Trompe le Monde: A Round the World Tour Diary

An online travel diary so people can keep up to date with what I'm doing and where I'm going.

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Sunday, January 09, 2005

Hanoi

Hanoi is sometimes referred to as the Paris of the East, and it is indeed by far the most romantic place to which I've ever been. We're staying in the Old Quarter, a lovely warren of winding narrow streets, lined with small shops, stalls and street vendors, the roads full of motorbikes and bicycles. The noise is amazing, and from our balcony the people watching is great.

Last night we went to Hoan Kiem Lake, a smallish lake in the middle of said Old Quarter. Legend has it that in the 15th century (I think) Vietnamese Emperor Le Lao(I think) got a magic sword from the gods and used it to drive the Chinese out of the country. When he had accomplished this and once more freed Vietnam from foreign oppression, he went boating on the lake. A giant turtle sent by the same gods came up and took the sword, taking it to the bottom of the lake. And indeed there are giant turtles in the lake, it seems - though they are seen rarely, there are photos of them.

Even without the turtles, the Hoan Kiem lake remains an unbelievably romantic setting at dusk and later. Surrounded on four sides by busy roads, the lake is completely still and calm, the lights of the city reflecting off it, and the slight mist lending it a magical air. Not for no reason is it lined with Vietnamese couples sitting on the stone benches, entwined in each other's arms. It made us all go very Marvin Gaye...

Still, there's only so much romatic setting you can take when you're on a round the world jolly in a three bloke group. In search of something completely different, this morning we got up and went to Ho Cho Minh's mausoleum.

In case anyone doesn't know (and there's no reason why you should) Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Vietnamese revolution, and the president of North Vietnam during the war with South Vietnam/USA. He claimed to be a Marxist-Leninist by political affiliation, though actually (for all you politics/history/philosophy buffs) I would have said his philosophy was more Maoist, being as Vietnam had very little working class per se pre-revolution, but did have a large peasant population. Anyway, his beliefs about his beliefs may have influenced or been influenced by the fact that Vietnam's ties were always much more with Russia than with it's neighbour China.

Right, politics over with. Uncle Ho (as he's affectionately known to many around these parts) was beloved by the people (as of course all Commie leaders are), and so when he died the Party didn't replace him as President, leaving that position unfilled, and (in direct contradiction to his wish to be cremated) had his body embalmed and put on display in a glass coffin a la Lenin. And this morning we went to see said body. Making it (for those counting) two preserved dead bodies seen so far on this trip.

Uncle Ho's mausoleum is an imposing block of a building, and his coffin room is a very somber, serious affair, as befits a man of his historical stature. Use of embalming agents means that there was rather more to see of Ho's body than there had been of St Francis Xavier's. He looks rather pale, but apart from that it just looks like he's asleep. The whole thing is very eery and pseudo-religious, all the more strange when you consider the Vietnamese Communist Party used to spend a lot of time and effort trying to ban ancestor worship in Vietnam.

The fetishisation of Ho and his revolutionary colleagues and materials was predictably also evident in the Ho Chi Minh museum, which contained exhibits that were more rubbish pseudo-intellectual installation art projects than anything else. There were lots of displays representing the evils of capitalism and fascism and the triumph of the proletariat and so on, and loads of dubious high-falutin words from Uncle Ho and the Party, as well as pictures of the dead man. Not much actual information though.

This afternoon we looked in at the museum built oout of the remaining two thirds of the Hoa Lo Prison, ironically nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by US Prisoners of War who stayed there. Before the Vietnam War (or, as it's known here, the American War) during the French colonial era, the prison was used by the Frogs to capture, hold and torture Vietnamese nationalist revolutionaries, and thus according to the information was very much A Bad Thing. Various torture instruments are displayed and such, including a couple of guillotines. During the American War, it was used to keep US POWs. In strict contrast, according to the information given, they were kept in spartan but fair conditions, and it was A Good Thing. I'd be very interested to hear what one of the prisoners had to say about that, for example Senator John McCain, who stayed in Hoa Lo for around seven and a half years. Bizarrely, the flight suit and gear that he was wearing when he was captured is displayed in the museum.

All told Hanoi is a fantastic place, full of history, romance and beauty, along with Oriental architecture and temples and modern shopping centres. If asked to rank cities I've visited so far, it would currently be number one, beating even Bangkok. So, the Paris of the East: very highly recommended. And much fewer French than that other Paris, too...

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