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Sunday 1 Nov 2015
Hanoi, Vietnam

Puppets and Propaganda

On my last visit to Vietnam, I travelled with two Brits (Josh and Simon) and two Swedes (Carl and Jonathan), whom I’d met on the Stray bus in Laos.  We had continued though Cambodia and Vietnam together over the next couple of weeks.  The boys and I had arrived in Hanoi at a bleary-eyed 5.30am off the Danang night train and crawled into the hostel for a sleep.  We had then headed out on a 3-day boat trip in Halong Bay and I’d flown down to Borneo the following morning, so had seen very little of the city beyond the nearest streets around the hostel. 

We started the trip proper with a walk around parts of Hanoi.  The day dawned grey and overcast and didn’t improve much from there, although it was still in the high 20s and threatened another downpour like yesterday's.  After breakfast, we headed out to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. 

Ho Chi Minh unified the Vietnamese people and spent his life rallying against French and American occupation.  He is still a deeply beloved figure in Vietnam and the Communist party still use his image and reputation today.  After his death, the party decided not to honour his desire for cremation, but instead to follow the lead of their Russian counterparts and embalm him, preserving him for the people to worship.

The mausoleum itself is a tall square stone building set up on a pedestal base.  To me it was reminiscent of the Lincoln memorial in Washington, though I’m sure that wasn’t their intention!  It is set up above a large parade ground which still hosts regular military parades, ehich include salutes to the building.  So strong was the feeling for Ho Chi Minh, that the Mausoleum is designed to be earthquake, food and bomb-proof.  His body is sent back to Russia for three months each year for re-embalming to maintain the perfect preservation of the national hero.  When visitors enter the mausoleum, they surrender bags, cameras and mobile phones before filing past slowly and respectfully.  Guards watch closely and the experience is taken very seriously, almost religiously – no smiling is allowed.  Unfortunately, Ho Chi Minh was on one of his annual trips, so we could only view the building from outside.  I will have to save this experience for my next visit.

Not far behind the mausoleum was the Presidential Palace and grounds.  The Palace is a stately French chateau built in 1906 and restored with a vibrant gold paint, which was once home to the General Governor of Indochina during the French colonial years.  In December 1954, having taken over the Northern Vietnamese government, Ho Chi Minh refused to move into the Palace, instead building a modest stilt house in the grounds and reinforcing his image as one of the people. That said, he still had the use of a couple of beautiful classic cars to get around.

After the Palace, we moved on to the Ho Chi Minh museum, which contained three floors of art and creative installations which ‘unanimously depicted the love and respect that the people still feel for Ho Chi Minh’.  We wandered around taking it all in, somewhat bemused by all the symbolism in the individual pieces, but impressed by the imagination and craftsmanship in others.  It was loudly singing the praises of all things Communist, but felt overly propaganda-laden to be appreciated for the art itself.

Nguyen took some of us to a local place near the hotel for lunch.  I’ve cooked my own version of Pho many times over the last two years and couldn’t wait to try the proper thing here again.  Each place makes their own broth slightly differently and uses a variety of herbs and toppings.  I remember the broth being deeper in colour and richer, but that may be because I only remember my own version now.  Either way, the Pho here was lovely but still not quite what I’d remembered.

We had a free afternoon to explore on our own, but jet lag was still catching up with me so Ailsa and I decided to relax in the hotel and catch up.  Having come straight from Japan, she had mundane things like washing to take care of, while I had brought a few extra things out for her that required fitting into her already densely packed rucksack.  It was a role reversal from her visits to me while I was away.  Great diary-writing plans fell by the wayside fairly quickly when Ailsa stuck her head out of the bathroom to see me flat out and starting to snore…  My quick kip turned into a couple of hours but I felt much better for it.

Vietnam is known for its crafts with local specialities in each area.  Northern Vietnam, and Hanoi in particular, is famous for its water puppet shows.  Farmers traditionally performed the shows in waterlogged rice paddies but we had the slightly more comfortable surroundings of the Mua roi nuoc Bong Sen, the Lotus Water Puppet Theatre beside the Hoan Kiem Lake.  The performance lasted an hour and included 12 puppet dances accompanied by traditional Vietnamese folk music.  We had fun trying to spot the difference between the sacred animals: the unicorn, the tortoise, the phoenix and the dragon - should be obvious, right? Guess again.  Only the dragons were unmistakeable as they came out breathing sparks, even underwater, which created a clever layer of smoke across the water.  It was a fun evening, if slightly surreal. 

We walked back along the lakeside towards the Old Quarter again for dinner.  In the centre of the lake is a small island with the Ngoc Son Temple.  Legend has it that the Emperor Le Than To was given a magical sword to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. After the battle, a giant golden tortoise took the sword from him and dived into the lake, returning the sword to its heavenly owners and giving the lake its name, which means ‘lake of the returned sword’. (Thanks to Lonely Planet for clarification – the puppet version of this story wasn’t quite so clear…)

We had dinner at Geckos and watched the owner’s young children chasing each other up and down the restaurant in their pyjamas, despite her best efforts to get them into bed in the back room.  The food was delicious.  I particularly like the Vietnamese spring rolls made with rice paper netting.  Vietnam has switched over to plastic notes for anything bigger than 5,000 Dong (for reference, there are about 34,000 Dong to the Pound and 22,000 to the US dollar).  One of my notes was torn through the middle when I got my change, so I went up to ask for a different one, belatedly realising that sticking my finger through Ho Chi Minh’s face to point out the hole was possibly not my most culturally sensitive move.  Oops.  Fortunately they giggled and quickly found me an undamaged note.

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