Just a couple of months before I went to Vietnam, on a Jet Air flight I chanced to have as my co-passenger a young lady in her mid to late twenties from Hanoi who was visiting New Delhi to attend a conference. She spoke excellent English and worked as a junior official with the Foreign Affairs Ministry. She was bright, polite, and slim – in some ways much like the air hostesses who served us on the aircraft. She was also well informed on foreign affairs. I had heard from my Thai friends that they considered the Vietnamese to be one of the intelligent communities in the region, so this did not surprise me. Clearly though she came from the upper crust of Vietnamese society for during the course of our conversation she spoke of a school trip to Amsterdam some years previously. An elite school then. I took my initial very positive impressions of Vietnam from her. I wondered how I would find the country itself.
‘It’s twenty years behind India,’ said a friend who had been there, but didn’t explain further.
First impressions of a country are often formed through the airport and these were disappointing. Hanoi airport was rather run down and my luggage took a long time to arrive. Despite it being an international airport in the country’s capital only a single luggage belt existed. Three flights which landed close to each other in terms of time all had their bags on this same belt, so there was a fair bit of chaos. Confusion was exacerbated by the fact that the belt kept stopping now and again. Every time it did stop which was four times in the space of half an hour a small boy would clamber down a hole from where the belt protruded and get it to start again. This particular task could only have been accomplished by a child. So, child labour, even ‘essential’ child labour as a quick fix solution? An improvised and inadequate remedy, this was clear evidence of poor infrastructure and planning.
In earlier decades it hasn’t been easy to get a Vietnamese visa but the government is now keen to encourage tourism and has introduced an e-visa system. I had applied for both my Vietnam and Cambodian e-visa on the Internet and paid by credit card. I have to say that the Cambodia e visa system worked more smoothly (and the airport at Phnom Penh was also more impressive). In Cambodia’s case there was only one agency that provided the visa approved by the government; in the case of Vietnam this was farmed out to several.
Initially though one of Vietnam’s e-visa agencies which I discovered on the Net told me after some back and forth through email that they were sorry but as yet the e-visa facility was not available to Indians. I decided to double check with other agencies rather than assume this to be the final word on the subject. At the time I was planning the trip I was living and working in a small island country near Australia which did not have a Vietnamese embassy on its territory. Fortunately my persistence paid off and I eventually came across an agency that said yes, multiple entry e-visas for Indians were possible as well. After some further checking they said only a single entry visa was possible not a multiple entry visa, but anyhow all I needed was a single entry. Clearly though some work needs to be done by our Foreign Ministry, to ensure reciprocity, for as on date Vietnamese are granted visa-on-arrival to India. Why should Indians be denied similar facilities? An argument has been advanced by some that Vietnam has legitimate reasons to be cautious. A couple of years ago a hundred odd criminals, from the Dubai-Mumbai mafia which included Chotta Shakil and gang were found holed up in a hotel in Hanoi.
The number of Indians traveling to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi has increased over the past couple of years. This is primarily due to greater investor interest, but the creation of of the e-visa system and loosening on restrictions may also have something to do with it; probably the two feed into each other.
Once I had my luggage, I discovered to my dismay, that Vietnamese government loves to create more paperwork, My e-visa did not allow me to simply breeze through as had been the case in Cambodia and I still needed to go through a 'stamping procedure' (quite separate from the one at immigration) and pay an extra 45 dollars!
These days whenever I visit a country for the first time, one of the first things I do is to get myself a SIM card. So after collecting my luggage and moving out of customs the next port of call was to find a place that could issue me a SIM card. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the airport there were half a dozen companies to choose from, but in Hanoi there was only one counter. A tired looking fellow gave me a SIM after testing it on his own mobile, and didn’t provide me with any accompanying literature or booklet.
Assuming greater reliability I ordered a taxi from, the government tourism counter at the airport. It’s not unwise to do this since taxi drivers in Hanoi can try and scam you. However you get scammed anyway, in this case by the government for I paid 27 dollars but later discovered I could have got a taxi at less than half the price, for 12 dollars outside. At Bangkok they have the limousine counters but here the tourism office supplied taxi was ordinary, no limo or even a superior model that could have deserved a better price. A forty minute drive to the city during the course of which we passed flyover after flyover, with bumpy roads in the same Indian way and even yellow street lighting of the kind you find once you exit Indira Gandhi airport. Overall, compared even to India a a somewhat ramshackle affair.
I had booked myself into a four star hotel on Lang Ha street. It was an old building with old rooms but the staff was friendly. It was cold in Hanoi when I reached, being the middle of January. The heating worked well, and at reception they all smiled when I asked for two keys because obviously I wished to keep the room warm while I was away
My hotel was owned by a Singaporean Chinese with many of the senior staff employed there including the General Manager from the same country. It advertised the only casino in town but this was an empty boast for the following day in the evening I discovered the casino consisted of four or five abandoned slot machines with just a couple of poker tables but no players.
During breakfast the next morning, I met Stephen Loh., a Singaporean American based in California. A rich industrialist, his company had offices in 17 countries. Originally an engineer by profession, Loh’s company now supplied products to giants such as Intel. He complained of corruption.
‘My people tell me – Sir, it’s simply not possible to do business here without slipping money under the table.’
‘Do you travel often to the many countries you have offices in?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I do,’ he said smiling. ‘I need to check up on things, you know.’
‘You come to Vietnam often?’
‘I travel so much that sometimes I forget which country I am in,’ he quipped, ‘and then I realize that oh, I’m here, this is how things are done here. Vietnam – I’ve been coming here for seventeen years now.’
I asked him about his impressions of the country.
‘As workers,’ he said, ‘the girls are great. The men….they are not as hard working.’
‘And the overall system? Is it good for business?’
Stephen gave a sigh, ‘They need a visionary like Deng Xiaoping to straighten out the country.’
As an erstwhile Singaporean, his views were not unsurprising. Deng, who was a great friend of Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Mentor now and the leader credited with Singapore’s own transformation, had himself had got his idea about opening up the Chinese economy after seeing the great progress made by Singapore.
After breakfast I went across to the Tourist desk. I was too late for the city tour, but that didn’t bother me. I often prefer to be on my own the first day in a new city, so that I can form first impressions directly.
Planning ahead, I asked the girl at the desk if she could provide me with a guide who could take me to Ha Long Bay the following day. I just wanted any one person to accompany me, I explained. I don’t much fancy group tours.
To my pleasant surprise, she herself volunteered. It was Nicole’s day off and she wouldn’t mind taking me to Ha Long Bay and showing me around.
‘I will meet you outside the hotel, near the taxi stand at half past seven,’ she said. ‘Is that all right?’
Nicole was a bit shy, but very polite, slim and pretty. Her English was passable, not excellent.
Still, it was exactly what I had been looking for. Not to be part of a large and rushed big tour, being herded along like cattle, but yet have a companion and guide.
I flagged down a taxi and directed him to take me to the Hoan Kiem Lake also known as Sword Lake. Hanoi has several lakes and though smaller than West Lake, Sword Lake is in the older, more interesting and culturally rich part of the city.
Moving slowly through the traffic, inside the black taxi I felt like I was a cockroach surrounded by hundreds of flies and mosquitos. The ratio of cars to motorcycles in Hanoi is such that the cars are outnumbered fifty to one at least. Motorcycles swarm around you, and the smoke being belched out is not the very best greeting to receive in the morning as the day begins. Vietnamese start work early though, at eight in the morning, so you can’t beat the morning traffic, unless you start really early. You can wait for it to lessen and start out at elevenish; by then things have settled down a bit.
In the mornings when the traffic lights turn green a veritable tornado of motorbikes pitches forth. The motorcyclist’s put on thin metal helmets with loose straps as a token gesture to traffic regulations. For the girls there are holes drilled at the back of the helmet for their pony tails to pop out. I looked for a safety belt but there were none inside my taxi. It’s true that there are not many accidents for I hardly ever heard the sound of ambulance sirens. Perhaps, one could argue, they don’t have enough ambulances. I didn’t actually physically witness a single accident during my entire stay, but this can be attributed to the expertise of the drivers, Otherwise accidents are just waiting to happen.
When I reached the old quarter a half hour later, despite the continued hustle and bustle, I felt a great sense of relief and calm. I loved the look of the lake – which you can walk around in the space of forty minutes – and the look of the ancient streets. The place has clear and visible charm and beats other parts of the city hands down. I decided to spend my day there.
Tourist rickshaws will take you around the old quarter for an hour for ten dollars. The machine is so designed that the customer sits right in front so that he has a full frontal view with the driver pedaling from behind. Leading from behind, President Obama would have said.
A second option exists of taking a ride in eco-friendly cars which are electrically operated. It’s easy to find motor cycle guides as well, but of the three options I settled on the slower tourist rickshaw option that let you take in the sights gradually. After all I was only having a look at the old quarter and not Hanoi itself. Besides it was chilly and my jacket purchased in Thailand a week previously did the job for a walk around or a rickshaw ride, but wasn’t thick enough for a breezier ride.
Despite the cold, to be honest, it’s possible I may have hopped on a motorbike and taken a ride past the landmarks of the city if there had happened to be an attractive female bike tour guides of the kind that you can be found in Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is more traditional in its ways. One historical explanation provided for this divergence is that the American presence changed Ho Chi Minh City. In Graham Greene’s much applauded novel, ‘The Quiet American,’ that was subsequently made into a film, an English war reporter finds his girlfriend by picking one out of a group of girls inside a place of ill repute, each girl having a chain with a number dangling around her neck. Of course HCM is also the bigger and more commercial city and this would also certainly be a factor.
As we went around I saw the Opera House - a billboard advertised a Beethoven concert slated for the evening by one of Hanoi’s best pianists – the Thang Long Puppet House, the Government Post Office, and other buildings with French colonial style architecture. I got a sense of a larger-than-expected Australian presence in the large ANZ banking offices and in the upmarket Aussie tour guide offices. My rickshaw driver spoke broken English and was able to answer many of my questions. I had to listen carefully though. The Vietnamese write English better than they speak it and while speaking they tend to swallow some consonants so hospital becomes hopital. My driver pointed to the bust of a bygone Vietnamese king with great enthusiasm but then turned rather dispiritedly to point out the local communist party office.
We passed by narrow Chandni Chowk style streets, where I saw shops selling small cardboard boxes packed with local sweets just like we have during the Diwali season. The Tet festival was only a couple of weeks away. I saw European style buildings with overhanging bay windows that survived from the French period. Around the world medieval markets have had streets developed around specific merchandise. If in Kabul you still have Butcher Street and Flower Street, in the old quarter in Hanoi, you can find Hang Bong Street or ‘Cotton Street’ or streets that once plied tin utensils or sold cloth. The old ‘Cloth Street’ now sells bamboo products. On some of the wider streets I discovered mysterious small, white tents poking out from the shops. These, the driver informed me, were meant to host small engagement celebrations; the bigger main marriage event would be held somewhere else. Was this the wedding season?
The rickshaw went slowly, and we also made a few stopovers. I saw welders at work, and a young shoe shine girl trying to persuade a firangi couple to get their shoes polished. We passed by streets smelling of coffee. There were dozens of small, low maintenance coffee shops that sold the beverage at a very low price. They have filtered coffee, just like in South India. Dozens of people squatted on low stools opposite small wooden or plastic tables; these were entirely local affairs with barely a foreigner. In the north of the country they grow tea, coffee in the south. Between the two beverages coffee seems more plentiful and also more popular. A lot of Vietnamese local coffee is also sold in the market. Soon after I left the country, I heard that Starbucks had opened in a couple of places in Ho Chi Minh City but they were not doing very well. This did not surprise me for they would have been too highly priced to tap into the local market.
I got off the rickshaw temporarily to have a look at a couple of Vietnamese liquor shops. They sold locally made vodka as well as red and white wine. They also stocked some of the internationally famous brand names. Aside from the liquor, one shop had installed, for purposes of sale, gigantic ten thousand liter Scotch whisky bottles using the original design of the bottle, mounted on wooden frames. Something the Western tourist could take back home and install in his private bar to create some status and have a laugh with his friends.
Not unexpectedly I found several backpackers’ hostels, but I also spotted small, classy boutique hotels, and shops selling art work. Aside from pictures of Ho Chi Min with his long beard, the art shops sold imitation Mona Lisa’s and other famous works. A Monet Art House was bursting with copies of the master’s paintings at a bargain price. Reproductions could be commissioned.
A little later, after the tour was over, I decided to stretch my legs and have a walk around the lake. Benches had been installed at short distances from each other so you could stop and have a rest and simply enjoy the lake view. A shoe shine boy came up to me, pointed at my already clean shoes and made a grimace as it it was the dirtiest thing he ever saw. I had time on my hand and allowed him to convince me to engage his services. I had seen the small tents where engagements were being held and now I started to see young couples who were either just married or intending to get married, for the boy was suited and the girl dressed in their bridal finery. They posed together with the lake in the background, and some friend or relative took their photographs, that would serve as a memoir of the just-engaged or pre-marriage days, I supposed. Most just stood quietly holding hands, but some were more adventurous. In one photo op the bride perched with the suited groom on the sturdy branch of a tree, her dress's white tail falling the length of the tree
Vietnamese love to photograph and be photographed. I understood that they go to different parts of the city to get photographed. The lake in the old city is a favorite location, as is the Temple of Literature. The Temple of Literature though is a place where not only young married couples but even fresh graduates visit to get photographed. The standard routine is for the youngsters to all jump up in the air together and have the camera click the photo before they fall to the ground. The photo captures them in midair, many wearing white auzai, or even in color.
Exercise complete it was time for a cup of tea.
This part of Hanoi abounds in small, wonderful cafes but for some reason, there weren’t many cafes which had a view of the lake. I found only one large double-story affair called the Thuta Café, next to a bakery.
I found a table and ordered a pot of tea, even as I looked around to take in the people sitting close by. The menu had been designed to suit the Western palate and the prices were somewhat excessive. No surprises then that there were mainly farangs seated inside.
Aware that there clientele was mostly Western; the café had kept English newspapers near the tables. And so I picked up a copy of The Hanoi Times and flipped through its pages as I sipped my tea and periodically rested my eyes on the lake. A few news items caught my attention.
A report on the front page spoke about ‘an investigation being launched into payment of bribes for the recruitment of civil servants in districts and provinces.’ According to the scribe the going rate was 3700 USD.
A large ad in one of the middle pages spoke about celebrations at a five star hotel near West Lake. 'Splash into the year of the Water Snake on 10 February!’ the advertisement suggested. ‘Enjoy buffet brunch with a spectacular treat for the senses, with lion and dragon dances, Chinese calligraphy and traditional music!!’ Golden red -tongued decorative dragons had price of place in the centre of my hotel’s lobby. I noticed Chinese writing in many places including on temples that I saw while doing my tour of the Old Quarter. Chinese cultural influence is clearly dominant, despite the old and new problems that Vietnam has experienced with Big Brother. In July this year, following dispute over the ownership of an island, ethnic Chinese were attacked by angry Vietnamese in several cities. The irony is that the Vietnamese still use Chinese calligraphy on special traditional occasions and outside temples but do not any longer use their own script. They now use the Latin script, which was brought into the country by a Portuguese missionary. This might make it easier to pick up English.
The news report that I found most interesting was a report on how on the 23rd of January an 8th grade student in Central Quang Nam Province received a year’s suspension after writing a Facebook post insulting her high school teacher. It was no ordinary low-caliber insult, but couched in the literary style of president Ho Chi Minh’s appeal for resistance against the French in 1946!
Coffee over, I went to take a closer look at a small, bright red bridge that connects the mainland to a small islet on the lake where there is a traditional Vietnamese temple. I stood by the bridge watching people pass by. I had less interest in the temple itself. A large group of young college students strolled in and to my pleasant surprise one of them, a young studious looking bespectacled boy, came up to me and started talking to me in English. A year previously during a visit to China, I had discovered that although I think of myself as perfectly ordinary looking, in a foreign land, I might not appear so to local people, especially owing to my beard. Soon the rest of the college crowd joined him and several of us began to talk in English.
I asked my young friends’ general questions about what they were studying, how many universities there were in Hanoi, etc. They were all happy to answer and keen to learn more about me. I saw wonderful curiosity, openness, friendliness and lack of prejudice in their behavior.
What I understood from them was this. College grades were very important, school grades didn’t matter as much since you have to anyhow sit for a general entrance exam and then once again for the faculty of your choice. Was this so very dissimilar to India where there are nowadays all manner of entrance examinations? The school system though had serious flaws. School grades were also not trusted, because there was no uniformity. Some places they were strict but at some schools you could cheat!
For all these young Vietnamese their studies were very important. I discovered this when I tried to fix up to meet them again. They all wanted to meet, but it was only possible on the weekend. Otherwise they had classes to attend and overdue assignments to submit.
Did they prefer Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh? The majority did prefer Hanoi. The capital was better because it was culturally richer and had four seasons. Two girls preferred Ho Chi Minh City though because it was never cold there
They all wanted to be photographed with me on the red bridge. Two, three of them took out their Smart Phones and started clicking. Incidentally there was free internet available at the tourist center and even, surprisingly at some banks but it wasn’t available at my hotel. Relative to some other countries I found a general dearth of internet cafes, but Wi-Fi is there in many places, looks like Vietnam has skipped the Internet Cafe stage.
As they gathered around me and took group photos I couldn’t remember when I had last been so popular. A few photos later, they took my Facebook address and promised to send me the pictures. Later that evening when I checked, I found that not only had the morning’s pictures been uploaded but there were already a hundred Likes.
‘Honey, I’ve shrunk the kids!’
I was reminded of the 1989 Walt Disney film when I entered the local fast food chain 'Loterrie'. It served Burger -Chips combos in the MacDonald style, but it seemed like a miniature setting. An Indian colleague Ritu Shrivastava who worked in an American health service programme in Phnom Penh once told me how she always felt like a giant in front of her colleagues and embarrassed about her weight. She was not fat, only a little chubby, something like a Hema Malini on bygone years. In other words not only passable but very attractive by Indian Standards and we Indians, we are in general smaller than the Americans and Australians. The Vietnamese are a size still smaller, and you rarely come across someone overweight.
I ordered a coke and sat around watching the happy young faces. The café was Wi-Fi enabled something essential for Hanoi’s upwardly mobile Smart Phone carrying younger generation. It was, I came to understand, a matter of some prestige to be seen inside Loterrie for it meant that you had a certain amount of money to spend.
I haven’t had a burger inside a MacDonald’s for more than a decade and I wasn’t just about to start sampling the cloned variety. Pretending to be like one of the kids around me, I sipped my cola, took out my own Smart Phone and googled for places to have lunch. I had been away from India for a while so I googled, without much hope for an Indian restaurant in Hanoi. Surprise, surprise! A name popped up. Namaste India! Trip Adviser ranked it at Number 2 among ALL Hanoi restaurants. That was remarkable. I went to a map that had directions, and hey presto, it was right there in the Sword Lake neighborhood, a right turn from the Puppet Theatre and straight ahead. So…lunch and home-country food cravings were both taken care of.
As I downed the remnants of my coke, I reflected that as a middle sized Indian with a middle sized bottom, I could fit into the small plastic chairs but I doubted that any of the larger and fatter countrymen or other farangs, could have perched themselves. Around the time I took my rickshaw tour, I saw a large American couple came up to the stand. In a Texan accent the man asked if two could go in the rickshaw. The driver nodded hesitantly. The seat was meant for two, possibly even three Vietnamese. I managed to fit in comfortably but it would have been a tight fit for two of my size. The Americans tried to fit themselves in; it wasn’t possible. Overweight Gullivers come to the land of the Lilliputians, they sauntered away.
Gopi, the dark, portly proprietor of Namaste Hanoi told me that he had opened the restaurant only two years previously but had been in Vietnam and in the food business for the past 14 years. The food at Namaste had an unexpected home-cooking flavor, which may have explained in part its great success. Despite being a relatively small affair they had two chefs: one who focused on Northern cuisine, and the other specialized in dosas, idlis and the like.
Soon after my thali arrived I struck up a conversation with the man seated next to my table, also eating alone. Arun Seshadari, a young director with Tech Com Bank had been working in Hanoi for a few months.
Arun believed that Hanoi mirrored to a greater extent traditional values found in Indian towns and cities inasmuch as the youngsters have great respect for parents, and even elders commanded greater respect. Variations within the country apart (with Ho Chi Minh being more liberal) in general the Vietnamese are something in between conservative and liberal. The girls might wear very short skirts in the summer, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were looking for fun.
From Arun I learnt how in some Vietnamese offices there is the concept of an afternoon nap. He worked in an open planned office where out of, say, 60 employees about 20 of them went off to sleep during their two hour lunch break. Some slept on the floor, some put the chairs together to create a make-shift sleeping space, and yet others even lay down on the table. They slept for an hour or so, and then they got up, drank a coffee, freshened up and got back to work. If this happened at the Tech Com Bank, it was bound to be happening in other banks and other offices, but it wasn’t by any means a phenomenon spread across all work environments. The staff at my hotel was certainly not having lunch hour naps.
I had seen sleeping bags being sold while exploring the markets, and had caught myself wondering why most of them were small sized, because I imagined that these were sold mostly to backpackers. Not so. Afternoon-siesta habituated Vietnamese need them, especially in office spaces that are not so warm in the winter. Sleeping bags were cheap for three dollars apiece; the bigger size targeted at tourists cost a couple of dollars extra.
The owner joined us at our table for a few minutes. He echoed the views of industrialist Stephen Loh maintaining that the Vietnamese girls were more hard-working than the men. Was Vietnamese culture and tradition similar to that of the Chinese? Absolutely. The Vietnamese New Year, which they called the Tet was basically the same as the Chinese New Year; even the red decorations for the event were similar. Although they have other cultural commonality which includes the sharing of a few hundred words in vocabulary, the Vietnamese do not really like the Chinese, for historical reasons. They were ruled by the Chinese for a long period, and now in recent years there has emerged the dispute over Woody Island,
Gopi explained that although the Vietnamese language used the Roman script it would require a great effort for any foreigner to master the lingo. He explained that this was partly because the same word as it was written down could have completely different meanings. The same thing was told to me by Nicole a girl from the tourist desk at my hotel who took me to Ha Long Bay the following day.
‘When you went to the old quarter,’ she had said, ‘you might have seen the Sinh Tourist Agency. Now Sinh can be the name of a tourist agency, but it can also mean toilet! It depends partly on the accompanying word which gives you the context but also the tonal indicators.’
‘Can you give me another example?’ I asked her.
‘Okay,’ she said, creasing her brow. ‘Yes. Now, see the word ban for instance can mean table, busy, sale, friend and dirty. Five meanings, one spelling. Each Vietnamese word has several meanings. The spelling alone will never tell you what it means. This is what makes our language so difficult to learn.’
At one hundred thousand dong tickets for the Thang Long puppet theatre performance were not expensive. The water puppet dance is a cultural affair attended mainly by foreigners, but is worth a watch nonetheless. Interestingly out of the nine offerings, two dances originated in India. The first of these originated in Buddhist ritual, and the second one was the Cham dance, both examples of imprints left by Indian culture such a long way from home. I shouldn’t have been surprised because of the awesome and gigantic scale of Angkor Wat that I had already seen in neighboring Cambodia.
What makes the water puppet show special as compared to regular puppet shows is that by using the device of a pool of water on top of which the puppets glide or prance about (which include ducks and other water animals), it adds to the reality feel. In a regular puppet show, no matter how talented the puppeteer, the puppets do not walk like regular human beings. Their gait is unnatural, so the viewer always knows that this is a show. In the water puppet show, the illusion of all this being real is heightened. Neither the puppeteers nor the viewers have to bother with the legs.
It was annoying and distracting to have so many mobile phones lit up to capture the performance. Our seats too were designed for smaller bottoms and I heard the heavy weight foreigners shifting their butts periodically.
Towards the end of the performance the puppeteers came in for a bow. They waded in through knee length water, I’m sure it had been heated up for it was slightly chilly weather that day, but their smiles were warm. For a moment the spell is broken but pleasantly. The viewer is used to the small size puppets and the sudden emergence of the puppeteers themselves seems like parents come to see the children.
I decided to have a look at the ‘Boss Nightclub and KTV’ at my hotel. As soon as I climbed down to the basement I was greeted with shouts of ‘Welcome boss!’ and ‘Yes boss!’ These greetings were mouthed by a female hostess, and a male colleague standing beside her. I saw ahead a large hall, a series of tables and a wide screen with local Vietnamese pop stars crooning. The lighting was dim. Seated on the chairs there must have been close to a hundred girls their ages ranging from early twenties to mid-forties. They all stood up as if I was the Chairman of a company who had come to do a surprise check on his employees. The same greeting was shouted out only this time it was all these girls shouting ‘Welcome boss!’ and ‘Yes, boss!!’ I don’t have a sufficiently large ego to have enjoyed this fraudulent acceptance of my so-called power; rather I was not a little embarrassed. It was seven in the evening and too early for the real bosses to show up. I must have been their first customer, only of course I wasn’t really a client. And being a lone ranger I must have been a disappointment.
Seeing the large number of girls assembled there, I imagined that every night there would be either a reservation for a large group or for a few groups of men that came in and settled upon a table and a song selection. They would then be joined by six seven girls. Drinks and snacks would be ordered for everyone, including the girls. It would be the job of the girl to get the visiting ‘bosses’ to drink up – and earn commission that way.
Was this only a Night Club? I somehow doubted it. Discrete inquiries with the female hostess got me the rates. She spoke softly, confidentially. It would cost me several hundred thousand dong for any girl of my choice and then it was a million dong for the room. She paused, assessing me and my worth. If I wanted the larger, better quality room it would be one and a half million dong. Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam. When you make something illegal you drive the price up, even though you might not be able to get rid of the banned item or activity. Anyhow, I was in Vietnam to get a sense of the country as a whole and not to investigate the seamier (and steamier) side of life in Hanoi, so I didn’t probe any further.
My experience at the Boss Club was enlightening. At the surface level it revealed demand and consequent supply for female company including sexual services, despite prostitution being illegal. This is not surprising in any way. More significantly though and somewhat symptomatic of a communist and closed society, the ‘Boss Club’ symbolized for me how there is still far too much respect and fear of authority.
I once had a Chinese flat mate during the time I studied at a British University many years ago. Gao’s chief goal in life was to become a ‘leader’. In totalitarian regimes there are the powerless and the powerful. That is a commonly held perception of the truth of the world by ordinary, common people in such societies. And therefore everyone wants to become a ‘leader’. Becoming a leader means you are privileged in every way. Increasingly though, and in the future youngsters like the ones I met at the Red Bridge will challenge this stereotype.
The next morning I woke up early, as I had planned for a trip to Ha Long Bay. On my way to breakfast I picked up a copy of The Sunday Vietnam News from the lobby.
The usual political news figured on the front page: the Vietnamese party General Secretary Nguyen Trong was on a visit to Belgium and the following day Cristina Kirschner, the Argentinian President was arriving on a state visit to Vietnam.
The previous day I had read the report of the case of a young school boy who had been suspended from his school for writing something against his class teacher and posting it on Facebook. I now read with relief and amusement that the eighth grader was eventually allowed to go to class again, thanks to intervention by local media and youth. The threat of suspension, the paper wrote, however served as a warning to young 'keyboard heroes'.
A public announcement on the second page caught my eye. There would be an annual culture even held under the Ly Thai monument near Hoan Kiem Lake in honor of the overseas Vietnamese arriving in the country to celebrate Tet.
Leafing further through the pages of the Sunday paper I found a translated short story titled 'Little Angels' by the Vietnamese short story writer Vu Thi Hanh.
A motor cyclist carries passengers for a living, the way hundreds do in Hanoi. This man also transports boxes. Standing outside a hospital waiting for passengers he is approached by a man to cart a wooden box to a certain location. The address turns out to be a fictitious one, and when he opens the box he finds the dead bodies of three new born children!
His attempts to find the
Ignoring the Vietnamese offerings at the breakfast buffet tables, I ordered a sunny side fried egg with toast and butter, which the restaurant manager said would be brought to my table. The first girl who served me with a pot of tea wore a name badge that said Sandra. The eggs came soon after, brought by a second girl named Ivy. I asked Ivy if this was her real name.
‘No, she smiled. ‘Neither is the other girl’s real name Sandra. We just take these names because we are working in a western style hotel, and it makes it easier for the customers.’
In my hotel Asian farangs outnumbered the whites. It is a measure of the global dominance of Western culture over centuries that even while other non-Western nationalities are increasingly replacing the dominance of the white traveler, short English names still seem more recognizable even to other non-western nationalities.
Nicole, the girl from the travel desk was waiting for me near the taxi stand.
‘It was better to meet outside,’ she explained, ‘as this is private work on my off day.’
She wasn’t in her hotel blue and white uniform, but casually dressed in jeans and T-shirt. The previous day, I had seen in her the famous ‘shy warmth' of the people, particularly the girls, that Alfred de la Cona, a long settled expat and author of a book on Vietnam talks about.
Today, though, she was businesslike and efficient, and briskly went about giving our taxi driver directions to the bus stand. She had already bought bus tickets for the two of us for a day trip to Ha Long Bay and back.
Nicole was Christian but wasn’t much aware of the scriptures; she wasn’t even aware of any distinction between Protestants and Catholics.
As our bus left Hanoi city and entered the highway, for a few moments I experienced the illusion of seeing large brightly painted villas on both sides of the road. Was this where the rich communist bosses lived? Were these the Vietnamese equivalent of the Russian dachas? Nothing of the sort. It was a trick played by the mind - because I was seeing only one side of the picture. These were not large bungalows at all.
What are Vietnamese not squares?
Answer: They live in long rectangles…
The Vietnamese build their houses long but narrow. It was rather curious, this living inside houses that are shaped like train bogeys, geometrically speaking. Was it simply a case of poor urban planning or was there some other reason for it? When I quizzed her, Nicole was of the opinion that property buyers had to pay a higher price for the section of your house that faced the road and a far lower price for the section that didn’t face it. According to her it was cheaper to buy houses this way.
On my second trip to the Old Quarter the following day, I discovered that she was nearly right. Houses were taxed, not sold, on the basis of street frontage. In the Old Quarter, you can still find ‘tube houses’ that are built long and narrow for exactly the same reason. I entered one such shop cum residence. The shop was right in the front, a storage room followed, then the living room and then the bedrooms and right at the end were a couple of toilets. This reminded me of how in the Emirates many years ago, one of the ruling Sheiks had dreamed up a new ‘balcony tax’. The consequences were all too predictable. Everyone, barring those who were rich, started sealing up their balconies, choosing now to dry their clothes on an aluminum apparatus inside the apartment instead of on a clothes line in the balcony. The sight of washed clothes hanging to dry on clothes lines set up on balconies became a thing of the past. As did balconies themselves.
Although there was new looking paint on many houses, their design, including that of the balconies often seemed rough; a simple country design
During the course of the bus ride to Ha Long Bay, behind the seat that Nicole and I shared, I heard amusing backpacker chatter.
As a student in India I was always strapped for cash. None of us middle class kids could think of travelling overseas. Perhaps for this reason I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude towards Western backpackers, many of whom are freshly out of college. I resented the fact that it was so easy for them to work for a few months and then with those savings travel all across the world – only because of the strong value that their currency held. I also had reservations about how much many of them carried their own Western cultural mindset while in a foreign land. But I have many friends who admire the backpacking culture.
‘I’ve been travelling for a year,’ said the one, a thin girl with a sharp British accent. Her hair was tied in a bun and her backpack lay at her feet
‘More than two years for me now,’ said the other, a tall, athletic man. The accent was German; his backpack was still hoisted on his shoulders.
‘Sorry the Hashers gave you a tough time.’
When there are enough of them, and Vietnam is a favorite destination (just like Kathmandu) the backpacker community can sometimes form loose associations around activities such as walking, running, smoking hashish, etc. As I listened to their conversation I came to understand that they were members of the ‘Hashers’ a running group; whether smoking hash was one of their extracurricular activities is something I did not discover. The duo sitting behind me were both runners, the girl a more recent member of the Hashers.
As part of the ‘initiation’ into the group the previous week the English girl had been made to sit for half an hour on a square foot block of melting ice wearing only her T-shirt and underwear. After this trial by ice, she was then formally inaugurated into the group and given a nick name. The two spoke of themselves and others in the group using nicknames such as Lecherous, Mini Me, Slippery Spear, Roger Me, Sexy Beast, Hot Lips, Sheepshagger, Tickler, and others that I would rather not reproduce in this essay.
The duo behind me fell silent eventually. I turned to look out of the window.
Small green hills appeared now as our bus came closer to the destination. It was a three hour bus ride to reach the harbour.
We reached Ha Long Bay. A World Heritage site every day there are hundreds of tourists who come to see the place. Our bus was one of many that came from different parts of Vietnam. Several large hotels had sprouted in recent years for people to stay in and explore the area at greater length. To give the reader an idea about the scale of things aside from the standard offerings for tourists such as kayaking, swimming, shopping there are sixteen hundred islands and four fishing villages to explore.
Many years ago, I saw ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ a James Bond movie in which a British media baron hides a nuclear device on board his stealth boat which is parked in the Ha Long Bay. I learned subsequently that shooting did not actually take place in Vietnam as per the script, but in Thailand because the producers couldn’t get permission. That was 1997 and today Vietnam is much more open to such offers.
And yet as things stand today outside the magnificent bay itself what you see all around is barren land with small scraps of green, so to speak. Surely the government can see that the immediate environs of Ha Long Bay also matter. It is much visited by tourists, but the infrastructure could clearly do with great improvement. This would still further tourism as people would be more inclined to then stay over for the night or even longer. It is another matter that Vietnam also needs to conserve the beauty of its natural habitat, including some pristine beaches, and not have it overrun by unregulated tourism.
We took one of the cruises for a trip to the central part of the Bay. It was hugely enjoyable being in the waters and ‘breath-taking’ in the scenery. Ha Long has been described by an ancient Vietnamese poet as a ‘rock wonder in the sky.’ Another Vietnamese writer Pham Van Dong asked himself: ‘Is the scenery in this world or somewhere else?’ The landscape does have a quaintly futuristic feel to it. We are used to the traditional green topped or even rocky mountain in traditional shapes and these too are here but the divine artist also played around with new and unusual shapes. It’s easy to comprehend the Vietnamese myth that there once were huge fiery dragons that lived here and protected the country. The islands and islets so the myth goes were spat out by the family of dragons originally as jewels and jade. The dragon in China and Vietnam is a symbol of good (unlike in the West). Part of the myth is also that the tall limestone rock structures appeared magically on the waters without any warning forcing invader ships to crash against them.
As our boat drifted along, one of the guides on our boat threw a quick question at the group he was managing.
‘What would you say about my country if you had to use only one word?’ he asked.
‘Traffic,’ said one farang
‘Pollution,’ said another. Many Vietnamese wear masks while driving motor bikes; the hospitals are full of people with breathing problems.
‘You don't want to know,’ said a third one
‘Awesome food,’ said a fourth, using two words, but trying to compensate for the criticism of his fellow travelers.
And just a little later the food, all Vietnamese local dishes, arrived. Nicole helped me manoeuver my way through the cuisine, figure out what was chicken and what was beef, and taught me how to eat more intelligently. We stopped near a fishing village and then our boat wandered a little ahead towards a school built on a small island. Boys and girls were smartly dressed in uniform and class was in progress, so this was a living school.
We moved to a particular spot on the bay which is close to magnificent limestone skyscrapers. Some of us stayed back on the boat, but for others this was a halt with some kayaking and small motorboat options to do a bit of a wander around.
After an hour or so our cruise vessel once again chugged along the waters, this time in the direction of huge caves named by the French as Grotte des Marveilles. Three large chambers contain within them long protruding stalactites, and stalagmites. The array of sharp yet delicate white natural sculptures have hidden within them the shapes of many animals and birds but unless you have a unusually discerning eye, you will need one of the guides to point them out to you.
A naturalist would not be satisfied with the short visit I made. A geologist would be yet more dissatisfied since the limestone in the bay has gone through not five million, not a hundred million but five hundred million years of formation in different conditions and environment.
We managed to get back to Hanoi by nine in the evening. I asked Nicole if she had time enough to accompany me for a movie. She agreed happily enough. We caught the last show at the Lotte Cineplex next to Landmark 72 the tallest building in Hanoi. It took us a while to get there as it was located in the outskirts. All around was vacant land; Hanoi is expanding. I was hoping to see a Vietnamese film and experience some local culture that way but there were none playing with English subtitles. During the course of some forgettable Hollywood film that we saw, (which ironically enough had two characters playing ‘tough’ Vietnam War veterans in the fraudulent Hollywood way) they showed trailers of two Vietnamese films due for release during the Tet festivity next month. Both were comedies but from the snap shot that I saw appeared amateurish and low budget with no special sets or particularly scenic outdoor location shooting. Neither film carried English subtitles.
Political and economic systems are hugely important not only for cultural expression by itself by also for the movie business. As 90 million the population of Vietnam is almost twice that of South Korea, and the raw potential and talent clearly exists here but South Korea is hugely more important in the movie business, not only in their own country but all across Asia. Nicole herself grew up watching Korean and Chinese movies on television.
For my last day in Hanoi I booked time with Amy, a young guide, barely out of her teens. Amy had done four years of University but dropped out in her final year. She regretted doing so now, and had come to realize that without a basic graduation degree her career options would be limited. Despite her drop out status she spoke better and clearer English than any of the other tour guides I had seen, or even the staff at the hotel for that matter, and was the reason I chose her to show me the city. Amy clearly enjoyed her interaction with the foreign tourist and this had helped her develop her language capabilities and smooth over her accent over the past year – not an unimportant achievement. She was free-lance although she had an arrangement with another tour guide.
To save time we had agreed to meet outside the Puppet Theatre. The elderly taxi driver who drove me there spoke to me in French, a first for me in Vietnam, and it reminded me of the country’s colonial past. Switching to English then, he explained that it was the language he had studied at school and was more fluent in. In the new generation no one speaks French or wishes to; they would all like to learn, and improve their English.
I enjoyed the ride in the taxi with the French speaking taxi driver, who was more than fair in the price he charged me. I was not always so lucky. Taxis sometimes have their meters doctored. Once when I got back to my hotel, although the taxi driver took me there by the now familiar and shortest route the meter showed three times the usual price. We kept arguing back and forth. It was only when I used the words ‘cheating’ and ‘foreign tourist’ that the man broke into smiles and backed off. There are taxis you can call on the phone and they are usually more reliable than the ones you pick off the street.
The highlights of my tour with Amy. After one last walk and look around the Old Quarter we went to the Ho Chi Minh museum (located in the same compound with the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where Ho’s embalmed body can be found). A certain dress code is to be followed here and a protocol observed. No short pants or skirts. No smoking, drinking or snacking. No hands in pockets.
The Ho Chi Minh presidential palace is also just besides, so it is all really one very large enclosure. Within the palace grounds can be found an orchard, a fish pond and three cars that were at Ho’s disposal, two of which were presented to him by the then friendly Soviets. Grand residences impress me only when there is stunning architecture and capitalists living inside. In my view communists should live in simple surroundings in line with their avowed identification with the poorest of the poor. So I was disappointed with Ho, not impressed – till I came to know some details about how he lived in the palace.
Ho could never bring himself to live in the parts of the presidential palace that were formerly occupied by the French Governor General. He preferred instead to live in the electrician’s quarters! He lived in a small accommodation behind the main building for four years! Later, he moved into a stilt house, built according to the traditional Vietnamese architecture, which consisted of only two rooms.
A foreign journalist is once reported to have wished to take a photograph of Ho in his office.
‘I prefer to work in the garden if there is good weather,’ Ho is reported to have said.
‘And if were raining?’ asked the journalist cleverly.
‘Oh, then I shift over to the verandah,’ said Ho. ‘And if it is cold, I moved into my room!’
Well done, Uncle Ho.
While we were walking towards the pond, we passed by another tour guide, who was providing two tourists an exclusive tour just like Amy was giving me one. It was an Austrian couple and the guide was speaking to them in fluent German. There is a keenness among young Vietnamese to learn foreign languages. Amy had two flat mates, one of whom was learning Korean and the other Chinese, both languages that could be very useful in finding a job in Vietnam.
Amy looked crest fallen. I asked her what had happened.
Apparently after taking her phone number, the other guide had proposed that he introduce her to his brother. She was aghast at the forwardness and crudeness.
I should say at this point that I’d hate to give the impression that Vietnamese men are less hard-working, or can be more boorish than men in any other part of the world because this is simply not true. Among many young men I met, including students, during my time in Hanoi I found great eagerness to learn about the world, and a willingness to work hard. It may be though that in the service sector, because of the nature of the work involved women work better than the men.
From the grandeur of the palace to the dingy squalor of the prison: our next stop was the famous Hoa Lo Prison. It is now really only a museum. It is also referred to as the Hanoi Hilton, some American wit here but Vietnamese government officials have argued (with unintentional humor) that this just goes to show how well Americans prisoners were treated – as if lodged inside a five star hotel. Indeed there were many American prisoners of wars who were incarcerated here for many years.
Before the Vietnamese used the prison to incarcerate Americans – John McCain’s parachute and uniform is still hanging there in one of the exhibits – the French used the same prison to incarcerate Vietnamese. The prison does exhibit some of the cruelties of the French, although there is a bit of overkill (if that’s the right expression) here.
For instance there was a walking stick encased inside a glass cage, which was listed as a weapon of torture. Just besides the walking stick in another glass panel there was a pair of boxing gloves also listed as a weapon of torture. Such unintended humour apart, the old, rusted, French guillotine was still very real as were the photographs of prisoners with legs and hands chained. Also on display was a ladder that was encased around the necks of troublesome prisoners. Such devices bore more eloquent testimony to French colonial crimes and cruelty.
Hoa Lo Prison is not a place to see American crimes. It could be a place to see Vietnamese crimes against individual Americans, but we cannot expect to see that. In a sense that doesn’t really matter because despite the existence of prison memoirs, one by an American who spent eight years at Hoa Lo, Vietnamese cruelty and violence in the war pales before the horrific magnitude of American aggression. It is estimated that roughly 54,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War. Some years ago while I was in Washington I saw the war memorial that the Americans have built to honour their dead. The body count of Vietnamese though was in excess of two million, so let’s say, at a very rough calculation that as compared with the Americans who died there was forty times the number of Vietnamese who died. The names of each Americans soldier who died are etched beautifully in the memorial; the memorial would have needed to be forty times higher, the height of a 13 story building to do justice to the Vietnamese dead.
To see American crimes we left the prison and went to the Hanoi Museum of Military History also called simply the War Museum. In room after room we came across dozens of photos of solidarity displayed towards the Vietnamese. People’s support came from around the world, even from traditional US allies such as Germany and France. A documentary film played which showed people pushing children into manholes for their protection. Sirens played. We saw people running trying to somehow escape the bombing. There were pictures of the craters that formed in the ground, of bombs falling one after the other, the utter wreckage of destroyed parts of towns.
And there was the picture that shocked the world’s conscience and gave the American pilot who dropped the bombs sleepless guilt-ridden nights for decades: the solitary picture of the eight-year old naked Vietnamese girl running while the napalm bombing took place.
Still the overall presentation of the suffering of the people was amateurish. Perhaps this was deliberate on the part of the government and they wished to focus on the heroism of the Vietnamese instead of their suffering. The War Museum did not focus only on the Americans but also showed battles with the Chinese, the French and the Japanese.
‘My grandparents hated the Americans,’ Amy said. ‘My parents not so much, and as for the new generation, people like me, not at all….’ As a matter of fact her friends at university all wanted to live lives like those of young Americans; they envied them what they saw to be their freer lifestyle.
A quick tour of the West Lake followed. Parts of the lake have been beautified with small gardens and a walking area created, but overall in many places there is not much of a gap between the road and the street. There are big hotels and shopping malls around this, the largest lake in Hanoi. I saw fisherman carrying rods or nets to catch fish; some waded deep into the water.
The Temple of Literature was ancient but well preserved. It couldn’t compare with modern day campuses in size and seemed quaint and small, but for all that it still had the vibe, feel and atmosphere of a place of learning. A statue of Confucius demonstrates his influence. There are plaques in honor of the 72 doctors, who taught at the university. Young university students wandered through the university grounds, the girls mostly wearing auzai, the traditional national dress.
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