Uncle's House

Staying in Line

We dragged ourselves out of bed this morning, shaking off the effects of too much cheap Bia Hanoi. Luckily it seems that delicious chicken noodle soup is a breakfast mainstay here, so we were steaming along in no time. The goal was to make it to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and back again by check-out time at noon. There is only a small window of time on certain mornings when the tomb is open to the throng of visitors making pilgrimage, and we knew that the earlier we arrived the better.

We walked past the market we had visited the day before, trying to find a route that would take us out of the bounds of the Old Quarter. Our intrepid navigator led us on a path that seemed the most direct, as the main streets on the map required us to make a lengthy detour. As we reached one corner, a soldier, wearing the iconic olive dress uniform of his position, stepped out from his booth and barred our way. "No," he said, repeatedly, without any hint of emotion. He gestured to shoo us off of the sidewalk, where we had been walking alongside a high wall topped with razor wire.

I showed him the crumpled map. "Ho Chi Minh," we said, "Ho Chi Minh?" We pointed down the lane he was blocking off, there seemed to be normal traffic coming and going. At this he sort of shrugged and swept his arm down the road, then stepped back into his booth and ignored us.

We carried on down the lane, trying to guess where it might be on the map. We followed a bend, past some men in olive work clothes tinkering with a telephone signal box. They stared as we passed. Everyone was staring, not in a particularly hostile way, but in the way that one would watch a squirrel with jar of nuts, curious as to what it will do next.

We came to an unmarked intersection. Soldiers stood in pairs on each corner; their bayonets looked a bit weathered. Ahead we could see the passing cars of a busy street, one that we reckoned was on our map, so we resolved to head towards it. As we crossed, I looked back an noticed a large beige sign that stood on the corner where we had just been. Red arrows pointed back up the street we had just come from and down to the right where we had considered going. Under the Vietnamese text, in bold English: "Restricted Area - No Trespassing." We decided it would be best not to linger.

Our shortcut had taken longer than planned, so we power walked past the embassies and grand government building in this official neighbourhood. The site of the mausoleum was teeming with schoolchildren and tourists, mainly Vietnamese. Coaches lined up down the block to dump more passengers, and the sidewalk was spotted with patches of vomit. We got into the queue and began the lengthy and complicated process of gaining access to Uncle Ho.

After several checkpoints, we were ushered into two solemn lines, slowly snaking our way through the mausoleum complex. The tomb itself was still quite a ways off, hidden behind exquisitely manicured trees. After some plodding, and a near riot when some teenagers attempted to jump ahead by forming a forbidden third line, we were finally making what seemed to be the final approach. The guards were dressed in immaculate white dress uniforms, their bayonets gleaming in spite of the dreary sky. We stepped onto the red carpet leading to the entrance and everyone grew a bit rigid.

It was cold inside. It reminded me of the walk-in from the restaurant I worked in, absent the smell of fresh produce. Every surface was clad in marble, making even the whispered shuffling of feet on the carpet hang in the air like a profanity. Guards stood at every corner as we climbed to the inner sanctum of the tomb. Here was the dear departed leader, in a dimly lit room, a sunken moat separating his raised sarcophagus from the visitors. The ceiling of the room was just high enough to seem as if it was not there: one less dimension to distract from the main attraction. The man himself was not the giant who graces the currency. Inside the glass case lies the body of a tiny old Asian man, embalmed to the point of resembling a bad cast-off from Madame Tussauds. The four sentinels that flank him were changing the guard as we passed, with much clicking of heels and rapping of rifle butts. The relieved soldiers marched off briskly and disappeared into concealed doors below.

The whole place runs like clockwork; one has the distinct impression upon returning to the light of day of having passed through some kind of strange machine, its purpose to generate mass piety. In the shadow of Ho's pavilion, workers in peasant clothes weed the sweeping lawns by hand, squatting in the cool rain.

After touring the rather bizarre Ho Chi Minh museum, a collection of "symbolic' exhibits interpreting the story of the leader and his contribution to Vietnam's destiny, we hurried back to our hotel to check out. I had haggled us a transfer to a better hotel the day before as the place we were staying in was booked solid. They even paid for a cab to essentially take us around the corner. Feeling pretty chuffed with our new digs, we set out to find something for lunch. As delicious as the pho is, three meals of it a day can get to be a bit much, and we resolved to eat something more solid. Indian food in Hanoi? What's the worst that could happen?

The gamble paid off, while the food was certainly not exceptional, it was hot and plentiful and still only about five dollars. We stumbled down the street to visit an old restored merchant's house typical of the time before the bombs. The place was really a gift shop of various "local" crafts, but the architecture was interesting: the open courtyard kitchen and rain cistern, the ornate wooden beam work, the ancestor shrine that towered over the dining table. It was remarkably quiet inside considering the noise of the street, and we spent a fair bit of time just soaking it all in and whistling at a couple of caged birds.

Around the corner from the new hotel was a temple we had tried to visit the day before. This time we made it just before closing, and sat for a cup of tea with a wizened old man at a card table in the receiving area. I have made an effort to at least try to pick up a few phrases of Vietnamese while I am here, but my attempts to get the pronunciation even close to being right have been greatly complicated by the fact that nobody seems to acknowledge me when I speak it. It is as if I am just making incomprehensible noises, and maybe I am. In the temple I gave the old man my very best "thank you," and he flashed me a toothless smile. Progress at last. The next step is to start asking for "chicken soup" instead of "chicken street."

I have not visited many temples, so I have little to compare it with, but for one of the oldest temples in the city it really wasn't as I expected it to be. When I lived in Chinatown, in Ottawa, I remember the pho restaurants and grocery stores having small shrines laden with offerings of fruit, candy, and money. This place was the same on a massive scale. Altars were piled high with cases of beer, crates of chocolate cookies, pyramids of oranges, and cash, everywhere. There was no clear focal point to the space, no centre, no way to know when you were done.

We had an early night, after a quick and disappointing visit to the night market around the corner. In the afternoon, we had booked a two day trip to Halong Bay, and needed to be ready to hit the road at eight in the morning. Stocked up on cheap booze to smuggle onto the boat, we hit the sack to rest our grateful legs.