I attended Brian Londons 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
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 later.
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 worlds 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 wifes, 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 Vietnamese capital.
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 days.
Our taxi trip to Rebeccas 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!!!
Rebeccas 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 lakes 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.
The house was very impressive. Five stories
high with four bedrooms and three bathrooms. Marble
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.
Left: Staff at Phu Dong Restuarant
Late in the
day we met two of Rebeccas friends from the Volunteer program. Iain Findlay and
Trish Clark, a husband and wife team, both journalists, had covered the war in the early
70s 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 60s and
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 Mins body (an experience that takes a pre 7.00am line up due to
We joined a tour group and the whole
morning was spent on the bus with a short break for coffee
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.
We 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 modern Vietnamese.
Monday 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 Greens , "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 todays political life by showing their current
"great" achievements along side Hos 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 Americas 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 Tuesdays 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.) Mhins 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.
Our 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
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