We left our dank, pube-filled hostel with strict orders that they change the sheets before we returned. They nodded solemnly, but as Liam went up to the room to collect something he'd forgotten he caught them just brushing off the same sheets. "No! Change them!", he ordered.
Hanoi is similar to Saigon in terms of traffic flow - motorbikes dodging and weaving, women wearing conical hats and carrying baskets attached to wooden poles, moto drivers trying to grab you onto the back of their bike every few yards.The sound of a thousand horns fills the air as everyone beep beeps constantly. It's like a scene from wacky races - motorbikes carrying all sorts of bizare cargo..a wardrobe here, family of six there. (If only I was as glamorous as Penelope Pitstop as I clung for dear life to my drivers lovehandles). The shops are perhaps a bit more sophisticated than those elsewhere in the country, I noticed, as we whizzed past in our grossly overpriced cyclo(pushbike with a carriage on the front), making a mental note of the location of a few I wanted to check out later.
After a lunch of that famous Vietnamese dish, pizza, we felt energised enough to take in some sights. We were staying in the Old Quarter near to the Hoan Kiem lake, so decided to check out the Ngon Soc temple in the middle of the lake, which is home to a giant embalmed turtle, found in the lake and symbolic of a 15th century legend in which a giant turtle came out of the lake and grabbed Emperor Ly Thai To's sword that he'd used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. Sounds like a romantic little tale but the reality was that it was a huge ugly-looking thing, all beady eyes and wrinkled skin. People were queuing up to pose alongside it...I shudder to think what those snaps will look like on the mantelpiece.
Getting into the concept of gawking at long-dead, embalmed things, we decided to drop in at Ho Chi Minh's place - a glass-topped mausoleum where you can see the embalmed corpse of the famous president.
It's open to the public most of the time, except for a 3-month period each year when he goes on vacation to Russia for a little "maintenance", or a "tidy up", as Liam called it. We clearly underestimated the number of people with the same morbid fascination with pickled presidents as us, rounding the corner to a huge snake of noisy tourists. The guards barked at everyone for silence, even snarling at Liam to remove his hands from his pockets. We weren't even anywhere near entering the masoleum complex yet. Communist propaganda posters were everywhere and I found the kermit-coloured uniforms of the imposing guards quite intimidating. (Well, the guards were as scary as they could be while dressed up in muppet colours. Miss Piggy would've been in her element with this lot.)
The crowd maintained a faux-serious expression as instructed by the guards as we were allowed to silently pass by the sarcophagus in single file, each trying not to stare TOO intently as they looked at the dead guy. As if they see dead presidents all the time. I must say, the soviets had done a good job of preserving the revered leader - he looked younger than the 79 years old that he'd been when he died, his beard was groomed, he was wearing military uniform and looked as though he were just taking a quick nap, albeit a stiff one.I've seen celebrities who look less alive, and all they've had done is a little botox - this guy's been dead for over 30 years.Although we did find it surprising that he'd been enbalmed in the first place, since it'd been his express wish to be cremated on death, and he was so well respected in North Vietnam that you'd have thought they have respected Uncle Ho's (as they affectionately called him) wishes.
We discussed this over lunch - staring at corpses hadn't dampened our appetites, (more's the pity in my case) before heading to the Hoa Lo Prison, as you do. We seem to have a thing about visiting prisons on this trip, having already tramped around at least 3 others...
This prison was nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by US POW's during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it's called throughtout SE Asia), although it was originally built by the French to imprison Vietnamese who resisted their occupation. Famous prisoners during the war include Senator John McCain, who cannot raise his arms above his head following his torture and he tried to commit suicide twice whilst imprisoned here. (Having seen what America did to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during this war, it was pretty hard for us to feel sorry for the Americans though).
The other main thing we did in Hanoi was to visit the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, which was bright and colourful and entertaining despite the fact we couldn't understand a word of the story.
We had fun in Hanoi, but this was in spite of the treatment we received from the locals, rather than because of it. Most of them looked at us as though we were something they'd trodden in, or tried to pressure us into buying some substandard whatever with all the subtlety of a hungry rottweiler. And with just about the same amount of saliva coming out of their mouths too. These people can spit like it's an olympic sport. They were nowhere NEAR as friendly as their southern counterparts, which I might be able to explain away if I were better at politics and history. If we were queuing for something, for example, the locals would push us out of the way to get in front of us, and whoever was serving would ignore us. Sometimes, when going on bus journeys and the bus would have a 30minute stopver at a local restaurant, we'd be completely ignored, eventually our order would be taken, thewn our food wouldn't turn up and the driver would be honking away, indicating that we had to leave without eating. this happened 3 times in Vietnam, whilst the locals chomped away smugly. I stayed quiet, safe in the knowledge that I'd probably have got sick from the manky knuckles and kneecaps they were sucking on anyway.
By the time we were due to travel onto Laos we were more than ready for the 28hr bus ride...or were we.....