We got back to Hanoi unhindered by shoddy journeys (a first, perhaps, for me?), and went to the same hotel in the Old Quarter that Dean, Rich, Pete, James and El were staying at. Our plan was to go and see Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum that morning, followed by an afternoon at a swimming pool (Doireann was running out of time on her trip and wanted some last shots of sunshine). Great minds obviously think alike, as we bumped into Pete at the hotel who was in the process of rounding up the troops to go and see Uncle Ho as well. We had a rushed breakfast, then Pete, James, El, Doireann and I set about comandeering some motos to take us down there. We had a quick clothes check before we set off, as we’d heard they were really strict about visitors’ clothing. No cropped trousers, no vests. Marvellous in high-30s temperatures! I fear that, were Uncle Ho not already dead, he would surely die of the fumes emanating from his millions of visitors every year.
To get to see Uncle Ho, you have to get used to queueing. Maybe it’s a communist thing (and further supports the reasons Bill Bryson gives as to why the British would have given communism a decent shot – man, we love to queue). We queued to get through security checks, James and El having been given strict instructions to get rid of their bread and water before we got in, we queued to put our cameras and phones (strictly verboten anywhere near Uncle) in storage, we queued just to get into the place. Fortunately, the queue moves pretty quickly – a combination of no-one being allowed to linger in the mausoleum, plus everyone being pretty cautious around so many soldiers with guns.
Even once through the security check, they pull random people over for bag checks. And riddle me this – do I have an extremely guilty-looking face, maybe? Do I look like a rabid supporter of the capitalist system? Do I look like someone who would take offence at seeing a dead communist dictator and damage the decorum in some way? Yes, according to the soldiers. I got stopped by every single soldier. The others got stopped once or twice, but I got stopped by every one. Hmm.
The queue does move quickly, but the soldiers have no sense of humour whatsoever. Just infront of us, a little girl – about two – got spooked by a soldier and started crying. He then ducked right down in her face and started telling her to be quiet. Which of course made her cry even more. How compassionate this system is! We then got through to the main room, and saw Uncle Ho lying there, looking for all the world like a Madam Tussaud’s waxwork. It’s closed every Monday and Friday, for reasons that have yet to be explained to me… Makeup, perhaps?
We bustled through and paid our respects, then came out blinking into the heat and the sunshine. It was still quite early, so we headed over to the Ho Chi Minh Museum for more dead communist dictator fun! The museum was…confusing. There were very few descriptions or signs in English – and those that were there tended to give the facts, rather than any background information. Downstairs seemed to be pictures of his visits to China, whereas upstairs seemed to be anything and everything – including pictures of Charlie Chaplin, a totem pole and, my personal favourite, a big display of oversized plastic fruit. Que? Not too sure.
The guys and El were leaving that evening for Laos, so they set about packing and doing last minute essentials, while Doireann and I tried to find a pool – we were thwarted, though. The Lonely Planet had promised us we would be able to swim at one of the big posh hotels, but either we looked far too shabby to darken their diving boards, or the Lonely Planet was lying. Not that I’d say a word against the Lonely Planet, but we were looking particularly fetching that day.
Still, the walk back gave us a chance to take in a bit more of Hanoi. It’s such a charming city – built largely in the French Colonial style, with the wide boulevards that that implies, in the centre is a beautiful, peaceful lake that seems as popular with locals as with tourists. The Old Quarter, where most of the action seems to take place, is a crowded, chaotic jumble of streets, thronging with backpackers and street vendors. Each street seems to have a speciality, often quite random, so you will see a street full of zip sellers, next to a street full of tombstone sellers, next to a street full of toy sellers. It’s fantastic. Something I’m discovering more and more on this trip is, as much as I enjoy the peace of the countryside, I actually find I have more energy in cities. Surprising, perhaps, but interesting. My favourite places are some of the most energetic that I have been to.
After seeing the guys and El off on what turned out to be the ultimate journey from hell to neighbouring Laos, Doireann, Rich and I headed out to Bia Hoi corner, legendary throughout Vietnam. Bia Hoi is a local fresh brewed beer, which is sold for insanely cheap prices – 2000 dong per glass, which works out about 7p for a big old glass of the stuff. Added to the fun is that people sell it out of shop fronts, so you sit on children’s plastic furniture on the street corner and drink away. Every single night the police drive past and, as it’s illegal to drink on the street round here, everyone jumps up, holding their chair and their glass, and stands inside the shop front, waiting till the policeman’s back is turned to sit back down. Before they have even driven away, everyone is back on the pavement. There’s one crossroads here in Hanoi where shops on all four corners sell, and it’s a very convivial way to spend an evening. That’s exactly what we did now, bumping into Dean and Ashley, and Elaine and Red before too long.
Hanoi rocks indeed!