Hanoi Revisited
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Hanoi Revisted

© Mick Henrys
Battalion Armourer
1st Tour
author: Mick Henrys

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 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 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 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.

classic french architectureOur 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.

one of the roomsThe 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.

staff at Phu Dong RestaurantLate 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 HolongIain Findlay 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.

junks on the holongWe 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.


cat ba islandMonday 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 bestjudy enjoying her first cyclo ride 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 verythe group at dinner 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.

Nhuan and MickOur 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???"