Published: April 5th 2012April 5th 2012
After a good night's sleep, on very hard mattresses, interrupted once by my phone reminder going off at stupid o'clock telling me to put my bins out (I have a crap memory, it wouldn't happen otherwise!), we tucked into a massive breakfast, which if you had wanted could have included spaghetti bolognaise, I kid you not!
I spied a newspaper in English so nabbed myself a copy of the Viet Nam News, a National English Language Daily as it was described. Front page news was all about the steadily increasing inflation, predicted to rise 0.5% every month with the reason given as hikes in energy prices and rising health care costs. There had also just been an ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh intended to help raise their profile. The challenges listed at the conference sounded pretty familiar: global economic uncertainties, the European debt crisis and the high prices of - can you guess? - crude oil! However the ways of tackling these problems seemed more enlightended when you read other articles in the paper - none of the twatty Tory's austerity measures, cuts and redundancies, but rather working with the State Bank to lower bank lending interest rates for small
and medium businesses with larger numbers of workers to encourage a boost of the manufacturing and construction sectors and to help create jobs. They were also supposedly going to be speeding up implementation of social welfare policies such as hungar erradication, poverty alleviation and price stabilisation. In other words investment and spending not cuts cuts cuts. Not so hard is it Condems, thinking about the masses instead of your rich buddies! This said there did also seem to be increasing numbers of unemployed currently, but I was surprised to find they do have an unemployment insurance system in Vietnam for those who lose their jobs. Well this is the idea, however even though the priority is meant to be for assistance to go to employees who have lost their jobs, they don't often get the money, instead the enterprises refuse to pay up. I guess the sticky fingered rich hang on to their ill-gotten gains at the expense of the proles the world over! The sad reality is not many Vietnamese have such insurance schemes and there is no welfare state safety net so if you on fall on hard times you are stuffed unless family or friends can help
One interesting story caught my attention. Apparently many of the Hanoi street medicines sold by 'quacks' as the paper called them, contain lead and even arsenic. 130 children had been hospitalised in the last 3 months with lead poisoning symptoms. The medicines had been used to try and treat things like thrush, rickets and anorexia. The doctors said that because of a lack of specialist medicines it would take years to treat those affected and they will likely suffer life long symptoms.
By the way, I haven't yet found out how controlled the media is, probably pretty highly, so I guess all these stories should be taken with their due pinch or two of salt.
My news perusal was cut short as we headed off in a minibus to our first group trip of the tour, to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Scatty Lottie hadn't been paying attention when we were setting off and so, like when I was stuck in a queue at Europaparc in Germany in 1999 thinking I was in for a sedate 3-D type 'virtual' roller coaster ride only to find out, too late, that it was actually a massive REAL roller
coaster ride - IN THE DARK!, here too I couldn't get out of it and found myself trouping past a mumified corpse of the late president 'Uncle Ho' as they affectionately call Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969! Apparently he isn't there for 3 months of the year from Sept, as he goes on holiday to Russia for a bit of rest and recuperation, so to speak! What made it doubly weird were the countless little crocodiles of small children, with their school teachers processing them past the body too. Some were of nursery age! Very cute they were, giggling and saying 'hello, hello' as they passed the strange foreigners. No talking inside the mausoleum though, very strict it was. 'Shhhh!' said the white uniformed guards, 'Hands out of pockets, walk in twos!' I asked afterwards if there had been any trouble there and was this the reason for the body being so heavily guarded, but no, everyone is highly respectful and the guards are just being over officious, probably because they are bored out of their skulls. They are young men on their compulsory National Service with the army.
Afterwards we went to the grounds that housed
the presidential palaces and homes of the late president Ho Chi Minh. He only stayed for about 3 months in the grander, French designed and built palace before de-camping to the less austentacious, House 1954 (the year he moved in) where he stayed for 4 years. Even this was too grand for the unassuming Uncle Ho and he finally moved into a specially built House on Stilts, which we had a look inside. Without the hoards of visitors it would have been a very peaceful place, with its own lake full of coy carp to bring luck and beautiful trees, from both the north and south of Vietnam, so that the whole country could be with Uncle Ho in spirit. We noticed the trees were painted white around their bases and Phat explained that it happened during the Tet Festival, celebrating the Lunar New Year when everything is made new. People buy new clothes and shoes and give each other envelopes with crisp new bank notes inside, to bring luck. The trees, as they cannot be made new any other way, are symbolically given a fresh coat of paint around the base each year. This provides the added benefits of
termite protection and the effects of use as 'happy trees' - or urinals if you remember my bit about the 'happy house' from our briefing talk! I don't think they really know much about tree preservation as I saw some other trees where they had filled in the hollows with (cover your ears tree lovers) concrete!!
We then had a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a strange mix of photos, artifacts and the usual bits and bobs you would expect, but also art installations and depictions of how the struggles of the people were seen by the artists. One was of a massive white table and chairs with a bowl of fruit on the table, supposedly symbolising the production of food! When I have my camera with me I'll add some of the quotes and pieces I found interesting that Uncle Ho was supposed to have said at various official occasions. He is portrayed very much as the saviour of Vietnam and seems highly revered, loved and respected for what he did for the country. Our guide was very complimentary and was keen to tell us what a great president Ho Chi Minh had been and the
self sacrifices he had made for the Vietnamese people who he considered his family, not having a wife and children of his own.
After freshening up at the hotel we had a bit of free time, so me and Jodie set off on a walk along the busy streets, taking our life into our hands each time we had to cross a road, to get to Hoan Kiem Lake. It's basically a case of confidently stepping out into the road and walking slowly and leisurely across so as to allow the mopeds and cars to weave around you. It does actually work, but takes a bit of faith and getting used to. We found ourselves a huge tall building overlooking the lake with balcony restaurants and went right to the top to have our lunch and a beer, all for the princely sum of 250,000 dong in total! Don't worry we didn't have to take out a mortgage - that's only about £6. We had fun watching the 'junction' down below and the traffic weaving in and out like some police motorbike formation team display. I got some cracking shots of all the weird things that people manage to
get on the back of their mopeds and will upload these when I get a chance (see Moped Madness blog entry).
Jodie didn't fancy a hike round the lake so headed off back to the hotel for a kip, while I went to see if I could get onto the little island on the lake via the pretty red bridge I'd seen from our high up vantage point. For a dollar entrance I went to have a look at what turned out to be the Ngoc Son Temple, a small 18th century building called Tortoise Tower. I had a look inside the temple with its highly decoratively carved idols. People were coming in to pray and make offerings, money is apparantly needed by the gods for some reason as there were lots of notes stuffed into nooks and crannies all over the place! Also stuffed is a massive giant tortoise in a glass case that was apparently caught in the lake.
As it was very hot and humid and I had spied rickshaws on our way out to the Lake, so I decided to haggle my price with one guy and take the lazy option. Being in the
middle of the crazy traffic at the front a cycle conraption with some guy pedalling behind me was 'fun'!
This evening we are off to see the famous Vietnamese Water Puppet show, which is either going to be amazing or dire depending on which story and which friend of a friend people in our group can be trusted to believe. Maybe we should hedge our bets and sit near an exit just in case.
There are more photos below