In honor of the excellent book (thanks for the recommendation, Ally!) I was reading during our stay in Hanoi, The Frangiapani Hotel, I thought I would try sharing a few anecdotes from our experience instead of the usual summary. Unlike those stories, though, these are true and far less haunting. And there are photos!
I Saved Anna’s Life
We heard that there are 6 million motorbikes in Hanoi. That number seems low. They are everywhere: driving the wrong way down one way streets; parked all over the sidewalks; maneuvering past the parked motorbikes on the sidewalks; and riding up ramps directly into homes. They are in the elevators with us. Ok, that last one was made up.
They are also in ice cream shops. After a long hot walk around the lake in Hanoi’s Old City we wandered down a street our hostel recommended for ice cream when a motorbike driver holding an ice cream cone bolted out of a building about 4 feet in front of us. We cautiously peeked around the side of the building and saw a motorbike parking garage surrounded by 3 ice cream stands. It was filled with motorbikes, their owners, and a security guard lounging on a metal chair with his shirt unbuttoned and his belly hanging out. We figured this was the place our hostel recommended so we headed in, dodging two motorbikes on our way in. Although we couldn’t read the all-Vietnamese signs, we figured out which booth was selling cones and ordered a couple. Being hot and hungry I immediately jammed mine in my mouth, then immediately stuck my hand between Anna’s cone and her mouth. Apparently this outfit only serves one flavor of ice cream, coconut, to which Anna is quite allergic.
And that is how I saved Anna’s life and got rewarded with two ice cream cones!
The Cyclo Driver
All over Vietnam there are bicycles outfitted with baskets attached to their fronts in which passengers can sit while the driver pedals them to their next destinations. These are called cyclos. We have not yet ridden in one, but we did have a meal and a drink with a cyclo driver.
One sticky Saturday afternoon we were walking back to our hostel when we heard clinking glasses and boisterous laughter coming from a nearby street corner. Like moths to a flame, we zig-zagged through the passing motorbikes and found a large outdoor pub where tables full of men (there were 3 women out of 40+ people) were toasting every 5 minutes and sloshing their draft beers over the plates and bowls of food they had ordered to share. Naturally we sat down and were immediately served a couple of cold Beer Ha Nois. Since there were no televisions, the group at the table next to us were our entertainment, and they did not disappoint. We only spoke with them to answer their question about where we were from (we were the only two Westerners there), but we noticed that every time they were toasting they would all finish their drinks – even if one had just gotten a full beer. They also never touched their food, which was incredibly strange since it was on their table when we arrived and was still there when we left about an hour later. Oh, and they were drinking about a glass of beer every 7 minutes or so. They would have been going faster, but the waitresses were struggling to keep up. It was an impressive display.
A cold shower and short air-conditioned rest later, we headed out in search of dinner. We only walked around for about 5 minutes before a Vietnamese man sitting at a street-side table urgently waved us over to his restaurant. Store owners trying to get us to sit down is something we have become accustomed to, but customers flagging us down was a new one. His food looked very tasty so we shrugged and sat down on the tiny plastic seats next to him and his friend. Turns out this was one of the guys from the bar we had visited earlier and who recognized us! Immediately, our new friend ordered us two plates of a rice and chicken dish and poured some rice wine into a small glass for a toast with me. Glad we stopped!
Our food was delicious, but the company was the real treat. Turns out this guy and his friend are cyclo drivers who (we chose to believe) had stopped for the day for a bit of weekend fun. The rice wine kept being poured and we kept toasting to Vietnam, America, cyclos, the ground, and whatever else. The only strange part was that they never offered Anna any, but it was probably just as well since she didn’t want it anyway. When we finished our friend walked us to the woman in charge to make sure we got the local’s price, then we shook hands and he left. Throughout the meal I kept wondering if this was some elaborate pitch to get us on his cyclo, but he never even hinted at that. He just wanted to be friendly. It turned out to be a great meal.
An Audience with Uncle Ho and Propaganda at the Hanoi Hilton
In addition to our more cultural immersion-type experiences we did some sightseeing in Hanoi, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was our first stop. Despite the 98-degree heat, we wore pants and modest shirts to our appointment with the Chairman of the Vietnam Communist Party because, well, one must dress for the occasion. I mean, how often does one get to see the preserved body of a former head of state who has been dead since 1969? Lucky for us, Uncle Ho was accepting visitors on this morning and not on vacation in Moscow for his annual touch up.
The whole surreal experience began with polite yet firm instructions for Anna to surrender her camera as photography inside the Mausoleum is strictly prohibited. By “strictly prohibited” I mean that there appeared to be a legitimate chance that one of the impeccably dressed, sweaty young soldiers guarding would stab you with his bayonet if you reached for a camera, cell phone, cigarette, water bottle, or sandwich within the prohibited area. Strangely, the prohibited area included the long but fast-moving line wrapping around the Mausoleum and down the next block.
Military guards and other official-looking people kept all of the visitors on the red plastic carpet and insisted that we not stray from it. Once inside the mercifully air-conditioned building we could no longer speak, put our hands in our pockets, cross our arms, or linger even for a second. If you stalled at all, a gloved hand grabbed your arm and urged you forward. The whole bizarre experience was over in about 15 minutes, which just added to the weirdness. For a guy who’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive, though, Uncle Ho looks pretty good!
The Hanoi Hilton (a/k/a Hoa Lo Prison) took us from the surreal to the…also kind of surreal. Hoa Lo Prison has as long and bleak a history as you would expect from a jail that was used by the French colonists to imprison political prisoners and by the North Vietnamese to imprison and torture U.S. pilots shot down during the Vietnam War.
Except only one of these stories is told in the museum that now exists in a closed part of the former prison. Oh, they acknowledge that American pilots were kept in the prison (John McCain’s pilot uniform is proudly displayed) and that the prison was mockingly referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton,” but they don’t acknowledge that the prisoners were mistreated in any way. In fact, the two videos featured in this exhibit go out of their way to show photos of U.S. soldiers playing pool, celebrating Christmas, unloading cases of beer, and watching shows about Vietnamese culture that allegedly caused them to repent their previous crimes against a North Vietnam. The most egregious example might have been the narrator telling the audience that the U.S. soldiers had a better quality of life in the prison than the average Vietnamese citizen did. That’s either an appalling admission that the average Vietnamese citizen was brutally tortured and imprisoned or a pretty bold lie. I’m guessing it’s the latter.
Hanoi, Vietnam: Click on the photo to view slideshow