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June 30, 2004


Hanoi is a beautiful city of lakes and tree-lined streets. The buildings are narrow but tall and long because they used to be taxed according to the amount of street front they occupied. A lot of the architecture is a legacy of French colonialism, with ornate verandahs and large shuttered windows, painted yellows and blues. Shops and stalls are everywhere, with whole streets devoted to toys and shoes (pointy toed sandals are all the rage here). There are restaurants on many corners with plastic chairs where you can watch your food being cooked and have a glass of 'bia'. There are lots of parks, and at 17.00, nets are strung across the trees and games of badminton start up. There are also loads of spontaneous football matches, outdoor aerobics sessions and countless people walking, running and stretching. This is a city that takes its fitness seriously. On the other hand, no one seems to walk on the streets, preferring to use their mortorbikes, which are everywhere, all the time. There are three million people in Hanoi, and 1.5 million 'motos'. These are used as taxis to make a quick buck, and wherever you go, your ears ring to the sound of 'hello! moto?'. It's hard to get directions because people would rather take you there on the back of their bike for a fee.

I shared a taxi from the airport with Robert, a professor from the University of Minnesota, who taught American History and specialised in the Vietnam War. It was his first time in the country and "a dream come true," which made my reasons for coming seem pretty trite. I got a room in the Old Quarter and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, hoping to spot a lucky turtle (according to legend, a nobleman was lent a sword by a magic one there, and it is still home to huge turtles, one of which died and washed ashore recently), then onto Lenin Park. I stopped at the Hoa Lo or Hanoi Hilton prison (incidentally, there is actually a Hilton hotel in Hanoi now, but it's called the Hilton Hanoi Opera). Most of it was demolished to make way for a tower block, but you can look around the cells and some displays. These mainly depicted the appalling treatment of the Vietnamese 'heroes' at the hands of French 'imperialists,' but there was a small exhibit on US POWs, with John McCain's flying suit. The accompanying photos and text made it out to be like some kind of summer camp, with volleyball games and presents handed out, but looking at the rooms, I suspect it was a fairly horrific experience, especially in the heat of summer.

There was more about the Vietnamese struggle for independence in the Vietnamese Revolution Museum, which I visited the following morning. There were some interesting photos and I was savouring the electric fans in each room, but like all museums in Hanoi, it closed for lunch at 11.45. I strolled up to the West Lake along Dien Bien Phu Road, clutching my water bottle and sweating profusely - the heat and humidity are such that you find yourself dripping just standing still in the shade. I accidentally took the long way round to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and then tried to get in the wrong entrance. It took an unnecessary detour, some miming and a scribbled map before the lady at the desk and I understood each other, but I got into the building in the end. Half of the museum was fiven over to old school photo displays and exhibits stuck on walls in the traditional way, but the other half was full of weird postmodern symbolism. There was a plate of giant fruit stuck on a suspended table sticking out of the wall, which was captioned "the symbols of nature in its beauty contrasted with the image of industrial plants in the hall represent Uncle Ho's expectation that Young People shoulder the responsibility for the preservation of peace." Right...

The mausoleum was only open in the mornings, so I was unable to see Uncle Ho 'in person' as it were, but I had a look at his house on stilts and the Presidential Palace. A couple of Vietnamese people I spoke to brought up the topic of Ho Chi Minh, and it was clear that he is still very much respected and revered here. He spent thirty years travelling all over the world before returning to Vietnam to fight for independence.

On my third day in Vietnam, I visited the Perfume Pagoda. It was impossible to get to by public transport, so I took a tour with a couple of Australian guys, a French Canadian girl, two Argentinian women, a Canadian couple of a six month honeymoon, and two Brits from Bristol. We took a bus for a couple of hours, then boarded small boats rowed by strong ladies in conical hats. The landscape was like that of Yangshuo in southern China, with limestone karsts and rice terraces. You can only get 2-3 harvests per year of rice, and it seems like so much work standing in the muddy water, pulling and planting and weeding. Here and there were graves in the paddy fields (someone explained to me that families prefer to bury their dead on their own land), which seemed an odd - and possibly unhygienic - practice. There were herds of ducks everywhere, and the odd water buffalo. Despite its relative isolation, the Perfume Pagoda island was full of tiny cafes, restaurants and stalls selling cold drinks and Buddhist tack to the pilgrims and tourists. The trek to the pagoda was only an hour long, but entirely uphill and after about five minutes we were all soaked through from the exertion. The shrine was actually deep in a cave, and the cool damp air was a welcome relief from the stifling heat. We couldn't smell any perfume - except our own pungent selves - but our guide told us the name came from the frangipani trees along the route.

Posted by Rowena on June 30, 2004 03:36 PM
Category: Vietnam
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