Apr 11 2008

Hanoi: When we weren’t drinking bia hoi…

Published by at 8:16 am under Hanoi,Vietnam

It’s not every day that you get to see a former world leader and Communist revolutionary that altered the balance of global politics. Or even just your regular old Communist revolutionary. So our final day in Hanoi was a red-letter one.

That’s right, we saw Ho Chi Minh. No, not one of the many statues or gigantic Ho billboards that litter Vietnamese cities, but the man himself.

Upon his death in 1969, Uncle Ho, as his adoring Vietnamese fans endearingly know him, wished to be cremated and his ashes sprinkled atop the hills of a reunited Vietnam – a modest request befitting a proper communist. Naturally, then, the Vietnamese decided to allocate a huge chunk of land in the middle of Hanoi to the Ho Chi Minh Complex, complete with biographical museum and gigantic, granite mausoleum to house Ho’s corpse, which they embalmed and display in a glass case for all to see.

The mausoleum maintains very limited hours of operation – just a few days a week, in the early morning – which meant that Ben and I had to be up, ready, and out the door much earlier than we typically manage to be. The situation was exacerbated because I’d stayed up working until 4 in the morning (working American hours while 11 hours ahead is seriously difficult).

But if anything is going to get my butt out of bed, it’s an embalmed Ho Chi Minh. Clearly.

To get to the HCM complex, we required the services of a moto driver, and upon exiting our guesthouse, we expected to be attacked by the legion of moto-hawkers that follow us around constantly. But we actually had to walk around for a few minutes to find one! At a nearby intersection, we saw a guy lying on a motorcycle, his feet propped up on the handlebars, possibly sleeping. We approached him and stood there, hoping that he was actually a driver and we weren’t acting like crazy people. Sensing our presence, he started.

“Moto? moto?” he said, sluggishly.

“Yes! Moto!” we replied. Even the driver looked surprised.

Thus began the painful process of price negotiation – a required part of every single transaction we make in Asia. As an American, bargaining does not come naturally to me. It’s particularly hard here, where the merchants have a lifetime of haggling experience. ‘Cause let me tell you: the art of bargaining – with its subtle power plays and clever manipulations – requires a lot of practice. Even after seven months of market shopping, haggling still feels uncomfortable for me and I have to psych myself up for the inevitable challenge before I attempt to purchase anything.

But, I will say, we are more savvy and hardened than we were seven months ago.

“30,000 dong, 30,000 dong,” the driver said, pointing first to me than to Ben.

“You mean 60,000 dong [US$4] for two people?” I said. We scoffed at the price.

“No way,” Ben flatly refused, rolling his eyes.

Step 1: Always let them quote a price first. Laugh at the mere suggestion of it.

“10,000 dong, 10,000 dong.” I said, pointing to Ben and then to myself. “No more.”

Step 2: Counter with a price that you know is lower than the one you’ll get. One-third of the original is a realistic starting point.

Now it was the driver’s turn to laugh.

“No, no, no. 60,000, good price for you.” he said.

“Fine,” we said, and turned to walk away.

Step 3: If they are not willing to come down to a price that’s acceptable for you, make sure that you’re willing to walk. If they let you go, you know you’ve passed on a fair price. If they stop you, let the games continue.

“Ok, ok, how much you pay?” the driver called after us.

“I told you. 10,000, 10,000,” I said, pointing again.

“Discount for you. I do 25, 25. Cheap, cheap!”

Here’s where we got lucky. Other moto drivers in the intersection were starting to wake up and smell fresh meat. They pounced. The first driver scrambled to keep our business.

“Okay, 20,000, 20,000. Very good. Finished.” he said, desperately.

“Look the most we’ll pay is 15, 15. One dollar each,” Ben said. The driver refused again, even though, thanks to the advice of the guesthouse receptionist, we knew it was a generous price for us to offer. Thankfully, other approaching moto drivers had heard our conversation and were more than willing to take us for that price. The first driver watched wistfully as we hopped on the bikes of two competitors and sped away.

It was a fine price, and I was more than willing to pay $1 to avoid the kilometers-long walk to the mausoleum. Is it what the locals would pay? Of course not. But…

Step 4: Keep in mind that you’re not looking to get the lowest price EVER. You’re looking to get to a price that’s good for them AND good for you.

I am far from a savvy negotiator, but I’ve learned a trick or two. Even still, it’s not uncommon for me to walk away from an exchange and realize that I was totally taken for a ride. It’s particularly hard in SE Asia where you know you’re getting ripped off, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. You’re never, ever going to get the local price. It’s made easier because, really, you’re usually talking about a matter of cents. And a measly extra dollar will go a lot farther for that person than it will for me back home.

The driver I’d hired was a cheerful guy, asking me questions about where I was from and telling me about his family. I mostly grunted responses as I stared in horror at the three buses and countless motorcycles approaching us head on. I did say, “Oh my God, we’re gonna die.” a couple times. This made the driver laugh and say “many, many moto in Hanoi, yes?” It’s still amazing to me how, despite the lack of traffic lights – traffic laws, actually – no one wrecks. They simply weave around each other at terrifying speeds, honking like crazy.

He soon stopped to drop me off at a gray office-looking building. “No, Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, please,” I reiterated.

”Yes, go here first,” he replied. I looked and he was right: a small sign with an arrow pointing inside said “mausoleum entrance.”

The building turned out to be the security checkpoint all visitors have to go through before being allowed entrance to the mausoleum. It was a complicated process. We had to check all bags in a storeroom. We had to empty the contents of our pockets for examination. We had to walk through metal detectors. We had to be frisked by security guards (Ben winced as he spotted the guard’s nightstick).

“Dude, the guy is dead!” I whispered to Ben as we stood in line, waiting to be frisked. “What do they think I’m going to do? Kill him? Steal his body to try and sell on the black corpse market?”

Ben glared at me because I have the unfortunate habit of unwittingly making comments at inappropriate times that typically get us into trouble, cause confusion, and/or embarrass him. Teehee.

Outside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam
Ben outside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Far more interesting than seeing Ho Chi Minh himself, who just looked white, waxy, and…well, dead, was witnessing the pomp and circumstance surrounding the mausoleum and the throngs of people that come to get a glimpse of their beloved leader.

After the rigorous security checks, we were instructed to form a straight line outside of the building and wait. Why we had to wait, I have no idea. Once the guards deemed us patient enough, we were marched, single file, through the grounds to the mausoleum itself, with guards at the front and rear of our line. We were ushered through a series of traffic gates, past the groups of photo-snapping Asian tourists outside of the mausoleum, and permitted to cross the severe white line drawn on the road demarcating the divide between commoners and guards/dead Ho Chi Minhs. I was chastised for wearing sunglasses.

Once inside the mausoleum, which is large and made entirely of thick granite, we were led up several flights of stairs and into a quiet, dark room. We walked in a U-shaped path surrounding an elevated glass case (encircled by yet another four guards), respectfully observing the embalmed Uncle Ho inside, who lay there sadly, with his hands crossed over his chest.

Obviously the appropriate response was to sing “Uncle Ho…HO!” to the tune of Ludacris’ “Yous a Ho” once we were back outside. Though no one else seemed to think so.

After a quick lunch at a restaurant we’d read about that trains and employs Hanoi’s street kids (we feel bad about constantly refusing the beggar children, so we wanted to support them somehow), we stopped by the Hoa Lo Prison, once used by the French to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries fighting against their colonizers. You may know it as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the name lovingly bestowed upon the prison when it was later used by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war (John McCain among them). Although the majority of the building has been bulldozed to make room for an actual hotel, a small corner of the Hanoi Hilton remains as a museum and memorial.

In response to growing civil unrest in colonized Vietnam, the French decided to build massive prisons across the country and lock up any dissenters. In the end, their efforts were in vain: the Vietnamese (led by Ho) eventually overthrew the French. ‘Cause if you know anything about the Vietnamese – particularly the North Vietnamese – you understand that they will be free or they will DIE. This skinny little country on the coast of SE Asia has defeated some of the world’s great superpowers. These are the people that scalped Kublai Khan, defeated the Chinese when they attempted to invade, overthrew their European colonizers, ousted the Khmer Rouge, and defeated the Americans. You don’t mess with the Vietnamese, that’s for sure.

So the first half of the museum is dedicated to the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese incarcerated here by the French, the heinous conditions of the jail at the time, and memorializing the prisoners’ nearly daily escape attempts. One room had a display of life-sized statues crowded into a long room, chained by the leg to benches, just as the prisoners were held so many years ago. In another former cell, they had a set of leg shackles that you could try out for yourself. So Ben promptly sat on the bench and shackled himself in.

ben the prisonerHe’d been sitting there for a few minutes (I think he was comfortable?), when a group of tourists walked up to view the cell. They were surprised to see Ben chained up inside, particularly when he waved and said hello. A few minutes later, when Ben decided he was ready to be a free man again, he lifted up the leg irons and crawled out. The group of tourists gasped. “I thought he was locked in!” one man exclaimed. Did they think Ben was actually a prisoner? That they keep one inmate around as a tourist attraction? I don’t get it.

The second half of the museum is dedicated to its time holding American POWs. This half of the museum is much more upbeat. Because you know what? The prisoners had so much fun here. We saw a gallery of pictures of the American pilots: in them, they were decorating Christmas trees, sitting down to enjoy a lovely Christmas Eve feast, playing basketball together, receiving packages from home, and even getting going-away souvenir gifts from the guards upon their release. It was like a family scrapbook full of warm memories. The captions made sure to point out how well the American pilots were treated, despite “oppressing” their “southern brothers.” In fact, the spin put on the Vietnamese-American War occasionally bordered on absurd (not that American history books aren’t biased) – you’ll hear more about that when we visit the 17th parallel. But it wasn’t lost on us that this room was marked on an old blueprint to be the “interrogation room.”

John McCain's pilot suit during the Vietnam War at the "Hanoi Hilton" where he was a POW
John McCain’s flight suit display

In a neighboring room was a picture of Senator John McCain on a recent visit to the museum. Sen. McCain was held here after being captured by the Viet Cong during the war, when he served as a pilot. Also on display was a black and white image of McCain being dragged out of the water after his plane was shot down, and a huge glass case containing McCain’s actual flight suit and paraphernalia he’d been wearing upon capture (along with the recently added note that he is a candidate in the 2008 U.S. presidential election). We both noted how old McCain already looked in these forty-year-old photographs.

That was enough sightseeing for us for one day (we’re not so ambitious, folks). Because we’ve had it up to HERE with harassing moto drivers, we pointedly ignored all those crowding the exit of the museum and decided to walk home, despite the distance.

Everyone who knows Ben knows that he is prone to hyperbole, and may have thought that his initial description of Hanoi’s street life was exaggerated. But, in this case, there is simply no over-exaggeration. Walking on these streets is nearly impossible. Given the throngs of motorbikes zipping through the streets day and night, you’d hope to find walking solace on the sidewalks, right?

Wrong. The sidewalks aren’t actually sidewalks as much as they are parking lots for motorcycles. And when they’re not being used for parking, they’re used for anything and everything else. Most store merchants live and work in one tiny room or building on Hanoi’s busy streets. So, say, a family owns a restaurant in Hanoi. They set up a small, wooden bed in the back of the room for the entire family to sleep on. Towards the front of the room they put small, plastic tables and stools for their patrons. Out on the sidewalk, they set up a portable charcoal grill with a wok and a huge tub of water for washing dishes. This is their kitchen, right there on the sidewalk. Or if the merchant sells glass, for instance, he or she will be on the sidewalk, their “workshop,” blowing glass. So walking down the sidewalk is less like walking and more like dodging the countless people who are eating, cooking, welding, fixing cars, ironing, building things out of bamboo, painting, sewing …

Between the sidewalks and the streets, Hanoi is one giant obstacle course.

We did eventually make it home, where we showered and napped before heading out for some good old bia hoi and fried fish, served sizzling hot to us right in the pan.

NEXT: Hanoi Addendum: Water Puppets! »



4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Hanoi: When we weren’t drinking bia hoi…”

  1. Tayloron 11 Apr 2008 at 9:12 am

    Are you filing your nails in the picture with John McCain’s flight suit?

  2. Christine Fulghamon 11 Apr 2008 at 10:48 am

    Ben, do you have on capri’s in the shackeled pic?

  3. Man Capri's are cool!on 11 Apr 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Dont judge him!

    You don’t know him!!

  4. Brittanyon 12 Apr 2008 at 10:47 pm

    I think I’m holding a brochure? Although it does look like I’m filing my nails. Haven’t done THAT in seven months… how I long for fingernail polish…

    PS: I’m STILL trying to talk Ben into man capris.

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