Friday, July 3, 2009

Up to Hanoi

Hanoi was meant to be seen from a motorbike. Just do yourself a favor and make sure you've got a driver who knows how traffic works in the city. It doesn't stop. Nobody ever stops. There is no waiting. There is only dodging, weaving, and lots and lots of honking. So I joined forces with an English teacher who's been living here about as long as I've been on the road. We rented a motorcycle and two helmets and hit the town.

I can't even imagine what "Hanoi" must mean to half the people reading this. One of the first stops I made was to check out the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where his embalmed remains are honored by a constant assembly line of hundreds upon thousands of Vietnamese and tourists shuffling in line at a pace strictly enforced and regulated by guards who will give you a firm push in the back if they think you're moving too slowly. The line is a normal, talkative loud line outside. It quiets down as the pillared granite building comes into view. It is silent inside its walls.

I can only imagine how Ho Chi Minh is viewed back home. After reading the about the war as shown by an American journalist, I've gotten my hands on a copy of Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong. It tells a little about the war from the other side. The really interesting part? It's been banned by the Vietnamese government. I haven't started it yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

But, as expats here a quick to remind me, just like in El Salvador, there's a lot more to this place than the war. It is a bit like coming to France in the 1990s and asking everyone about WWII. You will find some fascinating stories, but life has moved on since then. When I sit on the three-inch tall foot stools they use for chairs to eat street food, people don't assume I'm here for the war history. People come here to see things like the water puppetry, with dragons dancing mysteriously unsupported over the surface of water, spewing smoke. Or the bending notes of the Dan Bau, an instrument so mesmerizing that young single women used to be banned from listening to male players for fear of being seduced by the art. Or the beaches in the south, the karst-filled coastline and islands of the northern Gulf of Tonkin. Or the mountains of the northwest, bordering Laos and China.

We took the bike for a road trip across the dust and mud of the city outskirts to the life the vast majority of the Vietnamese population still knows: the countryside. Rice paddies stretching as far as geography allows past rivers and lakes. Past that we entered Ba Vi national forest and climbed our way past ruined buildings, forest, and a stubborn herd of cows to a top vantage point.

We sat there, next to our bike, eating fresh mangoes we'd brought for the trip, watching the view stretch for miles in every direction, from the sunny skies to east and the jagged lightning moving our way from the west. I don't know what I would have thought of being here at any other time. But right then, it was just what I was looking for.

And that was a taste of the end of my adventures in Southeast Asia. I write this entry at the beginning of my new leg. It's time for the Asian heavyweights. I'm sitting in Hong Kong. It's past 2:00am my time, and in the next few days a trip to China's Foreign Ministry Office will determine my fate for the next chapter.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Good luck with the Chinese ministry.

    How was the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum besides silent?

  2. Recently there has been a surge of Chinese tourists entering Vietnam... :) I have been researching Vietnam with and recently they are holding a contest...

  3. Count C- It was a strange experience-- there's always a huge line of people filing their way through whenever it's open. It's only open three times a week for about four hours, but still, that's a lot of people. We were always in line, and had to check water bottles and cameras (cell phones were okay, even if they had cameras). I'm told that if you're caught with a camera, you're taken to a quiet room and forced to write down your name and nationality in a book that says you tried to steal a picture of the national leader. The line is very long and very crowded, but they di keep it moving. And it really does quiet down the closer you get to the body. The inside was carefully tempterature controlled, and it had a gaurd stationed on each corner staring stock still, like the guards at Buckingham palace (without the hats). One of the most intense things thoughwas seeing how the police and gaurds treated peddlars at the beginning of the line. On the streets of most countries in the area are woemn and children selling books, trinkets, and food. Near the begginning of the line was a group of women selling people fans. This was clearly illegal as the police marched right up, reprimanded one, and then actually struck one across the head. I'd never seen that kind of treatment before. Things are strict around there.

    mandino- Couldn't get that contest page to load from where I am. What kind of contest is it?