Friday, 25 January 2013

City Mouse, Country Mouse

The past two days couldn’t have been more different from each other, as I explored various sides of Vietnam.

Yesterday, Hanoi and Vietnamese history were the focus; today, it was rural Vietnam.

Visitors to Hanoi all make the obligatory stop at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of the leader who helped drive out the French and Americans and unify the country lies in state. It’s a weird pilgrimage, to be sure, and even getting there is a challenge. Signs lead visitors around the block, down the street, around another corner and into the complex. Respectful dress is mandatory: no short shorts.

The line is long, but moves quickly, and it takes you past a glass coffin bearing the body of the former leader, who looks as if he is simply asleep, so real is his skin’s pallor. Apparently, he is sent to Russia annually for a tune-up by the folks who perfected embalming for Lenin’s remains. (One of my guides said today that visiting other countries is too expensive for many Vietnamese, but even though he’s dead, Ho Chi Minh gets to travel!) Soldiers stand at each corner of the coffin, and we all file silently by. Very odd, but there’s a compulsion to visit.

Afterward, it was off to see a house nearby where he had lived and worked while the presidential palace was under repair, then to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Many of his writings are displayed, along with photos of his years in office. He is the George Washington of Vietnam, father of the modern country, and his principles were firmly socialist. Removing the bourgeoisie from power was one key goal, and constant improvement was another.

I had lunch on the street – I’m getting to be an old hand at this – at a bun cha stop. Bun cha is noodles, a vinegary sauce, roast pork and salad, which the diner mixes together. Eating on the street means sitting on a low plastic stool at a tiny table, and lots of local workers were doing the same.

Afterward, it was on to Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton, where American pilots shot down during the Vietnam War were kept, including Senator John McCain. Interestingly, most of the museum’s displays focused not on the Americans, but on the Vietnamese insurgents who were locked up here during French colonial rule, and those who lost their lives during that period. There’s even a guillotine, which, given the dark, damp rooms, is ultra-creepy. There is a shrine to the Vietnamese imprisoned there and their names are inscribed on plaques. Conditions were primitive, at best.

I had dinner at a restaurant that served local cuisine, and was seated with a young French woman travelling on holiday. We had a lovely chat as I enjoyed some wonderful clams sautéed with basil and garlic – double yum!

Today, off on an excursion to the countryside outside Hanoi with a guide and driver. We did about an hour and a half of cycling through farm country and rural villages, looking at rice paddies, pineapple fields, banana crops and tea fields. I’d never seen tea growing before and we stopped to chat with some of the women harvesting the leaves. 

Next, we visited a retired local farmer for tea from leaves grown locally and dried and prepared by his family. His land had once been a chicken farm, but he found it to be a losing proposition, and now he grows some fruit of various kinds. In fact, his peach blossoms are in demand as decorations for the upcoming New Year.

Back on our bikes and off on dirt roads, where people were burning the remains of last year’s corn crop, and other fields were being prepared for a change from corn to bananas for export: more lucrative, apparently. It was such a treat to be breathing fresh country air and getting a glimpse of life outside the bustling city.

 After joining up with our driver, we headed to a 400-year-old village for lunch – Vietnamese specialties, including spring rolls and sesame pork – and a visit to a temple dedicated to their local gods and a pagoda where Buddha is worshipped. My guide, Thung, was a graduate of a tourism program at university and was full of information about religion, history and life in Vietnam today. It was such a treat to get the local perspective.

Tonight, Friday, many workers leave Hanoi for weekends in their villages; jobs are much easier to find in the city, so they do what they must. However, the Old Quarter was still bustling, and I wandered through the night market, along with lots of locals and other tourists. With Tet (the lunar New Year) only a few weeks away, red and gold decorations were much in evidence.

Dinner – my last in Hanoi – was at another local restaurant featuring local cuisine. I tried buffalo meat and actually enjoyed it. I also sat with a woman from Australia who was travelling alone – dinner with strangers is getting to be a trend -- and we exchanged stories. It’s a great way to meet people and to discover which attractions are most interesting in the places I’ll be off to next.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Siem Reap in Cambodia, home to Angkor Wat and the many smaller Buddhist temples, another site that is unanimously recommended by all and sundry. And back to the heat, too: 30 (90 F) degrees and up. Was it just a week or two past that I was shivering in Beijing? Hard to believe.

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