I attended Brian London’s funeral last month and
whilst there I ran into Ted Harrison and
when I told him I was on my way back to
Hanoi, he asked me to write a follow up on
my earlier impressions. Five years later,
and this time only for a short stop and
accompanied by my wife Judy, my experiences
were different but the results so similar.
Since Vietnam in 1998, I have
been teaching English around the world. I have been lucky enough to have
worked in England, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Argentina. This has been a great
education for me and has enabled me to compare many different cultures from
a very personal view.
I was struck by the beauty,
the sense of style of the people and the incredible artistic abilities of
the inhabitants of Hanoi. Blown away by their friendship and frustrated by
the "party machine" attitude that you strike everywhere, but more of that
In general, people seem
content and happy but poverty is everywhere and I was continually frustrated
by the street-sales people at every site where tourists might be expected to
gather. This is often a thinly disguised form of begging using children and
disabled people to pull at your heartstrings. Should this be necessary in
the workers’ state?
My return trip to Hanoi
started with a flight to Japan and an overnight stop just outside Tokyo. We
were able to leave our heavy luggage and move onto Hanoi for 6 days before
returning to Japan for the next three months where Judy will be working for
the Sony Institute of Higher Education.
It was an amazing experience
to travel on a Qantas plane that was only 25% full and then arrive into one
of the world’s biggest airports to find it empty. The JAL flight to Hanoi
was even emptier. The war in Iraq and the problem with SARS in Hong Kong and
China has stopped travel to an incredible extent. My friends in Hanoi had
informed me that there was no problem with the disease in Vietnam as it was
under control, however there was one further case found in a town south of
Hanoi after we arrived. Medical advice in Australia had been just to avoid
contact with hospitals. (Fine, but where do you go if you are sick?)
Our arrival at the new Hanoi
airport went without any problems and my old boss, Le Duc Nhuan, met us
there. I was, however, immediately reminded of the fact that as soon as
anyone in Vietnam puts on a uniform or takes on any form of official role
such as Customs, Immigration, Railway Guard, etc, the very first thing they
are taught is that they must never smile or be pleasant. Fortunately this is
not the case with the real people.
The car trip to our hotel
could only be described by comparing parts of the roads to the 1966 Nui Dat
tracks in the wet. The road is under construction but still being used at
the same time. Large trucks, cars and motorbikes all fighting their way
through the dark with mud up to the centre of the wheels. How the little old
car got through, I cannot say.
We stayed at The Green Park
Hotel, right in the centre of town, quite close to the old office in which I
worked in 1998. Great hotel and at $50US (including breakfast) a night for
2, highly recommended to anyone.
Our plan was to stay only one
night in a hotel and then meet with Rebecca, a young friend of my wife’s,
she is working in Hanoi for a year or two at the National University as part
of a volunteer program from Australia. She was lucky enough to be offered a
house in Hanoi belonging to a French Vietnamese woman, a choreographer, who
is in Paris for a while. We thought that living with her in the suburbs
would be a wonderful way for Judy in particular, to experience the real
After a traditional breakfast
of hot spicy chicken soup, Phu Ga, we had time for a walk in the central
streets. I remembered my way as we dodged traffic and people and quickly
walked to my old flat. When she saw where I had lived, Judy was horrified
and for the first time in my life admitted that I had done something that
she could not have done! On the positive side we met my old landlord and his
family. The warmth of the friendship dissolved the rough surroundings in
seconds. He is also a painter and has recently returned from Paris. He was
proud to show us some of the street scenes that he had done there.
Back to our hotel in time for
a phone call from Nhuan and to meet Rebecca. The phone call told us that we
were on our way to Holong Bay early the next morning and then by boat to Cat
Ba Island. Nhuan would meet us at 6.30am and accompany us for the next few
taxi trip to Rebecca’s house was a splendid chance to view the wonderful and
complex architecture of Hanoi. The French, and in particular Parisian,
influence has been kept in even the newest houses in the most crowded areas.
Most houses are very narrow, 3 to 4 meters wide but are several stories
high. Today they are also very colourful and bright. The traffic has
changed. Very few cyclos and about 20 motorbikes to each car. The traffic
rules have not changed. There are none!!!
Rebecca’s house was situated
in the West Lake area of Hanoi, about 10 minutes by
taxi from the centre of town. The taxi was not able to make the last
half-kilometre of the trip. The road became too narrow and could only be
used by bikes or smaller. We picked up our bags and walked through mud and
slush along a twisting path past large narrow houses with neat courtyards
and gardens on the lake’s edge. Some of these were obviously commercial
ventures and the immediate neighbour had an extensive fish farming
operation. All of this within 50 meters of the large, unfinished, never
opened and now crumbling derelict Sheraton Hotel (circa 1997). This is one
of many failed semi-government projects.
house was very impressive. Five stories high with four bedrooms and three
bathrooms. Marble staircases and tiled floors throughout. Whilst the
structure was great, what really made it was the furniture and fittings.
Several generations of treasures (many early French Colonial) passed down
through an artistic family had been arranged in such a manner that would
suit the best display in an historic museum. In the background I could hear
someone practicing the cello. We really felt that we were in the Asian
Quarter of Paris.
We spent the afternoon
touring the old section of Hanoi near Hon Kien Lake and had dinner in my
favourite family restaurant, Phu Dong. I hope the photos show some of the
delights. It beats Pizza Hut hands down any day.
in the day we met two of Rebecca’s friends from the Volunteer program. Iain
Findlay and Trish Clark, a husband and wife team, both journalists, had
covered the war in the early 70’s and had then gone on to work for the ABC.
Best known perhaps for the series "Towards 2000" which Ian presented and
Trish produced, they are now working with The Voice of Vietnam Radio. They
had some very interesting experiences to recall regarding "Party Machine"
influence on news reports. For example, the Americans are not killing
civilians in Iraq, they are Murdering them. Every News session must have
some incredible story of a hard working group of peasant party members who
have carried out some form of economic miracle and are now producing ten
times more than was expected and this is all dedicated to the party machine.
Very much like the Great Leap Forward in China in the 60’s and 70’s.
Sunday was an early morning
start for everyone. Judy, Nhuan and I on a bus to Holong
and Rebecca on her bike to meet friends to go and see Ho Chi Min’s body (an
experience that takes a pre 7.00am line up due to the crowds).
We joined a tour group and
the whole morning was spent on the bus with a short break for coffee and a
sweet of green tea curd and sugar. We arrived in Holong for a quick lunch
and then onto Junk Number 17 for a fabulous cruise for the rest of the day
until 6.30pm. In this time we saw some of the most wonderful and unique
islands and bays. This area is truly one of the wonders of the World. The
people are poor but very friendly and helpful. Their isolation makes
education for the kids difficult and Nhuan is trying to work with a
government plan to help with basic schooling. Some things the government
tries to do make sense.
sailed into Cat Ba on dusk. The colours of the sunset and the sails of the
fishing boats and junks presented a timeless beauty that will stay with us
forever. The night was spent walking along the waterfront and mixing with
backpackers from around the world. Nhuan was a great hit with them, not only
for his good English but also because he is very widely travelled for a
morning saw us leave the tour group and our threesome spent the morning
exploring the magnificent walks along the rocky coastline of the island. A
great deal of good tourist development is being done but as with everything
else, right now, all was empty. This island, by the way, is the location of
a nuclear bomb shelter that is described in the tour guides as a bombproof
hospital. Overseas tourists are not supposed to be able to recognize it. On
my last visit here in 1998 I told the Vietnamese guide what it really was
and he was totally shocked that anyone could see through his fabrication.
"How did you guess that!!!", was his immediate reply. It was not very hard,
the building was ten meters underground, had three meter thick concrete
walls and the entrance had double air locks and plunge baths at the door
way. My status with the students I was travelling with rose enormously.
Their next comment is a good
illustration of the level to which the "Party Line" is taught. One of the
young Vietnamese present said, "If it was a nuclear shelter, it would not
have been for use by our leaders. It was for the foreign advisers and had
been built by the Chinese".
"After checking out of the
hotel we sat on the waterfront eating a lunch of the best
calamari in the world while waiting for the "speedy boat" to Hai Phung. This
turned out to be a form of hydrofoil that took us smoothly to the main port
city of Vietnam. Despite having been bombed flat during the war, this is
still an interesting place to see. We toured the centre by cyclo, which was
a first for Judy, finishing at the bus station where we boarded a small bus
for a two-hour ride to Hanoi. Along this road we passed through many small
but busy villages and saw many signs of serious development. There were
factories such as Ford and Canon which have been set up as major
manufacturing sites for world-wide export markets. Overall, a very
successful circular trip through some of the most interesting areas of the
north of the country.
Monday night we had a drink
in the Sofitel Metropol Hotel in Hanoi It was here, in the internal
courtyard, that the street and hotel scenes for Graeme Green’s , "The Quiet
American", were shot. This was an unbelievable hotel. I could not help but
think that Green would have both loved and hated it there. Loved it for its
excellence and hated it because it was so divorced from the poverty and the
people of the streets outside.
Tuesday and Wednesday were
spent sight-seeing in Hanoi. Shopping in the Old Section for exotic silks
and linens, visiting the Ho Chi Min museum and soaking in the wonders of the
old French Villas and wide boulevards in the parts of town now inhabited by
the Embassies and Consulates. The highlights worth expanding upon were the
museum and dinner on Tuesday night.
The Ho Chi Min Museum is a
large, gray, concrete monolith set near to, but not part of the mausoleum
where his patched up body is often on public display. If the mausoleum is
not open, then the body is most likely in Moscow being repaired. This is an
annual trip for the old fellow.
The museum holds some very
interesting exhibits of his life and times and there are attempts to carry
the association between Ho and the Party on into today’s political life by
showing their current "great" achievements along side Ho’s cottage. These
exhibits seem to hold very little interest for anyone, however the linking
of modern art to the recent history of Vietnam is most fascinating. Most
outstanding is a 2/3rd size model of a Ford Edsel jutting out of
the museum wall. It is meant to show one of America’s great technical
failures and uses it as an analogy to their defeat in the war. Well worth a
visit if you get here. Unfortunately the staff members are in uniform and
therefore are trained not to smile.
In the area of the Embassies
the full extent of the impact of the War in Iraq became very obvious.
Heavily armed guards were everywhere on the streets and in the yards of the
buildings. There was also a very easily noticed resentment against the
current American actions. It seemed that some very old wounds had been
opened up again and old anti-US feelings brought to the surface.
For Tuesday’s dinner I
introduced Iain Findlay, his wife, Rebecca and Judy to the very
best in Hue Vegetarian food. We had a truly splendid night dining on various
vegetables disguised as fish, beef and chicken. I had remembered this
particular restaurant from 1998 and was not in the slightest disappointed.
One sad note was that my favourite bar, The Spice Bar, no longer exists.
Another disappointment of
this trip was that time did not allow me to visit or meet any of my previous
students. I had particularly wanted to meet Mhin, a bright young man who had
travelled with me before and who I remember very well as having been the
person who asked the most difficult question in any English class I have
given anywhere. It was in a small class, a group of four students, three
women and Mhin. (Remember in 1998, Bill Clinton was in the midst of his
Monica times.) Mhin’s question was "Mr Mick, what is the difference between
Oral Sex and Verbal Sex? Can you please explain?". I believe he is now
working as a teacher and, I hope, avoiding such questions.
trip back to the airport was as thrilling as our entry to the city or
perhaps even more so as it was raining. Mud, slush and sliding eventually
brought us to our midnight departure for Tokyo on a plane with more staff
than passengers. We flew through the night to arrive at dawn in Narita, a
flight that seemed to take only a few hours but took us through a time gap
of 40 or 50 years.
After returning to Japan in
the Cherry Blossom season I could not help but think very deeply about what
we had experienced. We had seen (and are still seeing) two extreme Asian
countries. One driven by culture and strong ideology (a failed ideology??)
and the other by culture and outcomes. One that had lost a war but won the
peace, the other that had won the war but was still losing its struggle
today and unable to find its place in the post war world. Am I right to feel
sadness and pity for the people of Hanoi when most of them seem happy
despite their difficulties? Will they ever be able to reach the level of
peace and happiness that their energy deserves? As with all great
experiences, I am left with unanswered questions, the most personal and
perplexing of all is, "Could I return to work again in Hanoi???"
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