Published: May 8th 2012May 1st 2012
We come to the end of things, here in the capitol of Vietnam, Hanoi.
In Saigon I confronted a new pace to life, frantic and rushed. Da Lat and Sapa were both quiet, their distances from the great cities freeing them from a press of too many people and Hoi An was like being transported back into a slightly twisted European culture. Now I find the capitol to be something all of its own as well.
There is the ever-present division of wealth, with shacks hugging to the river and skyscrapers rising up behind them and the traffic is worse with more motorcycles zooming by than you have time to count. Highways here have ramps, the only time I've ever seen a road in Vietnam rise above the ground and from the back of a motorcycle taxi I look out and feel as if there is an ocean of tin and metal around me as far as the horizon.
But getting down beneath the surface Hanoi has certain charms that other cities lack. Here trees line avenues, their branches green and full their trunks a series of twisted bark that look like muscle tendons wrapped around one another.
Though still polluted the air feels lighter with the occasional breeze against my cheeks. Roads are narrow and twist sporadically so that getting lost is far too easy but also rather enjoyable and havens of air-conditioning (for those of us who don't glisten but sweat) and fruit smoothies are on nearly every corner.
Hanoi also has a sense of order-within-chaos that is absent from other Vietnam cities because each street is lined with shops selling the same thing. There is the shoe avenue where leather slippers spill out over sidewalks, every color imaginable and the t-shirt road where buying one is impossible with the rainbow of colors blinding your eyes. Home repair shops are down one street, living rooms packed to bursting with nearly anything one might need: hammers, extension cords, light bulbs, and even the occasional electric saw. Business being slow, owners prop a chair up against piles of merchandise, perhaps to prevent it all falling out onto the street, and nap the afternoon away. Other homes have been turned into mechanical garages the oil spilling out creating colorful smears down the street.
Tucked down a side street, inconspicuous with its yellow barricade wall with a large
skyscraper rising behind it is Hoa Lo Prison, a symbol of physical and psychological torture for both the Vietnamese (incarcerated here by the French) and the Americans (held here by the Vietnamese). The modern building with blinding glass windows is meant to cover up some of this horrific past, to move on, but a sense of great loss and inhumane actions still haunts the cement corridors that maybe should never be forgotten.
One hall holds wax figures of emaciated men, their ribs jutting from their bodies with one ankle each shackled to a long iron rod. Some are smiling, others stare emptily into space, and one cries on the shoulder of the man next to him. Walking towards the far door, with no choice but to pass between the two lines of malnourished men, I can feel their waxed eyes following me accusing and pleading all at once. The isolation cells, here only able to hold three prisoners at once, are darker and the window set high up on the wall almost touching the ceiling lets in a trickle of light that offers very little comfort. I try to picture years barricaded behind these bars but my imagination falls
I read once that an American POW, returning to Vietnam after the war and this time as a government representative, was asked at a formal banquet by a ex-Viet Cong officer if he was tortured at Hoa Lo Prison. The American didn't want to bring up the pain he experienced during his years as a POW, not when he was trying to move forward into peaceful relations with his former enemy, but the former VC insisted. Finally he pulled up his sleeves to reveal jagged, angry scars crisscrossing his arms. The VC stared a moment then rolled up his pant leg to show matching scars, these from his time in the same prison under French rule. And in that moment the two men knew they shared a pain that crossed all types of boundaries, including the division between armies.
On a different note, Hanoi also is home to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum which is one of the most revered sights in all of Vientam, particularly its Northern citizens. I arrived around 9:30 am, an hour and a half after the doors opened. The sun beat down, the temperature already hotter than I had yet experienced in
the country and as I approached the concrete facade, eerily similar to Lenin's monument in Moscow, I took notice of the line: it wrapped around three city blocks and also passed through part of the governmental complex which made it reach to nearly half a mile long. Thousands of Vietnamese people waited for over three hours, suffering unrelenting sunlight and the press of bodies against one another, pushing forward, desperate to get in. Their dedication, their love, and their reverence for this one man was incredible and as we entered the chamber holding the preserved body a hush fell over everyone that startled me. I had never heard such a large group of people fall silent so quickly, as if as one they all held their breath. Ho Chi Minh himself, old with a whispy white beard and backlit in red, could almost be sleeping if it weren't for the plethera of white-uniformed guards standing watch over his bed. Thirty seconds to view Uncle Ho and then we were pushed back out into the sunlight and as one everyone burst out, their joy hardly lost in translation.
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