Yeeee-hah! The oil pressure light is blinking angrily on the jeep dashboard and our driver swerves left to avoid running over a moped that’s just gotten knocked over by a car coming out of a side street. I’m standing up in the seat, snapping away, as whole families on motorcycles weave by us, waving and shouting Xin chào! (“Hello!”) at me. The cops are whistling like mad trying to clear the lane — the locals call them “Pikachus”, probably because of their yellow uniforms — and we cut right across a lane of traffic to barrel down an alley crammed with vendors selling bootleg auto parts, squeezing by with barely inches of clearance on either side. Then the heavens open up.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Yesterday was an interesting day.
It started with a visit to a local military cemetery, of which I infer there are many, given the number of casualties in the war. (They call it the “American War” here, by the way.) It looks pretty much like every other such cemetery that you’ve seen, dominated by an obelisk at the front with a commemorative engraving. Many of the headstones have pictures of the deceased. There is even a section for Gold Star Mothers who lost sons and husbands in the war; one, I note, lived to an astonishing 109 years old.
The caretaker is a small man about my age who as a teenager fought in the Viet Cong. He guides us in lighting some incense sticks at an altar in a small side building, then we all sit down to tea and he — through our guide, acting as interpreter — relates some war stories. There are a couple of Vietnam veterans in our group, who as you imagine listen with considerable interest. And then it gets interesting: the caretaker tells how he was a scout, and that one of his big assignments was scoping out the defenses of a particular air base at Da Nang, preparatory to a huge attack. They launched rockets and brought down a bunch of incoming planes, including a C-141 cargo plane. “Wait a minute!” says Dave, one of our vets. “When was that?” The caretaker tells him the date, and Dave’s eyes grow wide. “I was there! We were in the bunker! I saw the C-141 go down!” They gape at each other. Welcome to Viet Nam tourism. I infer that this sort of thing happens a lot.
“Nice to meet you! Sorry that I tried to kill you!”
People are happy to talk about the war here. In fact, they’re happy to talk about just about anything, including how corrupt their government is in the traditional rapacious way, heavily influenced by China and generally illiberal despite the so-called “Red Capitalist” economy. Because so many people speak freely, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that this society is much more open than it really is. We’re harmless tourists, though; printing the stuff they say to us on a leaftlet and handing it out on a street corner would get them a very long prison sentence. It is a less repressive government than China’s, but not by much: Vietnamese can use Google and Facebook and even watch CNN and BBC on TV, but when there is any controversy afoot the TV broadcasts are delayed by an hour to let the censors edit them before airing.
We moved on from the cemetery to the village of Tho Ha, known for making rice paper. You get there by crossing an unattractive brown river on a flatbed metal ferry nearly as long as the river is wide; it pulls away from the dock, then does a three-point turn to basically rotate in place. Then you walk off the other side, accompanied by a dozen school kids on mopeds.
Rice paper is pretty much all that anyone does in Tho Ha. There are 1000 households there, and 600 of them make rice paper. (Another 200 work at the nearby Samsung factory.) The narrow alleys are lined with bamboo frames of drying rice paper, each about the size of a window shutter. There are piles of them on rooftops, stacks leaning against the outside walls of peoples’ homes… they are everywhere.
Nothing goes to waste, of course: the scraps around the edges — from the rectangular sheets that get cut into circles — get mixed with chilies and garlic and sold as snacks. (Highly addictive snacks, I can report from personal experience.)
Our immersion in rice paper culture included trying our own hand at it; rather than using one of the machines that paints the liquid goop over the frame, the family we visited had us go old school, using a ladle and a hot surface, exactly like making a crepe. Here’s Alice in action.
Our hosts served us a truly glorious lunch that included about ten different dishes, all outstanding. Turns out he is a musician who gives lessons in a number of unfamiliar-looking stringed instruments, so he gave us a little impromptu concert, playing one piece on what he called a “short banjo” (shown below) and another on a violin-like thing.
His closing number, incongruously, was “You Are My Sunshine,”, and we all sang along. Then it was back to the hotel, and a brief interlude chatting with Phil’s family, who live in Hanoi and stopped by to see Dad at work. He has two daughters, 15 and 9, and a very pretty wife, a former stockbroker. (How non-Communist can you get?) None spoke English, so Phil interpreted as his wife expressed her various welcomes and gifted us with some traditional small glutinous celebratory rice cakes. The 9 year old was a firecracker, prancing around and teasing her father, while the 15 year old managed a wan smile that clearly communicated that she would rather be somewhere else, e.g., a pool of boiling lava.
Then the jeeps showed up.
Phil has an entrepreneurial friend who set up an offbeat local tourism business two years ago and has enjoyed a lot of success by tooling small groups of tourists around in old refurbished Russian jeeps, taking to them rather non-standard locations around the city, e.g., the bootleg auto parts market I mentioned earlier. We were in three open jeeps, a copper-colored one and two gray ones, and we bullied our way through densely cacophonous Hanoi rush hour traffic to visit a tame little demimonde. It was an utter hoot, immersing you in the adrenaline of the city in a pleasantly visceral way.
That’s Phil in the purple teeshirt. And here we are in Hanoi traffic, which could be fairly described as “nutso”:
We got out in one of the alleys to visit a tiny little bakery of sorts where they were making the ceremonial cakes that Phil’s wife had handed out earlier. It was there that the monsoon finally showed up — it is that season here — but our jeep drivers handed out ponchos and we managed to avoid being utterly soaked. Still, splashing through those dark, wet, and generally filthy-seeming alleys while getting poured on was sweaty and not especially comfortable. The storm lasted less than 45 minutes.
Next jeep stop: Happy Hour at The Most Dangerous Restaurant In The World. That would be this one:
Yes, the table is sitting on a train track. What a cute gimmick! you are thinking. They’ve set up a restaurant on a decommissioned railroad track! And you could keep thinking that until 7:05 PM, when the staff moved the tables off the track, so that this could happen at 7:10 PM:
This is a significant incentive for the trains to run on time. Also not to linger over your pho.
After that thought-provoking happy hour, we were once again taken to an outstanding zillion-course meal, then brought to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to witness the daily lowering of the flag. As you probably know, “Uncle Ho” (they actually call him that) was pretty much the father of Vietnamese independence, and is revered in much the same way that George Washington is in the US. The US never really understood that he was a Communist mostly by convenience; the Communists in the north didn’t really get nastily assertive as long as he was strong enough to hold sway, and it was largely as he sickened and died in the late sixties that things got nasty and the US went crazy. But in any case, he has quite the mausoleum, and the flag ceremony is performed every night with much goose-stepping and martial music.
You can actually go into the mausoleum to see his body, or you can try to: it is open for three hours in the morning, five days a week, so you can stand in line for an hour with (literally) ten thousand other people to get in. Apparently, few of OATs past travelers felt that it was worth it, and so it was not part of our itinerary. Phil concurred that it wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time. I can’t say that we were disappointed.
And that was yesterday.
Today we visited the town of Bat Trang, known for its ceramics, and had a rather more conventional tourist experience that I may write about tomorrow. (“Here we are doing an extremely terrible job of making a clay bowl on a potter’s wheel!”) We leave Hanoi tomorrow morning, and will be spending tomorrow evening sleeping on a junk (the Asian boat, not a pile of debris in an alley) on Ha Long Bay.
I’ll close today with a photo of one of the many back-alley eateries one sees here and throughout Asia. Nothing remarkable about it — I just like the shot.