Hanoi part deux

[June, 2007]

With my Sapa and Halong Bay excursions behind me, I decided to spend the rest of my Vietnam stay in the capital. Allowing myself an upgrade, I moved to a nicer, more professionally run hotel, almost breaking the bank at twenty bucks a night.

I spent most of my time wandering the exploring the streets. With newfound photojournalistic aspirations, I observed and documented every-day life – barbecued dog and cold beer during the two-hour lunch break; respite from the sun in shaded alleys; traffic-lit card games at night; the traffic..

Hanoi was an overwhelming and often difficult place to visit. With so much of life taking place in the streets, one’s senses are pummeled during open hours — roughly from 5am until 11pm, and later if you should find yourself drinking an illicit beer at a bar staying open past the legal closing time. The heat, as I have mentioned too many times already in this blog, was oppressive; yet, being unable to rouse myself at the crack of dawn every day, I would, time and again, go out and see the town when the sun is strongest, exactly when most people are taking it easy.

But the weather wasn’t what was getting on my nerves. I have to admit that it was the people. With so many people being rude all the time, my Vietnamese experience had by this point turned me more misanthropic than usual. Don’t get me wrong; I did meet many warm and engaging people — from enthusiastic Easy Riders to random passengers at the train station wanting to practice their English — but there was a definite antagonism towards tourists throughout my time here, likely amplified by the realization that no, i was not going to buy that crappy trinket. But maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m looking at it exactly the wrong way. Maybe the Vietnamese are, by and large, honest, no-bullshit types. Perhaps they simply don’t fake niceness the way the Thais and Japanese do, and that is a sincerity to admire. Or, maybe it’s just a gray by-product of communism; after all, I’ve had rude gruffness pierce me to my basest core in China and Poland as well. Not to mention New York City, where a fuck you passes as neighborly. Perhaps I’ve simply been softened by San Francisco and gentle, PC California. Either way, I’d reached lows unfelt since I’d left NYC.

One day I went to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex and surrounds. Though the museums were closed that day, it sufficed to wander the grounds and admire the oppressive and impressive buildings. Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse is on display in a massive, cubic edifice in the center of a sprawling square. It is said that the body goes to Russia every year for ‘maintenance’, and though I didn’t get to see it, I imagine it looks just like Mao’s corpse in Beijing, resting in waxy repose for some kind of posterity. There are armed guards in white military uniforms, and even outside the rules for visiting are authoritarian.

To wit, when I was setting up a self-portrait in front of the building I got into some trouble. See, I hadn’t brought a tripod, so was using my backpack to position my camera on the ground. The instant I set my knee down on the pavement to look through the viewfinder one security guard started yelling at me and another hurriedly walked over to explain that I couldn’t kneel in front of the building. With amused disbelief, I decided this would be a fun farewell game to play. When the guard walked away I went over to a group of tourists, who, exhausted, were taking a seated break on the sidelines. They told me they’d just gotten in trouble with the guards when they tried sitting on the grass, and then again when one of them put her head in her boyfriend’s lap. Rolling my eyes, I asked one of them to take a photo of me. Helping him set up the shot, I warned him that I would be doing a handstand in front of the the mausoleum; after all, I had to continue my series of paradas-in-famous-places, and fuck if this wasn’t gonna be good now that it was sacreligious. “Um.. Okay” he said, and readied himself. I had all of a second before the commotion started, and we nailed it. The security guard from before stormed over, not smiling this time, and pointed to the camera, shouting in Vietnamese. “Oh this?” I pointed, “no, it’s okay.” He continued his shit-fit, and I continued in turn. “No, really. Thanks though” I said, smiling, and walked away.

It was exactly the kind of fun I’d desperately needed in the last few days.

As I started to ready myself to leave for the airport the humidity finally cut and it started to rain. A breeze offered me a chance to reflect on my time in this country. I had had a challenging stay for various reasons, but was leaving the better for it. It is certainly a fascinating country, and put in the context of its neighbors I appreciated it that much more. Fiercely proud independence, revolutionary ideals versus newfound entrepreneurship, overwhelming population density, incredible scenery, stunning sunsets, unexpected cultural and religious heritage, amazing food… these are the phrases I will remember in retrospect. I’ve seen Vietnam on the tourist track. Next time I come here I will be sure to do it differently, see more, go deeper.

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