Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

At leisure in Hanoi, Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2007


Our body clocks were still running on Melbourne time, so we were awake at 4.30am. Tim listened to RN podcasts on his MP3 player, and I read till 6.00am and then we got up and went for a walk. In the relative cool of the morning, Hanoi was already up and about and there were people eating pho in dust cafes on the street, and a great mass of people outside one of the government buildings being assailed by a loudspeaker. I was expecting them to launch into a tai chi routine, but they just milled about in lines so perhaps it was a drill of some sort…
After breakfast we set out to walk to the Lake of the Restored Sword (Lake Hoan Kiem). There is a kind of Arthurian legend attached to this lake, something to do with a sword found by a fisherman in the lake, thanks to the intercession of the Emperor of the Kingdom of Waters who wished to help liberate Vietnam from the Chinese invaders during the Ming Dynasty. After the battle was over he sent a golden tortoise to reclaim it from Le Loi, hero of the Vietnamese, after whom many streets are named.

It’s an artificial lake with a footpath around it, with one little island in the middle and at the other end, another tiny island which you can reach via a little red bridge. Here there was a Buddhist temple, the Ngoc Son pagoda, which is decorated with numerous bonsai trees, including one of a usually large and unruly tree which we have at home that we call a waxmallow. There is also on display the body of a large tortoise, thought to be about 500 years old and therefore dating from the time of Le Loi. There was a small entrance fee, which we didn’t mind paying, but it seemed a bit hard on the people who went there to pray at the temple. Perhaps they only charge the tourists? There was a souvenir shop too, and a drinks machine, which seemed to me a little incongruous in a place of worship, but all the churches in Europe do it, so I suppose it’s become the norm.

We mustered our courage for crossing the road, and tramped around in some of the surrounding streets. This is a thriving retail area, with whole shopping strips devoted to similar sorts of wares so the competition is fierce. Tim bought an extra pair of shorts, and we found some sweets to share on the bus with the rest of the group. After a restorative OJ back beside the lake we set off for the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution near the Opera House.

Alas, it wasn’t air-conditioned, but it was very interesting. In a succession of halls, it traced Vietnam’s struggle for independence from its earliest times. Most of the exhibits are photos,but there is also memorabilia including another guillotine. The photo most memorable to me was the one of everyone cheering at the Fall of Saigon, because the image most Westerners have of this event is of people scrambling onto US helicopters to get away. It was a salutary reminder that the photos we see in situations like this are always biased one way or another.

Fortuitously, the museum was close to Club Opera, an excellent restaurant where we elected to try the banquet. It was a splendid meal: crab and corn soup; prawn salad with beans, onions, cashews, carrot, & capsicum in a rich wine sauce; fried crab with onions (decorated with beetroot flowers); followed by mandarin duck with coconut rice with prawns. We washed this down with a nice Louis Jardot Burgoigne, and finished up with creme caramel. Entertainment was provided by a barmy Irishman at an adjacent table, spouting a lot of nonsense about how beaut Communism is because all you really need in life is a bed and something to eat. (This, as he tucked into a very good meal, and drank a great deal of wine). It turned out that his dining partner was a senior bureaucrat in the Vietnamese government who had probably been anxious and hungry under collectivisation but now looked relaxed and well fed under the Open Dooor policy!

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