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Good Morning Vietnam

Hanoi Travel Blog

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Vietnam

If you happen to arrive in Hanoi on the eve of Tet then there are a few things you’ll need- a moped, a huge red balloon and as big a branch of peach blossom as possible. Once you’ve assembled everything, then simply squeeze onto your moped with at least five other members of your immediate family and launch yourself into the beautiful chaos that is Hanoi traffic. It’s this unbelievable two-wheeled traffic that first hits you upon arrival in Hanoi- literally if you don’t watch where you’re going. Ten years ago it was nearly all bicycles but now it’s motorbikes and mopeds of all shapes and sizes. Hanoi has the highest concentration of motorbikes in the whole world and crossing the road is like ploughing through a fluid wave of two wheelers. Aside from entire families, the majority of riders are young men cruising around with their unfeasibly beautiful girlfriends perched behind them. Some of the women sit side-saddle whereas others straddle the bike with attitude. I decided that the side-saddlers were merely “courting” whereas the “straddlers” were in a relationship. I was quite pleased with my surmise until I spotted a heavily pregnant woman straddling and I realised that Vietnam was a tad like the traffic flow system, there is precious little logic- it just works…somehow.
I opted, controversially, for a three-wheeler for my first foray round the city. I hailed one of the fast-disappearing “cyclos”- a bench seat perched in front of a bicycle that a man a quarter of my size propels me around the city in. The little guy didn’t speak a word of English but delivered an uninterrupted, excitable monologue about his city that kept me totally entertained as I occasionally nodded or laughed where it seemed appropriate. He’d sometimes get so excited about a building that he’d start bouncing up and down on his precarious seat. For my own amusement I started making up my own version of what he was telling me. On the right we were passing the People’s Bubble Gum Factory, on the left was the Ministry For Branding Everything American As A Devil, coming up…it actually is a statue of Lenin, I can’t believe it, haven’t seen him around for a while…I loved my cyclo-tour.
A frontier is always a very good indication of what the country you are entering will be like. With Vietnam being one of the few remaining one-party Communist states left in the world, I was expecting some over-the-top totalitarian behaviour with heavily armed guards overlooking sinister plain-clothed types who’d scan your document endlessly for problems. Far from it- there were some uniformed types but they were all wearing curiously ill-fitting outfits and seemed uncomfortable in their roles. Seated behind the passport counter that I approached was a really friendly looking woman who gave the man before me a huge smile and spent a good couple of minutes chatting in heavily accented English about what he was planning to see in Vietnam? She even recommended a couple of restaurants. Hang on….my mind was racing- was this a honey trap? Were the restaurants she was recommending bugged and ready for action? It was my turn. I approached gingerly.
“Hello.” She said with a big smile.
I nodded non-committally, she wasn’t going to trick me into giving away any secrets.
“Welcome to Vietnam.” She said with another big smile.
“Just name and number that’s it Joly- they won’t break you” I whispered to myself.
“Happy New Year sir, enjoy your stay.” She waved me through with a final huge smile. This was a trick. I would relax and then someone was going to appear out of a little tunnel and stick sharp bamboo spears through me. I got my luggage cautiously and left the terminal fighting off tiny smiley porters and beaming miniature cab drivers. This country had perfected the “death by a hundred smiles” routine.
One of my terrible guilty secrets is that I actually enjoy travelling in totalitarian countries. They tend not to be too touristy and still retain an element of non-homogeneity about them that makes travelling through them a joy. I know that this is horribly naive and insulting to the general population who are being denied the unadulterated joys of a democratic, free market economy. Yet, the more Vietnamese that I spoke to, the more who seemed totally uninterested in who or how their country was being run as long as they were left alone to go about their business. One cab driver told me that whoever is in power would be as bad as the previous one- essentially they mistrust power but fear chaos. “Business” however, is the key word. For the last twenty years Vietnam has had her own version of Glasnost called “Doi-Moi.” It’s an arrangement whereby the “Party” looks after the politics and the press but the populace is essentially free to get on with everything else. Investment is pouring into the economic powerhouse that is the southern city of Ho-Chi-Minh and Vietnam is really starting to “boom.” Old Vietnam is fast disappearing under this new economic revival. The reason I went was that, listening to the BBC’s “From Our Own Correspondent” one day as I took my dog for a walk, I heard a reporter describe just how fast Ho-Chi-Minh was changing and that it was only a matter of a couple of years before it became no different from every other bustling Asian city. I decided on the spot that I’d better get there quickly- two weeks later I was. As I travelled through Vietnam I was reading Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” It’s the perfect travel companion to the country. Set in the 1950s in Saigon as the French colonial powers desperately tries to hold off the Viet-Minh it’s a frightening crash-course in the troubled history of the country. Fifteen years later it would be the Americans versus the Viet-Cong- history has a terrible habit of repeating herself in this country and it gives the Vietnamese a very strong “Carpe Diem” philosophy. This is a country that- however much progress it’s undergoing- does not have much truck with the uncertainties of the future.
As I got off the plane in Ho-Chi-Minh, a wall of humidity, that made the Northern capital of Hanoi feel positively chilly, assaulted me. As my luggage and I struggled through a large crowd of wide smiles I could feel my sopping shirt sticking to my back- my throat was dry as a bone. I remembered a line from Greene- “you couldn’t believe it would ever be seven o’clock and cocktail-time on the roof of the Majestic, with a wind from the Saigon River.”
I arrived at the evocative Majestic Hotel- the oldest in the city, half an hour later and couldn’t wait for seven o’clock. I knocked back a cocktail or two on the roof and raised a glass to Greene. Looking out from the roof terrace you could see that Ho-Chi-Minh (formerly Saigon) is a city in between identities. The latest invasion of Vietnam is not a military one- it’s an economic onslaught firing up big glass skyscrapers and ever-bigger advertising hoardings that seem, for some peculiar reason, to be almost entirely obsessed with one hundred percent latex mattresses.
I went to the War Museum where large amounts of US ordinance are littered about in the grounds, either abandoned or captured. But it was the uncensored picture gallery that really hit home- the terrible after-effects of Agent Orange, the scenes of torture and the sheer scale of the military onslaught that these people faced and defeated. I realised just how extraordinary was the lack of rancour and hostility that one faces in this country. We still hold stuff against the Germans a good sixty years later and, compared to Vietnam, they barley touched good old Blighty.
I loved Ho-Chi-Minh immediately, just as I had Hanoi. The Northern capital is more old school and slow-paced, whereas Ho-Chi-Minh buzzes with energy. Once again, the moped is the only real answer to getting around. Quite apart from the convenience it was also the only way that I could keep myself cool. I buzzed around the city barely getting off the machine. If I saw something interesting then I would slow down to a total crawl and only get off if I had to actually go inside a building, although, on a couple of occasions there were even ramps to allow you to drive inside- my kind of town.
I hunted for the most symbolic building in Ho-Chi-Minh- the old American Embassy from which the last desperate people were evacuated by helicopter from the roof as the North Vietnamese were entering the city in 1973. It had been razed to the ground. The site is still owned by the Americans but it’s now their consulate. The bollards, barbed wire, blast-proof walls and scowling armed guards prevented me from seeing anything whatsoever. Ironically, the Consulate of the leader of the “Free World” was the only real experience during my whole trip to this wonderful country that fitted in with my expectations of totalitarianism. God Bless the USA- they’ll never learn.


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photo by: mario26