Everything Happens in Hanoi

Trip Start Oct 17, 2007
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Trip End Feb 04, 2008


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Saturday, November 17, 2007

We entered into Vietnam early in the morning after a 45 minute drive in a private mini-bus, the complete lap of luxury, we didn't know what to do with ourselves! We got stamped out of Lao and crossed what is known as "no man's land", essentially a few hundred meters of street belonging to neither country between Lao and the official Vietnamese border entry. It is here that we met Hai, our Vietnamese guide whose English was so fantastic that we dubbed him the Vietnamese David Beckham. He sounded exactly like him, the accent, the slightly higher male voice... Uncanny! However, he learnt English from an American teacher, so who knows how he managed to pull his lilt off.
Our first pit stop in Vietnam was the city of Vinh where we would catch our sleeper train to Hanoi. Despite Vinh being a large city, let me tell you, people of the tourist kind are a rare and strange commodity, as we very quickly surmised. Traffic slowed to a crawl, cyclists and people on scooters rubber-necked, children pointed and waved and market vendors yelled to each other to inform everyone the circus, uh, I mean we were in town. The four of us just kind of smiled and stared at the ground as we walked, afraid of causing an accident or being asked to do something ridiculous. We were astronauts just landed from the moon! Movie actors! Rock stars! In the market, someone grabbed my arm and started patting it. Yes, I'm real, not a ghost. No please, no autographs, we're really nobodies! It was as amusing as it was uncomfortable, but the four of us managed to get through it and I think we were all grateful to have each other that way no one person got gawked at for too long. Oh, and Hannah decided to wear shorts that day (not the culturally acceptable to the knee cap type), so that really helped to divert some attention!
Our sleeper train to Hanoi was the real SE Asian experience. Tiny little compartments were jammed with even tinier metal beds with worn down, 1cm mats. At barely 5'4 I filled the entire length of the bed, so you can imagine the free show Katherine and I got when we got to watch Hannah who's a very tall girl and Scott squeeze into their beds. We had tears rolling down our eyes and our guts hurt from laughing so hard, it was like watching Cirque de Soleil when the man gets into a tiny box, but in this case he can't, and this is no circus. It was hilarious! And then Hai, our guide dropped a bomb by announcing that the sheets provided by the train sometimes didn't get washed so there may be bed bugs, just a warning... so Katherine started taking her sheets back off, at which point Hai said the mattress was probably worse. Thanks, David Beckham! No more out of you, please! But no, he went on, and began to pick on Hannah about Kuan, our Lao guide, asking her if she thought he was handsome and did she want a Lao passport? Hilarious! It was honestly the creepiest, most uncomfortable and funniest train ride imaginable. Eventually all the silly kids fell asleep only to be woken up at 4:30 a.m. by loud Vietnamese music and what smelled like a couple of lit packs of cigarettes at the base of our door. The latter made me jump out of bed faster than the former. Alas, we were in Hanoi.
We were beyond exhausted upon arriving at our guesthouse, and all four of us slept until the afternoon in which we had our last guided tour with Gecko's of the city of Hanoi. Our local city guide was a like a strict teacher, excellent in his information delivery, adamant about having our attention, and insistent on having two of us on either side of him, three and one would not do! We visited the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius which later became a university (for men only, of course), and is now used for special events and academic gatherings; the One Pillar Pagoda, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex where Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body is kept despite strict instruction in his will to be cremated and scattered in different areas of Vietnam, as he was of the people. Up until recently Ho Chi Minh's body was sent to Russia between November and January where embalming experts would do the necessary maintenance and then he would be shipped back. However, Vietnam now has the technology and experts available to do this macabre task themselves. For lack of an appropriate word, the highlight of our tour was Hoa Lo Prison, or the "Hanoi Hilton", as it was dubbed by the Americans during the Vietnam War. For Scott and I the gruesome history of this prison really helped bring into light the horrors Vietnamese people fighting for independence endured by the French. The conditions in the prison were cramped, diseased and inhumane. The guillotine used by French guards against any dissidents is on display, alongside photos of the executed... they were really difficult to look at. Women with babies were placed in cramped solitary confinement... it just went on and on. We found out that some French protesters burnt themselves alive to display their condemnation of how Vietnamese prisoners were treated by their country. Also in the prison were photos and objects from American POW's which were imprisoned in the prison during the war. It was really moving to see the photos of the day in which they were released in 1973. Photography really does capture a moment in time, and to see the faces of prisoners on the day of their release was an overwhelming experience. We are so glad we went to the prison, and as disturbing as it was to see, we learnt so much more about this history. It helped us to better understand Vietnam from its thousand years of Chinese rule to French dominance to the Vietnam War and the effect it had on the Vietnamese people and the soldiers from other countries involved.
Hanoi was also the primary spot to see the Water Puppet Theatre. This is an ancient and traditional art developed by the Vietnamese, in which they used to flood their rice paddies after the harvest making it a watery stage for a puppet show. In Hanoi this is recreated in a theatre setting and is sold out one or two days in advance despite its six showings a day. We'd never seen anything like it, it was really interesting and imaginative, but even funnier and stealing the show was the little one year old two rows down that could not contain his excitement and pointed, squealed and clapped until his little hands were red whenever a new puppet emerged or even moved. We ended up watching him more than the show, and, as is the rule of the theatre, the proverbial "really tall guy" with the additional benefit of a big head sat right in front of us and clearly had ants in his pants. Oh well.
Our second afternoon was dominated once again by market and boutique shopping where the true, anti-shopping beast I have inside me finally came thundering out in SE Asia! I couldn't take it! I felt cramped and fed up and bored and wanted nothing to do with buying a stupid silk dress/scarf/shirt, I didn't care how unique it was or how many "cheap for you" promises were made. I did behave though (except for one mini tantrum) as we were with Katherine and Hannah, no point in bringing them down into my I-hate-shopping pit of despair with me, and especially as this was the end of our Gecko's Tour and our travels with the two of them, which we really enjoyed.
Overall, we really enjoyed Hanoi and learnt a new life skill: how to cross a road with 200 scooters, 30 cars, 10 bicycle rickshaws and 2 stray dogs coming towards you all at the same time with no intention to stop. You step out, walk with confidence, make eye contact with the drivers if possible and dodge or give way if necessary. When the other side is reached successfully, you breathe. Nobody will ever stop for pedestrians. Ever. You are essentially a moving pylon, all you can do is hope that everyone swerves around you at the right time.
Canaussie rating:
Water puppet theatre: 3, but the clapping baby gets a 5
Crossing the road: 5, as an extreme sport, 1 if you have a weak heart
Sleeper train from Vinh: 2, spend the extra couple of dollars and get the four berth
Hoa Lo prison visit: 5, a very important place to visit
 
 
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