Letter from Hanoi: Vietnam old, new and ever

When I was a boy growing up in Canada, Hanoi was the enemy. In those days most foreign visitors to Hanoi were American pilots who had taken a wrong turn over the Bay of Tonkin. Travelling on one-way tickets, they were accommodated at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, a notorious prison where room service consisted of a propaganda lecture and a bowl of maggoty rice. Sometimes they appeared on television, rather grim-faced, to say how much they liked the place.

Twenty years on and I was never sure if I should mention the war. It may be the great inescapable fact of the last fifty years of Vietnamese history but it seems to have sidled away with barely a trace. Doi moi, the Vietnamese perestroika, has made honored guests of the former enemy, and Vietnam has become one of Asia’s most fashionable destinations.

Peace becomes a country as beautiful as Vietnam. I came to Hanoi through a landscape of flooded paddies where buffaloes waded fetlock-deep through unimaginable greens, and young women in white silks cycled along the raised causeways in a pewter twilight.

The two old capitals — Saigon and Hanoi — are a country apart. The former is a city of the tropics, mercurial and corrupt. Few people bother with the post-war name, Ho Chi Minh City, too much of a mouthful even for the politically correct. Saigon may have lost the war but it is winning the peace. A former den of capitalists, it had something of a head start when it comes to market forces and is now busy rediscovering its old commercial hustle. Less brash, more conservative, Hanoi seems to belong to an older world. While Saigon is a city Americans would recognize, Hanoi retains strong echoes of its French colonial past.My guides in the two cities captured something of these differences. In Saigon I was escorted round the city by a young man in Nike trainers with a colloquial American drawl. In Hanoi my guide, a serious bespectacled sort, sounded like he had learned his English from a Russian correspondence course. Truc had an existentialist haircut, and the kind of clothes that might have been hand-me-downs from Jean-Paul Sartre. Over tea in the Metropole he discussed Confucianism, the poetry of Tu Duc, and girls. I liked him immediately.

War and communism have preserved Hanoi from fifty years of progress. There are moments when it seems like the lost city of Asia, the one you can never quite find, the great teeming, squalid, fascinating metropolis of Marlene Dietrich films and 1930’s novellas. The modern age has transformed Shanghai. Hong Kong and Bangkok are jammed with traffic and skyscrapers. The lanes of Old Peking have given way to boulevards wide enough for tanks. Hanoi alone has retained its street urchins, curbside gamblers, sing-song girls, street barbers, bicycle rickshaws and air of neglect.

The French quarter is a city of lakes and shaded boulevards, of colonial mansions and Beaux Arts villas set behind iron railings. Shoals of cyclists pass beneath the leafy arches of the city’s magnificent trees — teak, banyan, cassia, milkwood, and flame trees. On the shores of Hoam Kiem Lake, waiters, rude as Parisians, serve coffee at sidewalk cafes. In Nha Tho street the sound of Mass drifts out through the open doors of the Cathedral. The Metropole, where Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene used to stay, has the air of a colonial club with its reassuring doorman, its ceiling fans and its cocktail hour. Round the corner is the city’s architectural jewel, the Opera House modelled on the Paris Opera. Its program was rudely interrupted in 1945 by the Viet Minh who used its imposing balcony to declare that the revolution had begun. Now, in tune with the rapidly changing face of Vietnam, the Opera House has been renovated and Tosca is back in fashion.

The spacious character of the colonial city is the French answer to the congested lanes of the native quarter. In the medieval heart of Hanoi, an area known as 36 lanes, commercial life spills out of the shops to engulf you like a rising tide. For centuries this has been the district of serious shopping. Each lane is named after the trade in which it specialized — Hang Bang, cotton; Hang Bo, baskets, Hang Ca, fish; Hang Dieu, smoking pipes; Hang Quat, fans; Hang Khoai, sweet potatoes. In Silver Street, ancient grannies were buying earrings for tiny infants while round the corner in Undertaker Street stone masons were chiselling the names and dates of the newly dead on gravestones. Many of the lanes have retained their original identities though others have changed with the times. Lamp Oil Street is now Sunglass Alley while Drum Skin Street has moved upmarket into upholstery.

You seem to be able to do anything in these lanes. Open-air supermarkets operate from the panniers of trusty Flying Pigeon bicycles. There is everything from quail’s eggs to topside of beef to a dozen roses wrapped in a banana leaf. The chicken is so fresh it’s not dead yet, and customers are obliged to hold its wings while its throat is slit.

Old ladies have set up soup kitchens on the curbside ladling out bowls of pho, watery noodles, to eager punters perched on miniature stools. You can eat escargot the size of small dogs, and dogs the size of escargot. Boys materialise out of the crowds to shine your shoes and girls arrive with lottery tickets, tea towels and bunches of spring onions. After lunch you can settle down for a hand of cards, have your palm read, your feet massaged or your hair cut by chaps with sheep shears and a scrap of mirror. Should you want to pick up something for the weekend, drop by the corner condom stall.

The narrow streets of the old quarter are lined with traditional ‘tube houses’ which evolved originally from street stalls. Keen to avoid a tax on street frontages, the houses can be as little as two yards wide. They run back from the street like long corridors, slender rooms for slender people, interspersed with courtyards to admit air and light. You peer into their depths through layers of domestic existence — a kitchen where a girl in white silk was squatting over a cooking pot, a bedroom where a man snored on a rattan mat, a courtyard where a woman was flailing the life out of the family laundry.

On the edge of the old city I passed the offices of Cuu The, practitioner of traditional Vietnamese medicine. Installed in a tiny shop front, across the road from the Hoan Kiem Lake, Cuu looked like the lost twin of Confucius. His sign announced him as a specialist in ‘Maladies du poumon’, Illnesses of the lungs. I could believe this. Cuu’s long white beard was yellowed with nicotine, and his desk was empty save for an overflowing ash tray. He looked up from the cheering headlines about increased tractor production and gazed at me through a haze of blue smoke.

‘I have a bronchial condition, doctor,’ I lied, hoping for a prescription of snake wine or dried sea horse. ‘Shortness of breath.’ I panted at him encouragingly. Cuu was phlegmatic. A lifetime of listening to people’s pulses had made him a shrewd observer. ‘Don’t walk so fast,’ he shrugged, lighting another cigarette from the stub of the last one.

In need of tea and sympathy, I stopped off for a cuppa at a neat little establishment run by two ancient grannies. Their teahouse was a hole in the wall. A shutter folded down to create a shelf where the patrons, sitting on tiny stools on the pavement, took their tea. There were a variety of blends; the most exotic cost two cents. Granny Number One prepared a water pipe to go with my cup of Halong Green Dragon. The pipe was a formidable object, a three-foot section of bamboo that could have passed for a piece of Oriental scaffolding. Five puffs and I was reeling. I don’t know what the Grannys put in their bamboo but a little of it goes a long way. Truc helped me into a passing cyclo before I collapsed, and we set off to visit Ho Chi Minh.

The pipe was formidable, a three-foot section of bamboo that could have passed for a piece of Oriental scaffolding. Five puffs and I was reeling. I don’t know what they put in their bamboo but a little of it goes a long way.

Despite being dead for thirty years, Ho still receives hundreds of visitors a month. They file into the great marble mausoleum, modelled on Lenin’s, with their hats in their hands. The great man lies embalmed in the glass coffin, dressed in white. Despite a waxy pallor, he looks younger than he ever did in life.

For keeping up appearances in the hereafter, the Vietnamese leader was fortunate in his Russian alliances. Mao Zedong was foolish enough to die at a low point in Sino-Soviet relations, and the Chinese had to prepare his mummification without the aid of the Russian experts. The Great Helmsmen apparently is not the man he was, and those who know say his ears are falling off. Uncle Ho, however, benefited from a first-class Russian service available only to the closest of allies. He enjoys a state of preservation that many living people would envy. Every year the Russian embalmer still comes to Hanoi for Ho’s annual check-up.

Such survival couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Demonized by the West during the height of the Vietnam War, he was always a hero to his own people, and history will record him as one of the great figures of modern Indochinese history. He was a politician with a hinterland — poet, painter, sculptor, linguist, and a very fine pastry chef. During his years as a penniless globetrotter in the 1920’s, he worked for a time as the sous-chef at the Carlton House Hotel in London where his mince pies were fondly remembered.

I stopped by to visit his former home, an elegant two-roomed house perched on stilts above a fish pond, which he preferred to the grand chateau that had been the residence of the French governor. Visitors can peer in at his few possessions — his helmet, his telephone, some books, his typewriter — preserved like the great man himself in glass cases. Next door was the underground shelter where he took refuge when the American bombers arrived.

One of Truc’s earliest memories was of the 11-day Christmas bombing campaign in 1972. I commiserated. He shrugged. He was five, and thought it was all very exciting. He remembered the underground shelter with a child’s innocence as having the atmosphere of picnic outing. It was only later that he told me his father had died in one of the battles for Hue.

Vietnam was a war for so long, it was easy to forget it was a country as well. Its peace now seems so complete that it is just as easy to forget the wounds lingering in people’s hearts.

Stanley Stewart has written three award-winning travel books – Old Serpent Nile, Frontiers of Heaven, and In the Empire of Genghis Khan. He is also the recipient of numerous awards for his magazine and newspaper articles. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and now divides his time between Rome and Dorset.

[Photos: Flickr | Rosino; Rosino; Jorge Lascar; chacrebleu]

South by Southeast: Hit and run Hanoi

You don’t just visit Hanoi. Hanoi visits you. Take a walk down any street of this fast-paced Vietnamese capital of commerce and communism and prepare to be overwhelmed by sensory delights (and annoyances). Motorbikes buzz around intersections like nests of angry hornets. Your feet trip over small plastic stools at street-side noodle shops. Vendors chase you down the street like used car salesmen, endlessly peddling a mish-mash of boat trips, tropical fruits and Lonely Planet guidebooks. It’s enough to make a Southeast Asian traveler go mad. But beneath this cacophony of life and movement lies an emerging must-see destination of achingly beautiful architecture, vibrant street life and cutting-edge culture. Get out of the way – we’re taking a “hit and run” tour of Hanoi.

For many years, getting to Hanoi was more of a roadblock than a green light. Situated in Vietnam’s furthest northern reaches, it was a capital both hard to get to and literally hard to enter. Veiled behind a curtain of communism and painful memories from decades of war, it was a destination most American travelers couldn’t and didn’t visit. But with the normalization of relations in 1994 and Vietnam’s admission to the WTO in 2007, tourism has been on the move. Nowhere is the “new Vietnam” more evident than in rapidly changing Hanoi. Where infamous prisons once stood, there are now luxury high rises. And in place of guns and grenades, you’ll find fashion boutiques and trendy coffee shops.

Ready to take another look at this on-the-move Vietnamese capital? Keep reading below for the ins and outs of a proper Hanoi visit.Getting In
Getting to the furthest northern reaches of Vietnam has never been easier or more inexpensive. Thanks to cheap budget airlines like Air Asia and Jetstar, flying into Hanoi from other Southeast Asia capitals is a snap. If you’re coming direct from the U.S., consider United Airlines and Delta, both of which now fly to Vietnam (with a layover in Asia) from the United States. For those arriving from points south in Vietnam, the country’s competent rail system offers sleeper trains for around $30-40 depending on the point of origin.

What to See
Hanoi is a city with a rich history. Anyone interested in the history of the Cold War will find lots to explore at the city’s many war monuments and museums, covering Vietnam’s struggle for independence as well as the conflict between North and South. In addition, Hanoi is increasingly home to a thriving arts, food and nightlife scene.

  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – The body of “Uncle Ho,” architect of modern Vietnam, is entombed at this vast complex. There’s no more surreal (and creepy) sight in Hanoi than paying a visit to Ho’s preserved body. Surrounding the mausoleum visitors can investigate a large museum and complex of buildings where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked.
  • Old Quarter – To see where old and new Hanoi collide, head to the city’s Old Quarter. Just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, the area is home to a growing collection of trendy art galleries, bohemian coffee shops and happening bars. These businesses mix effortlessly with the area’s chaotic array of merchants, selling everything from textiles to fruit shakes to motorbike parts.
  • Beer, Ahoy! – Hanoi’s street food is legendary. Stumble down any street and you’re likely to find delicious local specialties like Bun Cha and savory bowls of Pho noodle soup all accompanied by Vietnam’s infamous brew, Bia Hoi (draught beer). And for 25 cents a glass, you can afford to buy a few rounds for your pals.
  • Temple of Literature – Take a trip back in time to ancient Vietnam at this well-preserved monument to the teachings of Confucius and Vietnamese scholarly works. The Temple of Literature represents an oasis of serene Chinese-style pagodas in the city’s chaotic traffic-choked center.

Where to Stay
A stay in Hanoi is incredibly friendly on the wallet. Considering the range of amenities like free WiFi and satellite TV available at most hotels and guest houses, a budget traveler will find themselves spoiled for choice starting at around $15 per night. Great options include the Especen Hotel situated just west of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake. Shoestring travelers should check out Hanoi Backpackers, which attracts a happening crowd for its daily happy hours and is a great bargain at $7.50/night for a dorm bed. High rollers frequent the Sofitel Metropole, a grand dame of Asian colonial elegance, with rooms starting at just over $200/night.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Catching the Travel Bug: Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

SARS. The subject was worked into every conversation amongst the expats and long-term tourists in Vietnam. The government claimed that the virus had been contained in several northern provinces, far away from Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City to Communist Party officials and fresh-off-the-plane tourists). Still. There were rumors about people’s neighbors being taken away in the middle of the night to be quarantined because of a persistent cough. Mostly, that was just speculation, fueled by one too many beers or one too many years in country.

Nonetheless, when I came down with a cough and fever, I had thoughts of gasping for breath in a hidden away hospital ward guarded by CP officials who didn’t want their SARS secret to get out. I wrote my illness off as a regular flu bug I’d picked up from being in a classroom teaching eight-year-old Vietnamese kids how to speak English. When my chest started to tighten and my cough to turn into a wheeze, I started to worry a bit more.

I confided in my girlfriend who took me to a doctor who had an after-hours private practice in his home. I was assured that he spoke English. He spoke great Russian because he’d been schooled in Moscow, but only a bit of English (like “Injection” and “Infection”). Between my modest Vietnamese skills and miming and his pidgin of Russian, English, and charades, I was able to get started on an IV of antibiotics. But he wanted an x-ray to rule out the unspoken disease. He kept asking me if I had been up north, to the areas that were hit by SARS. I said no, but he casually slipped a surgical mask on before starting me on the IV.
I got into the x-ray at a hospital the next day. It took two hours in the waiting room, which was not the best experience. Radiology was located by a nurses’ station and there were several people on hospital beds just parked in the hallway. I found out from a smiling but nervous lady in a neighboring seat that they were on a death watch. The nurses could keep an eye on them until the end.

The x-ray technician was unfamiliar with practicing his trade on someone of my height. It took 5 tries to get it right. I paid him 150,000 dong ($10 US) to hand the pictures directly to me instead of putting them up with the others.

My next antibiotic session consisted of me and about 4 others, sitting in plastic lawn chairs in the doctor’s back room with drips hanging from hooks in the wall. One guy smoked the entire time, but no one said anything.

A few days later, I went through the x-ray ordeal again. This time a smiling technician got it right on the second try. Through my girlfriend the doctor said that he chalked it up to a chest infection.

“No SARS?” I asked.

“No SARS.” He chuckled, said something in Russian, and patted me on the shoulder.

Check out the past travel-bug features here.

I see dead people

I have succumbed to the fascination in viewing dead people. I’m not talking about funerals, but about viewing dead people who have been dead awhile, as in years and years. The recent public viewing of Padre Pio, a Catholic saint, in San Giovani Rotondo, Italy has brought back memories.

Ho Chi Minh was my first preserved body tourist attraction. Mao Zedong was the second one. I wasn’t really comparing which of the two looked better when I went back for a second gander at Ho Chi Minh, but preservation has treated him better, in my opinion. Neither of these former leaders looked real, though–more like odd wax dolls.

Of all the interesting sites one can see in Beijing and Hanoi, the draw to their mausoleums is impressive. Tourists line up in the midst of people who come for patriotic, reverent reasons. The pomp of such attractions interests me as much as the attractions do themselves. Each place has rules to follow. For example, line up single file and check your umbrella. There are no umbrellas allowed Ho Chih Minh’s masouleum from what I recall. I have a memory of chekcing mine.

The changing of the guards and the hushed tones as people file past the glass sarcophagus, perhaps thinking how similar the glass case reminds one of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty, also add to the mood. But, there will be no waking up here. There is no lingering, no stepping back for a second glance. When one walks past Mao and Minh, it’s in single file at a steady slow pace and then, whoosh, you’re out the door.

In San Giovani Rotondo, it looks like people have some time to linger for a decent look at Padre Pio–even snap a photo. Padre Pio, was a mystic monk who is said to have had stigmata, bleeding on his hands and feet, similar to where Jesus’ wounds would have been. Death seems to have taken the stigmata away. There aren’t even traces.

The picture I saw of Padre Pio startled me at first. “Wow! he looks great,” I thought, but then read that the face is covered by a silicon mask made to look like his face. Evidently, his actual face isn’t quite as pristine. It’s not clear how long the saint will be on view before he’s buried again.

One of these days, I may head to see Lenin. His is the first body to have been preserved for generations to come. There are rumors that perhaps all of his body parts aren’t real anymore, even though these bodies go through special cleanings to keep them in shape for onlookers and admirers.

The photo by steepways is tagged as Lenin’s death mask. If I’m feeling ambitious, there’s Kim Il-sung, the former North Korean leader. He’s in Pyongyang. Neil has been there as chronicled in his series “Infiltrating North Korea.” Here’s a post on Kim to get you in the mood.

Symbol of Saigon: Cyclos to be completely banned by June 2008

It was a hot afternoon in Saigon. I was sitting in a small plastic chair, busy drinking an iced Vietnamese coffee, when a smiling man came up to me.

“City cyclo tour? I give best one. So good, I’m in magazine. Magazine comes by I wave and say hello and they take picture.”

Sure enough, there he was smiling brightly, smack dab in the center of a long article about cyclo city tours. When I told him “no, thank you very much,” that obviously wasn’t good enough for an answer, so he proceeded to leaf through a small, worn book that he was carrying. He pulled out two plasticized 3×5 cards and laid them down on the table. They were consumer testimonials. He had many in his book, probably in over 10 languages, but he put down one in English and one in French for me.

“See, these are your people. They like me. They have good time with happy cyclo city tour. I give best one.”

It’s hard to go to Vietnam and not spend at least a short ride in a cyclo, otherwise known as a rickshaw. Especially in Saigon, the Vietnamese capital officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, the bicycle-like contraptions that are a quick mode of transportation for both tourists and locals are almost a national symbol. They cover the streets, they cover postcards, and they employ about 60,000 people. Come June 2008 however, the cyclos of Saigon will all be gone.

In an effort to clean up the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, authorities have voted to ban all modified three- and four-wheel vehicles; in other words one of the treasured symbols, and livelihoods, of the city. The controversial ban was originally to take place on January 1, 2008, but in a crucial last minute decision, the complete ban was pushed back to June.

The ban doesn’t just affect locals in the tourist transportation business; other jobs like trash collectors which use modified vehicles will also feel the effects of the ban. Until June, cyclos and other modified vehicles can continue to run, but only at night. Giving them an extra six months is intended to allow time for the 60,000 people whose lives depend on the classic mode of transportation to find other means of earning a living.

Even though I didn’t take his magazine-featured cyclo city tour, I am sure that the smiling driver that approached me the warm afternoon in Saigon gave an excellent one. I only wonder what his next job will be.