Pho Ga. Pho Ba and the worlds cheapest beers beers beers.
Following that infuriating wait for hours on the Laos side of the border (the treatment of the bus workers adding to our growing sense of imprisonment) we were eventually able to cross. And in that few minutes of walking across into Vietnamese territory our spirits rose considerably. Back on the bus, weaving and crisscrossing down the green mountainside was glorious. From even the first town passed through, a melee of bicycles, scooters and non la conical hats answered the expectations of a cliche rural Vietnamese montage.
Upon entering the capital, Ha Noi, typical oriental chaos seemed to blossom out of no where. Ones first attempt at crossing a road turns into significantly more than a challenge. Visiting westerners are pushed toward the old quarter for accommodation. We picked a top end hotel at a few bucks a night, en-suite room complete with cable TV, wardrobe, working desk and resident rat. The latter went unnoticed for our first night, but as the rodent acclimatized to his new guests, he soon went munching through some packets of lemon and ginger loose leaf tea.
The old quarter is by day a street-food fiesta; Mummas (or vendors) carrying all manner of grilled meats, fried sweet rice goodies and fruit etc kept in steaming baskets. Every shop seems to double as a part-time restaurant, with perfectly simplified menus of Pho (noodle soup) a national dish, fish and meat dishes with rice. I developed a habit of starting each day with a Pho. After all, I always enjoy a good soup and for those on a budget Pho provides one with a bowl of soup big enough to drown in, packed out with a daily supply of carbs.
In the evening the streets are decked out in mini-stools for locals, travelers and ex-pats to come together and enjoy (supposedly) the cheapest beer in the world, Ha Noi Beer. Served from draught or bottle, you can get at least 2 liters of cold for a solitary buck. The atmosphere is more than abuzz, although the monsoon rains can temporarily dampen it! The chaos of the city does in no way relent but in tying together the pace and energy of the roads with the volume of chat from the beer-drinkers, the cocktail is one of cosmopolitan fervor.
Hanoi is a thriving city and it’s certainly good to get away from the old quarter (however enjoyable it might be). We managed to visit 4 museums given our keenness to explore a little of Vietnams relatively recent, torturous history. Hanoi womens museum, as the title insinuates, focuses on women in Vietnamese culture. It documents aspects from the female role in the war efforts (both anti-French colonial resistance and then the Americans), fashion, farming, selling or vending and family life. It is without doubt the most informative (and modern) of the museums we visited. The curators are clearly more in touch with the power of providing information that a museum platform gives; in comparison to the opportunity for slightly outdated propaganda, seen in both the Army museum and the Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton).
The Hanoi Hilton museum gives a great account of the barbary of the imperialist French to suppress Vietnamese independence efforts and their various socialist movements. With regard to the American invasion, the museum goes to lengths in overstating the criminalism of the Americans (of which I fully agree and am of course aware) in the conflict but at the same time over-play the humanism displayed by the Vietnamese. Proudly, Senator John Mccains air-force outfit is on display. As are excerpts and documents outlining such fair and reasonable treatment of Mccain and the other American POWs.
The Army museum continues such a theme. It patriotically details with great pride the success of various guerrilla militia; their own level of barbary or brutality seems to be of secondary importance however. A fantastic map gallery (an art to which I’m particularly partial) occupies its own entire section. It includes general empirical maps of western designs for Asia as well as specific military maps outlining the techniques and methods of the Vietnamese forces. Relics of the war are presented in the courtyard; shot-down war planes, captured tanks and US army vehicles. All in the name of patriotic resistance to the criminal occupying force. Not once is any murderous, brutal sentiment issued on behalf of the Vietnamese. It tends to be saved for the US.
Naturally, given the scale of the countries devastation; both Vietnamese loss of life and the impact on the physical environment at the hands of US forces, it is indeed correct and responsible to give such a portrayal. I just felt that at times the overall message would be stronger with the help of a little more transparency on behalf of the operations and activities by Vietnamese forces. Despite this, the museums are worth visiting. On their own however, the true landscape of the war probably won’t be seen. An unblemished record of the good accomplished (of course they did much in challenging and defeating the superpower) by nationalist forces is solely presented.
Wandering the backstreets of the city away from the old quarter sheds a little more light on living standards. Not venturing out of the tourist hot-bed, one would be forgiven for thinking Hanoi is a relatively comfortable, developed city. Straying a little further afield however renders this understanding mute. Having opened up to a market economy in the late 80s and subsequently maintaining growth rates of around 12%, the socio-economical landscape however remains distinctly disparate. On finding the railway track passing through the city one can notice the gulf in housing standards to the more tourist orientated old quarter. Houses crammed together only feet from the railway seem only just more substantial than slum-dwellings. It is here that the street vendors find there affordable rooms; the vulnerable stretch of railway. To see truly catch a glimpse of Hanoi; without doubt take a little stroll out of the epicenter.
With so much going on; infallible energy, buzzing trade and sublime food, it is a city I hope to someday return. Please go and do enjoy.