Hello from Vietnam's capital city, Hanoi. We've spent two full days here either side of an overnight trip to Halong Bay (which I'll cover in another blog) and although neither day was especially thrilling, as ever I have plenty to write about!
The last time I updated was ahead of our Australia Day night out in Hue. Despite the occassion there were surprisingly few Australians out on the town in the evening, with our group making up the majority of the bar. With the drink prices rock bottom in Vietnam it turned out to be a pretty messy night for most people involved! The bar stayed open till 2am, which is 3 hours later than the time all bars in Vietnam are meant to close by law. Bar owners have to pay off the police to stop them taking action, which is pretty much the way the whole country operates here!
The next morning I was one of just four people who made it up early enough to visit the Imperial Citadel - the former headquarters of the Vietnamese Royal Family. The complex was heavily damaged during the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it here) so there was only a fraction of the buildings left standing. The palace itself had been reconstructed, as had the grand entrance house and central temple. More work is ongoing but it'll take years before it is restored to its former glory. Our tour guide took us around explaining about the royal family as he went, but I was too tired to take any of it on board!
Early in the afternoon we departed Hue on our 14 hour overnight train to Hanoi. It was my turn to share the cabin with two locals which I was a bit anxious about, but one of them spoke English (he learned on a BBC language course) and he was a fan of English football (like a lot of Vietnamese men), so I had a chat with him part of the way. He was a very reserved and humble man and he was very interested in my travel. He even asked me outright to teach him about the places I'd been! He said that in Vietnam the people are not taught much about foreign climes and very few people go abroad. He had only been to Malaysia once on business (he worked for Colgate) and did not get chance to see anything. I really didn't know where to start explaining about all the places I'd been! He seemed grateful for what I said though and enjoyed looking through my phone football ground photos. He said England is the country most Vietnamese want to live and I felt somewhat moved talking to him about it.
The train arrived into Hanoi on time at 4.10am. Our hotel would not let us check into our rooms before noon but fortunately some were available at an extra cost, so I got one of those for a few more hours sleep. The weather that day in Hanoi was damp and miserable and the temperature did not even reach 20C. Despite the groans of some people I really didn't mind a break in the heat and it didn't detract from our experience of Hanoi - a city I've not been particularly impressed with. Our hotel is located in the old quarter, which is basically a tourist dominated area of narrow streets and market stalls. It isn't as quaint as the name suggests and like everywhere is busy with motorbikes. There seem to be more cars in Hanoi than Saigon, which means that traffic congestion is horrific. In the mid morning we caught a taxi the short distance across town to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and it took about 20 minutes to do 2km.
Visiting the Mausoleum is a rite of passage for the Vietnamese and the place was busy with school groups. Ho Chi Minh is regarded as the father of the country and locals even refer to him as "Uncle Ho". As the man who led them to indepedance from France, and then governed North Vietnam until midway through the Vietnam War when he died in 1969, he is a very prominent figure and his picture is everywhere. When he died he wanted to be cremated, but the authorities ignored his wish and have instead embalmed him for display in the Mausoleum. Every year he is taken off display for 1-2 months of work, and I have to say the Vietnamese scientists (it was formerly the Russians who did it) have done a remarkable job preserving him. He may have died 41 years ago but to look at him you'd think he died last week! Ceremonial guards ferried the passengers through the room past his body, and made sure nobody stopped or put their hands in their pockets. There was obviously a no photograph rule.
One thing that has almost surprised me about Vietnam is Ho Chi Minh's universal popularity. I had envisaged a divided country before I came, where people in the south had different ideals to people in the north, but this simply isn't true. Before the Vietnam War a lot of people in the south would have actually preferred to have been under Ho Chi Minh's commnunist rule. Those who objected to him and objected to communism have on the whole emigrated to places like America and Australia, leaving a country that is wholly united. Despite the fact Vietnam remains a communist one party state there is very little discontent with the government here. In recent years they have opened out the economy to capitalist forces, which has seen an influx of foreign investment and wealth. Most Vietnamese are contented with their lives at the moment and many have never had it so good. Politics is far from the minds of the masses. Given the fact the country was under Chinese control for an entire millennium, French control for a century, and then in the grip of war for another few decades, to see Vietnam united, prospering and at peace is fantastic.
After the Mausoleum we were shown round the Presidential Gardens, past the tiny and simple house where Ho Chi Minh resided when he ruled. Despite the fact he could have lived next door in the French's Grand Presidential Palace, he instead opted to live in a tiny shack built on stilts, which is a great credit to his communist ideals.
In the afternoon some of us took a walk past the Hoan Kiem Lake, which was a peaceful refuge to the noisy old quarter, and went to visit the prison where Republican Presidential candidate John McCain was held in the Vietnam War. Known now as "Hanoi Hilton" (an American nickname) the prison was originally a trading post for ceramics, but the French converted it into a prison to contain and execute Vietnamese political ideologists. Most of the museum was devoted to their horrific treatment at the hands of French rule, and the guillotine which executed many Vietnamese people in the 1930s was on display. It wasn't the largest museum but was very interesting non-the-less. There was then a section on how the prison was used in the "American War". The Vietnamese were keen to stress how well the American prisoners were treated with many pictures of them smiling and playing games on display. How accurate this is is debatable given the stories from John McCain. McCain was an American fighter pilot shot down near Hanoi whilst on a mission to bomb a power station. There were pictures of his body being retrieved by locals from a lake and his flight suit was on display. He made a visit back to the prison a few years ago and I would have been interested to hear his take on the exhibitions. There was also a section showing American anti-war protestors, just as there was in the Saigon war museum. The impression created is that the American public were wholly united with the Vietnamese people, which I guess answers my question as to why American tourists are so well received here less than 40 years after the war ended.
In the evening we all attended an essential Vietnamese traditional experience and went to watch the Hanoi Water Puppets show. It was a thoroughly entertaining one hour (though I'm glad it didn't go on for longer) with lots of traditional Vietnamese music being played as well as the puppet show itself. The puppeteers stand concealed behind a curtain on the stage, operating the water puppets using underwater levers. There were many depictions of Vietnamese folk stories and legends, which remain a key element to life here in South East Asia. All the singing was in Vietnamese so we didn't really no what was being said, but that didn't really matter.
Today has been a much warmer day in Hanoi (25C), but I was a bit stuck for things to do. Some people went to visit the markets but there are markets everywhere in Asia and I have found them all to be the same. Here in Hanoi there also seems to be a higher than average concentration of hagglers and conmen, which is frustrating as you walk through the streets. Our tour guide recommended to us the Vietnam museum of ethnology, which was a 25 minute taxi ride away on the edge of town, so some of us went there. It was all about the differing cultures of Vietnam's 56 different ethnic groups. There was a lot of reading inside, but outside they had replica houses of some groups which was a bit more interesting. The highlight for everyone was a replica tomb covered in phallic symbols, which the Asians don't seem especially shy about. Learning about the other cultures was interesting but at the same time I feel slightly saddened not to have really witnessed any first hand. 86% of the population here is Viet, and many of them now now live very westernised lives. Aside from our brief rural exursions I haven't seen much beyond city life in Vietnam, and most of the people I've encountered have been living off the tourist industry. The rural folk still do live primitive lives, visiting the markets every day to buy that day's food and supplies, and working hard in the fields, but compared to the eccentric activities of some of the minortiy tribes, they are very advanced!
This evening we meet our new tour leader for the Laos leg as well as 5 new people - taking the group back to the maximum 16. The 2 Melbourne girls who joined in Saigon have left, and we also said goodbye last night to our Vietnam tour guide Dat, who has been excellent. He was a very nice person and it was great for me to have someone to watch football with (he was an Arsenal fan). I'm now off to watch the Murray v Federer Australian Open final. I've caught all Murray's matches since the quarter final stage and I'm really looking forward to seeing how he copes in his second grand slam final. When I get chance, hopefully later today, I'll update on our trip to Halong Bay.