I only had 3 nights in Hanoi, not enough time for Halong Bay or Sapa (I’ll just have to come back), so I tried to make the most of them. My trip had started a week and a half earlier in HCMC, then I traveled to Cambodia and Angkor Wat via the Mekong Delta. Originally, I’d intended to wind my trip up in Bangkok, but I liked Vietnam so much I decided to try to see something of the north and made a last-minute change of plans.
Arrive on an early evening flight from Siem Reap to rain and cool temps: 17C as opposed 31C and bright sunshine. I’d booked a guest house called Ocean Stars II in the Old Quarter hastily over the Internet and scrawled the address (but not the phone number) down on a piece of paper. I give this to my cab driver, who speaks only a few words of English. When we arrive at 10 Dao Duy Tu, he puts the car in park, turns around with his hand outstretched saying, “Tip for me.”
I peer out the window and see nothing but a few empty storefronts; in the rain, I can’t make out the numbers on the buildings. “But there’s no hotel,” I tell him. He repeats, “Tip for me,” I repeat “No hotel,” and then I think he gets it: he makes a u-turn and pulls up in front of a guy on a moto. The two of them are conferring, the cab driver pointing at street signs and looking confused. I had circled the address on a city map, so after a minute I get out and hand the moto guy the map, pointing to where I thought the hotel was.
The next thing I know, 4 more guys have come out of a coffee shop next door, into the pouring rain. One of them takes my map and they all start walking down the street in the rain, pointing at numbers and street signs. They disappear around the corner for a minute, then one of them comes back—he speaks excellent English—and tells me that they have located #10 Dao Duy Tu but there is no hotel there. At this point I can see it’s a loosing battle. I thank him for helping and say that I’ll just stay somewhere else. He opens the car door for me and says that he’s sorry about the mix up and he couldn’t help, but that there are tons of places in my budget close by. It’s cold, it’s raining, I can’t find my hotel, but already I am so impressed by Hanoi and Hanoians and am glad I made the decision to come here!
We end up at a 4-star hotel down the street that is over my budget but will do for one night. After I settle into my room, I come back to the lobby to look up the phone number for Ocean Stars on the Internet. I’ve explained the situation to the fellow at reception, and he comes over and stands over my shoulder as I call up my email. Sure enough, there’s an email from Ocean Stars manager, “Jimmy.” The front desk fellow reads it along with me and says it’s “no problem” if I want to stay only one night but that I should call Jimmy and confirm my booking.
I haven’t checked my email for a while and since the Internet is free, I decide to write a few messages. While I sit there, a muzak soundtrack plays the same six songs over and over: the theme from Dr. Zhivago, Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” and few other numbers I haven’t heard since the 70s. In fact the entire lobby looks sort of 70s, “chic” with black “leather” couches and mirrors and chrome. When I get to my room and pick up the phone to call Ocean Stars, I discover that the phone doesn’t work for outside calls. Luckily, within minutes the front desk guy calls to ask whether I’ve confirmed my booking at the other hotel. The hotel I’m in does not appear to be fully booked, so I can’t understand his anxiety, but he makes the phone call for me, and finally I talk to Jimmy: he’s real, the hotel is real, and he says he will send someone to come get me at 9am tomorrow, no charge. I’m relieved.
As promised, at 9:00 the next morning one of Jimmy’s staff—a young guy on a moto—arrives to collect me. He stuffs my backpack between his legs and off we are, whizzing through the streets of the Old Quarter. When we enter the alley where Ocean Stars is—it’s not on Dao Duy Tu Street but Dao Duy Tu LANE—we have to get off the bike and pull it up on the sidewalk to let a truck pass. Once at the hotel, I have a good laugh with Jimmy over my inability to find the hotel and he says he won’t charge me for the missed night since it was “both out faults.” It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, but I claim that it was wholly mine, since I have begun to understand how important “saving face” is in this country. My room won’t be ready for a couple of hours. He has someone bring my bag up and takes out a map, circling some areas of interest.
Mostly, I just walk around. The streets of the Old Quarter are narrow and dim, and resonant with the sounds of motos, clanging pots, people slurping soup at pho stands. People seem to leave the doors of their houses open to the street, and I see children watching television, Buddhist shrines, lit with red bulbs, women huddled over sewing machines. Tomorrow I’ll do the full “city tour,” which takes in the Turtle Pagoda on Hoan Kiem Lake, another pagoda there (which, it turns out, is closed), the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, but mostly I like just wandering and, occasionally, stopping to chat with people. I have an early dinner at a little café nearby and call it a night.
The next morning I set off for the city tour. It’s just me and a Danish family staying at Ocean Stars: two kids, 4 and 8, and their laid-back, school-teacher parents. The 4-year-old has a machine gun toy that he is constantly blasting off at people, including our guide. Our guide appears to be about 20 or so, and is great with the kids; he even holds their hands as we’re walking down the street. Vietnamese love children, I find.
The highlight of the tour for me is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I realize, as we’re silently filing around the body, surrounded by armed guards, that this is the first time I’ve seen a dead body. People snicker about the solemnity that’s demanded here, but if kids were allowed to run through the room screaming and teenagers were chewing gun and walking past with their hands stuffed in their pockets, it would be a travesty. Regardless of what you think of the man, the fact is he’s dead, and is still revered by millions of his countrymen. In the souvenir shop outside the mausoleum our guide, who doesn’t speak much English (he’s really more of a driver and a herder, and he’s very good at both those things), holds up a photograph of Ho Chi Minh with a young girl and says, “the uncle. He is in the heart of every Vietnamese person.” The genuine feeling and poetry behind his statement is touching.
We move onto the Ho Chi Minh Museum and it is not nearly as impressive to me. Like other museums I’ve seen here, it’s an odd hodge podge of artifacts not held together by any kind of coherent narrative. One section is ambitious, in that it attempts to place Vietnam in a broader geopolitical context through artwork and other “symbols”: there’s a replica of a scene from Picasso’s “Guernica,” for example, meant to illustrate the anguish of war. But the poorly translated or nonexistent text doesn’t make the connection to Vietnam’s own experience of war.
I finish going through the museum before the rest of the group. I buy a few postcards from a stand outside and take a seat on the museums’ imposing stone staircase. As always, I have my camera around my neck. I’ve finished writing a couple of cards when a boy of maybe 12 comes up to me and gestures for me to take his picture. He’s wearing what looks like a Boy Scout uniform: a blue and white shirt with a red scarf tied around his neck. Except instead of the matching blue and white hat that the other kids in his group are wearing, he has on a black cowboy hat. Being American, I have to smile at the substitution. He doesn’t speak English but he has a big grin and a lot of attitude: he poses with his legs splayed out and one hand on his hip and when I’ve taken a couple of shots I give him the big thumbs up.
It isn’t long before his classmates, mostly girls, want to pose for photos as well. Because I travel with an old film camera that I don’t have to worry about too much, sometimes if I have a group of kids like this huddled around me I give them a turn at taking pictures. This really rachets things up, and now the kids are passing around the camera and showing one another which button to press, excitedly forming into pairs or groups of friends, throwing their arms around one another, tossing their bags of potato chips onto the ground.
Two men next to us are smiling and watching the kids taking photos, and I notice that one of them is wearing a baseball cap with various American cities on it: New York, Atlanta, Boston! “That’s where I’m from,” I say, pointing to his cap. “Boston.” I turn around and see that a group of other Vietnamese are watching us from bench, also smiling, but then I wonder: is it cool that I, an American, am causing a commotion in front of the Ho Chi Minh Museum? Suddenly our guide appears beside me, giving me a squeeze on both shoulders. The group has been looking for me. I take my camera back and tell the kids goodbye.
We return to the Old Quarter for lunch, and it’s at a no-frills place where we are the only tourists. (I wish I had caught the name.) The table is already set for us with bowls of vermicelli noodles and bowls of fresh lettuce and basil. Steaming bowls of pho are brought out, and it’s a type I’ve never had before: made with meatballs. There are also fried spring rolls on the table, and the guide tells us to dunk those in the soup. He’s constantly scanning the table and making sure that everyone understands how to eat the pho and is enjoying it. In fact, we’re halfway into the meal before I realize how meatballs keep floating up to the top of my soup as I’m talking to the woman beside me; it’s because the guide keeps putting meat from his soup into mine.
After the Turtle Pagoda, we stop at the one-pillar pagoda but it’s closed. This signals an end to the tour, and since we’re at Hoan Kiem Lake and close by the Water Puppet Theatre, I opt to get out here and try to get a ticket to a late-afternoon show; I hear they’ve been selling out. I manage to get one for 3pm and it’s completely magical.
When I get home and develop my film, I see things I hadn’t in the commotion of taking pictures—I always do. I had remembered the kids at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum laughing and excited, yet when I look at some of the photos—one in particular—the girls are unsmiling, staring into the camera lens with expressions I can’t quite fathom. But the boy with the cowboy hat is all grins. Even his eyes are smiling, and in that one photo with the two unsmiling girls I see he is flashing the peace sign. It’s the first photo from my trip I enlarged and put up on the wall, and no matter how many times I look at it, it knocks me out every time.
That night for dinner I simply go down to the end of my alleyway and make a left turn, thinking I’ll find something. I happen upon a restaurant that’s apparently in all the guidebooks, Little Hanoi. It’s only one room but is packed with people, all tourists. The food is great, but great in the way that westerners like—the chicken stir-fry dish I get doesn’t have skin and bones and is all white meat, and everything is very tidy. Sitting at the table next to me are two Singaporean brothers, very amiable, and we end up lingering over beers and talking, mostly about politics for 4 hours. A nice way to spend my final evening in Hanoi. Tomorrow I will head to HCMC for one more night before I fly home.