Travel: Dennis Carr in Vietnam, Part I

Vietnam by air, train, rowboat

kayak, ferry, scooter, bicycle, and foot

Image: Detail of photo a temple in Vietname, taken by Dennis Carr.

'Vietnam has a communist government, a capitalist economy'

Part One

Why Vietnam? Was it because the Vietnam War was my generation’s watershed moment and I wanted to check it out nearly 40 years after the end of the ‘conflict overseas’? Nothing as dramatic as that. In truth, we were living in Vancouver at the time and were as close to Asia as we would ever likely be, we had heard great things about the country and we loved the food. But the Vietnam War was a touchstone for my generation. In the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s nobody was neutral; you were either for or against the American invasion of Southeast Asia. Throughout the trip, the war wasn't far from my mind.

War! What is it good for?

In 1969 I was a junior Camp Councillor at Salvation Army Camp Nathan Hale in Connecticut. (Nathan Hale, in case you didn’t know, was a spy hung by the British during the American Revolutionary War. He allegedly regretted having only one life to give to his country). In 1969 there were riots in the streets of black America, including nearby Hartford. The radio played Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane and the black teenaged camp staff played James Brown 45’s on portable record players: Sing it loud, I’m black and I’m proud! Meanwhile the camp authorities expected the Councillors to lead the campers in a pre-breakfast reciting of the American Pledge of Allegiance. I declined the honour using the excuse of being a Canadian. The real reason was my uneasiness at participating in a patriotic sacrament ending with the phrase ‘one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. In 1969 the nation was divided. There wasn’t much liberty and justice for the anti-Vietnam protesters and even less for the blacks marching in the streets.

The senior Councillor in my cabin was a 25-year old ex-marine, newly returned from Vietnam with a machine gun bullet-wound scar on his stomach and minus a left foot thanks to a Viet Cong land mine. His small Veteran’s settlement had gone towards an Olds 442, a very fast car which he would drive around the countryside after sneaking out of his cabin at night. He regaled me with stories of being an infantry grunt in the jungle. His best friend was a 17-year old son of a Salvation Army minister who couldn’t wait to turn 18 so he too could join the marines.

So I had a healthy curiosity about how things were going 38 years after Vietnam was liberated after so many years of French and American occupation.

Welcome to Vietnam

Janet, George (age ten) and I like active vacations and this trip was no different. Five of our fourteen days were spent biking through north central Vietnam. Afterwards we managed to do some kayaking, swimming and scootering.

We flew out of Vancouver on Taiwan-based China Airlines. The flight was long and uneventful, which is as good as airline travel gets these days. It was also very purple: layers of mauve, magenta, violet, lilac and plum covered everything from seats, carpets, serving trays and the plates to the flight attendants.  It was like floating in a field of lavender.

After a layover in Taipei we landed at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport where we were met by the driver sent by the hotel. For an international airport serving the county’s capital, the terminal was surprisingly small and shabby but travelling into Hanoi we realized this would soon change. Leaving the airport on a rough road we passed kilometer after kilometer of construction activity all in aid of, the driver proudly explained, a very large new terminal.

This was our first trip to Southeast Asia and we didn’t know what to expect other than a few tips gleamed from the Lonely Planet guidebook. The first remarkable thing we noticed was the frenzied traffic. All manner of motorized and non-motorized vehicles seemed to be competing for space without any apparent underlying organizing system. Vietnam has a communist government and a capitalist economy. Perhaps they placated the anarchists by putting them in charge of the traffic.

Image: Detail of photo a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Bicycle fruit vendors, with traffic in the background. Photo by Dennis Carr.

The traffic system in North America and Europe is rule-based. Laws, traffic signals and traffic cops dictate when to stop, when to go, where to turn, how fast to go . . . When we’re behind the wheel, we assume rights as well as obligations and we defend and exercise these rights when we drive. This is my lane; I don’t have to move over just because you’d like to be in it. You can’t turn left because I have the right-of-way. Tough luck to you buddy!  In Vietnam, as I’m told in much of Asia, there’s a cultural understanding that it is in everyone’s best interest to be accommodating. If there’s an obstruction in the way, instead of asserting your right to be where you are, you and everyone around you gently moves aside, like current flowing around a rock in the river.

For those outside of Asia, the best way to explain this might be a skating rink or, in Ottawa, skating on the Rideau Canal. There really aren’t any formal rules or anyone around to enforce the rules if they existed but there are social conventions. Skaters don’t expect to have a straight line to wherever they are going but instead constantly shift left and right and change their speed to accommodate others. You don’t have to skate counter clockwise on the rink, or on the right side of the canal but most people do. And no one is overly concerned when someone, usually young men and taxi drivers, get in their way. Still, crossing the street in Hanoi was intimidating until you realize that if you gently insert yourself into the melee and don’t make any sudden moves you’ll probably survive the experience.

The sights and sounds of Hanoi

We had three days in Hanoi to acclimatize before the bicycle trip began. It was a wonderful experience, if somewhat bewildering.. The driver took us to the Angel Palace Hotel located in central Hanoi on the edge of the Old Quarter. It was late morning and the room wasn't ready so we wandered around, disoriented from lack of sleep, from the tropical heat and from the utter confusion, cacophony and chaos around us.

Image: Detail of photo a rainy street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

As we walked down the sidewalks, we were approached by a steady stream of peddlers selling all manner of goods and services. For one dollar, a young entrepreneur offered to clean George's shoes which were still muddy from playing soccer in the park near our Vancouver home. He cleaned one shoe and put his hand out for the money. When I asked about the other show he explained it was one dollar per shoe. Stopping outside a cash machine, someone lying in wait pulled out a bottle of crazy glue and, without asking, repaired a loose bit of rubber on my shoe. He then untied a loose shoelace and retied it. I resisted when he tried to do the same on the other shoe, even though it cost me another dollar. Eventually, after a lot more wandering around the maze of narrow crowded streets we found ourselves back at the hotel and checked into our room.

The hotel, like many of the others we encountered, seemed to be run by bright, efficient and friendly high school students. The room was clean and modern and the hotel staff went out of their way to be helpful by assisting with travel tickets, tour information and anything else we, or they, could think of.

After a nap we headed out for more wide-eyed exploration. Every street in this section of Hanoi has a different name according to the prime retail offerings. It can be anything from metal working, colourful paper products, fabric (our hotel was on the silk street), mannequins, auto repair. There was a small, pedestrian-only lane (which means no cars, not no scooters which are ubiquitous) where every store sold women’s undergarments. On the street of shoes (or was it the street of soles?), I purchased some sandals. The nice lady wanted 450,000 Dong, I thought 250,000 was appropriate and we settled on 350,000 Dong (about $17.00US) after she pointed out the ‘Clarks’ label on the bottom of the sole. Not that they really were Clarks. One of the sandals was misshapen, eventually producing a blister on my left heel.

The sidewalks of Hanoi are used for many purposes: They serve as the sitting and eating area for the street food stalls, and are used to park scooters bikes and sometimes cars. They nurture mechanics, blacksmiths, small and large motor repair shops, metal working, sewing, toe nail clipping and any other enterprise needing a small site to operate. Walking down the street involves a constant dance around all these obstacles and often pedestrians give up and join the steady stream of bicycles, scooters and cars on the street.

As someone who has spent a career or two in the development and construction industries in Canada I couldn’t help noticing the total lack of, or perhaps total disregard for, bylaws regulating the design and construction or the buildings.  The buildings would have started out centuries ago as one or two floors in height and then over the years additional floors were layered on without regard for any design, setbacks or urban planning regulations. They seemed to be held up by a spiders web of drainage pipes, plumbing stacks, vents and electrical wires.  A building inspector’s nightmare maybe, but a tourist’s dream.

Image: Detail of photo a buildings in Hanoi, Vietnam, showing history of chaotic construction. Photo by Dennis Carr. Next morning, the excellent hotel breakfast featured a variety of western and eastern dishes. George had pho and pancakes, while I had a perfect, omelet, fried potatoes, ham and fruit including pineapple, dragon fruit and watermelon and thick strong coffee.  

The Hanoi Hilton

Image: Photo of women tending flower beds in front of the Ho Chi Minh Memorial in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

After breakfast we walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but it was closed so we wandered around the grounds, took photos of the women tending the gardens in front of the mausoleum, before walking to the Temple of Literature, and then on to Hỏa Lò Prison.

During the Vietnam War, Hỏa Lò Prison was nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton” as it held many American POWs. The prison was built in the centre of Hanoi by the French in 1887 to house those protesting the French colonial regime.  Now a museum, the first area displayed various artifacts of incarceration, (including a guillotine), highlighting the cruelty inflicted on the Vietnamese by the French during their occupation. After the French were expelled in 1954, the prison was used for civilian lawbreakers and from 1964 to 1973, it held American airman captured while bombing North Vietnam. The last exhibit area showed photos of smiling, happy, well dressed, American POWs preparing their Christmas meal, strumming guitars and playing basketball. Among the photos was one of (now Senator) John McCain being pulled out of Trúc Bạch Lake in central Hanoi after his plane was shot down during a bombing raid.

Image: Photo of water puppeteers, with puppets. Photo by Dennis Carr.

In the evening we went to a brilliant water puppet show; a popular tourist attraction highlighting the various traditions and creation myths of Vietnam’s ethnic cultures. Thanks to the diligence of the hotel staff we had front row tickets.

Uncle Ho and the Revolution

Image: Photo of the exterior of the Ho Chi Minh Memorial in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

The next morning, a light rain provided relief from the heat and the smog, if not from the humidity. After breakfast we taxied to the mausoleum where after a short wait in line we were shepherded through the area where Ho Chi Minh lies in state. The drizzle only helped set the stage for a somber yet reverential experience. Uncle Ho is a revered figure in Vietnam. In my twenties, I had the opportunity to visit the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square. At that time I didn’t really appreciate the significance of the event. My most vivid memory is being admonished by a stern guard for having put my hands in my pocket. Thirty-four years later, and not quite as callow, the viewing of Uncle Ho left more of an impression. I found the experience quite moving.

Image: Photo of plaque depicting history of Vietnamese wars of liberation at the History of the Revolution Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

We then made our way to the History of the Revolution Museum. We wandered through room after room of artifacts, photos and memorabilia of 150 years of oppression starting with the French, the Japanese, the French again assisted by the Americans, then the Americans and ending with a few displays of post-liberation economic, technological and social progress. By this time it was late morning and still suffering from jet lag and propaganda overload we felt the need to head back to the hotel for a rest. We fortified ourselves for the half hour walk by stopping at one of the many cafes for Vietnamese coffee (it features Carnation Milk), mango juice, chocolate sundaes and a caramel custard. Our spirits raised and bodies nourished we found the strength to move on. On the way back we happened upon a fair trade shop selling products made by disabled women from the Mekong Delta area of southern Vietnam and Cambodia. We ended up purchasing a lovely handmade silk quilt.

More Strolling

Image: Photo of temple in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

After our naps we set out into the Old Quarter to visit what was advertised as the oldest Buddhist Temple in Hanoi. The walk through the narrow crowded noisy lanes took us by stalls of produce, fresh meat, a bag of live wriggling toads, fish, crabs, eels, weird shell fish and all sorts of fruit, vegetables, and herbs. We happened upon what seemed to be the ‘bohemian’ part of the Quarter as there were many backpacker hostels, bars and western style cafes. There was even an Irish Pub; named 'O'Toole's' or some such nonsense, with a big green leprechaun on the door, mixed in with the local shops.

Image: Photo of Street of Lights in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

For dinner, we selected a spot which, according to the indispensable Lonely Planet guide, featured wonderful street food. On the sidewalk was cooking equipment and displays of fresh meat and sea food and folks were sitting around low plastic tables, eating. Inside, the restaurant there were plastic tables and low chairs, no diners, no sign of servers and no welcoming attendant inviting us to sit down. Thoroughly intimidated and unsure about how to navigate the delivery of a meal we fled. We found a more welcoming spot across the street and sat inside while the staff cooked on the sidewalk. George ordered pho (quel surprise!), Janet and I ordered variations of fried chicken and noodles. With a Hai Noi beer (450 ml.), coke and Vietnamese coffee the bill amounted to the equivalent of $7.50.

The following morning Joe Nguyen, our Marco Polo Travel guide, met us at the hotel and drove us to his suburban home where the van, the mountain bikes and our next  adventures awaited us.

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