Our Vietnam Trip — Part II: Visiting Vestiges
The key to enjoying Hanoi, for me, was learning to cross the street.
Visiting a new culture, one is invariably reduced to a kind of infancy anyway. Suddenly one doesn’t know the language, the food, the unwritten rules. One can’t even say “hello” or “thank you” properly. This isn’t a negative so much as part of the reason for going. In his song “New Town,” Vic Chesnutt sings:
And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath
From over his beaming momma’s shoulder
He’s staring at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as he can see
But he’ll stop staring when he’s older
And that’s part of why we travel. To feel this way again. To stare at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as we can see again.
Learning to cross the street was part of this. Hanoi traffic is a constant, oncoming, evolving flow that can leave cautious foreigners standing by the side of the road for long periods of time. I remember it took me a year to figure out how to cross a wide, busy street in Taipei. (Basically: if you don’t look at the oncoming drivers then it’s their job to slow down or get out of your way; if you do look at them then it’s your job to get out of their way.) Things are slightly more civilized in Hanoi, and, on the first day, Andy gave us lessons: Move slowly, but with purpose, across the street; pause when necessary; and whatever you do, never step backwards. It’s the Hanoi traffic equivalent of: “Never get off the boat.”
Here's how my thinking on Hanoi traffic evolved during our stay. On the first day: My god, look at these crazy fuckers. On the second day: I can’t believe there aren’t more accidents. By the fourth day, the observation becomes a question: Hey, how come there aren’t more accidents? The lanes in Hanoi aren’t used as lanes, or even suggestions of lanes, and the mix of trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians, weaving down the road, often into oncoming traffic, brush within centimeters of each other. Yet during our two-week stay we didn’t see one accident. We saw the aftermath of a minor one, a tipped motorbike in the middle of the road, but that was it. Why?
An answer begins to suggest itself when you realize there’s no road rage. In a certain sense the Vietnamese can’t afford road rage—otherwise they’d have nothing but road rage—but it goes deeper than that. To feel road rage one has to feel a sense of ownership: “This is my lane”; “That fucker cut me off”; etc. But in Hanoi the system works on accommodation or it doesn’t work at all. You go along to get along. Nobody owns anything. Hanoi traffic, it can be argued, is one of the most communistic things about modern Vietnam.
And that’s the key to crossing the road. That car or motorbike heading toward you doesn’t feel he owns the part of the road you’re standing on, so he doesn’t object to you standing there; he’ll go either to this or that side of you. It’s all a matter of anticipation and accommodation. Think of the traffic as a river and the pedestrian as a turtle (a symbol of longevity in Vietnamese culture), who moves slowly and purposefully, while the river, the traffic, flows all around him, until he’s on the other side.
And one is a kid again. Look ma, I crossed the street! By myself!
I had this feeling on our second full day in Hanoi when Patricia and I ventured out on our own. We’re walking people, and on this day we managed to walk from the city center to the old French quarter, then back to the Old Quarter to meet Andy for lunch. Afterwards we walked west again to some of the Ho Chi Minh sites. Many rivers to cross.
We began in the morning at Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton, where U.S. servicemen were imprisoned and tortured from 1964 to 1973. To get there, Sen. John McCain, a Navy pilot, was shot down in Oct. 1967, parachuted into Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi, was pulled to shore and beaten by a crowd and then taken to a hospital, or “hospital,” for six weeks, before beginning two years of solitary confinement. To get there, Patricia and I took a taxi. The place cost John McCain six years of his life. It cost us 10,000 dong—or about 50 cents each. One feels guilty before even entering. One feels the way time reveals the absurdity of human events, the absurdity of the borders we construct.
Hoa Lo was built by the French in 1896, and most of the prison, now museum, is dedicated to the period when the French ruled and the Vietnamese rebelled and suffered. The American section is relatively small, and, though it should have come as no surprise to me, propagandized. Apparently the Vietnamese treated their American prisoners well. Apparently they let them play basketball and billiards and chess. They fed them sumptuous meals while sympathetic Vietnamese doctors tended their wounds. Apparently they didn’t torture them to extract information or use them as propaganda tools or break them with forced confessions.
The sign outside the gate (“Internal Regulations for Visit of Vestiges in Hoa Lo Prison”) warns, among other things, against frolicking in the prison. One hardly needs the warning. Hoa Lo is a grim place, made grimmer by the propaganda. The cells are small, dank, dirty, the barred windows tiny. The walls are crumbling. There’s a guillotine in the French section, John McCain’s flight suit under glass in the American. There’s a framed, colorful picture of a waving Santa Claus conducting a train full of Christmas trees and presents, supposedly drawn by American POWs, that is all the more depressing for its brightness and cheeriness. There’s a section on the many protesters of the war in Vietnam, including Norman Morrison, a Quaker who set himself afire in front of the Pentagon in November 1965, and who is something of a heroic martyr in Vietnam. His first name is misspelled: “Noosman.”
Two incidents stand out. The courtyard includes a small, open-air gift shop, which, one imagines, does little business—it’s like a gift shop at Auschwitz—but there are several books on display, including Bao Ninh’s “The Sorrow of War.” This is a novel almost every expat in Vietnam knows but I hadn't even heard of until the day before when I saw it on a display table in a museum/home in the Old Quarter. After Andy talked it up, I read the first sentence:
On the banks of the Ya Crong Poco River, on the northern flank of the B3 battlefield in the Center Highlands, the Missing In Action body-collecting team awaits the dry season of 1976.
I’m a believer in first sentences and this was a good first sentence. I didn’t buy the book then, but I was contemplating a purchase at Hoa Lo when a white-haired, heavy-gutted foreigner walked by and saw, among the offerings, two books by Barack Obama: “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” He went apoplectic.
“Bah!” he yelled, and turned the faces of both books down.
It was such an impotent gesture I laughed. Not just because it was silly. If this guy was what I thought he was—a FOX-News watching, possibly Tea Party attending dude—he'd missed a golden opportunity. Barack Obama’s books were just sitting there next to Ho Chi Minh’s books. Why not take a picture of their awful, awful commingling? Play the “guilty by association” card. See? Didn’t we tell you he was a communist? And Asian to boot!
Instead he made his impotent gesture.
When I laughed out loud, he turned in our direction and, unbeknownst to me, met with a withering gaze from Patricia—who is less political than I but knows a stupid gesture when she sees one. Some combination of my amusement and her condemnation stirred something in this guy and he actually put the books back, grumbling all the while, before retreating to his wife. You don't mess with Patricia's withering gaze. Glenn Beck, you're next!
The second incident occurred after we left the prison. We were walking up Hoa Lo Road toward Hai Ba Trung when a Vietnamese man left his motorbike, walked over to the prison and took a piss against the wall. Public health issues aside, surely this is bad form for such an important building. Put another way: Are there no external regulations for visit of vestiges?
Then we were off: two children, holding hands, trying our best to cross the street.
The French Quarter was my idea, because it was French, and thus might not remind me of Taipei 20 years ago; but the Frenchiest thing about it were some wide boulevards, a grand opera house, and, most interestingly, a few old buildings, scattered here and there, of scraped yellow paint, high, second-story windows bordered by long green shutters, and empty balconies. They felt romantic. They probably felt romantic even before they suggested a lost era.
After meeting Andy for lunch at Cha Ca La Vong in the Old Quarter—a restaurant that serves just one dish: fried fish, cooked at your table, with sticky noodles and greens and chili peppers—we left Andy again and walked, mostly via Phan Dinh Phung, to the Ho Chi Minh trifecta: House, Mausoleum, Museum. But we’d read poorly. The Mausoleum, housing Uncle Ho’s body—which has been preserved almost as long as mine has been alive (41 vs. 47 years)—is open only in the mornings. We were too late.
The House, though, where Ho lived and worked from 1958 until his death in 1969, was elegant in its simplicity. That’s its point. It stood on stilts next to a humid pond, and the rooms, which one could look at but not enter from outer walkways, were filled with small, simple desks, small, simple bookcases, and pictures of Lenin and Marx. (But not Stalin; never Stalin.) In the giftshop, an oddity: a book, called “40 Bai hoc danh cho tuoi moi lon,” with a cute Vietnamese girl in a short skirt on the cover. It felt like finding a Britney Spears CD at Monticello, but apparently the title translates to “40 Lessons for Adolescence” and is considered educational. A Google translation of a Vietnamese review tells us the book encourages “the healthy growth of new young adults, using the animated story, a vivid and concise, analytical, presentation...” Some enterprising expat should put that description on a T-shirt.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is less simple. It’s in a grand, opulent building, and there’s a grand, opulent staircase that leads to a grand, gleaming statue of Uncle Ho in mid-greeting; but it’s the second floor, past the statue, that recommends the place. It’s basically in a wagon-wheel design, with different wedges of the wheel dedicated, not to Ho, but to artistic interpretations of different periods of the 20th century as they relate to Vietnam. One wedge, for example, takes familiar images from Picasso’s “Guernica,” and brings them to large, 3-D life. There are homages to Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn” and photos of Dizzy Gillespie. There are attempts to make art out of the refuse of the American War: barbed wire, maps, G.I. helmets. There is a mirrored copy of a newspaper whose headline reads, “VIETNAM TRIUMPHS,” and whose subhed adds: “Nixon Bows to Heroism and Humanity"—as we know he always did. Most memorably, there is a giant tilted table on top of which sit giant pieces of fruit—banana, pineapple, apples—and which, according to a nearby plaque, encourages the younger generation, in the name of Uncle Ho, to preserve the environment against aggressive and destructive wars. No mention of pollution indexes.
We cabbed it home from there. This was before we’d been steered toward Mai Linh or CP taxis, the safe taxis, and it was the one time we were ripped off, or obviously ripped off, in Vietnam. I forget the name of the cab company, but as we neared Andy and Joanie’s place the meter read 170,000 dong. (A little over $8.) We objected strongly, pretty sure this was off by 100,000 dong ($5), but we could only object in English, and in the end I wasn’t quite sure of the cost anyway, so I gave him 150,000 dong, which he was happy to get. He triumphed. I bowed to his heroism and humanity.
The lovely Patricia, offering you your choice of giant fruit.