Day 32: Visiting Uncle Ho

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November 15th 2009
Published: November 22nd 2009
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Yikes! Hanoi traffic is crazy.
Ho Chi Minh holds god-like status here in Vietnam. He was (still is? - we'll explain) an incredibly charismatic leader with a fascinating life.

Most people know him as the former President of Vietnam. He was a revolutionary who started the Communist movement in Vietnam (and most of Indochina) and fought tirelessly against the French and later, during the Vietnam War, against the Americans to realize his vision of a united, communist Vietnam. He's the Father of Vietnam and a national hero of proportions that we've never seen before in any country.

Today we got to visit him.

He's a bit old and tired (well, dead) so he only receives visitors in the mornings. Our hotel people called us a cab at 9:30am today and gave the driver simple directions: "Uncle Ho".

About 10 minutes later we were in front of a huge granite and concrete structure - Ho Chi Minh's mauseoleum, which sits in the middle of Hanoi in a lovely leafy park-like area. It's certainly an imposing structure - a bit perhaps like the Lincoln Memorial? - and was modeled after Lenin's tomb. We queued up for nearly an hour to see him. First, we

Rush hour in the Old Quarter.
went through a security screen (metal detectors, bag inspection). Then we were lined up ("Single file!" barked the guards in their crisp green military uniforms) and proceeded in to the mausoleum.

The guards demand a respectful demeanor. A woman behind us was harshly shushed, "BE SILENT!". One guard neatly grabbed Adrian's hand out of his pocket; another tapped Angelique's hands, which were clasped behind her. The idea is single file, hands at your sides, absolute silence, steady pace.

And there he is. Uncle Ho, perfectly preserved, laying peacefully in an airtight palequin (carriage of sorts) in the middle of a very large, darkened room. Guards line the room, looking for opportunities to keep us all in line.

He looks just like his picture, beard and all, just a bit paler and, perhaps, waxier.

We were very lucky to see him. He's typically removed from viewing every October and November for maintenance. Fortunately, the Soviet morticians gave him a clean bill of preservation (as happily reported in the local papers) early and he began to receive visitors again just last week. The long lines testify to a pent up demand.

All joking aside, it's really quite

Look out for that scooter/bike/car/vendor.
impressive how reverently the Vietnamese regard him. We can't think of anyone in U.S. history who might get the same reaction. Abe Lincoln? George Washington? Even Kennedy wasn't universally loved. But Uncle Ho clearly is.

(It's worth noting, however, that just before he died of heart failure in 1969, he asked that his body be cremated and that his ashes not be glorified in a huge building but instead be divided into third and distributed in the north, central and south of Vietnam).

A nearby museum is devoted to his life. The exhibits are fascinating and we spent about an hour learning more about him. His life is not unlike South American revolutionary Che Guevera. Uncle Ho was born in 1890 in central Vietnam and spent his teens traveling the length of the country (then three separate states), seeing firsthand the harsh realities of the French control of the Vietnamese peasants. In 1921 he moved to Paris, working in restaurants and later as a photographer. He became involved in the Communist party there and increased his involvement in Paris, London and ultimately Moscow throughout the 1930s. He started the Communist party in Indochina and devoted the rest of

Funny street sign in the Old Quarter
his life to fighting for a unified Vietnam. He died in 1969, six years short of seeing his life dream accomplished.

It's a massive understatement to say that people here adore him. His picture is in every home, shop, restaurant, business and he's typically referred to affectionally as "Uncle Ho".

If you find yourself in Vietnam, we recommend that you go to visit him and also visit the museum. The museum contains some interesting interpretive exhibits and it very well done overall. It provides good insight into the psychology of the Vietnamese.

It was raining as we left the museum. Hanoi is experiencing a cold snap right now; it was in the 90s until Friday (the day before yesterday) and now it's about 60F and raining. We don't mind the cooler temps; but after splashing along the city streets for 30 minutes we hailed a cab and asked to be taken to the popular Hoan Kiem Lake. It was our first experience in a taxi with a rigged meter. We watched in disbelief as the fare jumped up higher and higher. The ride over to Uncle Ho had cost us 38,000 VND; by the time we reached

Fantastic French Bakery in the Old Quarter on Hang Bo street.
the lake (a much shorter ride), it was 95,000 VND. We protested the fare; the driver pointed at the meter. Unsure of what to do, we handed the driver 30,000 VND and jumped out. He didn't even argue and just sped away. We'd heard that rigged taxis are a big problem. Vietnam seems to be shaping up to be a country in which you really have to watch your back. We are not amused by the hussles.

After a short walk we found a pretty decent cafe on the third floor of a large building overlooking the lake. It's hard to describe the chaos of Hanoi's streets. In addition to the dreadful traffic there are the people shouting: "You ride Motorbike!" "One hour tour". They might as well ask, "Would you like to cut your chances of seeing today through?). Other people hassle us with "You buy from me?" (this in reference to any number of things - silk scarves, cigarette lighters, fresh fruit). All tourists are fair game.

The cafe was a very welcome haven from the noise. We sank into comfortable chairs, ordered lattes and began to wonder, "Why did we come here??". After a short

Bun Bo Nam Bo - Delicious!
rest we waded back through the sea of motorcycles to our hotel.

And now a brief overview of the street rules in Hanoi:
- It's not exactly like Bangkok or Panama City - places where pedestrians are fair game for passing motorists. In those cities, we've learned through trial and error, the rule for crossing the street is to look both ways and run like hell.
- Walking in Hanoi is a different and more terrifying game. The power does not rest with you, the pedestrian, and your ability to (1) judge traffic flows and (2) run quickly. Instead the power lies the drivers. In Hanoi, you have to put your trust in a bunch of kids on motorcycles. The rule here is that you look for a slight break in traffic (a complete break in traffic is rare because there are almost no traffic lights and the traffic signals are ignored by most if not all of the scooters) and then you cross the street at a very steady pace. The motorcycles, bicycles, tuk-tuks and cars adjust to your speed (and all the other pedestrians' around you) and weave accordingly. If you run (which is, of course, your

Yikes....they need a better electrician in the Old Quater. This can't be safe!
natural instinct), you may die. It's pretty terrifying and we are doing our best to minimize the number of times we have to cross busy streets.

Taking a taxi is another option but, as we've found, there is a pretty good chance that the driver will try to take advantage of you. Getting ripped off by taxi drivers gets old pretty quickly. Unless you enjoy dodging traffic the best bet for transport in Hanoi (given that there is no subway or light rail service as you find in other large Asian cities such as Bangkok or Yangon, Burma) is hiring a private driver or joining a tour.

Around 2pm we discovered a real gem in Hanoi - Bun Bo Nam Bo. Bun Bo Nam Bo is a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves only one thing: Bun Bo. Bun Bo is officially our favorite Vietnamese dish. Getting food at Bun Bo Nam Bo is an interesting process - you nod to the ladies at the front of the restaurant (a narrow passageway) as you enter, hold up two fingers to indicate two bowls of Bun Bo, and then find an empty spot at one of the long communal picnic tables. Within 3 minutes, a hot bowl of incredibly tasty food is placed before you. Fresh rice noodles topped with crispy fried garlic, bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, perfectly cooked slices of beef, basil, and some secret ingredients. A lovely local couple instructed us how to perfect the bun bo by mixing in a generous amount of hot chili sauce. Angelique thinks bun bo is the most delicious food we've had on this trip.

Our other great find today was a real French bakery. Alas, they don't serve coffee but their chocolate croissants ($0.33 US) are buttery and wonderful; their banana bread ($0.18 US per slice) is also a winner.

After lunch we enjoyed some relative peace and quiet at our hotel for the rest of the afternoon. For dinner we try a nearby restaurant (Hanoi Garden) - pretty good but a bit pricey. After dinner we return to the hotel and spend a few hours surfing on-line before bed.

Tomorrow night we are headed north to the mountains to a town called Sapa (near the border with China) which is reportedly gorgeous and filled with interesting hill tribes.


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