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)

Archive for the ‘Hanoi 2007’ Category

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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Hanoi Hilton, Sunday September 23rd, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2007

Our visit to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, however, was a chastening experience. It’s famous for being the gaol where the American POWs were kept during the Vietnam War (which Long calls the American War) but most of the displays show the barbarism of the French who incarcerated the ‘rebels’, i.e. the nationalists who were fighting for Vietnamese independence. We saw a guillotine, (something not on show in France where they like to draw a veil over the violence of their revolution), and in one of the cells there was a model showing how the prisoners had to sleep shackled to an iron rail.

The women were made to wear a sort of wooden frame around their heads and necks to prevent escape, and there were even photos of women who had been beheaded, displayed as a deterrent to any would-be independence activists. I knew that such things were done in the 17th century, and still are by the Taliban, but I had never imagined that the French would commit such atrocities within living memory. Deaths in this gaol were horrific due to the appalling diet and hygiene, and there was even a ‘black hole’ for real ‘recalcitrants’ where conditions were beyond description – reminiscent of Devil’s Island, a hell-hole of disease and brutality in French Guiana described in Papillon by Henri Charriere. There were even torture implements on display…

A couple of rooms displayed the treatment of the American POWs.. The Vietnamese say that they were well-treated, and perhaps they were by comparison with how the French treated the Vietnamese, but the signs and labels are all written in such a propagandist style that it brought snorts of derision from Tim. I suspect that any treatment of POWs in a Third World country and a Third World diet would seem inhumane to Westerners, but there is some evidence that the POWs were tortured. Later on, at the Cu Chi Tunnels, we saw some of the cruel traps that were set in the jungle to capture but not kill American soldiers, and they were deliberately designed to maim and incapacitate their victims so that they could be brought in for ‘interrogation’. All sides committed atrocities in this war, and this prison is a reminder that people seemed able to justify – at least to themselves – some appalling cruelties in its name.
It was a horrible place, and our visit left us feeling quite subdued. We were glad to get back to the hotel and freshen up for the ‘Welcome Dinner’, which was at the Wild Lotus restaurant in Nguyen Du St. This was a stylish restaurant with good service and an imaginative menu. They have a good wine list, but we had the first of many gins and tonic to start with – there’s nothing else as refreshing in the tropics! We enjoyed a scrumptious sweet corn and leek soup and the salmon rolls, with a ginger, chili and wasabi dip, were divine.

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Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Sunday September 23rd, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2007

What better place for a literature lover than a Temple of Literature! Built in 1070 to honour scholars, it actually consists of five temples, with the last one dedicated to Confucius. It was Vietnam’s first university, educating the sons (but not the daughters) of the mandarins, and the names of its graduates were engraved on stone steles, some of which are still standing, mounted on the back of stone tortoises.

Long explained to us that there are four sacred animals in Vietnam: the dragon, representing power; the unicorn symbolising happiness; the phoenix, beauty; and the tortoise, longevity; and I like the idea that ideas and thinking last longer than any of the others…
Elsewhere in the temple there is an honour board, listing the achievements of an impressive list of scholars, and on display inside one of the temples there were some beautiful blue academic gowns worn by the professors. There’s also a lovely quiet cloister which reminded me of the one at San Lorenzo in Florence, an oasis of calm in the middle of a hectic city.

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Ho Chi Minh Quarter, Sunday September 23rd, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 8, 2007

The queue at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum was so long it took us ten minutes just to walk to the end of the queue. It was rather like the wait for the Sistine Chapel, except that most of the would-be visitors were Vietnamese on holidays, not international tourists en masse, and there were officials bossing us around as we worked our way along the exterior of the vast complex. Respectful dress (no bare shoulders or knees) is required; all bags and mobile phones have to be surrendered; and so do water bottles, which is a bit of a hardship in the heat but not worth the risk of trying to smuggle them in as the officials are somewhat overbearing: separating foreigners and Vietnamese, barking incomprehensible commands, and prodding people into line ‘one-by-one’ as they see fit.

The Mausoleum holds the embalmed body of the man who declared Vietnam’s independence from the French and sparked the War which defined the baby boomer generation in America and Australia. According to our guide, the amiable Long, the Vietnamese hold ‘Uncle Ho’ in very high regard, and making a pilgrimage to pay homage is a popular thing for holiday-makers to do. It was curious to see this small man – familiar to us from newsreels in the 70s as a fearsome Communist – now lying at peace and in dignity in this enormous hushed building. For me, this visit was the catalyst for a reassessment of many of my ideas about the Vietnam War, a war which I had interpreted mainly through its impact on me and family.

In the late 60s and early 70s, my sister was an activist while my then husband was an unenthusiastic conscript, who fortunately managed to complete his national service without having to go overseas. There were differences of opinion about the morality of the war, but no enduring conflict. However, for my second husband, Secretary of the Draft Resisters’ Union and active in the Moratorium movement, it meant estrangement from his father and grandfather for many years, and this trip to Vietnam led to considerable reflection about his youthful activism and whether he had been right to oppose the war, since reunification had resulted in a Communist state.

Ho Chi Minh, however, was no Stalin, and although there was considerable hardship and repression during the early years, Vietnam now is a dynamic almost-capitalist state. Since ‘Đổi mới’, the economic reforms of the 1980s, collectivisation has been all but abandoned, farmers can grow what they like and sell the surplus, and the cities are alive with free-market enterprises, ranging from tiny shops to massive joint venture factories. The state still owns the land, but people can buy the leasehold and build houses as big as they can afford, and some can certainly afford homes that are impressive by any standard. These economic changes have not been accompanied by political reform, and criticism of the Communist Party is still obviously not permitted, but there is no apparent limitation on personal freedom, other than the blandness of the official media. Judging by the number of other Vietnamese stations on cable TV – and CNN, the BBC, the Australia Network and other Asian TV networks – together with the availability of foreign newspapers and magazines, censorship is not too onerous. People are free to worship in the countless temples and churches and we even saw a mosque!

One of the reasons for Ho’s popularity was his humility. After 1975, he declined to live in the French Governor’s residence which is now a Communist Party guesthouse (and home to John & Janette Howard on a recent visit.) It is a very fine colonial mansion, built between 1900 and 1908, and now painted in lustrous golden yellow, as most official buildings are. (It brings good luck, they say). According to Long, Ho was much distressed by the poverty of his people, and could not countenance living in such luxury while the people were so poor. (Which they certainly were, until economic reform began in 1986 and Clifton lifted the US trade embargo in 1994. Per capita GDP doubled from $US 200 to $400 over the ensuing ten years, but rural poverty is still a problem, and natural disasters (such as flooding from the recent typhoon) hamper development because they occur so often.

So until his death in 1969, Ho chose to live in a modest wooden house on stilts, with the Peugeot 404 in a nearby shed. This house now forms part of the pilgrimage, and you can still see his books, slippers and phone on display, though how they preserve it all from the ravages of the tropical heat and humidity I do not know. The house is adjacent to a lovely man-made lake, en route to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The quaint One Pillar Pagoda is also nearby, though it isn’t the original wooden version which was built in 1049. In 1954 the French, in a fit of pique, destroyed the original when they departed, so – with a somewhat bizarre sense of priorities – the Communists rebuilt it in concrete in 1955. Perhaps it was a job creation project…
Alas, the Museum does indeed feature Ho and his deeds, and while it is possibly rivetting for scholars of Vietnamese history, most of it is incomprehensible for a tourist and somewhat dull. There are hundreds of grainy black and white photos accompanied by lengthy tracts in Vietnamese, and a large exhibit reminiscent of Salvador Dali. Were they chums? Who knows? We were more intrigued by the 1973 Paris Peace Accord – such a small piece of paper, signifying the end to such a dreadful, destructive war. We saw the pens they used too, three different ones, presumably because no one was feeling friendly enough to share. Who can blame them? It was a vicious war, with the scars still evident, as we were to see, time and time again.

There is a large and impressive statue of Ho at the top of the stairs in the entrance hall, its placement recalling the placement of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre. Everybody gets their photo taken beside Uncle Ho, and of course we did too, before escaping downstairs for a cool drink and reunion with the rest of our group for lunch at Koto’s Restaurant

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Hanoi, Vietnam 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 8, 2007

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Almost two years to the day after our trip to Europe, Tim and I set off for a 16 day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, on a small group tour with Travel IndoChina. Our plane to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was late, but the connecting flight to Hanoi was late too, so it must have been a very long day for our tour guide, Long, and driver, Tien, by the time they’d rounded up the rest of our group at the Hanoi airport and escorted us to our hotel, the Guoman, in Ly Thuong Kiet St.

Perhaps they are used to it – Vietnam Airlines failed to impress in other ways too. All three meals were dreadful, and the service was desultory, to say the least. Definitely not recommended, but at least they didn’t lose our luggage (like Qantas did on the last leg of our journey back home, Sydney to Melbourne).

Our rooms were cool and comfortable, and the hotel had a pool but we were much too tired to do anything except fall into bed. The next morning, however, we took Long’s advice and braved an early morning walk round the block on our own – and discovered the Australian Embassy conveniently across the road. It’s a lovely building, and I bet the air conditioning is top-of-the-range, because even at the crack of dawn the heat was fierce.

We also discovered that everything they say about traffic in Vietnam is true. The photo shows light Sunday morning traffic in Hanoi, which is nothing compared to Saigon, but still pretty scary for novices!

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