Tour De Force Round 3
Visiting Uncle Ho
I had kept to my promise that I made to myself in Pattaya and had done a lot of walking during my first few days in Vietnam. I avoided the easy temptation of the countless cyclos and motos and gradually could feel myself become touring fit. Today however, Brett and I decided to make use of the motos and pay Uncle Ho a visit.
A little bit of info about this charismatic man in case you are unaware of his history. Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Tat Thanh and left Vietnam in 1912 aged 22 after being rejected from a colonial school. His travels took him to North Africa, Spain, New York and Boston. He also spent a few years in London working as an apprentice pastry chef. He also hung out in Paris and formed his political anti colonial ideas during his meetings with numerous expats from various countries. After stints in Moscow, China and Hong Kong. After all this travelling he also had the "luxury" of a 2 year stint in prison courtesy of the French Government. After 30 years of travel he finally delivered his historic Vietnamese Declaration of Independence speech in 1945 and renamed himself Ho Chi Minh (he who enlightens).
Despite his wish to be cremated, Ho was embalmed and placed in a glass sarcophagus in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which is a massive granite building set in spotlessly clean surrounds and bordering his last residence. Thousands of visitors file past daily and we joined the line. First stop the clothing security ladies, 2 very severe looking women, who scrutinised us and said that my shorts were too short! I know I should have worn long pants, but the heat was so intense that I would have foregone the visit rather than boil to death. Once again the smile and good natured joking got us through when I pulled my shorts slightly lower and presented myself for a further inspection. With another fierce appraising look she suppressed a smile and nodded for us to proceed. Next stop the camera and cellphone security check. Here one has to hand over your camera and phone which then gets a label attached and you get the stub. They are placed in a box and quickly wheeled away on a trolley to the exit point where you can collect them when leaving. Now one joins the long queue and proceeds in a STRAIGHT line (I stepped to the left once to look at something, and was immediately motioned to rejoin the line by one of the white uniformed security guards). Very particular about rules and regulations are the Vietnamese. I must have had a suspicious look about me because I was once again stopped and asked to show the guard what the bulge in my pocket was. My wallet was then examined and returned to me. In total silence we filed pass Uncle Ho and gazed at his well preserved and peaceful body that is attended to every Friday by a team of beauticians. Very interesting experience.
After bidding our farewells to a fellow globetrotter, we were walking around when I tripped on an uneven paving stone and broke my sandal. We decided to head back to the hotel where I had seen numerous shoe shiners/repairers. We had hardly stopped when one of the aforementioned artisans seeing me holding my shoe was there in a nanosecond. Before I could even pay the motto man he was busy fixing the offending item. I told him to wait so that I could fix a price, but he went on squeezing super glue into any crevice that looked remotely possible to break. The bastard then had the audacity to try and charge me $10 for the repair! The more I refused (even giving him the cheap shoes I had bought in BK) the louder his voice became, claiming he had used "special American glue" that cost him his life savings. By now a crowd was gathering around but I stood my ground. I was not going to give into this shit! Eventually the owner of the shop we were standing in front of emerged and asked what the problem was. I explained the situation and the order of class prevailed and the saving of face. A few sharp words to Mr rip off and a suggestion that I pay a dollar sorted out the problem.
Beer, Beer and more Beer
I love beer! As a fellow scribe Mr Noid so aptly put it I am no amateur drunk. I can easily put back many litres of the stuff but still retain my composure. Hanoi was beer drinkers heaven!! Each district had their own particular brew and I sampled gallons of the stuff. On almost every street corner one finds a Bia Hoi stand where the mini keg of beer (draft) is delivered fresh every morning. Should the "publican" run short at any time of the day or night, a moto is despatched and returns shortly with a new keg of Bia Hanoi or Halida etc. The beer is weaker than traditional draft beers but don't be fooled, it has a kick. The best part of all is the price, 10c US per glass!! The Bia Hoi I favoured was at a busy crossroad with superb people watching vistas. One sits on the tiny plastic chairs made for children and watch the amazing life on the streets go by. Every evening a pretty Viet woman who was obviously a few grapes short of a bunch would stand in the middle of the road and have her say for half an hour about whatever was troubling her that day. Motos, cyclos and cars would be weaving their way around her while she continued her rhetoric. Lizard man would then come crawling past with his deformed lower body lying on a plastic sheet while he pulled himself along with his arms. And then the women….eye candy of note dressed in a variety of clothing from traditional to western. Sorry guys, will go into more details soon. People watching at its utter best. My very pleasant lady publican soon tired of taking money for every beer she poured and rather began keeping a score card of each beer I consumed. It soon looked like a prisoners scratch marks on his cell wall marking off the days. At the end of the evening when we tallied up I had had 14 beers, a snack of chilli dipped squid and bought a packet of smokes all for under $2!!! Man I love this country.
I think we all agree that the food in Thailand is still tops, but the food in Vietnam is not that bad. It seems that although the styles and types of food are similar, the rest lack certain herbs and spices that the Thais use and that makes all the difference. Once again one has to sit on those crazy minuscule chairs when dining at the street vendors and chopsticks are the norm. At first it felt like I was eating with 2 barge poles and the rice was flying around like confetti, but I soon got the hang of things and one feels rather proud when you can pick up a single grain of rice. After a few days of eating only chicken, duck and pork my body was craving some beef and after watching where most of the locals were buying we decided to eat there. All the different bowls were laid out with the different meats, fish and poultry and one could decide what to take. Ahhh.. red meat at last, and I ordered a nice large portion. I noticed a few of the locals giving me strange looks but put it down to the fact that I am so stunningly drop dead handsome (I wish). Anyhow the food was good and the following evening I decided to further deplete the bovine population of Nam by stocking up again. Back to the same place, same bowls of meat but then I noticed a new bowl that was not there the night before. This one contained brains! Smallish fist sized brains! My mind now starts clicking through the options, too large for cat brains, too small for pig or cattle brains….then the lights go on in my mind and I point to the bowl and say "woof woof?". The lady serving us smiles and nods her head. I then point to the bowl that I had partaken from the previous night and repeat the question.."woof woof????". Time seemed to stand still, like waiting to see if you have answered the million dollar question correctly..But I got the nod! Oh well, something to tell the grandchildren about one day.
If you think the Thai women are paranoid about the sun and the effects of having Dam (black) skin, then you should see the Viet women take this a few steps further. Even a short trip outside involves a lengthy dressing up process. Every part of the body is covered, a scarf is wrapped around the head and face and on come the shades. The arms are protected by shoulder length gloves. It's no wonder then that the ladies have very pale satiny skins. Vietnamese women are attractive and we saw many fine examples of womanhood. Also their unending hard work has their bodies well toned and very desirable, but all in all I must say that I still prefer their Siam Sisters. During my stay in Nam I could count on one hand the overweight younger women I saw. Being newbies to the nightlife scene, it took us a while to work out how things operated and to recognise the working girls. Strangely enough my normally rampant libido was on a low. I could only put this down to the heat and constant exercise plus the plethora of lovely women. Brett however decided he needed to notch up a score and to "smack that pony!" Our first clumsy attempts to find something left us to the mercies of the moto drivers and we ended up in some dingy part of the city at a 3 story house. Everything seemed very quiet and the dull street lamps cast an eerie glow on the whole scene. I was feeling very uncomfortable and wary. Our driver went in and started knocking on various doors and soon sleepy eyed girls started emerging onto the landings. By now I could see that Brett was not at all keen anymore mainly due to the fact that the girls were not that nice and that the whole scene felt very forced. Our driver was an arrogant shit and he was in our faces all the time trying to force us into making a choice. It was time to get out and get out quick before any mention of money was made. We back tracked out into the front yard hounded all the time by Mr Moto Pimp and a few new young Viet studs that now stood encircling us. Things were now very tense and it took a lot of smooth talking and smiles before we managed to get back to our hotel. Paid an exorbitant moto fee just to get rid of our drivers from hell and retreated to re-evaluate the situation. Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam and far more undercover (especially in conservative Hanoi) than other SE Asian countries. Then we saw how it worked and it had been in front of our eyes all along. All one has to do is be on the lookout for the moto girls who ride up and down the streets in the evening. Normally one girl driving and her working partner sitting behind. If you see the same pair go past a few times and exchange glances with you, then you can be pretty sure that they are working and can be met down a side street. There are also the walking girls who will sometimes stop and chat to you. All in all very secretive, but one can see why when the police truck with loudspeakers roams the street regularly. At 11pm sharp you see all the vendors and hawkers hurriedly packing up their goods and moving them into the doorways of their shop. Sure enough along come the cops and chase the few stragglers into the doorways. As soon as the Gestapo have left everything is returned to its normal place and life continues as usual into the small hours of the morning. As I said before, mini mee was not "up" to his normal antics and I was content to just people watch and drink vast amounts of beer. Brett had been doing his best to chat up one of the ladies at the hotel and seemed to be succeeding. Viet good girls are very different from their Thai counterparts and Viet working girls. Chatting to them saw a pattern emerge that fitted their conservative attitude and respect for rules and regulations. Education came first and most said that they normally date for at least 3 years and only considered marriage at about 27 years of age. Very few of the girls had offspring from teenage pregnancies.
Oh Yes! Oh No!
I thought my luck had finally changed. Sitting at my "doggy diner", Brett and I saw her at the same time and the collective thud of our jaws hitting the floor must have attracted her attention. Guys when I say this woman was beautiful it is an understatement! Dressed in traditional attire she literally stopped everything, even the locals, around her. Luckily I had decided to dress up for the evening and she glanced at me and for a few seconds our eyes met and held and she smiled. The spark was there! She had arrived with a well dressed local guy, but as we sat and ate I could not keep my eyes off her and also caught her glancing at us when her man was not looking in that thrilling way women have of saying "I'm available, keep trying!". I tried to eat as slowly as possible, savouring each opportunity to glance at her now and again. This woman could grace the cover of all the major magazines. Time seemed to fly and with another knowing look and smile she left. Damn. We returned to the hotel earlier than normal that evening and the receptionist called out to me that there was a message waiting. I was a bit confused, who knew I was here? On the slip of paper was a name and a phone number and it was a Viet name. When I asked the receptionist who it came from she grinned and said "Pretty lady who sit and eat by you tonight". I was elated and Brett was a bit peeved. I asked if I could use the hotel phone and she dialled the number for me. Excitement was mounting inside me as I waited for her to answer her cellphone. And then there she answered and I felt like a schoolboy sputtering out his opening lines. The signal was breaking up and I could only make out every second word but that was enough. Two words…Hotel…$100!!!!! Shit shit shit. The receptionist was looking at me with that knowing look and just waiting to see my response. I was now in a bit of a quandary because we still had to stay at this hotel for a few more days and I did not want to damage the good rapport we had with the staff. So what did I do? I bailed out and feigned ignorance and non understanding! "I don't understand what she is saying, can you please talk to her?" I asked and gave the phone over. A very brief conversation ensued and she then cupped the mouthpiece and said "I think she prostitute???" all the while awaiting my response. I would have rolled in broken glass for that woman but I had to smile and say no thank you. In the end all I gained was plenty of brownie points with the staff. I still have her number by the way, any offers??
We had seen most of what Hanoi had to offer and decided to head out of town and explore some new sights and then prepare for our trip to the land of Mao……
(To be continued…)
Fantastic trip report! I really must check out Vietnam one day. I have heard so many mixed reports that it is a bit confusing to know quite what to expect, and I guess your report just verifies that!