Our final destination in Vietnam was Hanoi, the former capital of Northern Vietnam and now the main cultural hub of the country. Hanoi, unlike Ho Chi Minh City, still retains a little bit of charm and pizazz. There’s a whole lot of chaos on the streets, as motorbikes whizz this way and that. The labyrinthine streets of the old quarter are easy to get lost in, but that’s all the fun. Each street is named for the type of wares everyone sells on the street. This means our hotel was on what must have translated as “Cheap plastic toys and shit Street.” Nevertheless, we managed to do some fun shopping and wander around the city.
When our bus from Halong Bay arrived to Hanoi in the afternoon, we soon realized that tickets for Hanoi’s famous water puppet show were sold out. I was not in the least disappointed. After lunch, we went to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. This prison was built by the French at the very end of the 19th century and was used to hold revolutionary Vietnamese (the communists). After Ho Chi Minh rose to power in the North, the prison became used by the Communist Party to detain run of the mill Vietnamese wrongdoers. The prison wasn’t too interesting in and of itself until we got to the room that discussed the treatment of American pilots POWs. According to the prison, all of the pilot prisoners were treated like Kings. They were allowed to play games, eat good food, roam the campus, and just complete a few simple chores. While I don’t necessarily distrust the information, I certainly question it.
The next day I was led to further questioning of the Vietnamese government, as all good trips to a communist country end up doing. We woke up early to visit the Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh’s body is preserved and open to viewing of the public. Tori pre-described the experience as “the Vietnamese Mona Lisa” (all this hype and not much delivery, see also: Stonehenge) and she wasn’t wrong, but there’s a lot more to it than that. When we arrived on the far side of the compound we could see the part of the line that entered the mausoleum. We traced it back for about 15 or 20 minutes until after a least a kilometer of walking and dodging traffic, we made it to the end of the line. Here, we had to wait for an hour in the longest line (length wise) I’ve ever waited in. We shuffled through the line, having to turn in our cameras, and going through multiple security checkpoints. When we finally arrived at the mausoleum door we were given the rules of viewing his body: keep walking, absolute silence, and no smiling. No one dared disobey as the whole place was populated by Vietnamese military, each sporting rifles with bayonets. As soon as you entered the miniscule display room, you can see about ten feet away in the center of the room a man’s body preserved in a light yellow light. Four guards stood at attention surrounding the body as all of the visitors filed around the perimeter of the room. More guards stood at the corners of the pathway. Even though everyone kept shuffling through, they would grab you and throw you forward, rushing you away from the body. I maybe spent 30 seconds in that room before I was forced out by the inexorable push of more visitors and the guard.
To say the least, it was a very odd experience. It was clearly meant to be reverential, but it was also eerily militant. It left a bad feeling in everyone’s stomachs and we had to take a detour back to the hotel because the police told us we had to. Tori and I spent the afternoon wandering the old city, shopping and eating. We had some delicious fried dough snacks and we went to a little hole-in-the-wall place that served amazing bun, a Vietnamese noodle dish. We spent the whole day just kind of wandering around the city, walking around the lake. It was another relaxing afternoon, before our plane flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand!