David and I came back from Laos and took the long taxi ride back from the Hanoi airport into the center of town. I have to admit that my initial impression of Hanoi was not good. It seemed noisy with scooters, over-heated, and damp. Luckily, our hotel was quite nice. We stayed at the Hotel Metropole. I could tell that I was going to get really spoiled by the high-end hotels.
We started off our visit by meeting our guide, David, in front of the hotel. Although he was named “David,” he was actually a native Vietnamese man. He took us to see the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. I had never gone to the tomb of a communist leader, and it is quite the spectacle. The security was intense. Our guide took all bags from us. We were pat down by guards. We had to follow a red carpet that led up, through, and out of the tomb. We were gestured at by the guards and they let us know that we were supposed to walk side-by-side on the carpet. I whispered something to David before we were even in the building and they told us no talking. They gestured to David to take off his hat. Then, as we got in the building, they told David to uncross his arms. This was all communicated to us in Vietnamese. Then we finally got into the viewing area. There were eight guards in the main room: one in each corner of the room, and one at each corner of the glass coffin. They had perfect posture – not just standing straight, but standing as if they were using every muscle in their body to maintain their preposterously good posture. I have no idea how long they had to maintain that position. We ceremoniously walked around the coffin and looked at the serene and eerie corpse of Ho Chi Minh – the father of modern Vietnam. Once outside, our guide found us and after we were a distance from the tomb, he gave me back my bag and camera. It was really quite a spectacle and quite worth it. I’m dying to see more communist leader tombs now.
It was in Hanoi that I got familiar with the concept of “not being able to take pictures when you step outside”. It is so hot and humid that when you first step outside, the camera immediately fogs up. I thought something was wrong with my camera for the first minute because when I looked through it, it was literally entirely white. It took me while to figure out that it was condensation on the lens, so I had to wipe the lens and then quickly take a shot or wait for the camera to get used to the outside temperature.
After the tomb, we toured some of the sites in the nearby area. There is the house that the French had built for the President, that has gone largely unused. Ho Chi Minh had lived in very sparse accommodations that he created for himself that is designed to be authentically Vietnamese and also to be a model of frugality.
There was a cute little pagoda in the area as well. In general, we didn’t see a lot of religious places in Vietnam. I think a fair amount of them were destroyed – but also, Vietnam is a collection of different cultures, so there isn’t a single popular religion for large temples.
Next we went to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. I have to admit, that I wasn’t looking forward to this museum, but it helped give us some cultural perspective of the country. Basically, it brought home how the country is largely a collection of different tribes. This became very apparent as we traveled through the country because you could see the look of the people change as we went further south. However, the heat started to get to David in the museum. It was not air-conditioned. So we eventually told our guide that we needed to move along a little more quickly.
We went for lunch someplace that was good, but clearly designated for tourists. In the afternoon, we went to The Temple of Literature. David was a huge hit with young school girls. He got approached by about three different girls that wanted to know where he was from. I guess I didn’t look so foreign. Or perhaps I looked too scary to approach. It was a holiday, so there were school groups everywhere.
We took a walk through the old town markets afterwards. Our guide was raised in that area, so not only did he talk about what was there, he talked about what had been there and how the town changed over time.
If you look at the pictures, you will see one photo that I cannot explain. It was the window of a women’s accessories store. I have no idea what they were trying to say. I never found anyone in Indochina with a terribly firm grasp of English, so I don’t think they were saying what most English-speakers would interpret. So do with that what you will. I didn’t want the guide asking me why I was taking a picture of the window of a woman’s jewelry shop, so I took as quick a photo as I could and David and I saved our giggle fit for later.
And while we’re on the subject of sex and Vietnam, if you look at the photos, you will see some risque wood carvings. Those are from the Museum of Ethnology. It was for a fertility temple and I thought it was worth a picture. However, despite these two pictures, there is almost no reference to sex anywhere in the culture. You don’t really understand how pervasive sex and advertising is in the west until you go to a communist country and see a culture that lives completely without it. Everyone is dressed non-provocatively. And the North Vietnamese people look very “tough” and strong-willed. They are small, but fierce.
After the markets, we went to a water puppet show. It’s standard tourist fare and I don’t think you can visit Vietnam without someone making you see a water puppet show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very enjoyable. But there were no Vietnamese in the theater except the ones performing.
Dinner was amazing, but we were the only ones in the restaurant. I guess because we were there in the off-season. No one is crazy enough to travel in Vietnam in August, apparently, unless you’re stopping off to go to Halong Bay – which we did the next day!