Email 12th February 2008

Vietnam - set 3, with captions by Fish
Fish's photo collection index.
12 Feb 2008

Fish 2008 - New Year in Hanoi and first footing Uncle Ho

Dear FishHeads, Freaks, fans and the Company,

The train pulled into Hanoi main station around 4am on New Years Eve. I'd had a single first class sleeping compartment from Lao Cai in the North Western Provinces. Don't let the inferred opulence fool you. It was a simple affair; 4 bunks covered by some lightweight blankets in a tiny space overwhelmed by my backpack. The carriage was something from the '30s that had avoided the bombing raids in the '60s and '70s. The toilet was an open hole in the floor under an ancient piece of ceramic, no paper, just a hose which was leaking over the floor, swilling already before we'd even left the station. I'd grabbed 4 Tiger beers and a do it yourself cheese roll from a vendor who'd blitzed the train just before the whistle blew and we set off into the night. I could only smoke in the partition between the carriages where the metal foot plates ground and squealed as we made our way over the mountains. The seven or so coats of paint and varnish were obvious on the sliding doors worn by time and grabbing hands desperate for balance. The light switches and fittings - all original Bakelite and dated - added to the atmosphere and I imagined French rubber plantation owners and their spouses on their way to a new life, romantic liaisons and malarial dreams washed away with a treasured bottle of Moet or Remy. Vietminh soldiers on a troop transport to Hanoi and Southwards to the front from their training bases up North, still filled with revolutionary fervour and nationalist spirit, anxious to be part of the fight for freedom. It was a heady journey for me and my imagination soared.
Sleep was sporadic and I woke as we crossed the Dragon Bridge to catch the sight of the immense market on the outskirts of the city already seething with thousands of people who'd brought their wares in from the country for sale to the urbanites. It was still dark and I could make out the swarming hordes in occasional pools of light created by stolen electricity and generators vainly trying to illuminate the huge area which looked more like a refugee camp than one of the biggest markets in Vietnam.
Hanoi station felt like I was entering a war zone. I'd been told to wait on the platform and on no account enter the station. As the train emptied and the passengers met up with relatives and friends or shuttled into the darkness, I found myself alone in a dimly lit space between trains and now attracting attention from the small gangs of wide boys and con artists all eager to "help me out". I think they were more nervous than I was confronting a 6' 5" European with shaved head and camouflage hoodie. Strong voiced and steely eyed I warded them off, gave up and went into the station to find my missing driver who was supposed to meet me and take me to the hotel.
I eventually found him in the morass outside the main entrance, guilty and apologetic.
Back to the Rosaliza hotel I'd left a few days before and into a large soft bed to smuggle some Zs before an afternoon in the city.
I'd hit most of the sights on my first day in the country so my guide was left with few options. Lunch at the nearby Tonkin restaurant and a couple of strong Vietnamese coffees set me up and we headed off to the West Lake and a visit to the Tay Ho pagoda which took my breath away. The Buddhist and national flags cracked over the small peninsula where the pagoda had been moved years before from an endangered area next to the Red River dykes built to hold back floodwaters. Unlike some of the Egyptian sites, this still held an incredible aura, perhaps as it was still very much an operating religious site. The tranquillity was overwhelming and the chants of the monks in prayer, the curtains of incense and the soft chimes of bells added to the magic. We sipped green tea lakeside and talked history.

Another return to the Old Quarter was next on the agenda and a long cyclo ride past the opera house and into the labyrinth of ancient streets struggling to maintain their glory amongst anarchical planning and building developments that were threatening the distinct vibe of an area that was the oldest part of Hanoi and home to over a 1000 years of trading history. It's a fascinating and energy laden area bustling with all manner of activities. Overrun with scooters and street peddlers, it is one of my favourite places in Vietnam.
I hadn't been struck by Hanoi on my first experience but was now coming to grips with it and finding the harmony.
I just sat back in the cyclo and breathed the intense raw magic for over an hour.

This was New Years Eve and a special time for Scots. I'd had my kilt pressed and was determined to find a good time somewhere even if I was on my own. I ventured out onto the streets around 8.30, kilt swaying and sporran bobbing. I headed up to Hoan Kiem lake where I thought I could get into the famous Restaurant Bobby Chinn's. I'd phoned for a reservation earlier and had been told it was fully booked but come along anyway and I could get a table?
I arrived to be told that they were fully booked but that they could serve me in the bar if I sat down at a couch for the fixed menu which was only $200!!!! I couldn't believe the female maitre de smiled when she said it. For $200 I want a table not to be eating off my lap in a bar!
I declined their generous offer and walked out laughing at them.
Further up the lakeside I found a place that looked quite stylish and was pretty full. I entered and sat at the bar. I just wanted something to eat before I began my drinking curve. The guy sitting next to me turned out to be an American from LA called Charlie who worked as a film editor for the Discovery Channel. He too was travelling alone and so we exchanged experiences and quaffed a few beers over dinner at the bar. Conversation drifted through various subjects and somehow Charlie started telling me stories about organised Vietnamese gangs in Orange County and about how ruthless they were. I'd been eyeballing the clientele as I always do while he was talking and had been noticing various groups of Caucasians in hushed discussions at dining tables who were surrounded by very pretty local girls. The penny was starting to drop and once I'd locked on to the reality I knew where we were. When a couple of guys sat down next to Charlie at the bar the light went on. The guy immediately next to him could have been straight out of a Steven Segal movie playing the evil Vietnamese gangster who our hero, after a few previous unfortunate run ins, manages to dramatically dispose of with a bit of luck tipping the martial balance in the closing scenes. He gave off a sign and it said "Do not f**k with me!" I could see his muscled outline through the sheen of his blue silk shirt and his jaw line and depth of eye gave me a shudder. I knew straight off he was the boss and immediately was proven right by his assertion over the bar staff and their response. I tried to get Charlie to keep his voice down a bit. The arrival in the bar of another group of expensively suited short haired military looking types with attendant models and the familiar lilt of Russian accents, coupled with nods, winks and firm handshakes, confirmed my suspicions. It was without doubt a "colourful" joint and obvious gangster hang out, and not the place to be discussing the Mafia in any language! It was getting busier and the house jazz band was getting into their stride. Charlie had got the picture too and we both decided it was time to pay the bill and let someone else take our prominent seats at the bar before we were asked to vacate them. The highly professional looking security types outside the door bid us farewell with a nod and straight eye to eye contact.
Don't get me wrong, there was no immediate threat or danger but over the years I know there are places where you are meant to be and places where you are not. And as an American and a Scottish guy in a kilt we were both very much out of place! :-D

Charlie and I parted and agreed to try and meet up later in a street on the fringe of the Old Quarter which I'd recced earlier on that day and found to contain a smattering of potential happening drinking dens.
Pho Bao Kanh was a hop, skip and a swirling of the kilt away. I was virtually stopping traffic and catching bemused and admiring glances and a few whistles on my striding journey. A big guy in a "dress" in Hanoi is obviously a rarity. "Where you from?", "Scotland", "Aaahhh, Scolan!"
I picked out the Amazon bar by chance. It was pretty quiet and seemingly run by a bunch of young girls and their "mother". I wasn't sure at first whether they were working girls as they were all both tremendously flirty and attractive and in numbers that were more than enough to serve drinks behind the small bar at which they all seemed to alternate throughout the time I was there. The TV was showing Manchester City v Liverpool. It was just after 11. I thought back to Edinburgh and the festivities that would be kicking off there in 7 hours time. I had my first real pangs of homesickness. It was Tara's 17th birthday tomorrow. I felt a bit guilty for not being there for her.
I got into conversation with some French guys, one of whom - a pipe smoking, Pastises drinking, long bearded guy who flirted outrageously with the girls who he obviously knew - turned out to be an ex nuclear submariner of 18 years who proceeded to lecture me about Exocets and the Falklands war. A real character who in turn introduced me to his friends who were all Hanoi residents of various nationalities. Next thing I got a tap on the shoulder. It was Charlie. He'd found me by asking a couple of strangers if they'd seen a guy in a kilt recently and who'd pointed out the Amazon. The company was gathering and the bells were approaching.
The Macallan was duly ordered. At midnight there were no bells, just the overwhelming silence of a digital clock. I raised my double shot of 12 year old and offered the toast that was joined by everyone in the bar. And that was it. New Year in Vietnam.
Everyone fell back into conversation and we were in 2008. I fell into my own world for a bit and admit to shedding one or two disguised tears. I was glad to see the back of 2007, one of the worst years in my personal life I can ever remember.
A couple of quiet curses in one glass and a toast to my daughter and my family in another and my spirits lifted.
An hour later and still in a relatively sober state I was dismayed to find the Amazon was closing. It had been a very different experience but in reality that was what was required. I honestly would not have enjoyed the Scottish festivities and think the ghosts would have been to many to shake hands with. It was my first ever New Year outside the UK and on my own and I don't think it will be my last! ;-)
Long goodbyes to Charlie and my new friends and then off on the back of a Honda, kilt flying, to the hotel. It was only one thirty. Hanoi was deserted.

I got up early on New Years day. I wanted to do something special and at 8am I showered and dressed and went off in a cab to "first foot" Ho Chi Minh.
I'd missed out on a visit to his mausoleum on the last trip as it shuts around 11 and isn't open on Mondays. I was determined to chalk this up and had it in my head that I would be one of the first in line on the first day of 2008. I elected not to wear my kilt as I knew it may have been construed as being disrespectful and I didn't want to be turned away.
I arrived soon after the gates were opened and found myself in a queue of nearly a thousand people snaking their way past stern faced uniformed soldiery to the daunting Stalinist concrete edifice that is intended to represent a lotus leaf. It's an imposing structure and to be honest completely out of place architecturally with anything in the neighbourhood or beyond. The area in front of the mausoleum is a huge parade ground and grassy area which is totally off limits and patrolled by the army, most of whom wear ceremonial uniforms in dirty white which have obviously seen better days. Close up they look slightly tatty and badly fitting and wouldn't pass muster at Buckingham palace.

They were pretty imposing and herded the line authoritatively with grim looks and searching stares. Caps were ordered to be removed and random searches for cameras and mobile phones occurred up and down the thousand yard queue and intensified as we crawled closer to the entrance where we were funnelled past ice cold guards whose eyes penetrated your soul as they searched for potential defilers of the tomb.
The shuffling masses approached the entrance door and formed into two snakes that - in complete silence - climbed the stairs and turned into the chamber, the atmosphere palpably building as we began to be enveloped in an ethereal glow.
"Uncle Ho" lay in a glass chamber in a sunken area surrounded on all four corners by uniformed guardians that looked themselves to be part of some underworld display. My first thought was it looked like Snow White but I couldn't help but be caught up in the solemn reverence and the sheer power of the man even in death. We moved round the sarcophagus, looking down on the white bearded figure and I considered this icon that had inspired a country into believing it could overthrow the tyranny of three major powers in his lifetime. An unique and mysterious character of whose private life we know very little, I admit to having been in awe while taking part in this dark parade.
I entered the daylight and took a long breath.
My first foot of the year couldn't have been in a stranger household!

I picked up a scooter and headed into the old quarter. I dinky daued about there all afternoon getting deliberately lost and finding another trip through the maze of ancient streets. Lunch alone and streams of texts beside a bottle of wine and a quiet table.
It was a very different New Years Day. I imagined the Tyneside party at full throttle, mind numbing hangovers and that evil second wind.
I was glad where I was.

I sauntered through the side streets and picked up a pair of dodgy Raybans for Tara as she wanted a pair of "aviators". I took them into a Rayban store and asked them to compare them with the genuine article. It was quite scary and even the assistant declared her surprise at just how close a copy they actually were. I bought a pair of classic glasses, aviators with the behind the ear loop. The dollar meant that they were exceptionally cheaper than in the UK but Tara was still getting her copies. Her history of mobile phone loss precludes her having a set of hundred dollar Raybans! :-)

I parked up back in the Amazon and threw back some beers, camera framing the open door and capturing blurred images of passers by on bikes, cyclos, scooters, rickshaws and filing by on foot carrying the world and its wares. It was bliss.
I opted for a relatively early night as I had a long journey by car to Halong Bay to catch my junk for a midnight cruise.
Farewell Hanoi, the Glasgow of South East Asia!

The drive was ass numbing. Once we had negotiated a way out of the city we hit the road through brilliant countryside, patchwork paddy fields and massive residential developments to provide housing for the cities of factories springing up amid the green. The corporations were invading in force to capture cheap labour markets. I felt a sadness.

The traffic was entertaining. Bikes and scooters dangerously laden with weird and wonderful baggage. I saw a few bikes carrying 4 live pigs, trussed and heading for market. 8 or so huge ceramic pots on panniers, sheets of glass and corrugated iron acting as sails and held awkwardly by back seat passengers. Saddest of all - and I couldn't even bring myself to take a photograph - were around a dozen puppies in a cage on the back of one bike, little paws hanging through the mesh and noses poked in front of wide wet eyes out of the few remaining gaps in the packed wire box. It broke my heart and I tried not to think about their future. I'd seen enough in the markets to understand the reality.

Limestone outcrops began to slowly erupt around us and I knew we were drawing close to the coast. A quick coffee stop at a quarry and mason's yard where the hammers were turning slabs of marble into exquisite works of art. The swirling white dust and the white overalls and masks of the masons gave it a surreal air.
In the shop I was offered a couple of pieces for the garden. Not only did I think that the 6 foot high marble eagle fighting the huge cobra rather ostentatious but the shipping charge would have been horrendous despite assurances from the ever-smiling ever-eager staff.
I bought a couple of silk shirts and left the lions, phoenixes, elephants and turtles to blaze brilliantly in the sun.
I was going to sea!

love Onkel Fish

(final part this week)


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