Sunday, January 24, 2010

Japin' round the world: Ho Chi Minh sends his regards.

So I have now spent a few days in Hanoi, which to me seems to be the city of 100,000 car horns. To be fair I haven't really seen anything yet with regards to extreme traffic; I'm told Ho Chi Minh City is worse. However, it's still pretty weird to behold the absolute madness of the roads here. Pretty much anything goes for the several thousand cars and several million mopeds that clog the streets. I was unnerved massively when the driver to my accommodation spent a majority of the trip sitting in the middle of the road straddling both lanes, except for when overtaking other cars and such. Also he seemed to hoot at every vehicle we passed, irrespective of whether he had been cut up or not. This was, at least, when he wasn't running dangerously close to mowing down several bike riders.

In the end you become so used to people beeping their horns that you just kind of zone it out. It loses all the significance that it has back home (where people often will restrain from using the horn unless necessary, or they are a stupid bastard who enjoys making people jump). I personally wonder if the car horn is one of Vietnam's official languages, with one sharp beep meaning "hello," one flat blast meaning "red" and 4 sharp honks meaning "can you please tell me the time."

Like the incessant horns, you also get used to the free-for-all that is crossing the road in Hanoi. I've been told many times - and it is definitely true - just walk across the street at a steady pace and the traffic will adapt. Just for gods sake don't walk in front of a bus! They tend to be less understanding of this logic. Also for a harrowing experience, try hiring a cyclo for a journey. They are basically like rickshaw bikes, and sitting in that, during the mid afternoon traffic, was an experience to remember.

Dealing with the people here is a tad awkward at times because of the language barrier. There is also the fact that you have to barter for everything as the locals always try to charge you double the going rate (rarely succeeding though). Also once again, you have hawkers everywhere who try to sell you nick-nacks, food, or even in one case - trying to mend my shoes. In the end you just find yourself blanking the ones who are trying to chase you into buying stuff and they get the message. They don't tend to push too hard in most cases and a lot get the idea when you say no.

Vietnam is certainly as cheap as I've been led to believe. Here 30000 Dong = 1 Pound, and in general one beer costs 20000 Dong or less. This has so far led to some nights of heavy drinking whilst socializing with the many people who come and go from the hostel I'm staying at. Whilst doing this I have discovered a new drinking game which is called Mushroom. To be fair it's a bit like drinking Jenga with a guess the right card colour element It's good fun, although through my own clumsiness, I ended up having to down two bottles of beer in quick succession. I don't find that too difficult, but it's a skill I use sparingly.

The buildings in Hanoi are very much like a cross between France and Chinese designs. Given that Vietnam was once a French colony this isn't surprising, but it really creates the feel of a kind of ramshackle version of Paris. And like Paris, the food here is delicious. I have now - bravely - sampled some of the street food and it is really tasty and extremely cheap (under 1 Pound). This is even more impressive considering the portion sizes that are served, which are fairly generous. Also the markets are very good too, considering you can buy seafood such as fish, squid and prawns, which are still alive. There is no doubt that here the food is fresh. What was slightly more weird was seeing a roast dog for sale on the market stall. I've often bragged in the past about trying dog meat for the experience, but something about the glaring teeth (left in despite the mutt's crispy appearance) really put me off the idea.

What has also been interesting is getting used to the fact that for the first time in my life I am in a Communist country. On the surface of things this doesn't really show much, except for a few generic and fairly amusing (mainly for their blind optomism and/or reverence to Ho Chi Minh) posters.

Old Ho Chi Minh is seen everywhere round here, from the money to the postcards. It is quite funny to walk around the Vietnamese Revolution Museum, as here 'Uncle Ho' is treated like a hero. The museum is adorned with gifts presented to him, mostly from other Communist nations (where in most cases Communism has since collapsed) such as a model tractor from Romania, and a . The museum is also unabashed about it's position on the South Vietnamese government during the war. Referring to it regularly as the "American Ngo Dimh Diem regime" or "The puppet government/army." All this is pretty true - which takes me back to doing GCSE history - but it's funny that they just come out and say it.

What is more surreal is the Ho Chi Minh museum near his mausoleum. Here there is a section showing off Vietnam and North Korea's allegiance. Here we can see Ho Chi Minh standing next to Kim Il Sung (who incidentally seems to be the smiliest man in the world in all the pictures he's in) and also, there are fairly recent pictures of Kim Jong Il visiting Vietnam. As for the main museum, well, it's trippy in a word. There are several avaunt-gard sculpture - such as a plate of giant fruit - representing positive values the government wants to promote, such as environmentalism. Also there is a strong feeling of propaganda here, as a lot of the documents keep using key words like: 'freedom,' 'happiness' and 'peace,' although thinking about it it's a bit like an American style speech where the words 'freedom' and 'liberty' are often used ad nauseum. Also the museum seems to re-write the history of the reunification of the Vietnam war claiming the Americans agreed to reunification at the Paris Peace Accord. I remember hearing that the Americans insisted on South Vietnams sovereignty. Funny eh?

You can also visit the Hoa Lo Prison, which during the war used to be known as the 'Hanoi Hilton' - interestingly there is a real Hanoi Hilton hotel now too, and certainly looks a hell of a lot nicer than this place. What is interesting to see is John McCain's flightsuit in here, as he was one of the most famous inmates of the prison.

After everything else however, I couldn't leave Hanoi without seeing the man for whom much of the national hysteria revolves. Ho Chi Minh's embalmed corpse can be found in a large, rather grand looking, masoleum in the west quarter of the city. Here visitors can come and pay their last respects to 'Uncle Ho' himself. He also has an inordinate amound of guards - all dressed in crisp white uniforms - keeping an eye on him, which seemed over the top, as he's not going to walk off suddenly. The great man himself doesn't look very well these days. Almost like a waxwork. I wondered to myself whether a few animatronics may add to the experience. It would be great! You could get him to sit up, sing a few songs, divulge a few facts about his life before quitely returning to his eternal slumber. What also made the experience a bit more interesting was that Vietnamese TV was filming near by, and they seemed to be recording a few 'patriotic' singers singing songs about Ho Chi Minh. They weren't very good songs I should add. Basically just putting the name 'Ho Chi Minh' to a tune. Now a bit of rap about Ho Chi Minh, that would be something!

2 comments:

Dauve said...

Hooray for communism!

Jon said...

An anamatronic Ho Chi Minh would be awesome, as would a robotic Lenin.