The next day when we went back, the woman was not there. Her niece was, and there the painting sat, wrapped and tied and gagged. Oops, I apologized, saying I had wanted to see it before it was packed. No problem, said the girl. Thus ensued an elaborate 30 minute interlude of unwrapping, checking (it was fine), and then lovingly repacking it up again. Everytime I said that is OK, she put on another layer of paper and tape, taking exquisite care with each step.
While this was happening, Steens was looking aroud the second floor, and came down saying she had spotted a painting she liked. This one was equally abstract, 3 round heads, one at an angle beneath a sun, all in earthy tones. After checking the price (minimal dickering) we agreed to buy this as well.
At this point, the owner's wife returned along with her husband. She asked if the painting was alright, and I told her that somehow it had resonated with me and pointed to my heart. She asked a little bit about ourselvs (where we were from, how long we had been married etc.) and when she saw the paintingSteens had chosen, she said: You know, they are both by the same artist (two of only a few in the store). This is why you have been together for so long.
What is art, if not touching each person's own heart for whatever inexplicable reason, and bringing people together? Who cares what it costs or where it came from?
We also walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is a central feature of Hanoi life. To the south of the lake is the French Quarter, which is the high rent district. To the Northwest is the Old Quarter, with its vocational streets and shopping and narrow streets. Then we went to a propoganda shop, where we bought a portrait of Ho made out of stamps (an incredible piece of work), and some silk screen prints of war posters for Tobes.
We had dinner in a small resto near the hotel. Acceptable, but not grand. We made the schoolboy error of ordering the uncooked rice paper spring rolls which we did not know already came with the set meal Steens had ordered. Nine huge spring rolls arrived, putting paid to any appetite. A real Texas eyes-bigger-than-stomach move, but our fault really.
Go to Chapter 6