Hanoi: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Train to Sapa

A great breakfast, then a taxi to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It was very warm and muggy, and of course also very busy, with tour buses lining the road and tourists standing in queues, so we got a bit worn out. Our bags went through a security X-ray and a check by hand, then we joined a queue and were discretely divided into a smaller group, to file around the classic brutal Communist structure, past young guards in spotless white uniforms, and into the cool air-conditioned interior. In a small room in the centre, up a flight of stairs, we filed past three sides of a glass chamber holding Ho Chi Minh’s body lying in state. Somewhat sad, considering he apparently wished to be cremated instead of being put on show.

Back outside we paid a fee and walked around the presidential palace gardens: various buildings where ‘Uncle Ho’ lived and worked. The highlight was a lovely little wooden stilt house, the most beautiful and practical of the buildings (the rest were ugly French Colonial piles) – no wonder he preferred to hang out there.

We gave the huge Ho Chi Minh Museum a miss, and grabbed a taxi (with a friendly driver) to Hoa Lo Prison Museum (the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’). There’s only a small part remaining of the original complex, consisting of displays, cells (now only holding mannequins in leg irons), a French guillotine, and various patriotic displays. It was very interesting to see propaganda in action here, as instead of noting that American POWs called the place the Hanoi Hilton ironically because the conditions and treatment were so bad, it was written on the displays that they called it that because they were treated so well! In any case, the treatment of local prisoners by the French was also atrocious, and the place reeked of misery. It stands as yet another memorial to the capacity of human beings to ignore their humanity in their treatment of others.

Outside, we were hassled – for the first time – by someone ‘trying to help us’, who took a while to take no for an answer. But even he was impressed, smiled, shook our hands, and happily left us alone when we said thank you in Vietnamese (cam on). As usual, so many tourists are obviously too lazy to learn even a few words of the local language.

Back on the streets, we walked north, past our hotel and to Cha Ca Thang Long restaurant, where we tucked into the famous cha ca – fish, noodles, and lots of herbs, cooked on the table. My friend Guy said I must have this while in Hanoi, and he wasn’t wrong, it was delicious. Even Carol enjoyed it (sans fish of course!)

Killing time until our friend Lizzie finished her work shift (we’d previously organised to meet her), we went back down to Hoan Kiem Lake to the cafe on the water and had ice cream sundaes again. About 3pm we made our way back to the hotel to wait for Lizzie, then we took group photos with her and our other friends from the hotel – Fiona, Tom, Clara, and Lan. Lizzie got changed out of her uniform into casual clothes, and the three of us headed off in a taxi – the first of several – into the warm Hanoi afternoon and evening. Great fun. We stopped at a nearby spot just off the pavement – I never would have even guessed that anyone served food there – and had delicious sticks of batter with a light dipping sauce. Lizzie told us she grew up with the Disney channel and Hannah Montana, and we all sang an Elvis Presley song together!

Then we went to another roadside spot – as usual sitting on the low plastic stools that everyone here uses – where I had banh mi, an incredibly delicious baguette filled with beef and some kind of pate, along with cold tea. Then to a room off the street, just a bare tiled room filled with scattered plastic stools, for a cold bean, ice and caramel mixture, which was very tasty.

Then we headed north to West Lake (Ho Tay), a much more upmarket area of town lined with rich people’s houses, western-style bars, and a huge Sheraton complex. Lizzie seemed particularly happy here, though she said the places were snobby towards Vietnamese locals and, for example, sent me into a bar to get their wi-fi password as they wouldn’t have helped her.

It was very strange being in this far more Western part of Hanoi, and it felt kind of lifeless after the chaotic buzz of the Old Quarter.

Another taxi, and up to a rooftop restaurant that Lizzie really liked. The service from the very young men who worked there was pretty poor, my food was late, and it was very windy out on the terrace, but it was still fun. Lizzie had an Angus beef steak and Carol some vegetable thing, and my sesame rice and shrimp was really good. We had a really good conversation and Lizzie told us about her life as a young working woman in Hanoi.

Time to move on. Back at the hotel we had quick showers, said emotional goodbyes, and were picked up and driven to the train station. When we got there and were waiting for the train, I was fiddling with my reading glasses, which had broken in my pocket, when a woman standing next over me said “can we help you?” I thought she was rudely asking me to move along the row of seats, when she added “we are opticians”. Now there’s a coincidence! We introduced ourselves, and her husband immediately sat down and proceeded to fix my glasses. Carol and I are now thinking we are experiencing the luckiest trip of all time.

We walked across several train tracks to get to our train, and found our small, 2-bed cabin, home for the 8 hour trip to Lao Cai, up near the Chinese border.

The train was an old narrow-gauge French one, so it was like spending 8 hours in a bouncy castle. I was absolutely sure that Carol would be as sick as a dog the entire time, but to my surprise she really enjoyed the trip through the Vietnamese night. Actually I was the one who found it hard to sleep. But eventually I drifted off, to be woken by a bang on the door and a shouted “good morning!” at 5.30am.

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