28 November 2017 (Tuesday)
Somehow I manage to set my travel alarm clock back 30 minutes, so I wake up 30 minutes later than I planned. After a fortifying breakfast I join the city tour. The toilet in my room won’t flush, so I leave a note for housekeeping. I hope it will be fixed by my return.
As the bus makes its way to the Museum of Ethnology I notice power lines strung haphazardly along the city streets, bunched and bound together. This would not meet U.S. safety standards. The city bustles but doesn’t seem as dirty as last night. Perhaps this morning was trash day.
Hai guides us around the outdoor component of the museum. We see housing and burial structures of the various tribes that populate the more remote regions of the country. Inside the museum there are more traditional exhibits. We only have 30 minutes inside. I could have used 30 more, but it’s on to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex.
Uncle Ho’s final resting place is a boxy multilevel structure in the middle of a large mall convenient for parades and other large gatherings. Military personnel are everywhere. The mausoleum proper is guarded by 2 soldiers in white dress uniforms. Every hour the guard changes. We catch the noon ceremony. Before arriving Hai told us to hold off on any politically sensitive questions until we were back on board the bus. Several “tourists” wandering the mall are likely government spies, and there is an underground monitoring station beneath a grassy knoll that records everything said in the complex. They can translate all language to make sure foreign tours weren’t being given non-Communist propaganda. No shorts above the knee are allowed, and shoulders must be covered. We must show respect for Uncle Ho.
Our last official stop before lunch is Hoa Lo Prison (dubbed by American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”), built by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners during colonial times. The French would shackle one or both legs of a prisoner depending on how well they were behaving. The guillotine used for executions remains on display.
After the gloom of the prison we make an unscheduled stop at Marou, a specialty chocolate shop with cacao varieties from different regions of Vietnam. We spend far more time than Hai allotted as nearly everyone gets chocolate bars, candies and hot chocolate.
For lunch before our scheduled Water Puppet Theater performance I follow Hai, Tom & Anne, Lana & Mike, and Ana Maria to a restaurant near the theater overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake and have a simple vegetable fried rice and a Hanoi beer.
We walk to the Lotus Theater for the performance which features traditional North Vietnamese music and signing, along with water puppetry that focuses on local legends and the farming and fishing life of the local peasants. There is a lot of chatting during the show either from tourists who don’t know better or children caught up in the spectacle. Though the music and puppetry are interesting, the inertia of sitting after the long day of walking causes me and several group members to nod off occasionally.
Back at the hotel (my toilet is fixed) I promptly pass out and sleep until 10:00 p.m. I hope I am able to sleep tonight.
29 November 2017 (Wednesday)
Side Note: Vietnam is a communist country. However, as Hai pointed out, communism is no longer an economic philosophy. It is solely political. And wholly corrupt. Capitalism runs rampant here, most obviously in Saigon.
Today is our final optional tour. I’m glad to be out of Hanoi for a few hours. The dirty air and dirty streets have begun to get to me and my sinuses. We visit the Thay Pagoda, the master pagoda, about an hour outside the city. It’s not as elaborate and elevated as the pagodas and tombs we saw in Hue. Its title notwithstanding, this pagoda feels quite modest.
The next stop is So Village where we are given a clear reminder of the poverty of much of country. We visit the home of an 87-year-old woman who offers us biscuits and tea, as well as some beetle nut (which no one accepts because it turns your teeth black). When she’s not doing household chores, she makes brooms and fans to sell. Most of her children and grandchildren live in cities where they could find jobs.
We drive back to Hanoi for lunch at a chain restaurant (not Vietnamese) called Al Fresco. Pleasant but nothing special.
Back to the hotel then one more trek to Café Pho Co for a hot egg coffee. I follow our path from the first night. The streets are busier and dirtier than before. Or at least it seems that way. My sinuses cry out for relief. I wish I were wearing a mask. Now I understand why they are ubiquitous on the streets of Vietnam. I don’t think I could stay in the city another full day. I would be in respiratory distress.
I run into Marika and her Irish boyfriend (husband?) from our tour group at Café Pho Co. They had the same idea. She is in rapture over the hot egg coffee, and I can’t say I blame her. We have a group farewell dinner tonight, but they will not be attending. Instead they have a street food tour. Perhaps I will see them at breakfast tomorrow before departure.
I walk to the park around Hoan Kiem Lake and find a bench to relax upon. Before too long a young woman with a backpack approaches me and starts chatting me up. Earlier in the tour Hai mentioned that students would frequently want to practice English with tourists. Since the first words out of her mouth are “Do you speak English?” I assume this is the case. She pulls out a handwritten essay on the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake and asks me to read it aloud to make sure it makes sense. The young woman’s English is spotty. She claims to be 12 but that can’t be the case since I met an 11-year-old in So Village who was much younger. I assume she is confused about English numbers. She says she is studying banking and working part time with kids, so my guess is she’s a college student. After a time I excuse myself and walk back to the hotel.
Breathing the air has become more and more difficult. I return to my hotel room and hibernate until dinner.
Hai walks the group to 5 Spices, a local restaurant. I sit with Rike and Pam again. We’re the Special People’s Club.
The food is delicious, our best group meal to date, but Rike is accidentally given a chicken cake and makes a fuss. The staff is very apologetic, and she’s given special attention the rest of the evening.
We walk back to the hotel, and I say my goodbyes to Tom & Anne and Lana & Mike, since they leave at 6:00 a.m. the next morning for Thailand. I also say goodbye to Ali & Fariba and their boys. They leave at 9:00 a.m., but I may see them at breakfast.
Back to the room for a shower and to begin a course of decongestant. I hope that helps. I do not want any sinus issues on the plane home. My shuttle leaves the hotel for the airport at 12:45 p.m. tomorrow, so luggage out at 11:45 p.m. and check out at noon.
30 November 2017 (Thursday)
My last day in Vietnam. Pack and breakfast. There’s still time before luggage out, so I walk over to Truc Bach Lake. Anne said it was an easy walk away. My sinuses are unhappy, though the decongestant seems to have helped somewhat.
The air around the lake and the surrounding city is hazy. I try to take a picture but everything’s white and gray wash. The lake is close and easily walkable within an hour.
I stop at a convenience store to buy water and use up some of my remaining dong. On the far side of the lake I see a “Cho” (dog) restaurant. Walk on by.
Back at the hotel I finish packing, put my luggage out, and walk across the street for a quick lunch before the shuttle to the airport. My biggest language difficulty of the trip occurs with the young waiter at the restaurant. Luckily the hostess speaks decent English and translates my order.
Ana Vigo (a Peruvian who lives in Los Angeles) holds up our shuttle a few minutes while she waits for her dressmaker to deliver clothes she ordered.
Hai, Ana and her friend Matthew, and Michael and his 83-year-old mother Dinah are in the 12:45 p.m. group. Ana, Matthew, Dinah and I are on the same flights to L.A. Dinah’s son Michael is flying to Cambodia. Hai flies back to his home in Saigon.
Dinah and I sat together at breakfast, so she adopts me as her proxy son for the trip home. In Guangzhou we pick up boarding passes for our long final flight. Ana and I are seated next to each other. I ask for an emergency exit row, but the agent counts wrong and gives me the row in front of the emergency exit, which is the world’s worst row (with a wall behind the seat).
After takeoff Ana, who’s feeling claustrophobic, looks for another open seat and finds one, so her seat opens up to my left. The middle aged gentlemen on the aisle is an odd duck who plans to sleep at LAX and catch a flight to Montana the next day. He says he brought his own sleeping bag.