Monday, October 22, 2012

Hanoi, Vietnam

This is Post #7 of the Vietnam & Cambodia section.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Room at the Sofitel Legend Metropole
To top all of our luxurious hotel stays, we ended our trip in the Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hanoi.  Though the Sofitel in Siem Reap was very resorty and looked like the stereotypical paradise, the Metropole was my favorite.  The Metropole has flowing curtains and dark wood furniture, and the combination makes the place feel like an enormous home instead of a hotel.  Running up one of their staircases, I felt like I might just be in a homey mansion instead of a luxury hotel.  I stayed in room 218, which had a plaque just outside the door explaining that the room had previously hosted the Italian Embassy in Vietnam.  Pretty cool!  It basically meant that I got a few extra pieces of furniture.

One of the Four Bathrobes
I also got four bathrobes with the room.  One person, four bathrobes.  Two were terrycloth and two were satin.  No wonder John Denver, Mick Jagger, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Bill Clinton stayed there!  They must have known about the satin bathrobes!

In terms of food, the Metropole has a French restaurant, their Club Bar, an Italian restaurant and bar, and a Vietnamese restaurant.  The breakfast buffet they served us was pretty incredible, and that's coming from a person who isn't crazy about most breakfast foods.  The hotel's building is directly connected to several designer stores, so you don't need to go outside to go (window) shopping.  Being in this hotel and discovering all of its perks and amenities was easily as much fun as going out to actually tour the city of Hanoi.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
The first thing we went to see in Hanoi was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, where his corpse is preserved and on display for followers, admirers, and curious tourists to see.  Surprisingly, just entering the grounds on which the mausoleum stands is as much of an experience as actually seeing Ho Chi Minh.  The area is over patrolled by soldiers of the Vietnamese military who never make facial expressions and continually shout noises to each other in what I think sounds like an angry language.  Before you enter the grounds, they line up tour groups in single file lines.  If you walk a few too many inches to the right or left, they get skittish and yell a bunch of clipped noises at you until you move into your designated place.

When you actually enter the grounds, they re-line you up, this time in pairs.  You have to stand exactly behind whoever is in front of you.  Then, they do these robotic, 90º turns away from you, and you have to start walking to follow them.  When they want you to stop, they stop on a dime and throw their arms up in your face to block your path, forcing you to stop walking.  Since none of us walk like that, had any idea what was going on, or apparently were paying enough attention to their walking patterns, we all crashed into the guy's arm, creating a tourist pile-up.  The very OCD soldiers weren't amused, but we sure were!

I know that they want to show respect for Ho Chi Minh, who many Vietnamese people refer to as "Uncle Ho Chi Minh," (according to our guide) but they're so rigid that it's unbelievable.  It's both surprising to see how much they revere him and his Spartan lifestyle and also surprising to be militantly marched around.  Personally, I think the marching is a little melodramatic and even detracts from the tourist's ability to focus respectfully.  It is possible, even easy, to show respect without that ordeal.  For tourists, it would be easier to focus and show respect without that charade because it is so rigid that it caricatures the visit.

Ho Chi Minh's Presidential Palace
Inside the mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh's corpse rests in a glass coffin.  He is so well preserved that he looks like he could get up and walk away.  At each corner of the coffin stands another motionless soldier whose eyes are probably dry from not blinking all day.  When we left the mausoleum and were allowed to talk again, our guide explained how much he loves Ho Chi Minh and that in order to preserve the body, they test new conservation chemicals on five volunteer corpses first.  The volunteers are stored under Ho Chi Minh's coffin.  We looked around at each other questioningly and silently wondered if our guide wanted to be one of those volunteers someday.

If you ever find yourself in Hanoi (just a hop, skip, and a jump to the other side of the world), I'd definitely recommend visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.  Getting marched around is a different experience and it gives you some insight about how things work there.

After lunch, we took a buggy ride around Hanoi so we could see the city efficiently.  We enjoyed passing several women in rice farming hats who were carrying food hangers.  Also, we spotted several mobile shops.  People sell things off the back of their bicycle there.  One guy had about a hundred bags of goldfish for sale on a shelf attached to the back of his bike.  Riding around in our buggy, we marveled at how squished everything looked, how crowded the streets were, and how the air felt gritty.  Over the course of this trip through Saigon/HCMC, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Hanoi, Taipei, and small villages, we saw several people wearing dental masks or scarves over their mouths and noses in order to protect themselves from the air.  Just walking around and breathing there, I could feel the pollution by the gritty texture of the air.

Museum of Ethnology
Following our buggy ride, we went to the Museum of Ethnology, which explains the history of the different indigenous groups of Vietnam.  Before going to the exhibits, I had no idea there were so many different groups there.  From the way the information was presented, it seemed to suggest that the different groups have not mixed much over the years.  Going through the museum, I wondered if there were good or tense relations between the different groups.

Hoa Lo Prison

Later in the afternoon, we went to visit the prison where both American and Vietnamese prisoners were kept during the Vietnam War.  The building is sometimes cynically called the "Hanoi Hilton".  Inside, it's clear that the cells have absolutely nothing to do with the Hilton.  They mostly looked like torture chambers.  In a hallway display case, we saw John McCain's uniform from when he served there.  What really bugged me about the place, aside from the crappy conditions in which the soldiers were stored, was the propaganda.  I'm well aware that every country probably has pro-itself propaganda during war time.  My issue with what I saw was that Vietnam made videos claiming that they were treating captured
"Long Live the Socialist Republic of Vietnam"
Poster at Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum 
Americans like royalty and that those captured were apparently grateful to the Vietnamese government for this special treatment.  The lies and forced testimonies in these videos were so over top that there wasn't the slightest bit of credibility.  What we realized was that since Vietnam restricted (and still restricts) access to social media, social networking, and many other sources of outside information, most of the people there actually believed these videos were true.  Scary, right?  Our guide explained that these sites like facebook are restricted because through them, it would be easy for other political groups to form and get many followers.  This brings me to another "interesting" point about Vietnam: The formal name of the country is "The Socialist Republic of Vietnam," yet as far as I'm aware, the only party there is the Communist Party.  I'd like some clarification on how that works.  I have not seen any American exhibits about the Vietnam War, but I would be interested to see one for the sake of comparison.

Exhibit at the Hoa Lo Prison
Before leaving on this trip, I read on the US State Department's website that writing publicly about the Vietnamese government, especially writing criticism, is not recommended while you're in Vietnam.  For this reason, I didn't post anything at all on my blog while on the trip.  However, I like to tell it like it is (whatever I observe), and now that I'm back in the US, I know it's safe to do that.  Indeed, while in Hanoi, I sensed the vibe that, as the US State Department warned, I really shouldn't comment publicly on the Vietnamese government.  In this respect, I found northern Vietnam (Hanoi) quite different from southern Vietnam (Saigon/HCMC).

Biking around Hanoi
My quick impressions of each city were that Hanoi was intense and controlling, and that Saigon was a little messy, a little festive, very crowded, and a cool place to explore.  Had I have spent another day in Hanoi, I would have gone to see the long mosaic that lines the highway, the Women's Museum, and a few other sites.  Culturally and historically though, I believe our tour showed us the main sites - the mausoleum really makes an impression.

Later that night, our tour group attended a farewell dinner at a restaurant across from our hotel.  After dinner, a small group of us hung around and chatted in the Sofitel Legend Metropole's Club Bar before going to sleep and departing in the morning.  I said a few goodbyes, thought back on my two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia, and packed for the next destination: Taipei!

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