There was a watery feel to the first day in Vietnam’s capital – unfortunately, most of it was on us.
We arrived at lunchtime after a four hour bus ride from Ha Long Bay, and we knew it was another huge changeover stop. For most of the group, Hanoi was their last stop, including Colin and Sarah who had become really good friends.
After dumping our bags in the room, we walked through the bustling streets. The first thing we noticed was the noise – motorbikes, horns, people yelling from the various stalls. If this was back home, Environmental Health would be imposing a hearing health warning on the place, but it definitely had a lot of character.
We were walking through the streets, heading for our recommended lunch spot, when there was suddenly a few spots of rain. Then there were a few more – those really big splodges that seem to drench you in one hit. And then suddenly there was a wall of them.
We all dived for cover under the various stalls and canopies, other tourists scattered down the street looking for a place to shelter, dozens of moped and scooter riders immediately pulled over and donned ponchos in a whole spectrum of colours, stall holders were frantically trying to pull their t-shirts, noodles and barbecuing fish indoors. The ever enterprising street hawkers suddenly acquired armfuls of umbrellas to thrust in our faces.
In t-shirts and shorts, the torrential rain wasn’t much fun, while the lack of grip from my flip-flops meant I was pretty much skating my way to wherever our tour leader was intent on taking us. In the end I went barefoot – the street muck and gubbins was already washing over my feet as rivers of rainwater made their way to various blocked-up drains, and we arrived at the restaurant wet, bedraggled and in need of a beer.
Thankfully lunch gave us time to dry out, and the rain stopped. We walked to Hoan Kiem Lake, the centre of the city, where we came across the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre, home to a famous water puppetry show. I’d read about it briefly, and as it was only an hour long, was fairly keen to go. The group was split though – some wanted to go, some didn’t; some wanted to go the next day, some didn’t; even couples like Colin and Sarah couldn’t agree – Sarah wanted to go, Colin absolutely didn’t!
In the end, after a lot of faffing around and ‘umming and ahhing’ outside the box office, I decided to put an end to it by buying a ticket for Ricky and I. Everyone else followed suit, but the second class seats ran out so we plumped for the 100,000 Dong first class positions.
Inside the theatre has wings like any other theatre, but a pool of water instead of a stage. It was a full house, complete with a reluctant Colin who somehow bagged some of the best seats at the front of the stalls, and before long the lights dimmed, a strange oversize human puppet banged on a gong, and the theatre was filled with traditional Vietnamese music and singing.
The art form was born many years ago in the paddy fields around Vietnam, a way for farmers and villagers to entertain themselves amid the watery land. The illusion is the puppets aren’t connected to anything, as all the controls run under the water, and this was no different.
As it was all in Vietnamese, I had no idea what on earth was happening. Puppets appeared from behind a screen, swished around in the water for a bit, chased dragons, had fights with water buffalos and climbed trees to collect coconuts. The music was good, and there’s no denying it’s a great spectacle – it’s by no means a West End production (Her Majesty’s Theatre would at least clean all the melted candle wax off the top of the puppets heads after each show!) but it was good fun.
The finale was particularly special when a fish somehow flapped around in and out of the water and then magically got turned into a dragon, which with the help of a bit of UV light, flew through the air and into the wings. Sadly, the illusion was foiled when it slid back down its wire in full view of the audience, but it was a nice try – and then all the puppeteers waded round to the front with another dragon to take their bow.
“It was pathetic,” spat Colin as I walked past him on the way out, with a few stronger words thrown in for good measure. Sarah giggled next to him, knowing he hated every minute but secretly enjoying it herself, while others agreed the music had been a highlight. For the sake of a few quid, it was a bit of history and culture and I think, perhaps secretly, everyone had a smile or two as a result.
After dinner that night, it was send-off time for a large chunk of the tour group, including many of those who had been with us since leaving Bangkok three weeks ago. We tried the local brew, Bia Hoi, which costs just 15p a glass, and is consumed on tiny chairs in the street. We ended up in a dive of a place called Bucket Bar, which specialised in the much-loved south east Asia drinking tradition of sticking various spirits into a sandcastle bucket and then adding a dash of Coke. I had a bit of an uneasy feeling about the place, especially when the shutters came down and the door was closed with everyone still inside – apparently its to avoid the Vietnamese ‘fun police’ who go around shutting places at midnight. Had we gone to the bar at the end of the night, I might have enjoyed it a bit more, but a few of us called it a day early and instead decided to have a clear head for a full day of sightseeing the following day, starting off with seeing a dead body – never good with a hangover.
It turned out my feelings about the place were proven right. German Dirk, famous for never taking off his typically Bavarian hat and who’s becoming a bit of a character in the group now we’ve learnt we can take the mickey out of him, managed to have his camera stolen. It happened to be nicked by people who work at the bar – a bit of an inside job- and Dirk had somehow worked it out. He offered two million Dong (about £65) to those who had taken it so that he could get it, and his photos, back.
The fee was agreed, and he took a taxi to a cash machine to get the money. Unfortunately for Dirk, three men on motorbikes then followed him in the taxi to the cashpoint. With the money in his hand, he agreed to hand it over once he had the camera back in his possession. He was given the camera, but then decided to ‘amend’ the deal by handing over a single 500,000 Dong note and jumping back into the taxi and telling the driver to move it.
I can only imagine his horror when the driver instead turned off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition, before telling him it was the Vietnamese mafia.
Outside the taxi, one of the men was now on a mobile phone. Justifiably worried, Dirk handed the remaining 1,500,000 through a gap in the window, before the taxi driver then decided to drive off with him still in the car. He’d now realised the taxi driver was also in on the conspiracy, and was probably about to drive the hapless European out of the city and to some warehouse for an unscheduled meeting with ‘the boss’.
Fearing an additional unscheduled meeting with a meat cleaver, he somehow made a James Bond-style escape from the moving taxi near some traffic lights, and took to his heels through the back streets of Hanoi.
“I had Dirk cowering in my bathroom last night,” said Steven.
“He was asking ‘what is going on, what is going on, this world is cwayzee (Dirkism)’, proper panicking thinking the mafia were also in the hotel,” he added, in his finest Sunderland accent.
It had cost him 60 quid, but amazingly Dirk got all his photos and his camera back, and somehow has a great tale of how he defeated – or should I say evaded – the Vietnamese mafia. Its not a pastime I intend to take up anytime soon.
The next morning I was up early to look at a corpse. Thankfully, it wasn’t Dirk’s, but of Ho Chi Minh, the man seen by the Vietnamese to have saved the nation. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is only open in the mornings, and there are stories about how you can be queuing for hours to get a glimpse of him. Fon, our leader, said we’d meet at 8am in the hotel reception. Unfortunately, my room mate Ricky, who stumbled in during the early hours, decided to switch off my alarm clock, and I woke up bang on 8am. After getting ready, Fon had already left, so I jumped in a taxi and made my own way there.
It turned out to be one of the best things I’d done – it gave me the entire day to wander around wherever I wanted, free from any time pressures. The tour I’m on has been brilliant, but every day is fairly structured with set times and places to meet for dinner. It was nice to just be out in the city and look around for myself. Taking a taxi, rather than walking with the group, also meant I was at the mausoleum really early, and was one of the first people to visit ‘Uncle Ho’ that day.
Rather like Mao, who I saw in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh is still very highly regarded here, even in death. He declared Vietnam independent of the French and Japanese in 1945, but that was short lived. America supported the French and helped transport troops to the country, so Ho Chi Minh led Vietnamese guerrilla warfare against the occupiers in 30 years of war. In 1954, he defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, but it ended up leaving the country divided in the north and south. Along came America for the Vietnam campaign, and after years of fighting, and the US conceding it could never win the war, he oversaw the reunification of Vietnam in 1975.
Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honour, and after his death his body was embalmed and laid on public view at the Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, where he once addressed half a million of his countrymen with his independence speech in 1945. Now it’s a shrine and pilgrimage site, heavily secured with armed guards and soldiers, and as I walked into the mausoleum, everything fell silent. Vietnamese joined with tourists to silently walk around the body of one of the world’s most historic figures. The room was softly lit, and his body was in a triangular shaped glass coffin, filled with more soft lighting which highlighted his face and hands. His famous wispy beard was very noticeable, and he looked at complete peace, almost with a smile on his face as if his work on this world was done.
I moved on from the mausoleum to walk around the grounds where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked. He embraced a very simple standard of living, turning his back on the presidential palace and instead living in a very basic stilt house overlooking a lake nearby.
He apparently insisted the palace belonged to the people, and chose to live in the small rooms that are still preserved as he left them. Beneath the rooms and amid the stilts is a large desk where he would work in the shade and meet dignitaries. Nearby is a goldfish tank, complete with fish, in the same place where his own would once swim.
The nearby museum documented his life, revealing why he is so affectionately known as ‘Uncle Ho’ by his people, and telling the story of how he travelled the world in his younger years, broadening his mind and giving him ideas on how he could lead his country in later life.
Surprisingly, it included photos and documents of the time he lived in England, staying in Southampton close to where I lived at university, and working in London’s West End. As ever, the photography in the exhibitions was impressive, using press images taken by snappers who would embed themselves with the leader for years. There was a huge contrast between those showing him in his khaki uniform on the battlefields, lining up anti-aircraft guns with his soldiers, and those showing him as the kind, caring, ‘man of the people’ that he is so well remembered for. Its easy to see why his photo and image adorns everything from the Vietnamese Dong banknotes to posters in the street, and even a t-shirt worn by Colin.
After a full morning of learning about the man, I was a bit Ho Chi Minh’ed out, so had some lunch at a café I found near a museum with a Mig jet in the grounds. It turned out to be the Vietnamese military museum, but didn’t open for another hour, so after a very Western sandwich and chips I had a sit down in a nearby park and did a bit of people watching.
The museum turned out to be one of my highlights in Vietnam, mainly because everything was so easy to understand about all the past conflicts, but also because there were some fascinating things to look at – including a huge pile of smashed up American aircraft parts retrieved from crash sites.
The museum started out with primitive weapons such as spears, cannon balls and bamboo spikes that would be left in holes in the ground as a painful, and lethal, trap.
Through the various buildings it told how the Vietnamese managed to outwit and outfight both the French and American armies, with exhibits including a shrapnel-torn French helmet, a full US airman’s flying suit, weapons from all sides involved in war and various bombs and grenades, complete with descriptions of how they work and the devastating impact they have on those unlucky enough to find themselves on the receiving end.
I spent a good hour though looking at the captured aircraft and vehicles left behind by the Americans, including a Chinook helicopter, various fighter jets, Jeeps and missiles.
There was also a selection of Vietnamese fighter jets that had been put on display in celebration of their achievements. It included a MiG 21 fighter that on one night in 1972, shot down five US aircraft, including a huge B52 bomber, in one mission. The museum and nation is clearly still proud of its achievements, and steps placed next to the jet mean you can have a good look inside the cockpit.
Its was strange to look at the controls and imagine what went on in there on December 27 that year with pilot Pham Tuam in the seat. The trigger button on the control stick for the missiles has been left visible, probably on purpose, and it’s a weird feeling to know exactly what happened with a few presses of that button.
The end result is just a few paces away, with a number of B52 engines, many smashed to smithereens, parts of a fuselage and wings all gathered together as a form of triumphant trophy.
As a Westerner, you get so used to seeing and hearing stories of American victories on the battleground, of watching films which show the US armed forces celebrating as they beat the enemy in a whole ‘good over evil’ manner.
When the shoe is on the other foot, it’s slightly surreal to see the proud US Army or US Air Force logos and battle markings in tatters on crumpled heaps of metal, and the American patent numbers and part instructions stamped or engraved on engine parts twisted and mangled by the force of impact – a reminder that once it all used to be a part of a huge fighting machine that had flown from somewhere so familiar as a friend to us all.
While at the museum I climbed the steps to the top of the flag tower, giving a great view over the city, before making my way through the old quarter to take in the atmosphere.
Like Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is very much a motorcycle city – everyone seems to have one, and every road is a challenge to cross. I’m getting used to it now though, with the whole ‘head down and walk’ technique proving quite useful. The narrower old streets are a bit unnerving, and every minute someone else seems to beep at you, but its all part of the fun!
On street corners, budgerigars chirp away amid the handicrafts and clothes hanging from almost every shop. The smell of incense fills the air as the sticks slowly smoulder away in doorways. There’s a real ‘local life’ feel about the place, tonnes of character and commerce blending together under the hot sun. The street names even follow what you’ll find for sale – Silk Street, Paper Street, Basket Street. It was a wonderful area to meander through on my way towards the main lake and its island temple, where yet again a few tourists stopped me to have a photograph with the tall white bloke from a foreign land!
I bumped into Colin and Sarah on the walk back to the hotel, and we walked together, buying an obligatory ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ t-shirt on the way. That night we had our final meal together as a large group in a restaurant called Gecko. The food wasn’t great, but the dessert list was topped with a famous brand of ice cream over here, that needless to say, caused Colin a great deal of amusement throughout the trip.
Naturally, he had to have one.
Early the next morning, we had to say goodbye to so many people who had become such good friends. The lovely Verena from Germany, who made us smile so many times when she reached for her Super Mario German to English dictionary to help with conversations, my first roommate Malcolm who is returning home to run the Fleet Service Station on the M3, the Welsh girls Emma and Megan, the former who had provided so much entertainment with her dancing prowess in Hue, and Australians Tamsin and Victoria.
But there was a couple I was gutted were leaving: Colin and Sarah. Over the three weeks we had become such good friends – they make such an amazing couple together, both bouncing off each other with their cheeky wit and laughter, always bubbly, happy and lifting the mood around them.
I don’t think any of us will forget one of Colin’s finest moments on the trip, at a service station somewhere in Cambodia, where we were all incredibly hungry. Scanning the menus, and looking for something filling, American Assata piped up that “perhaps we should just get a few dishes and share them on the table, ‘family style’,”
The suggestion went down about as well as pork scratchings at a Bar Mitzvah, but nobody wanted to speak out. Apart from Colin, who in one move, summed up exactly everyone’s thoughts. With his hand raised, elbow banging slightly down on the table as if he was making a suggestion, he simply said “er. No.” before putting his hand back down and burying his head in the menu.
Nobody said a word at the time, and it fell silent, but afterwards we’ve all laughed so much at that moment.
Colin and Sarah are both individuals who even if they were not together as a couple, I would have become really good friends with anyway, and I know we’ll definitely stay in touch and meet up back home. They have another week in Thailand together before returning to Nottingham and their jobs; Colin as a tax man, Sarah as a PE teacher, and I know that we’ll stay good friends when all these travelling days are over.
There were a few tears from Sarah as we all said goodbye at 6am, before their taxi disappeared down the road. Soon after we collected our bags and jumped on our bus that is taking us on towards Laos. There’s just the small matter of a 10-hour journey to the border before then!