Sunday, 19 April 2009

LETTER FROM VIETNAM Chapter 5

A ROOM WITH A VIEW Thursday 5th March 2009
Red Hanoi
The guidebook we used for Vietnam is called Footprint, and it is a damn good one, giving you a lot of information not only about where to eat, sleep, and go, but also a lot of history, geography, demographics, and culture. A damn good one, but then I repeat myself.
It said about our hotel, the Hong Ngoc, that it was a real find, and it was...found , I mean. By the taxi driver, not us. We arrived at about 5:30 the previous evening, in a steady drizzle. The Hong Ngoc is a family run hotel with spartan rooms with the aforementioned old marble, old fixtures, and poor lighting. Bela Lugosi stuff. The service was impeccable, even outstanding (see people of Hanoi, why I like it.) Our room was at the top of the entrance stairway, ten yards from the entry onto the street. Hang Manh street (I am willing to bet Hang means street) is a sergeant in the hierarchy of Hanoi roads, grand boulevards being the generals, proper two lanes colonels and majors, small two lanes captains and lieutenants, and 1 1/2 lanes like Hang Manh, the sergeants. Then there are the little back alleys and detours, the corporals and privates of this hierachy.
In the old quarter, where we spent most of out time, each facade facing the street was very narrow, even though the building behind it might be a good deal wider. This is because (according to the guidebook, anyway) the landowners were taxed based on the actual footage of their entranceways by the colonial French. Being wily, they merely reduced the entranceways. Nice one.
The room we had had a small window facing the back. When Steens asked me to open the curtain to see what the day might bring us in the way of weather after our dismal start to the holiday (we had not seen the sun since the UK) we were faced with a wall two feet away, and absolutely no way of telling (other than a grey sheen on the pipes, but that could have been leaking) what the weather was like. Steens then commented sardonically:
"Ah, a room with a view."
A quick trip downstairs confirmed that indeed it was NOT the pipes leaking, it was misting, if not drizzling, as it had been ever since we arrived.
We decided over a serviceable breakfast to go to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, the National Army Museum, and then shop. The breakfast was a step up from the Cosmopolitan nonsense, enlivened by the smallest spoons on the planet, which made eating a tiny pot of yoghurt a morning's activity. I asked the waiter: "Are there bigger spoons?" He said: "No." The next day however, there were.
We booked a taxi from the hotel. The Dong is Vietnam's currency, and there are lots of them. One dollar is worth Dong 17,500, which makes pretty everyone a millionaire. The UK should try this. Oops, maybe they already are.
So a typical taxi driver negotiation goes something like this. How much? Ten dollars. No, in Dong. 100,000 dong (already, if you do the math, the numbers don't add up, but you see where I am heading...stick to nice round numbers.) No , I only paid 25,000 to come here (maybe true, maybe not, but all is fair in love and haggling). 50,000? 30. OK,OK. End negotiation.
The hotel people warned us. Only take HANOI TAXIS (an aptly named company, no doubt on some sort of commission). The two that we took from the hotel only charged 25,000, so that was reasonable. However, in the street, we never seemed to see one. We thus were charged from 30-50 thousand. Whatever. 50k is only $3, so it is not like it is going to kill you.
Our nice Mr. HANOI taxi man dumped us, literally, across the street from the impressive (in a Stalinesque kind of way), Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. As streets go, this was a major or a colonel, so crossing it involved a bit of this and a bit of that. There was a massive lawn of really thick gauge grass laid out in squares with a grid of concrete walkways, or what we assumed were walkways. Everywhere there were signs in English and Vietnamese: DON'T WALK ON THE GRASS. Okay, we thought, we'll take the walkways, and set out towards the Mausoleum, which didn't have too many people in front of it.
Now this seemingly innocent action brought on a definite Korea moment. If you have ever lived in a totalitarian state (Korea was under martial law when we moved there in 1982) you will know what I mean. You transgress some obscure rule which is obvious to all except foreigners, and it will provoke a response not unlike poking a stick into a hornet's nest just to see what will happen.
We had not gone but a few steps when all of a sudden we hear a commotion off to our right, and see a guard (unimpressive uniform or not) waving madly and yelling at us. He is about 50 yards away from us, but makes it abundantly clear that:
a) we are NOT supposed to be there; and b) making a grand circular motion that we MUST GO AROUND OVER TO OUR LEFT.
Our LEFT. We look over way over to the left of the Mausoleum. Oh you, mean over to our LEFT where there is a massive great QUEUE.
Ah! Habbiamo capito.
We retreat and avoid a minor diplomatic incident. Situation resolved. No shots fired.
By the time we circled around to the left, going around a block the size of Detroit (okay so I am exaggerating) we arrive at the real entrance to the Mausoleum, a fact conveniently forgotten by Mr. Nice HANOI taximan who has taken about, let me guess, 1,000 foreigners to the biggest tourist attraction in town. Oh well, nevermind. He did charge us only 25,000 dong.
There are a number of steps to fulfill before going into the Mausoleum. These include buying a ticket (easy peasy), turning in your camera (a real act of faith) but NOT as the sign said (see opposite) any cash, gold, GERMSTONES, FLAMABLE (to be fair, always a tough one to spell) or POISIONOUS substances. We then join one of the long queues, the one obviously for foreigners. There was another queue wending its way over from our left, full of Vietnamese, including a whole passle of young Montagnard girls, all dressed in their native dress of black skirt, white shirts, and emerald green waist band. Ahead of us is a whole gaggle of Koreans (I am guessing from North Korea) in white caps.

An interesting factoid. Did you know that there are over 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, among which are the Hmong, the Muong, and the Mnong (try keeping those apart!). Okay another important fact. Guess how many people live in Vietnam? If you said 20 million you would be off by 65 million. Yep, do the math. 85 million. That is 19 million more than live in the UK. So the next time the words "small countries like Vietnam" start to roll off your tongue, stop them dead in their tracks. The coastline is also 3000 km long.
Another fact. There are three distinct regions: the North (Tonkin), the middle (Annam) and the South (Cochin). Or in Vietnamese Bac Bo, Trung Bo, and Nam Bo. And that in spite of unification the South and the North have been (and no doubt always will be), poles apart. Sound familiar? See Alabama vs. New York or Surrey vs. Tyneside. But I digress.
We joined the queue, standing in front of another group of short people. Oh. One other fact...
If you say a little country like Vietnam and you mean the people, you would be right. They must have a hell of a time fielding a basketball team.Toby (6'6") would have no chance in this country for beds, shoes, chairs etc.. Even I, at 6', have no problem seeing over everybody. But I digress again.
This particular group of litttle people were French, retirees from Champagne. We chatted along in french, mostly about world economic affairs. When they found out I was a banker; worse, a banker in derivatives; even worse, a banker in derivatives with a Spanish bank in London; there were a lot of tut tuts. Good natured mostly. We amused ourselves by watching the other queue with the Montagnards. Neither queue was moving. Eventually a guard/guide came up and started talking to us. He was a student in Economics and did this guard thing part-time. He was amiable enough, though for some reason I wouldn't have him over for dinner, if you know what I mean. After all, how many guards come up to chat to people in queues? Steens disagrees.
He explained the reason the queues weren't moving was because a minister from Sri Lanka was visiting. Sure enough, after a few minutes up whizzed a motorcade of Mercs and disgorged a group of Sri Lankan looking folk who were whisked off to the Mauso. Some of the guards who did this had splendid white uniforms, but there was I, sans camera, having already turned it in without its germstones.
After they went in, all of a sudden our guard signalled for us to proceed. We shuffled along to the Mauso, where there were signs with rules. No talking. No hand gestures. No culturedless manner(ie. no Millwall fans). No permet to people in unserious costume, whatever that was.
After ticking all of the above and passing muster, we went up some stairs and turned right into the chamber where Ho's body lies. A digression here about Ho and recent Vietnamese history (the last 50 years or so) is worthwhile.
First of all he is a legend. When I say that I mean that he is a giant of the 20th century, living proof that one man with intelligence, dedication, balls, ruthlessness, and stubbornness can achieve almost anything. He is also a legend in that most of his life is shrouded in mystery, although one thing is clear. This was one well-travelled dude. He was born in 1890. He died on 2nd September, 1969. That, coincidentally, is Vietnamese National Day, the day he read out the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in Ba Dinh Square to 500,000 people. The square is across the street from where his body now lies. For almost 30 years, 1911-1940, he lived outside, mostly in France, but also in Moscow, London, and Peking. He also travelled to the States to New York, where apparently he was awed and disgusted by skyscrapers. He had a variety of jobs, ship steward (don't get any ideas, John Prescott), pastry chef under Escoffier, journalist, spy. He also had a variety of pseudonyms. Ho Chi Minh, meaning He Who Enlightens, was his last. According to the guidebook, there was an apocryphal story about how Mae West (yes, that Mae West, she of the is-that-a-banana-in-your-pocket-or-are-you-glad-to-see-me fame) may have shared a fruit salad or two at the Carlton Hotel in London with a Vietnamese guy with slinky eyes (her words, not mine) named Ho something or another. In any case, this is what she intimated in an interview much later, though her grasp of world affairs was no doubt sketchy by then. True? Qui sait? Anyway, needless to say Ho was quite the operator and a charming man, and a vrai citoyen du monde....and ruthless to boot.
My French friend Thierry in Hong Kong disagreed violently, calling him une pourriture and un arriviste.
He arrived at Communism as a ideology after living in France, but basically he was a national liberator. The Declaration of Independence he read out had the following words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Sound familiar? He also read from the French declaration of the rights of man, and pointed out that the Vietnamese were being denied these most basic rights by the French administration. (For a lot more information, read John MacAlister's Vietnam, the Origins of a Revolution).
Ho in fact entreated Truman for direct help against fighting the Chinese after WWII. The who? A quick time line of Vietnamese history is instructive, because as they say in the courtroom, these facts are relevant to the case.
The most pertinent history was post-1945 because that was when he was in power. He had helped found the Viet Minh (the rebels who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954), and who as a fighting force in the South were renamed the Viet Cong by the Americans.
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.
There is a sign for Ho's Used Cars. I make an offhand remark about how most politicians are like used-car salesman, and I am met by very disapproving glances by the tourists ahead of me, nationality unknown. After this I keep schtum. Once you exit the pond/house area, there are a series of gift shops, where some woman in a white cap (but not Korean) uses me to size up some minging T-shirts without saying a word. I misunderstand, thinking she is trying to sell me one, and sort of shoo her away, while pointing to one which is slightly less tacky. In the end, I buy a hat, useful for shielding the sun (if it ever comes) and in the meantime, against the drizzle which continues unabated. I throw in one for Tobes as well.
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.
An unfitting end to a supremely interesting day in the drizzle.
Go to Chapter 6

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