Hanoi hot but impressive – Porper story #16

This Impressive Hanoi experience is the last post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous ones please read these.

So back we go on the van for our last long haul of the trip. Its about three or four hours to Hanoi and we are exhausted from the heat, the drinking and the early morning kayak. Most of us nod off, but wake up when Long yells “look at the cow on the moto” and sure enough, we see a guy with a cow strapped to the back of his moped.

Later we see someone carrying three pigs on his moto. These definitely beat the woman we saw a few days ago who had about 30 crates of eggs on the back of hers. We also learn that there are no good zoos in Vietnam because the zoo keepers eat the food for the animals and that a specialty throughout the country is to take chicken eggs, keep them warm so the chick grows inside and after a month, eat the whole thing. Its a delicacy, and Long offers to eat one in front of us so we can see. We thank him and politely decline. Along the way, we also pass the largest factory for Canon printers in the world.

Before we enter the city, we cross the Martyr River. This place was nothing special before the war – it provided the food for a village and access to other places. During the war, the villagers chained cartons of supplies to the bottom of their boats for the Viet Cong fighting in the South. The Army knew something was going on but couldn’t figure out what, so they dropped magnetic bombs in the river, rendering it unusable. The villagers knew they could not survive without the river, so they tried detonating the bombs by sending boats laden with rocks to see if the bombs would explode. For some reason which no one can yet explain, the bombs would only explode if a human was on the boat. So a number of villagers volunteered to take their boats down the river and explode the bombs so the village could survive. They held live funerals for these martyrs, and then the village watched as they got in their boats, went down the river and exploded.

We arrive in Hanoi, which we all immediately like better than Saigon. The city is much prettier and cleaner, and the architecture is heavily influenced by the French. There are more mopeds here though, and they pay even less attention to any rules of the road. Because this is the capital city, there is more wealth and we see lots of BMWs and Audis. We get to the hotel and of course, barely stop for a minute. We are squeezing everything we can out of these last two days.

After checking in, we go to get ice cream because Tasha and I have been mooning over it for days now. In the old quarter of Hanoi, there are streets that are set aside for specific products – like shoes or clothes or vegetables or electronics. We go to the ice cream street and sure enough, all anyone is doing there is eating ice cream. We vote for soft serve and walk into the store. People have rolled their mopeds and bikes into the store so it is packed with machines and people. About 60 mopeds are lined up against the wall and there is hardly room to walk. We all get soft serve cones, which cost about $0.30 but the ice cream is so disappointing we figure we overpaid by 29 of those cents. It tasted like whipped air but at least it was cold.

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Then we walk to a temple in a park which is very beautiful but by this time, we are so limp from the heat and humidity that we really don’t care. Hanoi takes the cake with respect to weather. Other places were hotter, but the humidity here is oppressive that it feels like a never ending hot flash.

After the temple, we go to a water puppet show, which was extraordinary. It’s a puppet show telling stories all related to Vietnamese culture. The stage looks like a big pagoda decorated with colorful embroidery, and the stage floor is actually a pool of water. Sam had to get a special seat at the front because there was no way he could fit into the regular sized seats, which are made for the locals. Before the show there is a demonstration by some musicians playing ancient Vietnamese instruments, and it is beautiful.

Then the show starts and there are probably 15 or so different vignettes using huge marionettes that are guided by people behind the stage, standing in the water but you don’t see them because they are behind a bamboo curtain. Everything looks like its happening from underneath the water. There is live music and singing throughout and the whole experience is like nothing I have ever seen before. And the temperature there is marginally tolerable so we can actually focus on what’s happening.

After the show, Long takes us to the most famous restaurant in Hanoi. It was voted one of the 10 places to eat before you die by Anthony Bourdain, some famous chef. They serve one dish here – a fish dish. We sit at our table and immediately the sweating commences. On the table there are already small dishes of peanuts, scallions and cold noodles. Once we have ordered drinks, they bring over a small charcoal grill which is lit and sadly, emanating more heat because I guess it’s not hot enough already. The famous dish is a river fish dish which is sautéed in some thing that is a secret and topped with fresh dill and some other greens. The restaurant has been there since 1871, serving only this one dish.  We liked it a lot but I think I can die focusing on other food.

We wait outside for a taxi for maybe 15 minutes and all of us are literally dripping. No one is happy – even Long is sweating. I am really really tired of sweating. Before we part for the evening, we once again review the rules for the morning. We are Visiting The Body Of The Hero Of The Nation, better known as Viewing the Body. That would be Ho Chi Minh’s. We have gone over these rules twice now, and Long is very serious about them. There will be no shorts or sleeveless tops, no sandals (a problem for me), no smiling, no laughing, no turning to the right or left, no backpacks or cameras or sunglasses. We are to remain solemn faced and respectful or else, he says, he will catch up with us at the Hanoi Hilton when we go there later in the day. We repeat the rules so that he knows we understand them. I have never seen Long this insistent, and we listen up carefully.

I wake up early the next morning and decide to take a walk before I meet up with the group. It’s early and the city is just getting going. There are clusters of people sitting on plastic chairs, eating breakfast. Everywhere we have gone in Vietnam, people are sitting on plastic. There isn’t much traffic on the roads yet, but there are lots of women carrying those scales of justice baskets slung across their shoulder and they are heavy with fruit and vegetables. People are friendly and say hello when I walk by. There are loud speakers perched on the signposts and they are blaring the morning’s propaganda interspersed with patriotic ballads.

I come to a park that is filled with activity. There are old women fanning themselves on a bench, several people playing badminton, groups of others doing tai chi and even a few brave souls jogging, god love ’em. Already I can hardly breathe. I sit on a bench and start to cry. I know this is part of the re-entry process. I am so ready to go home and so moved by what I have experienced. I am really exhausted, and I just sit there for awhile. I finally get up to leave and I am totally lost. I have no idea how I got here because I was so entranced by the morning’s scene. I walk around for awhile and realize I don’t even know the name of our hotel. We have been in so many and it was so hot when we arrived that I didn’t bother looking. It’s only sheer luck that my room key has the hotel’s name on it, and I finally find someone who pantomimes the way for me.

So we all gather, appropriately attired, and head off to see The Body. Tasha and I bring along cooler clothes to change into, as we know we will need it. We get to the mausoleum, and already there are lines and it’s not yet 8:30 AM. Long says this isn’t even a big line but it looks that way to me. He is staying behind to watch all of our stuff and before he leaves, he warns us again to be serious. Immediately we are separated out from the natives, kind of like from Alice’s Restaurant. Anyone who is not Vietnamese stands in a separate line, and we have to wait while they enter. We wait a long time too – maybe to make us appreciate what we are going to see or to punish us – who knows.

We finally move forward, go through security and then get on another longer line. Ahead of us, there is a huge stream of children, some in official uniform, joining the line as well. This starts to feel like Disney, where you have to wait hours for Thunder Mountain because it’s the best ride in town. We walk a few feet and wait. And sweat. And walk a few more feet and sweat some more. Someone tells us to walk two by two and Diane and I whisper to each other simultaneously ‘like the arc’. To our right we see a very official looking double row of men all appropriately somber, cutting to the head of the line. Apparently they have brought a huge display of flowers, which Long tells us later, gets you to the head of the line. There are guards everywhere – dressed in whites decorated with red sashes and yellow stars. There will be no messing around here for sure. Long has practically scared us to death and we are good boys and girls, albeit wet ones. We finally get into the actual building and one of the guards says ‘be quiet’. I haven’t said a word to anyone and I kinda get freaked out – who knows what they will do if they think you are disrespectful.

Finally, we get to The Body and I am ever so grateful because its effing freezing in there. I am less enamored of The Body compared to the temperature and walk as slowly as possible, hoping to give the illusion that I am overcome with emotion but more to linger in the cold as long as possible. It gets deathly quiet (no pun intended) and there are 4 guards standing at attention at each corner of the glass case. I have never seen a body lying in state so this is very interesting. He looks a bit waxy but definitely it’s HCM. Afterwards Long tells us that we are lucky we are here in August because in September, Ho Chi goes ‘on holiday’ to Russia, a euphemism for getting a touch up. 

All in all, this was a fascinating experience. We then visit the gardens where he lived and see his house and learn that Ho Chi Minh died 44 years to the day in Hanoi, in the exact same place where he declared (a bit prematurely) the independence of Vietnam. Ironically, his declaration was largely based on the US declaration of independence. 

After we are done here, we go on to the old Hanoi Hilton, which for those of you who are too young to remember is what they called the prison where the Vietcong took our prisoners of war. Before it became a prison it was actually a kiln for firing terracotta. The French turned it into a torture chamber for Vietnamese they believed were subversives, and the means by which they treated their prisoners was shocking. Sam and I get into a discussion about comparitive torture techniques – he believes we are humane and I say he is naive. Who really knows what the truth is. When we get to the part in the tour that shows what it was like for the captured US POWs, you can understand why it was called the Hilton. Clearly the Vietnamese want us to believe they treated prisoners with kindness and generosity. There are many pictures of POWs playing volleyball and badminton and chess and eating Christmas dinner and laughing and drinking and getting souvenirs when they leave. There are several pictures of John McCain, who I must say was quite dashing in his youth.

From here we go to the HoChi Minh museum, which was fascinating not because of the artifacts but because how things were displayed. I really can’t even describe it but it was pretty interesting. We then go to the Temple of Literature, which is really a temple built to honor Confucius. It is almost 1000 years old, and more than half was destroyed by bombs. To protect the sacred tablets that contain the names of those who attained ‘doctor’ status in learning, entire sections were covered in sand to diffuse any explosions.

By now we are literally limp. Sam never changed into shorts and his knees have been sweating so much that there are dark stains on his pants. We go to have lunch at a place called KOTO, which stands for Know One Teach One. It is a restaurant founded by an Australian who understood the poverty of this part of the world and started a foundation for rescuing street children. Homeless children from the ages of 16 – 22 can come here and learn the hospitality trade or how to be a cook so that they can survive on their own. The restaurant isn’t cheap by Vietnamese standards, and Long plans to leave us and eat somewhere he can better afford. We insist that he stay as our treat (this is kind of funny because we have been feeding and beering him the entire way but maybe he felt self conscious because of the cost, which was about $5 per person. We could afford it). We all order traditional food, and he has his first hamburger ever. We are hysterical because he won’t eat it the way its meant to be eaten because its not respectful. So he takes his fork and eats the bread first, then the meat, then the bacon then the fries. Sam and I go for the trafe twofer again (this time is calamari stuffed with pork) and some other pork and noodle dish and the food is wonderful. By now, we are all hooked on ginger tea and we drink glasses of it. We are down to one more meal.

So guys, its time to wrap this up. Maybe one more museum and the last supper, and then its time to go home. I can’t even tell you how I feel right now (other than really really hot – that one I am pretty sure of). This has been such an incredible journey and it feels like you were with me the entire way. That feeling was enormously helpful to me. I am drained from the intensity of this trip, which was so unexpected and in the end, so important. I want to go home and hug my daughter and see my garden and pet my kitty and sleep in my own bed and talk to my friends and drink ice cold water and feel a cool breeze and wear clean clothes and understand the language and listen to my music and eat some chocolate and not eat rice. But mostly, I really really want to hug my daughter.

And what to say about Long? I can’t even think about saying goodbye to him. He has become such an integral part of this experience. He shared so much of his own personal story with us, in addition to opening our eyes to this most astonishing country. Early on, Long told us that he couldn’t get a job as a tour guide because he wasn’t handsome or tall enough. I think he is adorable but more importantly, his basic kindness, humanity, compassion, spirit and generosity tower over anyone I have ever met. I have made a friend for life, and I know it. I truly will never forget him.

And so it ends. Thank you for being a part of this, and I will see you all soon.


by Rochelle Porper from Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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