13th February 2011
Thrust from the sweaty, hair-frizzing heat of Singapore into the brisk cold of Hanoi, we filled our lungs with the very fresh air, hugged our bodies and stepped into Vietnam’s vibrant north city. A chilling mist enshrouded the old quarter transforming everything into hues of grey. Breaking the monochrome were bright red Tet (Vietnamese new year) lanterns tumbling out of shops and delicate pink blossoms speckling twisted spindly branches on street corners. Little rivers of claret trickled out of indiscernible flesh lining trays by the side of the road and blue pyjama-ed crones crowned with beige nón lá (Vietnamese conical hat) pedalled past.
Mopeds buzz and weave through the streets. Crossing the road is more a case of stepping out into the traffic and hoping they weave around you whilst repeating the mantra ‘I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna die’. The joy of arriving on the opposite side of the road is momentary when you realise that the street eateries heaving with punters (eating is an all day activity) and the tangle knot of parked mopeds, render the pavement barely more pedestrian friendly than the road or damp gutter. But this doesn’t matter. The smell of the streets doesn’t matter. Even the constant echoing whine of ‘hallo, you buy’, doesn’t matter because Hanoi has something captivating about it. I can’t really put my finger on it but I love it here. There is always a feast for the eyes, the food is plentiful and delicious and despite it being pretty frequented by tourists and having it’s hefty fair share of tourist stores, it feels like a city for those who live there. I could wander these vibrant alleyways and while away the hours watching the buzz for days.
We dragged ourselves away from voyeuristic activities and visited several of the great museums and cultural sights in and around Hanoi. I found it ironic that there were shops selling ‘Old propaganda posters’ as there was plenty of new propaganda to feast your eyes on. The National Military Museum is home to an abundance of weapons, photographs, maps, scale models, tanks, planes and ammunition predominately from the French and Vietnam wars. There was a mixture of good and poor displays and at times the dramatic labelling overstating the ‘enemy French’ and downtrodden ‘Vietnamese comrades’ got a little tiresome. But in all it is a worthy stop and one we felt was necessary if we were to ever get a handle on the long military history of a country constantly struggling for independence.
Here comes a smidgen of history: In September 1945 the Vietnamese Marxist revolutionary leader Hồ Chí Minh stood in Ba Ðình Square in Hanoi and read the Declaration of independence thus establishing the Democratic of Vietnam and beginning his role as both the prime minister and president. Hồ established and led the Việt cộng towards the capture of South Vietnam and against the Americans until his death in 1969. After the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 the Hồ Chí Minh mausoleum was inaugurated and became a site of pilgrimage. Based on Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow, the grey granite building is an imposing block house of a building centrally placed in a swathe of park land. If you arrive between 8 and 11am you can join the never ending snaking queues and filter past the disturbingly waxen preserved body of the man himself. Alternatively, you can sit outside the striking entrance and watch the overly theatrical changing of the guards, the pomp and ceremony of which all feels a little ridiculous.
There is no greater way of counteracting the overfilling of puny brains with history and finger numbing cold than retreating to our favourite eatery to devour more divine Vietnamese cuisine and gaze out at the hustle and bustle of drizzly Hanoi streets.