- 01. To The Rescue
- 02. Last Minute Minutia
- 03. Spiritual Me
- 04. A New Approach
- 05. Cruising Cambodia
- 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
- 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
- 08. A Day on the River Limbo
- 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
- 10. Saigon Reunification
- 11. The Way to Huế
- 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
- 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
- 14. Southeast Asian Rescue
Raised in the sixties, it was made clear to me that Hanoi was the bad guys, the commies, the aggressors, the domineers of the domino theory, the red menace, the yellow hordes, green with envy, blind to liberty, truth, justice and the American way. While I was years too young for the draft, the war and the draft were very much a threat to my older siblings. As with many other political and economic issues of the day, at a young age I was required to form an opinion on the matter. Mine was, “What on Earth are we doing there?”
The train from Huế reached the outskirts of Hanoi with the pre-dawn first light. Overnight only one strange man tried to enter our cabin (drat). He was foiled from proceeding past our faulty door lock by the plastic shopping bag I had rigged to create a racket in just such an eventuality. I said a quizzical “Hallo?” to the saggy-faced middle-aged man I saw through the crack. He looked shocked and angry to find me in his bed, then realised his mistake with a grunt and closed the door.
Happily, either the bed bugs were not of the biting sort, or the lotion warded them off. We left the train better rested than we’d been in a week, finding a puddled and dismal station platform, the first drops of rain since we’d arrived in Southeast Asia having fallen overnight. My first thought was, “What on Earth are we doing here?”
As promised, the Essence Palace Hotel had sent a young man to collect us and return us to our accommodation. He flagged down a taxi, negotiated the fare, and in minutes we were on the ten-minute drive to the hotel in Old Ha Noi.
Planning this trip, I had assumed that Hanoi had been bombed into a pile of rubble during the war. Try as they might, friends and guidebooks could not dissuade me of this notion, friends and guidebooks having a way of putting a gloss on things. Thus I expected to find 1970’s Soviet style brutalist buildings, all rotting concrete with ill-maintained aluminium windows shredding meandering tourists and locals alike.
Architecturally, that was very much the exception. Plenty of older buildings stand intact and well-kept, many still serving their original purpose: the post office, hospitals, the opera house. There’s plenty to look at, grand and not-so-grand, French colonial era, art deco, modern, Chinese traditional, as well as the cheap-and-crappy stuff that insults almost all cities. There are some skyscrapers, but few buildings go above ten stories. The old town, not surprisingly, gave the definite impression that what had been built had been rebuilt much the same as it was, and that little was likely to change.
Our arrival at the hotel awoke the staff slumbering on the couches at the rear of the small lobby. Our room wasn’t available yet – it was five in the morning, remember – so they offered a bathroom with shower to freshen up, opened the restaurant early, and promised to get us into a room, if not our room, by eleven. We had a coffee and headed out for a stroll around nearby Hoan Kiem Lake.
The naturally ornamental Hoan Kiem Lake has historical and legendary significance. There, after being asked for his magic sword by the Golden Turtle God, the emperor concluded that the turtle’s master, the Dragon King — shall I go on? Didn’t think so.
The real significance of Hoan Kiem Lake is social. Hoan Kiem Lake is where central Hanoi wakes up. At six in the morning we found hundreds walking or jogging its two kilometre circumference. Hundreds more performed every conceivable form of callisthenics (tai chi, step, low impact, pump, aerobics, Jazzercise, Zumba) — to every kind of music (we heard Stand By Me, Christmas carols, Color My World, military marches, traditional Vietnamese songs, throbbing house music, even silence). At one corner of the lake a Muscle Beach-like enclave pumped their wares, in another, exactly ten older ladies stood front-to-back in a circle slapping each other on the back with both hands, hard. Whump whump whump.
We did two laps, first clockwise, which was like swimming upstream, then clockwise, with everybody else. It was wonderful to be out in the relative cool of the morning, the first real exercise we’d managed to get in two weeks. Heading back at the hotel, the narrow streets of the old town were coming alive, more bustling with commerce yet less threatening than the streets of HCMC. We completed our breakfast, and by nine were offered a temporary room in which to relax until our room was ready. We collapsed and slept for two hours, despite having slept a solid eight on the train and having just consumed a gallon of coffee. This travel thing can be exhausting!
Settling in our room entailed an unusually complex game of hotel light switch roulette. That’s where the contestant attempts to figure out which switch does what, hoping not to mangle some unsuspecting person’s hand in a mis-wired garburettor (Aussie term for garbage dispose-all).
I took a moment online to check out Hanoi’s gay scene. The various sites on the subject indicated that the gays there were a bit more reserved and discreet than in Ho Chi Minh City, which boasts several gay bars.
We decided to lunch at a restaurant identified as popular with gays, “The Closet at Com Ga Café”. The place was reasonably busy with well-quaffed men, and with women without interest in them. Excellent. The food was good, plentiful, cheap, and prompt, too. It was certainly low-key, though, nothing in the least bit flamboyant. I noted the happy hour for future reference.
It occurred to me that like many capital cities, Hanoi is one of many secrets – well known secrets, perhaps, but secrets nonetheless. It is less riddled with propaganda, perhaps because these folks had been living with socialism longer than the south. Or perhaps because, like the USA, the outrages of the north were less outrageous, less frequent and less historically significant than in the south, ensuring eventual equilibrium.
I’ve noted before that capital cities tend to be very unlike the country of which they are capital. Washington, DC, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, London, Canberra, Berlin, Brasília – you name it – they all bear very little resemblance to the rest of their respective nations. Hanoi is no exception. It may be the preponderance of government people, who arguably bear very little resemblance to the rest of the human race.
After lunch we checked out the nearby Vietnam Military History Museum, which was vaguely interesting, including a proud citadel flag tower, several captured American tanks and a shot down American warplane wreck. Not my cup of tea.
Then we passed the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a grandiose modern structure, where the guard got a bit nervous about my aggressive photo taking technique. Not to self: stay behind the fence, do not hold the camera through the fence.
Past the Botanic Garden we came upon Truc Bach Lake, a small subdivision of the larger adjacent West Lake. It was from Truc Bach Lake that the Viet Cong retrieved the future senator and Republican presidential nominee John McCain from the wreckage of his crash-landed plane. I knew he had been shot down and captured, but I had no idea he had ditched in the equivalent of New York’s Central Park reservoir.
We learned the hard way that unlike Ho Chi Minh City, where “watch your step” was a constant requirement, in Hanoi, the older buildings made the mantra “watch your head.”
It was the coolest day of our nineteen day trip, the high temperature being a mere 28◦C (82◦F), although due to the humidity Accuweather reported the “real feel” at 35◦C (95◦F), the same as every other day. This exacerbated our general state of exhaustion, making an early night inevitable. We scoped out the Avalon rooftop bar overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, where we lingered through afternoon drinks, filling out postcards, in the end having dinner there. Nice view from an otherwise unremarkable restaurant.
Thursday was 30 April 2015, Reunification Day, and the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of Saigon at that. The staff at the Essence Palace Hotel — #1 on TripAdvisor, by the way – told us that the big parades and celebrations were in HCMC, not Hanoi, which made sense, come to think of it. They suggested we enjoy the evening’s fireworks at their rooftop restaurant — #1 on TripAdvisor, by the way. We booked a table. In the meantime we headed out to enjoy the busy but relatively manageable holiday goings-on of the streets of Hanoi.
After the mandatory lake circumnavigation, Thursday’s meanderings brought us to the post office, where Frank Lee paid his philatelic respects, and the Opera House, which was thankfully dark for the holiday. Next door, the Hanoi Hilton loomed, tall, weathered and full of unheeded biblical instruction, like its namesake Conrad. I’m referring to the real Hanoi Hilton.
Not far down the street, though, we found the other “Hanoi Hilton”, the former Hoa Lo Prison. Or, I should say, what’s left of it. Only the gatehouse remains as museum, bearing the French euphemism for hell, “Maison Centrale”. From its exterior I paid sad respect to the place where John McCain proved that adverse and oppressive circumstances can build character, even inspire greatness. It is unfortunate that more recently Senator McCain has also proven that aging can make a crotchety lout of the best of us.
I tried to do a bit of shopping, for underwear in particular. Men’s undergarments are outrageously priced in Australia, a fact I can only attribute to a theory of mine involving excess swagger. Here they were a quarter the price, and perhaps not surprisingly, a quarter the size. I usually buy an American M, whereas the Vietnamese XXL could not be yanked passed my thighs. That is not bragging. (I wish.) My appreciation of tightie-whities betrays my age, nevertheless, there’s a limit.
At lunch I was reminded that in Asia “barbecue” means “do it yourself over an open flame at a crowded table in a room that is overheated to start with.” The Blue Butterfly restaurant lured us in before we recalled that bit, enabling me to prepare an uncomfortably yummy meal, if I do say so myself.
Next door we found a wine store where overpriced mediocre Chilean wines sat in direct sun and high heat. My appreciation of Chilean wines betrays my frugality, nevertheless, there’s a limit.
We had many bottles of fine Chilean wine with dinner on the hotel rooftop before and during the fireworks. I vaguely recall enjoying the company of a couple from Bath England, who sat next to us, and another couple behind us from Dublin. The latter agreed to marry before our very eyes, then providing cake for all. Good luck you good people!
As for the fireworks, they were splendid. I have to think some of the older residents of Hanoi would not react well to explosions echoing through the streets, rattling their windows. Certainly the dogs and bats didn’t, swirling in a frenzy above and below, counter-respectively.