As our time in Vietnam has come to a close, we are realizing some important things. This is truly a developing nation. I bet it was far different 20 years ago and I’m sure it will be vastly changed 20 years from now. In spite of that (or perhaps because of it), it has also been a wonderful place to visit and would be a great vacation destination for anyone looking for an exciting and interesting place to go.
As we’ve said before, we have been staying in a section of Hanoi called the Old Quarter. The narrow streets were developed long ago when foot traffic was the only transportation. Today, the combination of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and walkers stretch the limits of these skinny roads. In addition, the sidewalks where one might walk are filled with shops, people eating and drinking as well as parked motorbikes. We looked at a few of the markets, seeing what souvenirs we could get from our time in Hanoi. So much of what they sell is clothing and shoes. At one store we saw a big pile of Tom’s, the canvas shoes which I love. The concept with these is when you buy a pair, one pair is donated to a person in need. When I saw this pile of shoes, my first instinct was that they are all fakes. I considered them, and as we walked away I said to Phil, “I have a feeling that there will be no donation to the needy when I buy those shoes. As a matter of fact, those may be the ones that have been donated.” Now, I certainly am not getting on a moral high horse and we did buy some souvenirs. However, with the rumors of child/forced labor that abound in countries which manufacture goods cheaply, we have found ourselves a little more aware of what we purchase.
Another huge sign that this is a developing nation is the general lack of safety regulations. It isn’t that we felt unsafe being there at all. Quite the contrary. However, the streets are filled with motorbikes, some packed four deep and children inevitably are rarely wearing helmets. When we asked about helmet laws we were told they are required starting at age 8. Age 8! The only protection for the little ones is the arms of their parents. On several occasions, we saw children sitting on the laps of their parents in the front seat of a car, as well. We also inquired about the driving age and after they hemmed and hawed for a moment, they told us it is 18, but no one really sticks to that. The road regulations are not the only place where we felt this lack of safety enforcement. It is not at all uncommon to be walking down the street and have electrical sparks shower down from work which was being done overhead. No fencing to block the sidewalk, no sign of warning. On more than one occasion I jumped out of the way so as not to be right underneath the spray of sparks.
The other thing that really seals it as being a developing nation is the lack of potable drinking water and the general conditions of the public toilets. Of course, it is not uncommon to go somewhere internationally and not be able to drink the water. However, along with that are the scams that arise from bottles of water being reused and refilled with the local water and then being sold as new. In order to make consumers feel safe, companies like Aquafina and Evian put safety seals around the caps which ensure it has not been opened before. In addition, the public restrooms are by and large gross. This was to be expected. However, the lack of toilet paper and soap only add to the feeling that things in Hanoi just aren’t very clean and visitors have to be careful not to spread germs and get sick while here.
I hope I haven’t scared you off, because even with all that said, Hanoi has been one of my favorite stops on the trip so far. We were able to take a day trip to Ha Long Bay, a group of 1900 tiny islets about three hours south-east of Hanoi. It was far to go for a day trip, and it would have been better if we had done a 2 night/3 day which is their specialty, but we’re working with tight timing. We had a delicious lunch on board the boat, then traveled around the bay. Our first stop was a traditional fishing village, with small homes permanently on the water. These homes only have generators for electricity and the children only attend school up to 8th grade. (There is a one room schoolhouse on the water and if they want to go to the upper grades they have to move to the mainland.) We were particularly interested in the wide array of houseboats, including some made with brick and mortar. Sadly, having people live in the bay means it is littered with trash; however, further out in the water it is absolutely gorgeous. We made our way over to “Heavenly Cave” and walked around looking at different rock formations. Honestly, the tour itself was a little underwhelming, but being out on the water made it all worthwhile. It would be a wonderful place to come for a longer stay.
Our final few hours in Hanoi found us doing two things neither of us is likely to forget soon. First, we went to Ha Loa Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. This was the infamous jail where many American pilots who were shot down during the Vietnam war were taken and held prisoner for several years. What we didn’t know is that this prison was built during the French occupation of Vietnam and was first used to imprison Vietnamese nationalists in wretched conditions. Most of the museum focused on the horrible abuses of the French towards any Vietnamese fighting for freedom. Exhibit after exhibit spoke of the heroism of the Vietnamese Comrades and the torturous, villainous behavior of the French. We kept waiting for any mention of the role this prison played during the war with the U.S. Just when we thought it wouldn’t be mentioned at all, it finally came at the end of the exhibits. Two rooms housed photos and artifacts “showing the conditions of the Americans” during their time here. It was filled with photos of them playing volleyball, basketball and putting up Christmas decorations. It focused a great deal on the days when the American P.O.W.s were released, even mentioning the fact that they were given a “souvenir” of their time here. We could hardly believe it. They essentially made it look like summer camp. There was not one picture of the prisoners in a jail cell. At the end, it even said the Americans were grateful for the human treatment they received. Unbelievable! That is not the same account we have heard as Americans–just read about the experiences of Senator John McCain while he was imprisoned there. This illustrated another example of the one-sided information that we have come to expect from the museums here.
The final, most fascinating and most creepy thing we’ve done here is visit the Ho Chi Minh Complex, most notably the mausoleum. Just like other important communist leaders Stalin and Mao, Ho Chi Minh’s body has been preserved, encased in glass, and is on display for public viewing. This seemed like a unique experience that we just couldn’t miss. First of all, the lines stretched outside the complex and down the street. It was packed with people, partially because it was a holiday weekend. Luckily, the lines moved very quickly and we were up to the mausoleum within 10 minutes. We were told going in that we should wear long pants, covered shoulders and close-toed shoes. It was very important that we be respectful. Upon entering the mausoleum, I was instructed to take my sunglasses off the top of my head and others were told to remove hats. As we filed around Ho Chi Minh’s body, gawking in horrified fascination, the guards moved us swiftly along. We were not allowed to stop or walk too slowly. The general feeling was one of excitement and intrigue. We were afraid people would be more reverent and seem like they were in a sacred place, but there was really just a sense of curiosity. As we walked outside, we immediately discussed what a strange experience that was. Uncle Ho wasn’t looking too great, probably because he’s been dead since 1969. By all accounts, this kind of fanfare is the last thing he would have wanted and doesn’t really fit with the kind of life he led. All in all, I’m so glad we went because it is such a strange thing to do.
And now, sadly our time in Vietnam must end. We really wish we had more time and we are already planning to come back. The people here are so friendly, the food has been awesome, and there is so much to see and do. Now, we head off for a very brief 2 days in Singapore. Interestingly, no other city has brought such a variation of opinion than Singapore. Some people love it and say we’ll need more time. Others have told us to skip it all together. We met a British family living in Singapore who told us two days is just right. We’ll go with that!