Vietnam – December

 

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Vietnamese brides-to-be. My picture featured in February 2013’s ‘Lonely Planet’

Above all, Vietnam was a war that asked everything of a
few and nothing of most in America.–Myra MacPherson, 1984

Oakley Court, Windsor and Heathrow

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The staircase at Oakley Court minus Arab Boy, of course.

It was Christmas. We needed a change. The usual routine of decorating, preparing, shopping and wrapping was swapped for a ten-day break visiting our son in Hanoi. Christmas in ‘Nam. What an opportunity.

We decided to fly from London, so we drove down to the Oakley Court Hotel, near Bray. (https://www.oakleycourt.co.uk/) to stay for the night before our flight.

This was no off-chance booking. Back in September 1954, British Lion Films had used the hotel as the setting for the interior shots in Belles of St. Trinians. While Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) is doing her best to thwart the dastardly deeds of Flash Harry (George Cole) and Millicent Fritton (Alaistair Sim), the girls steer race horse, Arab Boy,  up the staircase and into the dormitories for the night before the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The corridor in the hotel is adorned with promotional shots from various St.Trinian films and it was fantastic to sit downstairs, look up at the actual staircase and reminisce.

The hotel was beautifully decorated for Christmas. A thirty-foot high Christmas tree held centre place in the lobby and a sprinkling of dress uniforms, boots and sabres from the military wedding being held in one of the large function rooms added extra magic to the occasion.

Yes, it’s rather a good hotel in its own right. Excellent rooms and restaurant and a cracking breakfast. The time of our flight meant that we could spend a day in Windsor before heading for the airport to catch a late evening flight. Windsor is just down the road, past Bray Studios and on into the town. We toured the Castle. Visitors were allowed into the dining room, set for a seasonal banquet. It all felt very Christmassy. Strange that we were leaving it behind for a country that is almost three-quarters still practising folk religions and worshiping their ancestors through a panoply of gods and goddesses.

I’m not too sure I planned the flight with any degree of common sense. I think it was more guided by economy than directness. It was the day before Christmas Eve. We flew first to Frankfurt care of Lufthansa and then waited for a connection to Seoul, courtesy of Korean Air.

Mistake number 1 was to buy duty free in Heathrow. Because I was breaking the journey in Frankfurt, I was classed as an EU passenger and therefore subject to EU restrictions. One rather nice bottle of Bombay Sapphire and a litre of Bells went out of my hands and under the counter, confiscated. I dare say it popped up again for Christmas Day in somebody’s house when they went off shift later on that evening.

Mistake number 2 was buying further supplies in Seoul. A rather nice bottle of Bombay Sapphire and a litre of Bells sat with me in the lounge area, until I got up, bleary-eyed and exhausted and walked off. They must have walked off in the other direction and probably popped up somewhere in Seoul on Christmas Day to accompany a galbitang or an oritang.

Ah well, life is full of learning experiences. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Frankfurt and then on to Seoul

The flight from Frankfurt to Seoul was uneventful, if long. We crossed Russia and Mongolia, looking down on the endless wastes and steppes.  Korean Air was marvellous. Lovely stewardesses who really couldn’t do enough to make you feel welcome. Aircraft meals were either European or Korean. 36,000 feet up in the air and at well over 500 mph, it’s tempting to go with what you know. I did. My other half, persuaded by a fellow traveller in the aisle seat, went with the kimchi. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a dish of fermented napa cabbage, a few noodles, a whisper of pork and a some warm grey water. Delicious.

Now I know you can’t judge a country’s cuisine by what you eat as an in-flight meal. God knows I’ve spent enough hours looking into the small aluminum cartons and wondering whether the egg had ever seen the chicken.  The kimchi was an unfortunate introduction to oriental dishes and for Mrs H. the experience marred the ambition; lost ground would be  hard to recover.

Seoul Airport is the size of a city. Built on an artificial piece of land, Incheon has received the  best airport in the world award on no less than eleven consecutive occasions. Navigating the 76 boarding gates takes time and patience. There are endless stores, live entertainment and eateries. More importantly, it really knows how to make the waiting traveller comfortable. No hard benches or minimal seating. Like Viktor Navorski, you could easily live in Incheon. It would take months for anyone to even notice.

The connection from Seoul to Hanoi was blissfully short. Vietnam airlines is more than adequate, but you do start to feel the ‘difference’.

Arriving at any international airport can be a blast to the senses. A cacophony of taxis; the uncertainty of where you are. In December, in Hanoi, the heat of the day is also something that takes you by surprise. Fortunately, we were being met and were soon whisked off to the suburbs. It was late on Christmas Eve.

Christmas morning was the usual family affair. Late up, opening presents wearing traditional nón lá (literally ‘leaf-hats’the typical conical hats one expects to see throughout the region..especially in the fields). After coffee and toast, we headed for the Hanoi Zoological Gardens.

Hanoi Zoological Gardens

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Western faces seem so strange

Seven pence to get into the zoo. It’s ridiculous. The gardens were full of Vietnamese children on school outings. Remember, nothing closes for Christmas. It’s not part of their celebrations, although quite a few places decorate for the party season that seems to drift its way throughout the year. I’m not sure who was the bigger exhibit; the rather sad bears pacing backwards and forwards in enclosures too small to accommodate them or the ‘Brits on Tour’. Children waved; we waved back. We posed for photographs. We were touched, giggled at and held. Within a very short time, we’d all adopted the ‘royal wave’ and sashayed regally along the pathways and around the flowerbeds.

We stopped outside of the monkey enclosure. A group of primary school children were throwing them toffees in waxed paper. I dare say it wasn’t the best diet for a fairly large primate, but it was curious watching them opening the wrappers and chewing caramels.

The school children tried the same with the parrots. I bet they would have given their tail feathers for opposable thumbs.

It’s not a great zoo. There is much to learn here about animal conservation. It was like stepping back into time to an era where zoos in the UK had a bad name and an even worse reputation. I dare say that animal longevity isn’t something that concerns the curators.

Christmas dinner and Karaoke

Later that evening we went to Khai Brothers. (http://www.khaisilkcorp.com/restaurants/brother/). Authentic Vietnam food in a restaurant where the inside feels more like the outside. It was open to the sky and the stars on a warm, balmy December evening. We were a large party, some sixteen of us, and tucked into what felt like an endless banquet and accompanied by endless beers. All for 300,000 VND a head……less than £10.

The night was but young. It was Christmas Day, after all. And what better way to spend the early hours of Boxing Day morning than to go and indulge in Karaoke.

Karaoke is on an almost industrial scale in Hanoi. It deserves a little forward planning, though. There are bars where karaoke is geared up for the tourists and prices are high and standards low. However, a word with the concierge and you’ll be directed and guided to one such as we enjoyed. It was up a flight or two of  stairs above a series of shops and you rented your karaoke room by the hour. Drinks and snacks kept you going while you worked through the menu of songs, noting down the numbers on a pad. The completed list was then handed out to the lad waiting respectfully outside and the fun started. All thoughts of an eighteen hour journey, of four airports and two taxi rides, of a how-ever-many-courses banquet went out of the window in exchange for a hand mic and a smokey room with flock wallpaper and disco lights.

‘Uptown girl…….she’s been living in her uptown world……..’

We left hours later, hoarse, sweaty, exhausted and laughing like drains.

‘Boxing Day’ and central Hanoi

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City View Restaurant

Boxing Day is just another day in Hanoi. For us it was a day to relax and have a look around the manic streets of Hanoi centre.

Things are different. The endless lines of traffic. Cars queue ten abreast waiting for the traffic lights to change. Nobody has a right of way, you make your own way. The same applies to pedestrians. If you wait for traffic to stop, you’ll be there for your entire life. You have to learn to stride out into the traffic. You don’t stop or hesitate. That would be dangerous and probably fatal. Instead, motor bikes and cars weave their way around you. Drivers anticipate where you are heading and steer round the back of you. Providing everybody does the same and abides by the ‘rules’, it’s as safe as it can be.

The roads are full of bicycles and heaving with motorcycles. Cars are in the minority. Everybody seems to have a motorcycle. Helmets are rarely worn and people use their motorbikes and bicycles to carry absolutely everything and anything. It’s not uncommon to see dad steering a small 50cc Honda with mum and three children on the back seat. It’s not unusual to see a whole flower stall go past with a little lady on a bicycle seat pedalling her enterprise around the city. Gas cylinders, melamine worktops, ironmongery, hats, pans, knife sharpeners and shoe cleaners – everyone is mobile, on the move and earning a living.

Along the street-edge squat tradesmen. The pavements are a nightmare. Paving stones are cracked or non-existent. The distinction between pavement and road is often vague and shops spill out into the thoroughfare. Everybody seems to be able to conduct their lives while squatting. Bikes get repaired, engines are disassembled and reassembled using the most basic collection of tools and plenty of super-glue. Everyone is out to make a few dong in whichever way they can. Your shoes are constantly examined and you’re told they need cleaning. We had one pair repaired. For about 500 VND, a little over 15p, we had a sole repaired and a new heel. Rubber is recycled from wherever it can be found and there’s always plenty of glue to hold things down. It’s not craftsmanship, but it works.

It’s a two-culture city. One the one hand the shops sell the usual selection of electrical goods: mobile phones, televisions, cameras and kitchen appliances. On the other, the street trade provides and satisfies another layer of need. Many of the women who ply their goods and trade from bicycles belong to single-mother cooperatives. The war in Vietnam didn’t finish until 1975 and with the impact of nearly twenty years of fighting along with 1.5 million deaths across the whole country and with civilian deaths accounting for nearly half of this, it’s not surprising that there is a whole generation of widows and mothers needing to work and to survive.

One interesting fact, and one that I hadn’t anticipated, is that the Vietnamese never refer to the Vietnam War. It wasn’t their war. They refer to the American War but will tell you openly that it was a war that was brought to them and one that they did not, nor do not wish to own.

We stopped in the Kangaroo Cafe (http://www.kangaroocafe.com/) and booked an excursion with Griswald’s Tours for the following day. ‘Two-day-one-night’ tour to Halong Bay.

Two-day-one-night in Halong Bay

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Halong Bay

The following morning we set off by minibus to Halong Bay. It’s about 182km and takes a good three and a half hours. The roads are good and you get to see the countryside outside of Hanoi. Here time has stopped and you’ll see the iconic images of the Far East. Women toiling in the fields wearing traditional clothes and conical hats. Water buffalo working their way through paddy fields in the heat of the day. The constant haze and endless traffic making its smokey-exhaust way across the country.

We stopped half way for a drink and something to eat. As usual, commercial drivers tend to stop at somewhere where you can be relieved of some of your holiday money. Most tour operators stop at Hong Ngoc Handicraft Centre. It’s an arts and crafts workshop staffed by disabled young Vietnamese. There is a lot of lacquer work and you’re ‘encouraged’ to buy with ‘reasonable shipping costs’. Bearing in mind that ‘reasonable’ and ‘shipping costs’ do not make happy or natural bed-fellows, it’s not hard to avoid purchasing something that you later come to regret. Better to give a donation and walk away rather than wishing you hadn’t bought that vase for the lounge or the heavily-ornate and lacquered cupboard for the hallway.

Cam Pha lies half way between the lunch-stop and the end of the road at Halong Bay. The whole area has been heavily mined for coal. ‘Coal Town’ (Cam Pha or Quang Ninh, as it’s also known) is black. The streets are black and the air thick with coal dust. Buses and coaches stop at the far end (depending whether you are heading to or away from the coast) and hose down the vehicles, watching the thick black residue run down off the paintwork to form black and dense puddles in the road. Apparently, the mining has been so intensive that there is little development off the main street. It is impossible to dig any foundations, the ground underneath is just a warren of chambers and galleries, the earth gouged out in search of coal.

Traffic came to a stop in Cam Pha. There was a commotion further up the road. People were gathering in the street and on the pavements. As we gradually made our way forward, it became apparent that there had been an accident. A motorcyclist had collided with a vehicle and that was that. Voyeuristic spectators stood around as the police debated what happened and waited for the emergency vehicles to arrive. A body lay  in the street, roughly and partly covered by an old coat. At one end a leg was exposed, askew with black boot and sock showing. At the other end, the back of a head, smashed open and the contrasting bright pink of brain smeared across the black tarmac. Tragically, sometimes life does seem cheap.

Halong Bay lies on the coast and at the end of the road. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and is a popular destination for tourists. In Vietnamese, its name means ‘descending dragon’ and it’s easy to see why it has been given such a name from time immemorial.

The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and islands in various shapes and sizes, all rising upwards after 500 million years of transformation.  The central area, and mainly where the tourists go, has over 1600 monolithic islands, many of them are hollow with enormous caves, many explored and celebrated by the French during their colonial reign.

Some tours are longer than ours and take in the two large inhabited islands, Cat Ba and Tuan Chau. There are hotels on these that provide further accommodation for extended stays.

For us, it was two-day-one-night aboard one of the many traditional-styled wooden junks, now two or three-storey tourist boats, still painted white and often in need of a lick of fresh paint. We boarded out in the bay, transferring by tender.  Aboard,  a crew of four managed things and looked after us during our stay. Rooms were delightful, if small and often reeking of diesel fumes. However, the standard of food was excellent and clearly catering for Western tastes.  Small boats would constantly circle us, loaded to the gunnels with sweets, soft drinks, umbrellas and all manner of other goods for sale. Women would steer the boats with a single oar while shouting to you to buy.I don’t think sell-by dates are of much concern or Environmental Health.

We set sail in the afternoon and spent our time on deck taking photographs and watching the unique geography and geology of the area. You can see why it’s a UNESCO site. It feels like another planet.

In the evening, there was not much to do. Most of the boats have a bar which is often a separate franchise and, surprisingly, not at ridiculous prices. Our boat had about a dozen guests and,  after dinner, we all gathered in the saloon, just off the fore-deck (Oh,  how easily we slip into naval parlance) and were  treated to yet more karaoke.

Our guides were, as often is in Vietnam, highly educated. Both were university graduates in marketing and trying to find ‘the break’ to launch their careers. One was ‘engaged’ to be married but the caste system was working to his disadvantage and the prospective father-in-law was busily putting obstacles in his way.

The barman realised we were from Wales and was keen to ask if we knew his girlfriend, who was from Aberystwyth. He has arrived in London as a economic migrant and had set about earning a living. The Metropolitan Police had a slightly different view of ‘enterprise’ when he was arrested with three kilos of hashish in the boot of his car. He was deported, leaving a Welsh girlfriend and baby behind. He had a vague hope of reconciliation, although I dare say it was more a hope than a reality, all things considered. It was a bit tricky when, late in the evening, he passed me his mobile and I found myself speaking to his girlfriend, back home in Wales. Here I was, in the middle of Halong Bay, at the edge of the South China Sea on a replica 19th century junk, chatting to someone in Aberystwyth! It was the usual phenomena when being out in the Far East….we must have all looked the same!

The following morning, we were all up early, dawn had barely arrived and disembarked on one of the islands. Standing in the prow, feeling the damp sea air reach into your clothes, the thought of a vertical 200ft climb on an empty stomach and with the remnants of a thick head didn’t seem the best idea. However, despite gagging once or twice on the way up, the view from the top was incredible. The islands in the bay stretch out as far as the eye can see. Row after row, like some huge sea-serpent undulating its way across the water. It is certainly one of the greatest wonders I’ve ever experienced.

After breakfast back on board, we stopped at Cua Van,  one of the floating fishing villages in the Bay. Living their lives on a series of timber rafts, the inhabitants work, rest and play in close proximity with each other. Children are used to tourists but were still fascinated with our cameras, wanting to see their image on the screen and to press buttons like children want to do all over the world. There is a move to resettle these communities, to force them inland and this will certainly threaten their own, very special, culture.

Our short expedition had come to an end and we made our way back to Hanoi feeling as though we had certainly experienced something unique.

Downtown Hanoi

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Making a living in Hanoi

Whilst there may be some evidence of French colonialisation, with wide boulevards and the usual areas of fine buildings and gardens, much of downtown Hanoi and the suburbs is a manic hotch-potch of narrow streets, a patchwork of building styles, often three and four storeys high and a cacophony of traffic and people.

All electrical and telephone cabling is above ground. Look up, and you’re faced with a mass of black wiring stretching from every post and zig-zagging across the street. It curls, it bunches in figures of eight. It almost looks as though, if there was a break, they’d simply tie a knot in it and carry on. It’s a mess.

At more or less every junction is a Bia Hoi. These sell draft beer in stout glasses. Cloudy, weak and very cheap, it’s refreshing if rather basic. Choice is limited, and so is the effect. Small blue plastic stools are everywhere. People pile goods on them, squat down to work from them, and sit on them to eat and drink. You’re no more than a foot above the ground, and the tables are equally small. It’s like living in an infant classroom.

Although we were never struck down with anything gastric, the level of hygiene takes getting used to. Tables are wiped down with rags the colour of concrete and menus are best left undisturbed. The food, on the other hand is excellent. Noodles, dishes with fried chicken, beer, pork and duck abound and all is piping hot and freshly cooked. For the Westerner, all is exceedingly cheap. The trouble is, eyes become bigger than stomachs and the temptation to order just one more dish often takes you to the wrong side of common sense.

One one occasion, I needed to go and relieve myself of a lot of beer. Just to the side of the restaurant was the men’s urinal. Barely hidden from full view of the diners, the stainless steel trough was, well let’s just say there must have been a blockage somewhere! The stench of ammonia hits you and eyes water. Still, needs must.

Half-way through, the side door opened and a man appeared with a large wok. He tipped the old oil into the urinal when it floated past me as a blue and green slick and then proceeded to run the wok under an exposed tap on the wall. Tap turned off, he made his way back into the kitchen and I made my way back outside.

“We’ve ordered”

“Er…great”

Washing of hands? Don’t bother even thinking about trying.

It was one evening while we were having a mid-evening beer at the local Bia Hoi, that we noticed people looking up curiously at an apartment block across the road. Smoke was billowing out of a top floor window. Flames followed and it was obvious that there was a substantial fire. Now, in the UK, we’d have been running round like Corporal Jones, ringing the emergency services and flocking over to voyeuristically lurk on the edge of the excitement. In Hanoi, people exchanged views and went back to their drinks. We had to move on, but we never heard a siren or a bell all the way down the street and back into our own apartment.

We stopped at a chemist one morning. I needed some paracetamol. You can buy anything and everything in Hanoi. On shelves at back of the counter stood tins and boxes of what must have contained ‘local’ treatments. On the counter stood an array of boxed commercial drugs ready for the buying. Prozac, Tramadol and Tramazopan. No prescription needed, no questions asked. No guidance on safe dosage provided. You want;  we sell.

There is a mass of building work going on. Scaffoling a la Far East tends to be lengths of forest timber strapped together with baling twine. It would send a European Health and Safety Office on holiday into an apoplectic fit. As though that wasn’t bad enough, wait until they passed a small bloke armed with a stone cutter, slicing paving slabs whilst squatting wearing only flip-flops and shorts. It’s a nightmare.

Highway 4 (http://highway4.com/) is a Westernised restaurant in the centre of the city. we squeezed on to the end of a long table. A group of business men were out celebrating. Everything was being washed down with traditi0nal high-alcohol spirits. As with most Vietnamese, they were fascinated with us and kept plying us with glasses of an evil brew.

The menu was equally exciting and novel. Sundried Beef with Ant and Salt dip, Crickets roasted with lemon leaves, Ostrich heart stewed with pumpkin, and ‘Steamboat’ with frog. I’d like to say that something got lost in translation, but I fear not.

When it comes to strong liquor and evil brews, tourists are often lured into restaurants specialising in snake. There are plenty of shops selling snake wine. Bottles of brown liquid with an embalmed snake curled up in the bottom, or stretched out in a pose that suggests it was trying to escape before death reached it. If you fancy the meat, you can eat snake every which way. Le Mat snake village on the outskirts of Hanoi specialises in appalling tourists and visitors alike with snake soup, spring rolls, dumplings, fillets, even crispy-fried snake skin. Nothing is ever washed and everything is washed down with copious amounts of rice wine and beer.

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‘Rules of the road’

City View cafe (http://www.cityviewcafe.com.vn/) has a rooftop garden from where you can look out across Hoan Kiem lake and the great pagoda. It also looks down with a bird’s-eye view on a five-way intersection. It was from here that we watched, fascinated, as an old man set off from the park entrance right across all five intersections with only a walking stick and, probably, very little sense. It was a Masterclass in crossing the road. He never rushed, he never faltered. He just kept going at a slow pace despite it being rush hour and the streets being packed with lorries, cars, bikes and bicycles. Gradually slowing down, they wove their way around him, allowing him to slowly make his way across white lines and potholes. Of course, everyone makes full use of their horns. It’s a simple rule. Blare your horn and people will know where you are. So different that in the west where the horn is used to warn people to get out of the way. Sometimes you think that instead of having a button to turn the horn on, in Hanoi, you should have one to turn it off!

Hoan Kiem lake is magical at night. The bridge and the pagoda are lit in streams of gold, red and blue. The reflections shimmer in the water and it’s a great place for a wander in between beers or before finding somewhere for dinner.

Walking home one afternoon, I passed a lady selling meat at the side of the road. Pink down coat, baseball hat and off-white apron, she had stacked raw meat from all manner of animals on a rickety table and it spilled over onto a collection of blue stools.  In small wicker baskets were chicken, heads and beaks still there, but plucked and ready for the pot. To one side, on shelves in a tall glass cabinet were four carcasses. From dead eyes, they gazed out at me, toothy grins from skinned faces.It was dog. Whilst we might be appalled, we have to remember that the Vietnamese have had some austere times and, if it moves, it can probably be eaten. Dog meat is not a delicacy, it’s merely an alternative of choice. Some shopkeepers are aware of the controversy and do not take kindly to tourists photographing their stock. You’ll also see that plenty of butchers also have dogs around, usually tied to something by a piece of string. This is not tomorrow’s stock. Dog meat is farmed and there is a distinct difference between food and pet. I wonder if the little terrier tied to the table leg appreciates the difference?

Anyway, as I was watching, a young man rode up on a small scooter. He got off and sat perched on one of the blue stools. The lady serving him presented him with two eggs in a bowl. Carefully, he took off the top of the egg and with a small tea-spoon, pulled out the contents. Not exactly a soft-boil, the egg had fertilized and inside was a chick, or rather a developing bird embryo. However you call it, it’s fully recognizable as a chick.  In Vietnam, it’s called balut, and is a common food throughout the country.Usually boiled at somewhere between 14 and 21 days, it’s scooped out and, with your head back, it’s popped in and swallowed. A sprinkling of chilli, salt and pepper and a glass of beer and you have a hearty snack for a busy afternoon.

OK, there are some unusual choices when eating out. However, there is much to celebrate and the food is excellent. One indicator must be that, arriving with a typical Western constitution, we were never ill and we ate from restaurants and roadsides.

The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ and the Hotel Metropole

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Hanoi Metropole

‘Hanoi Hilton’ was the name given to Hoa Lo prison in the middle of the city. Originally used by the French colonialists, political prisoners were kept within its walls in appalling conditions.  Later, during the American War, US prisoners of War were guests there, including Senator John McCain, whose flying suit is displayed in one of the glass cabinets. He was rescued from Truc Bach lake (there is a monument to him at the lake) and imprisoned at Hoa La in 1967.

The museum is fascinating but you have to be aware that this is not going to be a celebration of American involvement in Vietnam. Instead, it’s a celebration of resistance. There are numerous photographs of Vietnamese with Americans in captivity, of deprivation and of interrogations. It’s not ‘their war’; that must be remembered.

Nearby, is the Hotel Metropole. This is worth a visit. It was to here that Jane Fonda and Joan Baez came in 1972 at the time of the Christmas Bombings. They sheltered in the cellars while B52s rained bombs on the area for eleven nights. There is some excellent documentary evidence within the hotel and a fleet of old pre-war Citroens for guests to hire to tour the city.

A little further away, but still manageable on foot, is Huu Tiep lake. It’s not a huge lake but right in the centre is what’s left of a B52 which was downed and ended up nose-first in the water. Gradually, weather will rust what’s left away. There’s not too much to go, so now’s the time to go and see it.

Military Museum

If you want to see more planes and in far better condition, then make your way over to the Military Museum (http://www.btlsqsvn.org.vn/Default.aspx?tabid=56&language=en-GB). It’s situated between Lenin Park and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Russian MIG fighters, American helicopters, trucks and jeeps. All contained in quite a small site with an exhibition what provides a useful insight into the war from a different perspective. It’s very hands-on and you can sit in the aircraft and have a taste of what it must have been like to look through the perspex all those years ago.

Ho Chi Minh: the mausoleum and stilt house

No trip to Hanoi is complete without a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Try and go early evening when the guard changes. The whole area is lit in reds and whites in the evening and, against the green of the grass arena in which it sits, it’s certainly impressive.

We joined the queues to view the embalmed body of the honoured Chairman. The queues are always long, but they move at quite a pace. We were in front of a Chinese couple. They were fascinated at the fact that we had our three children with us, two boys and one girl, all grown up.  We explained that only two were ours, one being a boyfriend. They had lived with the one-child policy and thought it delightful that we had ‘one of each’. Lots of hand shaking and photographs followed. Nice people.

The armed Honour Guard make it very clear that Respect is the order of the day. No talking, no stopping, no hands in pockets, no crossed or bare arms, no short skirts. You are ushered up the steps and into the mausoleum where Chairman Ho Chi Minh lies in a glass case and bathed in a gentle gold light.

Outside, the guard changes. Soldiers, resplendent in white dress uniforms parade as any Honor Guard does all over the planet. It’s very serious and very respectful. Flags are lowered, flags raised and the crowd disperses.

In contrast is Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House, in which he lived between 1958 and 1969. It’s been preserved just as he left it, with carp pond and a vast collection of antique motor cars. It’s a quiet haven of tranquility in an otherwise frenetic city. From here, you can look out onto what is probably the grandest building in Hanoi, the Presidential Palace, ‘Beaux-Arts’ built in 1906 for the Governor General of Indo-China.

Hanoi Citadel

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Brides-to-be in the Citadel

The old, central citadel in Hanoi dates back to when the city was known as Thang Long, and was the residence of the Vietnamese monarchs.

It dates from 1010 and was the seat of the royal court until 1810. By the end of the 19th century, many of the residences and edifices had been destroyed but there is enough standing to make this a definite stop on any tour of Hanoi.

The steps of the Kinh Thien Palace and the Princess Palace make an ideal backdrop for the many brides-to-be and consorts who gather here for a traditional photo opportunity. It seems to be what people do. Gather together in groups in glorious costume and have your photograph taken. Better still, spot a western tourist with their strange eyes, hold on to them for another photograph and they’ll bring you luck. We must be in every wedding album of the season.

The costumes are lovely. Satin and silk, in ivory and red, heavily embroidered in flowers and swirls. You can’t take a bad photograph. It was one of these that featured in Lonely Planet in February 2013. A claim to fame.

All too soon, our time came to an end in Hanoi.

Vietnam is a captivating experience. Christmas made it even more special. It’s my plan to return and go south to Saigon and the Mekong Delta. But, for now, it was west and back to Britain.

We landed in Heathrow without incident and managed to retain hold of our souvenirs. The drive north is an ordeal, so we broke the journey at the Greyhound, in Aldbury (http://greyhoundaldbury.co.uk/) a delightful village pub, next to a duck pond and featured in the second Bridget Jones’ film.

Next day, it was north and home with so many memories and so much for which to be grateful.

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Squeezing them on
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The butchers
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Senator John McCain’s suit
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Floating Village children
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Open for business
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Remembering
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The Bia hoi
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Fruit seller

 

 

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Halong Bay

 

 

 

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