Joined: 17 Oct 2003
|Posted: Sun Oct 19, 2003 4:52 am Post subject: Travel Story from Kris about Vietnam
|So far, Hanoi has to be the most interesting city in Asia that we have visited. It's a cow town, that can be walked in a few hours from end to end, provided you don't die from heat exhaustion. Okay, so maybe more than a few hours with frequent stops to get water or a Coke. Or if you don't feel like walking, rent a cab for the whopping price of three dollars, and enjoy air-conditioned comfort. Either way, it's a small and very friendly city. Filled with colonial French architecture, wide tree-lined boulevards and cafes, it maintains its charm.
Like most other countries in Asia, Vietnam has been hit hard by the currency crisis. Already poor, Vietnam has seen a major devaluation in its currency (the Dong...no I'm not kidding) and a slowdown in foreign investment. So things are very cheap for foreigners with dollars or any other hard currency to spend. Every restaurant we went to, every trinket we bought, was fire-sale cheap.
In case some of you don't know, there was this little incident that ended in 1975, called affectionately the "War with the Americans." Hanoi is packed with reminders of the war. Most noteworthy is the Hanoi Hilton, the prison made famous for the American flyers and crew held between 1965 and 1973. Most of it has been demolished and replaced with a big, capitalist, gleaming-glass office building. But what remains is shocking. The cells, the conditions, everything reminded us of the brutality of that war. Built by the French, the prison was used originally to house and torture Vietnamese anti-colonialists and rabble-rousers the French deemed dangerous. I have no idea how the American pilots and crew members survived it. The heat, the rats, the dark, the deplorable conditions, the leg irons, the torture. It was a prison up to 1994 when the Vietnamese recognized it was prime real estate.
Hanoi also has an Army Museum, an Air Force Museum, and several other museums filled with what is now junk from the war. Crashed U.S. aircraft, guns, MIGs, picture after picture of war. The most tiring thing about visiting any of the museums, other than the heat, is the rhetoric. Every picture with North Vietnamese killing Americans used terms like "Hero" "Patriot" "Comrade" "Struggle." The captions with any picture with South Vietnamese or Americans killing North Vietnamese was peppered with "Puppet" "Tyrannical" "Cowardly" "Imperialist". And as I said, it all looks like junk these days, after years of no upkeep and neglect sitting in the hot, damp Indo China weather. To the victor go the spoils. They won the war and they have put their spin on it, just as we would have if we won it.
And no, the Vietnamese harbor no obvious ill will from the war. In fact, the only Vietnamese I met on the street were warm, friendly people. Almost too friendly. They hardly see westerners, especially tall Americans, so they like to come right up to you and smile, stare, touch and chat. Anne got very claustrophobic in the Ho Chi Minh museum with all the people walking right up to her smiling and touching. One little boy who tried to sell me postcards on the street was fascinated with the hair on my arms and started petting them. He spoke some english, so he described them like a "monkey." More than 10 people one day wanted to practice their English with me. While standing in line to see Uncle Ho in his Famous-Communist-Leader-Black-Marble-Great-Big-Don't-Try-To-Forget-Me mausoleum, we were met with hundreds of giggling, staring people. In response I waved at them, and they waved back. And smiled. Say "Hello" to a Vietnamese and you'll get a quick smile or a wave and a friend who wants to try out their English. Anne and I now have several thousand friends in Hanoi. And yes, Uncle Ho is still dead and looking more like plastic than ever.
Food. I love food, and Hanoi is the place to be for French and Vietnamese. Vietnamese is most noted for being asian without all the heavy grease. The sauces are light and mildly spicy. We ate at some great restaurants for very little money, usually about $15-20 per person for three courses. Wine was extra. I had the best chocolate mousse ever in Hanoi. You can eat on the street, if you are brave and have a stomach made of cast iron, for under $1. You can see groups of people hunkered down in the shade, in front of the ubiquitous street kitchens, eating bowls of rice with various veggie and meat mixtures. A dish I'm sure won't catch on in America is bull penis. One place actually advertises a "24 inch bull cock cooked to perfection." Good for the sex life. Yum, yum. Perhaps Monica Lewinsky should visit. And dog. We saw lots of butchered dog. We won't take Sid. And I'm not eating bull cock. Just pass the Viagra.
The most exciting part of Hanoi? Crossing the street. Yes, crossing the street. There is a never ending, constant stream of Honda 50 motor bikes, bikes, cars, buses and trucks. They don't stop and they drive on all sides of the road. Crossing the street involves a bit of Zen. Step off the curb, maintain a constant speed and start walking. Amazingly, they go around you. Don't speed up and don't stop. Just walk. And chant. And pray. Be one with the traffic. Ooohhhmmmmm.
And the most amazing part of Hanoi? The stuff on the bikes. Three, four, five people. Butchered whole pigs. Cotton candy maker complete with cotton candy. Hardware supplies. Clothes and piles of shoes. Flowers. Piles of vegetables. One guy on a bike had more than 200 big jerry cans of water (empty I'm sure.) Unbelievable amounts of crap balanced perfectly in hectic traffic that would leave most New York cab drivers in a cardiology ward. The occupational safety people in the States would have a stroke.
No, Anne returned from her trip as capitalist as ever. For that matter, so are the Vietnamese. The ones I spoke to want a decent job, a car, a place to live, and to stop living the way they did under the communists. Uncle Ho was great, but the Russians sucked. The Americans were imperialist pig dogs in 1973, now we're Michael Jordan, Coke, Disney and hope for their economy. They seem to have warmed up to us. What used to be "Down With America" has turned into "I'm going to Disneyland." They're still communist, but practical about it. Amazing.
Hey, someone come visit us in Singapore. We can travel to Vietnam to try the bull cock. Or any of the other treats in Hanoi or elsewhere.
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