He who should not be named.
Hanoi stayed on my visit list despite a shortage of time left on my trip. Two nights would work, so I flew on the same Viet Jet Airline—a bit of a cattle car—into the capital of Vietnam. My rash had returned, and so I was a bit uncomfortable, which is probably why I freaked out at the woman sitting next to me who had decided it was OK to stretch her arms, legs and head into my preciously tiny sitting space. It reminded me of my experience in the New York Film Festival years ago when I engaged in a silent war of leg pressure with the overweight guy encroaching into my seat space during the movie. It was only at the end of the film that I discovered I had been battling Michael Moore, the filmmaker whose very first movie was premiering. But that’s another story. I wasn’t subtle with the lady in the plane. I just pushed her back into her territory and made ridiculous-looking gestures to indicate that this was MY space, and THAT was hers. She eventually got it. But I really didn’t want to be unpleasant to her, or anyone. Damned rash.
The night taxi ride into the city was pretty long, and we went over a very impressive new bridge that spanned the Red River. I noticed an older, less impressive bridge nearby. It turned out to be the famous Long Biên Bridge, which had been bombed numerous times by the American Air Force, most notably during the Christmas bombing of 1972. The road from the airport was decorated with festive lighting, and eventually the taxi exited into the heart of the city where my hotel was. I had an immediate sensation of being in Paris, and after taking a short walk in the neighborhood, it certainly reminded me of some neighborhoods I recalled from the capital of France.
The next day I was delighted to discover that I was in the old quarter of the city, which had a great deal of life—stores, cafes, nightclubs---and lots of French architecture. That made sense, because from 1873 until 1954 Hanoi (from Ha meaning inside, Noi meaning rivers) was the capital of French Indochina. It’s not exactly Paris, but it definitely has a different feeling from Ho Chi Minh City, which is a lot messier-looking and much more frenetic.
I wandered around the old quarter for a while, and discovered St Joseph’s Church just a few blocks away. It too is a Catholic remnant from the French era, and it was Sunday, so I was able to attend Mass there. I was shocked to find the church packed like it was Christmas, with people standing outside and sitting everywhere inside. It seemed to be a children’s Mass, and the priest appeared to have copied some of my own techniques (I never noticed any spies at my Masses, however). He was joking with the kids, and people were laughing…although I had no idea what he was saying. How strange to be in a communist country and find such a popular Mass going on. Someone speaking English later told me that they have 6 Masses on Sunday and they are all that crowded.
Afterwards I resumed my exploring and a man in a military uniform approached me. I was immediately a little concerned, still gun-shy from my Chinese experience. But he was this gentle young man who spoke some English, and he explained to me that he was working in the hospital across the street and was studying to be a doctor and he loved practicing his English, and by the way was I married and did I have any children? Later I discovered that this is not an unusual question for curious Hanoi-ers. They apparently like to know your relationship status and they are interested in children. I actually tried to explain the whole celibacy thing and the priesthood, but that was an unsuccessful effort, and later on I thought that was a dumb move. I could tell that he was grateful that I spend some time with him, and I was glad he was brave enough to talk to me!
The city streets are organized (and named) according to what is sold on them, so I wandered through some weirdly specific streets of tiny shop after tiny shop where you could buy locks; or tiny shop after tiny shop that only sold metal things; or tiny shop after tiny shop that repaired washing machines. It reminded me of the old garment or fur or diamond districts in NYC.
Eventually I came across more reminders of the war, including the military museum of Vietnam, with more captured US Army and Air Force equipment, a detailed history of American bombing of Hanoi, including the flight clothing of John McCain who was shot down over the north and imprisoned in Hanoi in this remaining section of the prison.. Propaganda in the museum includes pictures of American POWs playing chess, shooting pool, gardening, raising chickens, and receiving large fish and eggs for food, most of which has been contradicted by the testimony of American prisoners who were often tortured there.
Nearby was a park that featured a giant statue of VI Lenin, the founder of the communist/socialist system which Ho Chi Minh and his followers adopted in their revolution against the French. I was amused to watch a bunch of little kids playing on the statue’s pedestal, below which a ‘war’ of sorts was occurring between kids who were driving their mini-electric cars like bumper cars all over the plaza. The indignity of that scene to the founder of communism would never be tolerated in China.
I wound up at the government center of the city, passing a lovely French-era building that was the Office of Foreign Affairs for Vietnam, the Presidential Palace which was celebrating the arrival of Israel’s leader, and of course the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, which dominated its own special plaza.
I had already seen what one communist saint under glass looked like, and that was enough for me. Plus, my rash was once again bothering me, so I hoofed it back to my hotel and an early evening watching Harry Potter (Vietnamese subtitles) on cable TV. I’m sure that there was a lot more to see in Hanoi, but I had an early flight to Cambodia, and I fell asleep imagining that I myself was battling He Who Should Not Be Named. Or did I confuse Him with my rash?