Postcard from Vietnam – Part 2: Hanoi
This is the second of three posts about our recent trip to Vietnam. The first post was about Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. This one covers the week we spent in Hanoi, which is Vietnam’s capital and second-largest city.
No wonder there was once a North and South Vietnam. In style, you could compare Hanoi (elegant) and Saigon (commercial and a bit grubby) to Paris and Marseilles. Two very different cities, with very different climates, nearly a thousand miles apart in a straight line from north to south. We left Saigon in 33C. Hanoi was a chilly, rain-swept 12C.
Our hotel was called Chic, which it isn’t. In common with many of the buildings in Hanoi’s Old City, it’s no more than a few metres wide, but about seven stories tall. A bit like this building opposite:
The balcony in our fifth floor room gave me vertigo for the first time in years. A good place for suicide – or accidental death – since the railings only came up to my knees. That apart, the room was comfortable, had good internet and one of those rare air conditioners that actually works in heating mode.
You could describe the Hotel Chic as a backpacker hotel for the middle aged. Our fellow guests were mainly Westerners – a smattering of Americans, French, and a family of three from Denmark who each looked like Mel Smith (the late British comedian) in grumpy mode. Outside, from the early hours until late, the locals supped their pho, which is a noodle soup beloved of all Vietnamese, squatting on tiny blue plastic stools you would normally see in infant schools back home.
As in Saigon, the scooters are everywhere – on the pavements and on the road. So mostly you’re walking on the road, pretending to be calm as cars and scooters weave around you. The streets are narrow, so nobody gets up any kind of speed.
The Chic Hotel is the painting and decorating souk – all around us are shops selling the wherewithal to upgrade your home. Fifty yards away is the wood carving souk, just a bit around the corner is the bag souk, and mercifully farther away is the scooter souk where you can get your Lambretta repaired.
The Old City
The Old City is two or three square miles of streets and alleys packed with small businesses catering both to locals and the thousands of Westerners who head there. Real backpacker hotels – $5 a night for a bed in a dormitory – compete with “boutique hotels”. I’m not sure what boutique means outside Vietnam, but here it means small, and pretty basic compared with the five-star joints that dot the elegant boulevards a few miles away.
Tourist guides talk much about Hanoi’s French architecture, and yes, there are many tree-lined boulevards and Haussmann-style buildings, most of which are used for government offices. But for me, the French influence is just as great in the old quarter, where a Gallic veneer has been painted on a street scene that pre-dates the colonial era. Buildings are tall and narrow. Inside them you could imagine characters from Les Miserables starving in garrets or artists hanging out in opium dens. Down below, narrow intersecting thoroughfares that would have been perfect for the barricades.
The only barricades these days are broken-down cars. They attract traffic police like angry hornets, waving their batons and whistling away as they try to impose order on the swarms of scooters.
One of the strange things about the Old City is the absence of dogs and cats. One possible reason that most of them end up in the cooking pot. I’m sure that’s not the case.
But a clue lies in a small cage that you would normally use for carrying a cat. It sits outside the restaurant we dined in one night. In the cage two chihuahuas bark incessantly. One has only one ear. The waiter said that the guy next door keeps them in the cage all day. When I bent down to say hello to them, the barking turned to tail-wagging enthusiasm. Which leads me to believe that you wouldn’t want to be a dog in Hanoi.
The only other living animals in evidence were a cage full of songbirds on the first floor of a nearby apartment, and a couple of cocks that competed with each other to keep the neighbourhood awake. All the rest were dead – chickens mostly, ready for the pot.
Of course I’m wrong about the living animals. There were humans in abundance. Locals, and backpackers observing other backpackers observing locals.
Another curiosity is that there are no waste bins. So you drop your litter on the street, or hang on to it until you get back to your hotel. Little old ladies walk down the streets with their baskets collecting cardboard and other recyclables. It seems that the shopkeepers do much of the sweeping up round their premises. But what about everywhere else? Someone clears the stuff up, but it’s not obvious who. There is a municipal garbage service, but it’s not much in evidence.
Then there are the loudspeakers, slung up on lampposts every twenty yards or so. For what purpose? The dissemination of rousing messages from the Party? Maybe. They certainly remind you that Big Brother is speaking, if not obviously watching.
He’s definitely around, though. When we check in to any hotel, one of the first things I do is log in to the BBC website to catch up with the world. This worked fine in Saigon, yet in Hanoi, the Beeb is blocked. Strange, given that both cities are supposed to be part of the same country.
The food is glorious. If you’re brave, you can go for the street food, where the ingredients sit in trays, cooked or partially cooked, awaiting immersion in boiling cauldrons. Or if you’re more timid, there are any number of small restaurants where the same stuff is most likely hiding in the kitchen.
This being backpacker heaven, there are plenty of places that cater for western tastes – Trump-fare as you could call it. But you can eat morning, noon and night without touching a burger or a rib.
Beyond the Old City, Hanoi does indeed resemble nineteenth-century Paris. Wide open spaces and, decorative lakes, but spiced up by ancient pagodas and remnants of the pre-colonial era: the ramparts of Hanoi’s Citadel, and the Flag Tower – a stone watchtower built in the early 1800s by the last imperial dynasty.
Before we sampled the boulevards, there were a couple of local attractions to take in. A short walk away from the hotel lies St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, built in a style that wouldn’t be out of place in any medium-sized French or Irish town. Grey, imposing and reasonably maintained. Inside, pretty bare. No relics or murals, just some nice stained glass and the inevitable stations of the cross. An estimated 8% of Vietnam’s population is Christian, so the missionaries clearly did their job.
The government is secular. It doesn’t endorse any particular religion, but doesn’t encourage any religious organisation that potentially threatens the supremacy of The Party. Unlike many of the other countries in the region, there’s precious little evidence of Islam. We hardly saw any hijabs, and just one mosque – in Saigon.
Just beyond the cathedral lies a more famous Hanoi landmark: Hoa Lo Prison, fondly (or not) remembered by incarcerated US airmen during the Vietnam war as the Hanoi Hilton.
Here we enter the world of post-truth. Most Westerners we saw tended to gravitate towards the relics of the American incarcerations. Looking at the pictures of cheerful guys playing volleyball and enjoying a slap-up Christmas dinner, you would believe that the pilots shot down over North Vietnam were living in a holiday camp. And indeed the pictures show men who were far from battered and emaciated. Yet accounts by the likes of John McCain tell a story of cruel and brutal treatment.
But physical evidence – tiny cells, leg irons, torture equipment, the guillotine room – tell a pretty convincing story about the stuff that happened there – even if American POWs were not the primary recipients. If you believe the narrative, most of the atrocities were committed by the French, who built the prison in the 1890s. The political prisoners who were kept there were not treated well – that much is obvious.
After visiting several museums in Vietnam over the last few days, one becomes cautious about every story told. The museums are not there to offer an objective view of history. Their purpose is to send a political message – of patriotism and party. No opportunity is wasted to reinforce the ideology.
That said, if I captured a bunch of guys intent on blowing my country to smithereens, would I be inclined to be gentle with them? I hope so.
The bigger point is that by providing a more balanced narrative along the lines of “yes we sinned, but we were more sinned against”, perhaps the government would send a more credible message to the millions of foreigners who visit the country every year. But they probably don’t see the need. It’s more important to them that their own people buy into the party line.
Perhaps Donald Trump should visit the Hanoi Hilton. There he might discover that torture might “work” in the short term. But the Vietnamese political prisoners who survived Hoa Lo emerged with renewed determination to overthrow the perpetrators. What goes around comes around.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Our next visit was all about patriotism and Party – Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, and the museum dedicated to the great man’s life. The Mausoleum sits inside a huge compound that includes the Presidential Palace (off limits to us tourists), the little house on stilts where Uncle Ho lived for much of his presidency and beautifully manicured grounds.
When you enter the compound, you are herded into a long line that eventually takes you into the grey granite mausoleum, where the guards in white uniforms enforce a strict rule of silence. Like Lenin and Mao, Uncle Ho lies in state, bathed in soft light. He looks pretty good – no signs of any embarrassing decomposition. We are not allowed to linger. Twenty seconds, and we’re gone.
We filed past Ho’s offices where he met with the Politburo, his cars, including a monstrous black limo donated by the Soviets, and his little house, complete with books, wind-up phones and a tin helmet for use in bombing raids.
Then onwards to the museum, full of photographic tableaux of Ho the intellectual in Paris, the agitator, the guerrilla leader, the manual worker and finally the statesman and war leader who died before his country could be unified.
Outside, giant video screens showed singers, dancers and a tenor singing rousing patriotic songs.
It’s easy to be cynical about this stuff. But for the thousands of school kids and young adults thronging the compound, this is their country and their history as they receive it. Whatever I might think of the ideology he espoused, Ho Chi Minh is national icon, the man who founded modern Vietnam. And Vietnam is a country at peace, something his compatriots dreamed of for decades.
Compare this confident, fast-developing Vietnam with another nearby nation: North Korea, an ingrowing toenail of a country. Need I say more?
Ha Long Bay
Next up was The Tour. Wherever you go in Hanoi’s Old Town, you can’t walk thirty yards without coming across a shop selling tours. By bus or train, to Sapa in the North or Ha Long Bay to the East. They’re ridiculously cheap. We took a one-night trip on a boat around Ha Long Bay, which is possibly Vietnam’s most beautiful tourist attraction.
For about seventy-five dollars, you get a four-hour bus ride, your own cabin in a small cruise boat, and visits to various attractions around the limestone islands that sit a couple of kilometres offshore. Even in the grey weather, it’s beautiful. You can kayak, visit a fishing village (and buy their pearls if you’re so inclined), fish for squid, visit a massive cave and, of course, eat. Four meals crammed into twenty-four hours. Good stuff too. Wave upon wave of local dishes – squid, shrimps, chicken, beef, rice, noodles. Foodie heaven.
The rooms were clean, and the staff were well organised and attentive. Definitely worth a side trip, even if you’ve visited similar places in nearby countries – Phang Nga in Thailand (also known as James Bond Island), for example.
We spent much of the evening discussing Donald Trump with a bunch of Americans, and Brexit with a disenfranchised British couple who live in Spain. You can’t escape politics, even in paradise. If Trump had a single fan among them, they were keeping very quiet about it. Not surprising perhaps – one of them commented that most of his supporters never leave the country except to serve in the armed forces.
The journey from Hanoi to Ha Long took us through urban sprawl into open country, through mountains and finally to the sea. Every so often what was to be seen from the bus threw up mysteries.
What happened to the railway line that ran for tens of miles parallel to the road but was clearly disused? Was it bombed during the war, or never completed in the first place? And why did one village have three karaoke bars within a hundred yards of each other, and another had none at all?
And the houses – was every house in Vietnam designed by the same architect? Or was no architect involved? And why does the standard house rise to four or five stories, but is only the width of one room? How was it that some stretches of the road had party exhortations on every lamppost, and others had none?
What of the cemeteries, stretching for miles, interspersed between fields where crops were grown around the occasional tomb? And what happened to the guy lying, possibly dead, on the side of the road with another guy standing over him? Minor mysteries that will remain so.
On the return trip, we compared hotels with the other westerners. One family was staying at the Elegant Hotel, another at the Charming, and we at the Chic. A touching trio of aspirations. Then there’s the Hotel Golden Rice, which led me to wonder whether in honour of the new US president someone will innocently re-name his establishment Hotel Golden Showers. Perhaps not, but it would certainly fit right in.
Hanoi Army Museum
Back in Hanoi, our last museum trip was to the Army Museum. This was similar to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, but wider in scope. We were treated to war artefacts dated back to the stone age. As in Saigon, the grounds are full of more modern weapons of war. They include helicopters, a Russian MiG 21 fighter and the remains of a B-52 bomber shot down during the American war.
In the pictorial displays, Unclo Ho again dominated. Only occasionally did the image of General Vo Nguyen Giap intrude. The victor of Dien Bien Phu, the battle that ended French Indochina, and mastermind of the tactics that eventually caused the Americans to abandon South Vietnam, is remembered in a few photos and a bust. Clearly the greater glory belongs to the architect, not the builders.
As we got ready to leave Hanoi, I took a last look out from the balcony that threatened imminent death. For our final night, we found ourselves on the second floor, a bit closer to the sad-looking tree that bent out over the street. The fruit that was not evident from a greater height turned out to be almonds.
A more famous almond tree sits in the grounds of Hoa Lo Prison, and serves as a testament to the resourcefulness and determination of those who were incarcerated there.
Was the one outside our hotel planted after the French war? Whatever its origins, for me it was a reminder that to come close to understanding a country can take years – and a pair of open eyes. Three weeks in Vietnam is barely enough to scratch the surface.
Next stop – Hoi An.