Monday, February 8
Today, Miki and I experienced our first embalmed body. We didn’t realize it at the time, but Ho Chi Minh was embalmed in a plexiglass case like some kind of rare diamond in a jewelry store. The whole experience happened by accident, to be honest. We had no idea what a mausoleum was. We had no clue what line we were getting into. We had no idea where the red vinyl carpet would lead us. After the fact, I learned from a few others who’ve been around Hanoi that everyone’s first visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is confusing and accidental.
We started the morning off by walking the silent streets of Hanoi. It was kind of unnerving considering just a mere eight hours before, the streets were packed with hundreds of thousands of people waiting for a firework show. Because of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, people return home for the holiday so everything is silent. We both enjoyed crossing the street without feel like we were in a real-life game of Frogger and took in the architecture of the government buildings and consulates, occasionally running into a fellow tourist and nodding a hello. After a quick photo op at the Lenin statue, we headed to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Considering how run down and tightly stacked the buildings in Hanoi are, the monuments, memorials and government buildings are immaculate and awe-inspiring. Off of a big stretch of road that you could call the 1600 Pennsylvania of Hanoi (except no traffic allowed), we came to the mausoleum - a large square building made of stone, surrounded by another stone wall, monitored by guards in white uniforms walking back and forth. We were instructed to fall into a single-file line - no stopping and no pictures. We figured we were being escorted closer to the building, but instead found ourselves being let into the building - just in time for the changing of the guards (exactly like Buckingham Palace, except without the black fuzzy hats). The red vinyl carpet we walked on led through the lobby - which frankly, I don’t even recall because I was so focused on the guards in white - then up a set of stairs and finally into this memorial room. The room was dark and dimly lit, and there Ho was. Shiny and embalmed. No talking. No picture-taking. Just a stroll through. No stopping either. A couple of people bowed to Ho with their hands pressed together as if they were doing the Buddhist version of Hail Mary. Four guards surrounded the giant plexiglassed Ho and the wooden slab he was mounted on. It was over before we knew it and we both stumbled outside, blinking with utter and total confusion. It was closer in likeness to the Western Wall than the Lincoln Memorial. Afterwards, we wandered the surrounding grounds and stopped into the Ho Chi Minh museum. Once again, the museum essentially worshiped Ho, giving little background or history. It was nothing like the historical museums one encounters in America or Europe. Full of symbolic sculptures and displays that were supposed to be representative of Ho’s prowess and resistance, the museum, like the mausoleum, read more like a place of worship. Endearingly called “Uncle Ho,” Ho Chi Minh’s ideals were glorified and his distasteful policies ignored. There was little substance to the narrative the museum was trying to tell, but it gave an interesting perspective into the way many Vietnamese viewed their leader and their country. Even though there are some total loons running for president, it’s reassuring that we can voice our frustrations with said loons publicly and comically. Because anyone who didn't worship Ho and his ideals was essentially erased from Vietnam’s public history.
Afterward, we stopped for a quick Wi-Fi break to book our plane tickets to Laos, where I got into a heated conversation with Capital One after they restricted my card even though I had warned them of my travels. It resulted in me shouting at a customer service rep in the middle of the palace plaza. Thankfully, the shouting helped, all was resolved, and Mik and I got a nice shot together in front of the palace.
I should preface lunch by saying in Hanoi, the best places to get authentic Vietnamese food - the places where the locals flock - are the sketchy, street-side marts with nothing more than a hot plate and some plastic mini stools so tiny in size, only a toddler can sit on them. Miraculously enough, however, the Vietnamese crouch at these tiny doll-sized tables eating their Pho and chatting with one another over beer (another thing to note - beer in Vietnam is literally cheaper than water. Cans of beer cost a little over 50 cents, bottles of water cost about a dollar). Miki and I opted for tables that we could actually sit at, ordering Pho and, in my case, loading it with spice. We began a lively conversation with the two folks sitting to our right - both Chinese - a gentleman who lived in Geneva and a lady from Hong Kong. When they mentioned Geneva, naturally the conversation turned towards skiing. They both were well-travelled and when they heard we were going the Chiang Mai, got excited. The gentleman said he was traveling there shortly to visit his sister, who owned an organic farm that catered to the palace in Phuket. He told us we had to visit her farm and gave Miki his email so that she could get in touch with him after I left. He insisted on her staying there for a couple nights and I told her I’d head over there with her on my last day to see if the farm, was in fact, legit. The lady made me promise I’d visit China on my next trip, and we left exchanging emails.
We spent the afternoon scouring hotels and travel agencies for the best cruise deal for Ha Long Bay. We finally found a promising cruise and are planning to meet up with my friend Josh and his brother. Really looking forward to it!
As the sun went down, we wandered around the lake. The early morning quiet of Hanoi completely dissipated and in came the crowds of people dressed in their best suits and dresses taking pictures with their families and wandering the streets of Hanoi. Small children with balloons, young women with selfie sticks and more infants on motor bikes than I ever believed possible (this would later serve as the my reasoning for getting on the back of a motorbike myself). As people began to leave the city (the sheer number of motorbikes made it feel like we were in an episode of Sons of Anarchy), Miki and I found dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant and turned in early that night - me, incredibly jet-lagged and sleep deprived.
Tomorrow, we head to Sapa for a few days before returning to Hanoi and heading out to Ha Long Bay.
Phrase of the day: Chuc Mung Nam Moi means Happy New Year in Vietnamese!
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