Crazy line, waiting to see Ho Chi Minh
People who made my travels more enjoyable: Michelle (USA)
The morning began with Michelle and I getting dressed in our most appropriate mausoleum attire (shorts were forbidden). This meant long pants! In 110 degree weather! We skipped breakfast, hopped in a cab and soon arrived at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The thought of being outside for any length of time in pants was just dreadful. I knew before I came to Vietnam that it was going to be hot, but no amount of mental preparation could've trained me for what I was about to experience. As I'm sure some of you have read from my profile, I'm from Wyoming. Wyoming is arid and temperatures can often reach -40 during the winter.
Guards had awesome white uniforms
Its Asian equivalent would be Mongolia (if Mongolia's altitude was 6000 feet). I've spent my entire life living in cold weather climates like: Wyoming, Norway, Korea (I wasn't there in July or August) and New Hampshire. For lack of a better expression, I was like a fish out of water in Vietnam.
When we arrived at the gates of the mausoleum hundreds, if not thousands, of people were already lining up. It was true pandemonium. There was no way to tell where the line began or ended. Some military personnel were milling about, but they gave no instruction on where we should go. After a few minutes of following a group of Vietnamese people we reached the end of the line. Tourists and foreigners beware. There are literally no signs and nobody of any importance at the Mausoleum speaks English.
So hot right now...
If you come here, I suggest you get a translator and/or use the Hanoi
Kids service (local university students who wish to practice English and offer to show tourists around the city).
By the time we found our place in line we were already soaked with sweat. There was no way we'd be able to survive the wait without some water, so Michelle set off to find some. Not long after she left the line began moving, which meant we became separated. I spent the next 45 minutes in line by myself and I was quite concerned that I would not find Michelle. I was coming up with contingency plans in my head when she finally caught up to me. The whole experience was turning in to quite an ordeal.
Outside the Mausoleum
We had absolutely no way of knowing how long we would have to wait, or how far away the mausoleum actually was. After about an hour and a half we passed through a security checkpoint, full of metal detectors and armed guards. Michelle was asked to turn over her camera (which we assumed we'd never get back), apparently no cameras allowed in the mausoleum. A few steps beyond the checkpoint and we were finally able to see the Mausoleum!
Shortly after clearing security our luck took a turn for the worst. As we were approaching the entrance to the mausoleum the line suddenly stopped. Confused we began looking around for someone who might know what the heck was going on. We managed to find some other foreigners who had a Vietnamese translator with them.
Me and Michelle in front
Apparently the president of Vietnam had decided to pay the dear leader a casual visit. This meant we had to wait another hour for him to arrive (caravan and all), pay his respects and leave again. When the line finally started moving again Michelle and I were near whits end. Typical of Vietnam people started cutting us. I reached out and grabbed a few kids forcefully, swore at them in English and made them stand behind me. Normally I wouldn't have cared, but after waiting around for hours in the extreme heat, my temper got the best of me.
Finally we entered the mausoleum. The first thing I felt was a cool breeze of conditioned air. It was freezing, but compared to the heat outside, it felt like I had died and gone to heaven. Even after his death, Ho Chi Minh was providing his people with a comfortable environment for which they could pay their respects.
The second thing I noticed were guards dressed in beautiful white uniforms, brandishing post WWII semi-automatic rifles equipped with bayonets. The proximity of the guards to the tourists was very disconcerting. Rather than create an air of mystique the whole situation gave off an ominous aura. As we approached a dimly lit room, several guards began pushing and shoving us forward. This was done in an effort to keep the line moving as quickly as possible. We were able to briefly glance down on the waxy, embalmed figure of Ho Chi Minh before we were shoved onward. As we exited the mausoleum I took a brief moment to think about what I had just witnessed.
As far as I know, Ho Chi Minh is one of the few, if not the only communist leader to have his reputation remain untarnished.
Unlike Mao, Kim Il Sung or Stalin, Ho Chi Minh was an educated and thoughtful leader. Mao and Kim Il Sung made their reputation as guerrilla fighters, while Stalin was a master politician who took advantage of the climate following Lenin's death. Ho Chi Minh studied Chinese writing, traveled around the world, learned political theory in France and later moved to the Soviet Union to further his education. He is now referred to as, "Uncle Ho" and is viewed as a grandfatherly figure cares for all his people, even after death. His face is printed on t-shirts, money and monuments dedicated to him are placed throughout the country. Despite all this fame, up until his death, Ho Chi Minh requested that no monuments be built in his memory. Instead he asked that he be cremated and have his ashes spread in North, Central and South Vietnam.
Dinner at Highway 4
He didn't want to be buried, because his grave would take valuable space away from farmers. Ironically, the government built a giant mausoleum where his body would be kept on display for all to see. There is some speculation that the figure in the case is really not Ho Chi Minh, but a lifelike wax statue. Whether that is true or not, it was more than a bit haunting to see the figure of Ho Chi Minh embalmed and laid to rest in a clear glass case.
After we got home, I showered and took a nap while Michelle explored. For dinner we had settled on a place called Highway 4. Apparently they have multiple locations, but we chose the original site located NE of Hoan Kiem lake. The restaurant had a very flash website, so we thought it might be pretty good. When we set our mind on finding a nice trendy dinner spot we forgot to keep "trendy" and "nice" in perspective.
Vietnamese liquor (tasty)
The restaurant was gross, and the wait staff was impossible. Let me be a bit more specific, the restaurant was very dirty. Considering the price, I felt it should have been kept much nicer. Even more disappointing it looked nothing like it did on the website. The staff were inattentive, and had not been training at all. They kept putting their fingers in our food. The whole thing was a mess. I did get to try some Vietnamese liquor though (more tasty than I expected). I do not recommend coming to this place if you're in Hanoi. You'll find much better and cheaper food on the street!
Post dinner we returned to the little cafe by the side of the lake. There was a gentle breeze blowing and it began to drizzle. For the first time since I'd arrived in Vietnam I wasn't completely uncomfortable.
Sunset over the lake
We sat by the lake and had a quick beer. Apparently the rats were excited about the slight drop in temperature as they were out in full force around the lake. Gross I know! Either way, we enjoyed relaxing and watching people go about their business.
Michelle loves ice cream. "Where do you think we can find ice cream?!" she would say to me almost every day. Near Hoan Kiem lake there is a place called Fanny. Supposedly Fanny has some amazing ice cream, so at Michelle's behest we went to check it out. We had a similar experience at Fanny as we did at almost every restaurant in Vietnam. The food was good, but the wait staff was horribly trained. They made mistakes in our order, which by this point, we had become quite accustomed to. Making a mistake in an order is not that huge of a deal, the problem was when we noticed the mistake it was almost impossible to correct it.
We had found that many Vietnamese will respond with, "Yes" even if they have no idea what you are talking about. Rather than ask you to repeat slowly or explain in a different way, they would simply say yes and then nothing would change. We encountered this time and again and eventually became quite frustrated. Once the orders finally got sorted out we able enjoy some decadent ice cream. If you're in Hanoi, definitely check this place out. Just beware the inexperience wait staff and heavy price tag (by Vietnamese standards).
Our last scheduled event of the day was a viewing of the famous Vietnamese Watter Puppet Show (not sure if thats the right title or not). Apparently, water puppets is a tradition that is unique to Vietnam. This show, which is dedicated to tourists, tells about the history and folklore of Hanoi.
Scary water puppets
The show was very put together and many of the musical performers were fantastic. Despite the dilapidated theater I was very happy with the show. I'm a bit surprised they haven't done any renovations, the show was completely packed and sold out almost every day. I figured they would have enough profit to clean the place up a bit. Anyway, visiting the Water Puppet show is a must-do if you are in Hanoi.
We finished off the evening by touring a night market that had opened up near Hoan Kiem's northern shore. There were thousands of people walking about the stalls. It seemed that most products were for locals, but we found some interesting odds and ends. Most stalls were selling clothes or shoes, a few other had necklaces and other jewelry. It was generally fun to see everyone out and about.
After our brief tour we returned to the hotel for the rest of the night. Michelle went to sleep and I managed to stay up and watch half of the Germany - Spain semi-final match (even though it came on TV at 4:30am). The day had been jam-packed, tomorrow I was looking forward to a little time to relax.