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Reisverslag Hanoi: Insanity and impatience
23 juli 2017
Hanoi: Insanity and impatience
1. You meet a lot of cool people
2. You meet them easily.
3. I can recommend solotravel to anyone.
There, done. In other words: I'm having the time of my life. Let me give you a quick run-down of what I've been up to in Hanoi.
I saw Ho Chi Minh's body in the mausoleum; I visited the Temple of Literature; I delved deep into the history of a Vietnamese prison dubbed "Hanoi Hilton" by American prisoners of war; accidentally sneaked into the National Museum of Vietnam; watched wooden puppets come alive in the water during a traditional form of Vietnamese theatre; and ended up at the Asian Quidditch cup.
Obviously, I didn't do all of that in one day. On Thursday, I didn't do much besides finding my hostel, treating myself to a massage of an hour and 15 minutes long, and getting dinner. That night, I met some people in my dorm, and we decided to set out together for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum the next morning.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, however, turned out to be closed, so that didn't really work out. Luckily, we found out before we actually walked the 30 minutes over there (which is quite a lot in this heat), so we decided to visit the Temple of Literature first.
The Temple of Literature wasn't incredibly impressive, unfortunately. We expected there to be information signs telling us about the place, but since we were wrong about that, we should have bothered with a guide in hindsight. Still, it was a nice enough place to walk around! It used to be a place where doctors were trained, and there were still a lot of ancient slabs of stone around commemorating them. Interestingly, those slabs of stone were placed on top of giant stone tortoises. Ari, one of the guys I was travelling with, said that the tortoise is one of the holy animals of Vietnam, together with the phoenix, the unicorn, and the dragon. We were not sure what exactly the tortoise symbolised, but we've got a theory it's longevity (because they can grow really old) and wisdom (because I vaguely remember reading that somewhere the lion tortoise in ATLA offered Aang wisdom so hey, that's solid proof, right?).
Next on the list was the prison, which was much more interesting. Built by the French at the end of the 19th century, it was meant to hold up to about 450 Vietnamese rebels. At some point in time, though, it housed about 2000 inmates. The informative texts hung up everywhere did nothing to hide the atrocities that took place here. In fact, from an outsider point-of-view, it was quite interesting to see the tone the exhibition adopted: very patriotic, admiring towards the rebels, and downright demeaning to the French. That makes sense, of course, and I'm not judging it at all - it's just an observation I've had, one that seems to confirm the idea that no history writing is truly objective.
Two parts of the prison really stayed with me. The first is one of the bigger cells, Cell E, where replicas of prisoners on their benches had been put. The dolls were awfully lifelike: you saw the suffering in their protruding ribs, their haggard faces, their sunken eyes. All of them had one ankle in chains, restricting their movement. High up on the walls were small, barred windows, but the light barely reached them. It was really eerie, though very effective in making the history of the place and the hardships the Vietnamese prisoners went through come alive.
The other bit that has really had an impact on me is related to cell E, though worse: the cells for the prisoners on deathrow. There were no windows at all, the prisoners were chained to the wall with both ankles, and they weren't even allowed to get up to go to the toilet. The only time the door was opened was when a guard brought their food, twice a day. Prisoners with a death sentence were supposed to stay in those cells for about 10 months after having received their sentence, but the French were often in a hurry, so most were executed after only a few days.
Honestly, I don't know if that's better or worse.
As opposed to the Vietnamese prisoners, the American prisoners of war a few decades later were treated quite well. So well, in fact, that they nicknamed the place "Hanoi Hotel". They were allowed to play sports and games, received three proper meals a day, had chickens, got letters from home, and weren't chained up. In the gritty, black-and-white pictures, they do look like they're having a decent time. They're actually smiling and laughing and altogether just being lively, which makes for a very stark contrast with the way the Vietnamese were treated by the French.
After the prison, Ari, Hector and me headed to the National Museum, or rather: we tried. We found a fancy looking building with a sign outside that said "National Museum of Vietnam", but couldn't figure out where the entrance was, found an open door, entered, climbed a flight of stairs, turned a corner, went through another door, descended some stairs, suddenly felt the cold air that only airconditioning can create in this climate on our skin, looked up, saw exhibits on display, and found ourselves staring at some official-looking people a few feet down the hall.
Apparently, we'd found a back-door into the museum (and the security was pretty leaky). We had actually tried the proper entrance before going exploring, but all three of us had forgotten that the museum had not opened yet when we arrived.
Being the well-behaved citizens that we are, we naturally bought a ticket anyay.
The museum wasn't much good, though: it was mostly seemingly random objects on display, with Vietnamese and English descriptions of what the objects were, but that was it. There was no explanation as to how these things were related to each other, what story they told together, etc. A museum is supposed to read like a book, taking you on a journey into history, explaining the relevance of the things it shows, but this was more like the first draft of a beginning novel by the world's worst writer. Suffice it to say we didn't stay long.
I was dead tired when we got back; we'd been out for about 7 hours and had done about 20 kms of walking. Yet we still went out for drinks later that night, now also joined by Marcel and Felix, the two guys who I'll be going to Cat Ba Island with. We ended up in the party part of Hanoi, which had a pretty nice atmosphere. There were a few clubs blasting loud music, but also just loads of people having food and drinks outside on the streets. Around 12, it started to empty out, as most things close around that time. Or rather, as soon as the police comes by, which usually happens just after midnight. So we decided we might as well leave, too, especially because we wanted to get up early the next day to go to the Mausoleum.
We actually did: we left around 8:30. When we got the mausoleum, it was already really busy, with a gigantic queue outside. That queue, however, turned out to be merely the queue for people *with* an appointment to see the mausoleum. The rest of us commoners had to walk a few blocks (!) to find the end of the queue for those without an appointment, and join the crowds there.
I'm not great at guessing distances, but I believe I'm not exaggerating when I say that the queue was about a kilometre long. It winded all the way along the wall and through the temple complex. Nevertheless, the queue moved quite quickly. I think we ended up waiting for about 20 minutes and then, there it was: the body of one of the most important figures in Vietnamese history. It was very surreal to see it displayed like that: the head lying on a pillow, the hands resting on the stomach, his eyes closed. It really did look like he was sleeping peacefully, even though you know fully well it's an actual body you're looking at. Very strange and impressive.
When we got out of the mausoleum (all in all, you spent about a minute in there), we decided to see a bit of the rest of the complex, like Ho Chi Minh's house, the presidential palace, the lake, etc.
Honestly, it reminded me a lot of Disneyland. It was a display of mass tourism, with huge crowds; people shuffling slowly and often so close together you were almost touching the person in front of you; little kids running about; stalls selling food and drinks and souvenirs, from little army uniforms for kids to fans with pictures of the mausoleum on it; people taking selfies in inconvenient places and wandering from attraction to attraction. Even so, it was impressive to be on such an important historical site. We didn't hang around for too long, but I'm glad I went.
That evening (so Saturday), I went to see the Waterpuppet Show down by the lake. As I found out when I arrived, though, the actual show was inside in a 'regular' theatre, only it had a deep pit filled with water in it. I was slightly disappointed, because I thought that the show would be performed by the lake itself. Regardless, it was really really beautiful to see all the colourful puppets dancing about the lake, often seeming to move of their own rather than being attached to poles or strings. They were much more graceful and elegant than I ever thought puppets could be (and those things generally creep me out!). Although I don't speak a word of Vietnamese, I didn't really need it to follow the short stories that the puppets performed. There was a couple, presumably husband and wife, who went out fishing but the man accidentally caught the woman with his fishing net, which had most of the theatre (so all the locals) roaring with laughter; there was a pair of birds courting each other, laying and egg and having a baby; and I remember people cruising the lake in rowing boats and honouring the tortoise. There was a lot more, but I'm afraid I don't remember the rest exactly. The stories were accompanied by music from a live orchestra, which really set the tone and added to the atmosphere, as well as to my understanding of the story.
Overall, it was quite the spectacle, in spite of the language barrier!
On Sunday (so today), I somehow ended up at the Asian Quidditch cup. Basically, one of the people in my dorm mentioned he played Quidditch and had tournament on Sunday, and said I could drop by if I wanted to have a look. Since I'd heard about Quidditch and know a few people who play it (plus, UEA has its own team), I decided to check it out. I wasn't sure what to expect, but this is the way I see it: Quidditch, it turns out, is an awesome combination of dodgeball, rugby and handball, plus brooms (well, not actual brooms, they're more like sticks). It's actually a pretty intense sport, for which, it seems, you definitely need stamina, teamwork, technique, and some hand-eye coordination.
It was an incredibly hot day, so I have a lot of respect for the people who actually played all day in this kind of weather. I wasn't even doing anything, literally just sitting in the grass and watching the games, and I was sweating so much my sunscreen wouldn't even stick to my skin. Met a lovely Vietnamese girl named Thu, and we talked about our different countries, travelling, university, and so much more. Funny enough, she's a huge fan of football, and as soon as I told her I'm from the Netherlands, she wrote down "Arjen Robben", "Dirk Kuijt", " Johan Cruijff", and "Marco van Basten" and asked me how to pronounce their names. It was a really nice way to connect. In return, she told me some Vietnamese, so I can now say (well, mispronounce) thank you, yes, no, and hello.
The football pitch where the cup was being held was quite far out of town, so I took a taxi there. However, I didn't go by car - instead, I opted to go by motorbike, since I figured that would make for a truly Vietnamese experience.
Well, I was definitely right about that. I had already experienced the pandemonium they call traffic here as a pedestrian and from a car, but this was completely different. The traffic is a crazy combination of insanity and impatience. It's not even organised chaos - it's anticipated chaos. Everybody drives like a maniac, or so it seems to my Western-Ẻurope, order-accustomed mind, but it's exactly because of that that it seems to work: they all expect each other to drive this wildly, so they know how to respond to it.
Anyway, when walking, the trick is to do just that when you want to cross: just walk. Just go. Don't wait for a lull in traffic or for people to stop for a pedestrian crossing, it's not gonna happen. Just walk, and the bikes and cars will swerve around you. You have to pay a bit of attention, because there are not just bikes and cars coming from your left, no, no, nothing as simple as that. They're coming from everywhere: your left, your right, behind you, in front of you, turning around the corner so you only spot them at the last second... It's like that game Flight Control, where you have to steer all the planes safely towards their landing strip and it starts out easy with just one or two planes but you end up with 20, 30, 40 planes that are all on collision course and you need to keep your eyes on everything at once and then you die.
Only it obviously had a happier ending in the Hanoi traffic. The bikes *will* go around you, the cars *will*, begrudingly, move slowly enough for you to stumble to the relative safety of the sidewalk. But on a motor bike, now that's next-level participating in traffic. Needless to say, I didn't drive myself (now that'd be a bad idea), but had someone drive me. The driver plopped a helmet on my head, I took place on the backseat, and off we went.
Sum this experience up in one word? Exhilarating.
You think you're about to have a collision, but then the driver pulls you to safety with a flick of his wrist. Confidently, lazily even, like the bike is a dog on a leash that should stop sniffling that weirdly-looking patch of grass.
You think you're about to hit that car head-first, but then the driver hits the brakes and yet it's a gentle stop the bike comes to, instead of with a sudden, jerking motion.
You think you're really about to say goodbye to this world, but then the driver pulls off a miracle and there you are, unscathed and a grin on your face.
Yeah, I'd definitely recommend getting a motortaxi if you ever find yourself in Vietnam.
To conclude: I'm having an amazing time here, I've already done and seen quite a lot (I've not even talked about the food!) and met some awesome people, and I'm really excited for the rest of my trip.
Next stop: Cat Ba Island!
23 juli 2017 19:09 | Door: Jacqueline Veldhoen
I really enjoy your travelling story's (again). The way you write make me feel I experience the trip myself. I can't wait for the next story. I'm glad you're enjoying yourself.