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Return to Vietnam 2008
Vietnam 2008 -- Hanoi

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After a four-hour flight -- over China -- from Korea aboard Asiana Airlines, we landed in Hanoi at night so I didn't get a chance to see it from the air. After clearing customs and immigration (a nerve-wracking experience -- the Vietnamese immigration folks have about as much a sense of humor as their counterparts in Homeland Security, which is to say, none at all) we caught a ride from the No Bai International Airport into Hanoi, 25 miles away, from the Vietnamese equivalent of a gypsy cab driver. The regular cab drivers were cussing up a storm -- in Vietnamese, naturally -- at this guy who they saw, and rightly so, as taking food out of the mouths of their children. But I'm not a guy to begrudge a fellow from making some cash anyway he can, especially in a Third World country without even the slightest trace of a social safety net.

As we went over a long bridge or causeway -- it wasn't clear in the dark which it actually was -- I saw vertical banners hanging from each lamp post. I was expecting some kind of socialist propaganda exhortation, but on closer inspection I discovered that they were … advertising banners for, of all things, LG Electronics.

Yeah, some "communist" country this turned out to be. No unemployment insurance, no welfare, no social safety net at all and then all these banners, coupled with the enormous billboards in the countryside and the fact that they have -- get this -- a stock market, truly gives lie to the myth of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Uncle Ho would be turning over in his grave. If he had one (see below).

In Hanoi we stayed at the Nam Phuong Hotel, an okay place whose main
Nam Phuong Hotel Hanoi
Nam Phuong Hotel
attraction was its central location in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, one short block away from Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. From there we ventured out to walk around the lake several times -- a pleasant stroll either by day or by night -- and also took a pedicab -- a "cyclo" -- to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, about two miles away.

Right next to the museum is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Min Mausoleum
stark-looking structure that houses the preserved remains of The George Washington of Vietnam. Ordinarily a line of sightseers would be snaking out of the mausoleum and down the concrete apron in front of it, but we learned that Uncle Ho wasn't in that day. In fact, he wouldn't be in for three months because the mausoleum was closed. For "maintenance", they said.

Eventually I learned that Uncle Ho was not only not in his "final" resting place, he wasn't even in the country. Periodically they have to crate him up and ship him off to Moscow for some repair work. Apparently it takes a lot of work to maintain a dead Communist leader in his permanent state of repose, and the Russians, who have a lot more experience at it (i.e., Lenin's Tomb), are the go-to guys for this kind of thing. (As an aside, it makes me wonder what the Chinese do with Chairman Mao when he starts to get a little ragged around the edges…)

After our tour of the museum, a little time spent gawking at the One Pillar Pagoda, which is right
One Pillar Pagoda
One Pillar Pagoda
next door and a fruitless attempt to get any closer than about 500 yard from the mausoleum itself (you really don't want to argue with armed guards in a Third World country…) we caught up with our cyclo guys who had been lounging in the shade waiting for us -- they knew that they had a good deal with the rich American tourists, and weren't about to let us get away with any of their buddies in the biz -- and headed back to the hotel.

While cruising down the broad treelined avenue I saw a military museum, so we had to stop there and take some photos, and then a little ways away from the museum was the huge statue of Lenin. Had to stop there as well. Naturally.

In between all these stops, I'm lolling around in the seat of the cyclo, drinking beer, taking videos and photos, and generally having a grand old time.

No trip to Hanoi is commplete, at least for an American, without a side trip to the so-called Hanoi Hilton, so we had to carve out some time for that. It came as a surprise that the place was so small, hardly bigger than the average suburban lot, but then I learned that what you see today is a fraction of the prison's former glory. Right behind it, built on the former grounds of the prison, is a Hanoi high-rise. The section that formerly housed the American pilots has been overwhelmed by the building of a newer Hanoi.

Another one of the biggest surprises to me was the friendliness of the people of Hanoi. As an obvious westerner -- and probably easily identifiable as an American -- I had some reservations about even going to Hanoi. After all, it was American planes that bombed the shit out of North Vietnam for literally years, and chances were that half the people you met had lost a friend or family member in the bombing.

But I always go into a "foreign" country armed with two things: A ready smile and a bright greeting for everyone who makes eye contact with me.
Hanoi SchoolgirlsHanoi Schoolgirls
It always pays off; as soon as they found out I was an American, they couldn't wait to talk to me, couldn't keep themselves from talking to me. And I mean really talk, carrying on a conversation, practicing their English, not just using the opportunity to try to sell me something (unlike what happened farther south -- see Hue and Saigon).

Of course something over 60% of the population of Vietnam was born after 1975, so the "American War", as it's called over there, is as historical to them as, say, World War I is to the average American.

But I will also say that even the older Vietnamese that I met, who were of an age to have not only been alive but also to have been in the NVA and presumably fighting against the Americans, went out of their way to greet me and speak to me. Unfortunately, not many of them spoke English -- unlike the younger generation, who seemed almost desperate for a chance to practice -- so our interactions were of course limited.

Another surprise was the number of French people. Pretty much four out of five Western faces you saw belonged to native speakers of French. And a good number of the French were older, of an age, actually, to have been at Dien Bien Phu. I guessed that they, like me, had decided to come back to Vietnam while they were still in good enough shape to do it. And after all, the veterans weren't all that much older than me -- the Battle of Dien Bien Phu took place in 1954, just 14 years (coincidentally, almost to the day) before I arrived in Vietnam in May of 1968. Back then, of course, it seemed like it had been a much longer period of time, a whole generation, a lifetime. I had been all of nine years old when the battle took place.

After attending the wedding on Sunday afternoon, we strolled through the packed crowds, doing "The Hanoi Shuffle" across the streets packed with motorscooters, walked through the open air market, watched some talented street performers and had a great time. Right up to the time my camera was stolen... It was a professional job -- someone jostled me on the left and while my attention was diverted, his/her confederate neatly snipped my camera off its wrist strap. So I lost about 200 pictures, including all the photos I took at the wedding, and videos of the streets and crowds. But it could have been worse, and all I lost was a camera and some photos. I replaced the camera the next day, but the pictures, sadly, were irreplaceable.

While we were in Hanoi, we took an overnight side trip to picturesque Halong Bay, and then we boarded an overnight train to the old imperial capitol of Hue.