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Saturday, December 16, 2017

I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die: Hà Nội

When we left Hanoi airport, the first thing I saw was a sign for passengers with priority: “Disabled people. Decrepit people.” I stopped reading after that! It was 20 degrees C or about 68 F outside, so naturally the Vietnamese were all wearing winter jackets. 

I’ve already described what walking in Hanoi traffic is like. Being a passenger isn’t much better. As the taxi wove in and out among the motorbikes and other traffic, we noticed strange things we’d never seen before, such as barber’s chairs set up on the sidewalk. The customer sat facing away from the street, and the barber was shaving him with a straight razor. I thought, People really live on the edge here.

And that’s how I felt all the way through. Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” was on my playlist because of its acid humor about the war; but it became my theme song for Hanoi because of the traffic. The chorus (“Whoopee! We’re all gonna die”) sprang to my mind, and not infrequently to my lips, while crossing the road.

Joe McDonald wasn’t anti-military. Before his obscene tirade against the war at Woodstock, he’d served in the U.S. Navy. The song is written from the point of view of soldiers who don’t know why they’re here, and it seems to have resonated with soldiers in real life. He even heard this appreciation from a veteran of the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

The Hanoi Hilton, or what remains of the Hoa Lo Prison, was our first stop in Hanoi. Most of the museum at Hoa Lo is devoted to the Vietnamese prisoners who were held there by the French, who built the prison. 
As in Dien Bien Phu, the French captions were matter-of-fact, while the English versions contained many additional words and phrases of emotive emphasis. 
More mannequins
There are many displays about the brutal treatment of Vietnamese political prisoners, including a guillotine. There is no reason for me to doubt that Vietnamese prisoners were mistreated and executed here, but of course the story can’t stop at believability. The prisoners “always” kept their spirits up, “to their last breath.” 

Having seen all these rooms and memorials to the bravery of badly treated people, one thing is clear: The people organizing this museum know what bad treatment is. They aren’t confused about whether it is wrong or not. If they were, they’d have no reason to conceal it, or deny that it happened.

But they do. The part of the museum dedicated to U.S. prisoners of war is just a couple rooms at the back, plus some display signs that were being stacked up even as I was looking at them—so I didn’t get the full picture. They show items belonging to POWs including Everett Alvarez, Jr., the first to be shot down over North Vietnam. 
The purported personal effects of Everett Alvarez, who was a POW longer than almost anyone in American history

And, there are pictures of John McCain, though not being tortured, obviously. Senator McCain has been here and acknowledges that the display about him is false. Yet, he came repeatedly to Hanoi, to normalize relations.

I had to wonder what McCain and others see, so I looked it up later. But trying to find out what veterans think when they come here just led me down a rabbit hole of different perspectives. There are lots of pictures in the “Hanoi Hilton” of U.S. POWs appearing to enjoy themselves—which is all they did do according to the propaganda. One veteran wrote of his anger at coming here, and seeing someone in the picture playing chess, and saying he was a traitor, because he cooperated with the North Vietnamese for better treatment. 

But that led me to another veteran who excoriated John McCain as a traitor, and compared him (unfavorably) to Jane Fonda! And to another veteran who stood up for McCain, and every POW, when a certain man who is now president put him down for being captured. I suspect that point of view is the more common one, but the deeper I went, the fewer answers I had about how one could heal, or be reconciled, by coming back to Vietnam.

I know that some of the pilots bombing North Vietnam must have questioned what they were bombing, even while they followed orders. I know that the week I was born really did see the heaviest carpet bombing of the entire war in Vietnam and Cambodia. This picture is said to show a hospital bombed on 22 December 1972.
There was so much bullshit on display in these museums that I question everything; nevertheless, I know that hospitals and other civilian places were bombed. And if I had been those people, I would have wanted those planes shot down too.

I could think those things, yet still be angry at the preposterous way in which the “Hanoi Hilton” is presented, without any acknowledgment of what American prisoners really went through there. In the gift shop, ironically, there were Western newspapers on sale; I picked up a New York Times. And there, I read that Tweeter, the aforementioned president, had claimed that U.S. missile defense systems could shoot North Korean missiles out of the sky “97% of the time.”

The Times called this patently false, citing most arms control experts. The immediate calling out of a patent falsehood by Tweeter, which happens several times a day, is part of the job of a free press. This is what is missing in Hanoi. But it struck me as ironic, reading this claim on the very day I’d been angered by all the propaganda at Hoa Lo Prison. What kind of leader claims “97%” about anything, much less something as dangerous as the North Korea arms situation? Only the kind of leader we would expect North Korea—or Vietnam—to have.

And herein lies a clue, I think: Democracy, to the extent that it works, contains built-in safeguards, and one of these is a free press. The media make mistakes, but they are there to question, to call the government to account and point out lies. If a president (Nixon, say) hates the media, they are probably doing their job right. Democracies contain these vaccines against authoritarianism that authoritarian regimes have lost. (There’s a warning there.)

The one thing Hanoi had going for it was the temperatures. If it had also been hot, I don’t know how we’d have coped with the traffic. The only moments of peace were when we unexpectedly stepped into one of the French-era buildings—Our Lady of Hanoi R. C. Church, or La Badiane for a two-course lunch. A splurge, in a villa with wine, but far less than we’d have paid in France.

Some of the sights in Hanoi’s Old Quarter include Hoan Kiem Lake, which has a temple on an islet in it:
Bridge to Ngoc Son Temple
and St. Joseph Cathedral.

We were more interested in getting haircuts, as the situation had become desperate. Our last haircuts were in Mauritius, where we hadn't needed French (in fact, the women looked bewildered when we tried to speak it). In Hanoi, we found a barbershop and ten minutes later, we were out of there. I can’t speak for T., but the woman cutting my hair said only “Madame” and “Okay,” which was the only word I needed to say to her. I think it cost a dollar and a half. Not the most subtle styling ever! I'm happy though that my hair is looking a lot redder these days. People in England don't realize my hair is red, but that's their climate, not my hair.

That was something else that surprised me about Vietnam: the lack of languages. In Laos, we had a Hmong guide who spoke his native language along with Lao, English, and at least one other tribal language. In Vietnam, even in heavily traveled areas, many people know only “Hello.” I tried to speak with one of the hotel guys but he could only communicate with gestures—he noticed that I have one ear pierced once and the other twice, just like his. “Same same” was all the English that he knew! This was not the last time I observed that what Vietnamese people lack, they make up for in friendliness and helpfulness. 

We had lots more to see in Hanoi. We started with the Confucian Temple of Literature. A lot of it is reconstruction, but it was originally built in 1070. It was nice to see a reminder that Vietnam has many centuries of history, not just the last one.
Grounds of Vietnam's oldest national university
We then made our way to Lenin Park. Not because we were interested in that particular cult of personality, but because opposite it, on a street called Điện Biên Phủ (there are lots in Vietnam), is the Military History Museum. It stands out because of all the planes, helicopters, tanks, etc., many of them American or French and displayed as trophies of war.

There are halls devoted to the whole history of war in Vietnam, back to ancient times. And possibly future: the country is currently clashing with China over who “owns” certain islands in the South China Sea, or as it’s called in Vietnam, the East Sea.

Ngo Dinh Diem, first ruler of South Vietnam, with President Eisenhower
But the displays we were interested in were about the war. There were implications of torture by the “puppet regime” (“puppet” is always used in these museums to refer to the South Vietnam regime, or before that, the French colonial regime). There was also a whole hall of solidarity from the rest of the world. Most of the examples were from communist countries, but antiwar demonstrations in Canada and Australia (a belligerent) were also shown. I am sure there were people at the time, on the U.S. side, who would have agreed that protesting the war was equivalent to siding with North Vietnam. I think that’s nonsense.

By the time we reached our last stop of the day, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, all I could think about was how bizarre it is for communism to treat its heroes this way, whether Ho or Lenin. Whatever else Ho did or thought, he lived in a stilt house and wanted a simple cremation. Not that I feel sorry for Ho Chi Minh, but this grotesque honour seems more of an ongoing indignity to a human body.
We deliberately went after the mausoleum had closed for the day.

Perhaps Canada and Australia were on our minds as we set out for The Moose & Roo, a pub promising comfort foods from those two countries. It was, after all, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., where my family was celebrating. We missed them and thought we might get something reliably Western and delicious for a treat. Imagine our consternation when we saw that The Moose & Roo was observing American Thanksgiving (as they had Canadian the previous month) and reservations were recommended. Imagine, further, our delight when the hostess scared up two Thanksgiving dinners to spare! 

I’ve come down pretty hard on Hanoi, so I’d like to end on a high note. An overnight trip took us to Halong Bay. Like other places in Vietnam, it’s hyped to the skies, but unlike them we really did find it beautiful. We spent the night and much of the 24 hours on board the Dang Tam, a junk with an appropriate name, since our guide’s name was Tam. As in: “That dang Tam, he took us to a boring cave.”

Caves are big in this part of the world. We don't really like caves so we've avoided most of them, but back in Nong Khiaw, there was a cave in which villagers and Pathet Lao fighters (the faction that ended up in power in a communist Laos) hid out during the war. Another cave actually contained the region's bank from 1965-74.

Like inland Vietnam, the bay is in some places marred by litter, but at least not enough to spoil the view of the thousand islands. 
We spent an hour or so kayaking and then relaxed on the top deck, watching the silhouettes of the “karsts” fade next to a bright moon. 

We were with a nice international group of people, too, including a Spanish guy who spoke English with a Scottish accent! Turns out his mother is from Scotland. I’m always glad to meet people like this, with more than one passport and less than a simple answer to “Where are you from?”

We climbed to the lookout point on Ti Top Island, named for a Soviet cosmonaut. When Ghermann Titov visited the island with Ho Chi Minh in 1962, Ho decided it should be named after him, since the Soviet Union was his ally. There’s no escaping wartime history, even on the beautiful beaches of Halong Bay.

Saw a video of this song playing in a bar in Laos. Really evocative to hear in Southeast Asia 

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