Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Hanoi Hilton

We were lucky enough to be able to stay with our friend Amber in Hanoi. Amber and Sarah lived together for a little while in Port Moresby, and Amber has since been posted up to Hanoi, and a very nice apartment in the French Quarter.

Hanoi is in Northern Vietnam, is smaller than Saigon, and has the reputation of being a bit more laid back, but in the context of Vietnam that's still pretty busy. Hanoi has some wider boulevards and felt a little less hectic to us. There is some nice French colonial arhitecture, a lot of which seem to have been converted into very nice restaurants. Hanoi had a bit more of a French feel, until we got to the Old Quarter. This is just a maze of tiny streets and shops, barely big enough for a car and a scooter to pass. It's a great place to just wander around and become lost, which we did a few times. There's a constant parade of food going past, shoe repairs (they were quite persistant with the need for my sneakers to be repaired), lighters. The streets are named for what they used to sell, and even now the shops cluster together. A striking one was 'Christmas decoration street', not to celebrate Christmas, but to sell all the decorations.

There was a bit more to see in Hanoi as well, including the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where I was told off for shuffling past Uncle Ho with my tumbs hooked in my jeans pocket, and Sarah was told off for walking too slowly. Uncle Ho looks pretty good for being dead almost forty years, but he is lit in a warm yellow light. He was just back from being rejuvinated overseas, in Russia I think, where they have experience of preserved leaders. The process of getting in is typical of Vietamese ticketing systems. You buy a ticket one place, then get it stamped or torn at another. The additional excitement at the mausoleum was with cameras. You couldn't leave your camera in the cloak room, but they gave us a special bag to put it in. You then carry this bag further along the queue to another booth where you hand it in. After make the trip around Uncle Ho you come out at a different spot, and lo and behold, there is your camera. It was intriguing and strange, but it must work for them ok. We snuck in a shot of the mausoleum.

Hanoi also has the Temple of Literature, which is the old university. There is a list of graduated carved into stone slabs dating from about 1400. The art gallery was interesting at times as well (although relentless). There were some very nice lacquer works, and some good paintings on silk. I was surprised to see some fellow patrons fingering the art, which I thought might explain why a lot of the lacquer work looked a bit dull.

John McCain spent five years in Hanoi at the jail ironically dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, and received injuries so severe that he can't lift his hands above his head. He has since made his peace with the country, as many former combatants seem to do. They were planning to knock down the prison completely, but after protests some has been saved as a museum. Perhaps missing the irony of the original title, they decided to build a Hilton hotel on top of the old site. It's a grim place, although the museum portrays the American POWs as having a great old time when they stayed there.

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