Ha Noi with the lads


Not having much luck warming up to Ha Noi. Flew into Noi Bai airport for the second time on March 17th, accompanied by sons Andrew and Duncan, and the place looked pretty much the way it did the first time I was there: misty, rainy, wet, humid, very close.

The difference this time is that it wasn't 14C, it was more like 25C. If anything, it was more uncomfortable weather than when it was wet and cold; instead, it was wet and warm. Putting on raingear would have been like getting into a sauna. Either way, you're wet and sweaty.

One shouldn't take this as an indication that I don't like Ha Noi. It's a great city, and I love it. I'm just bitter. My Ha Noi friend Linh assures me that a couple of weeks before, when I'd taken off for Hue, the weather turned better, and was pretty great until the day I returned. Don't much like feeling responsible for that!

But friends Linh and Ba, who'd offered to put up the boys and me for the visit, welcomed us warmly, and took us out to dinner the first night to the splendid Highway 4 on Xuan Dieu (Street), a fairly swank part of town, and, even better, picked up the tab! Ba introduced the three of us to several kinds of fabulous fruit/rice liquors. Duncan especially enjoyed himself, as I was leaving it to him to decide how much to drink.

Next day, we got in line (in the rain) at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum to go in and see the embalmed corpse of the great Vietnamese leader. Our taxi dropped us off, pointed east, and left us in the midst of a bunch of buses and milling people. As isn't unusual in a country where you don't speak the language (and there are few signs in yours), it took us quite a while, and several stabs in the wrong direction, to find the mausoleum—and the line. (It didn't help that there was so much mist and rain that we couldn't see the mausoleum, which is huge.) But eventually we did. We added ourselves to the end of a line that was very long,and you could hear all the languages of the world, including many, many Vietnamese speakers. And groups of schoolkids.

But we got through the line, and into the mausoleum, and saw Uncle Ho. It's like viewing the Book of Kells in Dublin: you get in line, are ushered through, you've got about 20 seconds with the object of the experience, and you're out of there. And with me, it had a special ambiguity, because I knew full well that Ho Chi Minh had specified clearly in his will that he didn't want to be embalmed and put on display (he abhorred cults of personality), but the Party did it anyway. It was nice the see the old guy anyway.

It's true, however, that the folks who run the place insist that observers pay their respects properly. One Vietnamese guy was taken out of line for some infraction or other, and sent packing. At one point, inside the building, a guard let Andrew know where his hands should be. It's serious business.

Next we went over to the Ho Chi Minh museum, and learned more about Uncle Ho than we thought possible. While walking up the stairs to get into the place, a young man came over, introduced himself, and asked if we'd like a guide. Of course, we said, and off we went. About an hour and a half later, we stumbled out of the museum all but overcome by the torrent of words—all in English—from young Huong (likely not spelt correctly). Wow! He was a fount of information. But that Ho! (Or Nguyen Ai Quoc, or any of the other noms-de-plume he'd used over the years.) What a guy! While up in the mountains churning out policy papers and propaganda, he set about in his spare time to learn Hmong, and did!

And all the time we were busy celebrating the life of the great Ho Chi Minh, I was trying to come to a final decision about a logistical problem I had with our five days in Ha Noi. One of the great things about being in Ha Noi is that it's a launching point to a number of tours that are widely considered to be highly worthwhile, especially the trek up into the mountains to the stunning scenery of Sa Pa, in northwest Viet Nam; and the astonishing limestone cliffs of Ha Long Bay in northeast Viet Nam. Trouble is, these tours eat up a chunk of time, and, if you've only got five days, most of your time will be spent on the tours, and very little in Ha Noi, a rich historic and cultural centre. A mistake, in other words. Maybe.

Plus, I was working on a project with my friend Tom Fawthrop, whom I'd met in Chiangmai, Thailand a few weeks before. I was doing the legwork for putting together a program of videos on Agent Orange for a workshop he's mounting at a conference of the People's Health Movement this July in South Africa. To do so, I'd made contact with the folks who run Cinemathèque, an arty cinema in the Old Quarter of Ha Noi (which I never managed to attend to see a film—I'm still kicking myself). One of the things I needed to do was a follow-up meeting with Hung, the guy I was working with there, to view some films and select some for Tom's consideration. This was something that the lads wouldn't have enjoyed, so filling up the only free day left wouldn't have been a wise option.

So I threw caution to the wind, and, with Andrew and Duncan's concurrence, decided to set them loose to trek to Sa Pa on their own for a couple days, while I took care of my business. Linh, who is a principal of a travel firm, offered to help with the tickets.

So there we were, in a taxi from the Ho Chi Minh complex on our way to the Old Quarter to do some tourist-trekking around that magnificent part of the world, when I got a text from Linh. I noticed two things right away:

  • She'd located some tickets, and I needed to call back right away to confirm that I wanted them, and

  • my cell-phone was out of electricity, and couldn't make a call.

Now this is the kind of emergency that wasn't available to us fifteen years ago. And if you're like me, you're astonished when anyone runs out of cell-phone juice. Did they forget to charge it? But here I was, in exactly the kind of predicament I'd scorned when it wasn't me! And, to add fuel to the fire, I had charged it fully, just that morning!

First try: find a mobility store, and buy a new battery. (Not a great solution, as I was intending to buy a new phone once I get back to Thailand this month, and a new battery would be superfluous in a few days!) No luck. Went to three, two of which didn't have such a battery, and the third had one that had been sitting on the shelf so long it'd bled out what little charge it had had. Damn!

Second try: find a pay phone, and make a call from there. No luck! In order to use a pay phone, you have to have a pay phone card, VietnamPhone if I remember correctly, and though everyone with a street stall sells SIM cards and SIM-recharging, we couldn't find anyone who sells pay-phone cards. Or, in the alternative, we couldn't find anyone who might be selling them, but who couldn't begin to understand what I was saying when I said "Vietnamphone?"

Third try: buy a new phone. No, too stupid.

Fourth try: After much searching, I found the mobility store where a few weeks before I'd bought my Blackberry SIM card (see "My Week in Ha Noi"), the store where everyone working there is young and fabulous and way too cool to be working (and with some of the really gorgeous young women, it's tough to figure out if they are working—I'll bet that's sexist, sorry). And the young genius I was madly talking to about buying batteries, etc., calmly offered to put it on a charger while we had lunch, and when I returned I'd be able to make some calls!

Brilliant! Even if he was too cool to work, I'm glad he was.

At lunch, Duncan, who has the world's most complete memory, especially for my foibles, reminded me that several weeks before he'd suggested I turn down the brightness on my Blackberry to save battery, and that I hadn't paid it the slightest attention. Damn! Kicking me when I was down! But when you're wrong, you're wrong, and first opportunity I turned the brightness down to 30 per cent (from 100), and haven't had a problem since. Thanks, Duncan.

So we managed to get in touch with Linh, and she got the tickets for us.

That night, we had dinner with Linh's parents. This was quite an honour. Actually, it's quite an honour to have been invited to stay in Linh's and Ba's home; my understanding is it's quite unusual for Vietnamese to invite foreigners into their homes. So being invited to her parents' home was honour heaped on honour. Linh's dad was a soldier during the American war, and is quite proud of it, and so the kids and I very much looked forward to talking to him.

We went down a long alley, which Linh pointed out to us was where she played as a child, and took our shoes off as we entered Linh's parents' place. (In Vietnamese homes, there's usually lots of slippers to put on your feet after you've taken off your shoes. And it's not polite not to put them on.) We were warmly welcomed by Linh's dad, her mum, and her maternal grandmother, who was a hoot. We sat around their coffee table (don't know if it's a "coffee table" there) and drank tea while we all got acquainted. They wanted to know how old we all are, and were curious why my wife hadn't accompanied me on my trip, though it took them a while before they got round to asking. Of course they wanted to know why I was visiting Viet Nam, and seemed pleased with the answer that I had long admired the Vietnamese people for the enormous effort they'd put into becoming independent, and I was absolutely thrilled that I'd had this chance to be there among them.

We went upstairs, and sat on a carpet, on the floor, around a very generous dinner. There were DIY spring rolls, which Ba showed us how to deal with, and a whole fish on a plate that turned out to be very, very delicious. All three of us devoured so much of it that Linh's mum asked us if we wanted another. Uh-oh! What's the right move here, I thought. We'd had a lot of fish, but, Is it more impolite to accept, or to turn down food that's offered! No idea, so we accepted. In the end, I was glad we did, as the second fish was even better than the first.

Accompanying our dinner was vast amounts of Heinekens, and more than enough of Linh's dad's homemade rice liquor. A great jar of it sat in the corner of the room, and it was one of those Vietnamese liquors in which the bodies of snakes and geckos soak. It was delicious!

There was a lot of other good food as well, some of which we had, and some of which we had to leave, as it was time for Andrew and Duncan to go to the train station. The trip to Sa Pa takes place over three days, with the train trips to and from both all-nighters. So we took a taxi to the train station, which was a scene of apparently-chaotic activity like we'd never seen before (which, like many things in Asia, mostly seems chaotic because you've never seen it before) and got them off. Linh had even let the lads borrow her personal cell-phone, so we could keep in touch while they were away. (I'd planned to get them to buy a cheap one and SIM card, but Linh's offer made that unnecessary.)

Andrew has promised to guest-write a section on their time in Sa Pa. When done it'll go:


So I met with Hung and got my work done (thanks mostly to Hung), visited the Bookworm on Chau Long and bought:

  • Vietnamese Posters, a great collection of Vietnamese poster art, which in my opinion is largely better than the old Soviet art, and

  • Bikes of Burden, a terrific coffee-table-book-like object with lots of photos of the imaginative, resourceful ways Vietnamese use their motorcycles to transport goods as they make a living.

I had spotted these books much earlier in my Viet Nam sojourn, but took the opportunity to get them at this point because Duncan had some spare room in his luggage, and I was able to get him to take one of them back for me. Thanks, Duncan. The other will return to Chiangmai with me, where I'm keeping a box I'm going to carry back to Toronto, and gradually filling it up with travel booty.

As Linh and Ba had to attend a family event in their home village a couple of hours from Ha Noi, so I checked into the Prince Hotel on Luong Ngoc Quyen in the heart of the Old Quarter. (The lads returned from Sa Pa the next morning at 5am.) It's an older hotel with large, beautiful rooms and gorgeous furniture. And, as luck would have it, it was five doors down from what's called "Bia Hoi Junction," an intersection where much Bia Hoi is consumed. Bia Hoi is a Ha Noi specialty, fresh draft beer that arrives at bars early in the day, and patrons drink it till it's gone. It's astonishingly cheap, about $0.20 per glass, and, perhaps not surprisingly, isn't that great a brew, but you can drink it all day and not get drunk, I'm told. (So it's like American beer? I don't ask...) I personally didn't get a lot of it to drink, as my first order was often after it was gone.

If you're like me (and there may be some who are), the last thing you want to be seen doing is traipsing around an unfamiliar place with a copy of that place's Lonely Planet book in hand, reading while gawping. So over the five days I was in Ha Noi, I spent an astonishing, entirely regrettable, amount of time trying to coax from my Lonely Planet e-book a copy of their Ha Noi walking tour with map. No go.

A couple of years ago, Margaret and I decided to get e-readers for our sons for Christmas. I did the research, and at the time concluded from reviews, etc., that the Sony Reader was the superior product. Well, maybe so, but it's been nothing but regret ever since. The e-readers themselves are fine, the problem is with the software you need to use to access the Sony reader store:

  • It's the most clunky, user-unfriendly interface I've ever used. For example, if you can't find a book through their "search" function, which is functionally almost useless, and you find yourself scrolling through the authors that begin with "M," for example, you have to click-and-redraw dozens of times before you get from "Ma" to "Me." If you're looking for "Muwamba," forget it.

  • Sony's rights protection management is handled by linking with Adobe's database, but, not to be hyper-critical, their link to Adobe is less than perfect. I've yet to be able to do anything semi-complicated with my Sony Reader account without having to rebuild the Adobe connection. For example, last year I had to combine my employment Adobe account into my personal Adobe account, leaving me with only one. The fact that the Sony Reader store is linked to that personal account (the one I'd had to create so the Reader Store would work) has meant I'venever been able to log on to the Sony Reader store from a machine different from my base computer without completely rebuilding the Adobe account login to suit the Sony Store. Earlier this year I spent two hours over Skype from Chiangmai with a gal at the help desk taking personal control of my netbook to make the changes necessary for Sony machines and Adobe machines to talk to each other.

It's completely unacceptable. In my view, the software that accompanies the Sony Reader is not yet ready for sale to the public. (Not that I found out about that through the reviews.)

But since I don't like walking around a town with a big travel book in hand, I've got all my SE Asia travel books on a Sony Reader. And Lonely Planet, or Sony, or someone, has made it next to impossible to copy anything from the book to another format, whether you're using it on a Reader or on a computer. I've tried. It's another instance where if I could have the time back that I've wasted trying to do something on a computer, I would gladly pay double to get it. My last desperate attempt to get a paper-sized copy of the Lonely Planet walking tour of Old Ha Noi was to use "PRTSCR," copy it into Photoshop, goose the resolution as best I could, save it as a pdf, and print it out. It was unreadable crap. I'd've been better off using a photocopier, which I probably could have found if I hadn't been so convinced I should've been able to do this on a computer. And I hate that moment when you realize you're just not going to be able to do something, and all the time you've put into trying has been wasted.

So, Duncan to the rescue. With his excellent sense of direction, he took charge of the large tourist map. I'd read out what we were supposed to be doing (from the e-reader), and he'd check the map to make sure we were going in the right direction. (This is not an easy task in the Old Quarter. I myself had just walked around in a circle two days before, quite sure that I was heading in such-and-such a direction, and entirely shocked to find myself back where I'd started.)

Once we adopted the Duncan plan, our tour went quite smoothly.

Wednesday night, March 21st, the lads and I attended the Thanh Long Water Puppets theatre, a Vietnamese art form involving swishing wooden puppets through a pool, accompanied by musicians and some narration. We all agreed that this probably wasn't one of the Great Art Forms, but the music was terrific. One of the lead instruments is the Dan Bau, a one-string instrument with a lever on the end that's manipulated for tremolo and other effects. It's the one that makes Vietnamese music so incredibly haunting. I'm a big fan.

Then, back to Bia Hoi Junction, where they were out of Bia Hoi, but things were still hopping, for a couple beers before going off to bed, and Ho Chi Minh City the next day.


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