Everything seems to start early here. We were getting up at 6:30 to be ready to leave by 8:30 (including eating breakfast, packing ore day bags etc). Our first destination of the day: The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum.
If you’ve ever been in a long line before, I’m sure you understand the pain and boredom. If you think a line going out the door and around the corner is long, that’s got nothing on the line for the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. People come from everywhere in Vietnam to see the body of Ho Chi Minh, as they believe him to be a great man. To many he was not just ruler, but a teacher and a hero.
The line snaked for several hundred metres, could have been a kilometer our more. there is a large area around the mausoleum that has no vehicle access, allowing room for more puerile to line up, and there be plenty of room for others to be out of the line, such as those taking photographs.
The mausoleum itself was very solemn. However not much time could be spend inside, as the white guards kept everyone moving along. The body itself, while it may seem macabre to view a long dead corpse, was rather well kept - apparently Ho Chi Minh still travels yearly to Russia for maintenance.
It was only after we’d been through the mausoleum that we could rest and take pictures - no cameras our electronic equipment allowed inside the mausoleum itself. We took our photo opportunities and moved on towards the presidential palace.
The presidential palace is a very large house, built by the French during their occupation of Vietnam for their delegations to stay at. After the conflict with the French was over, the French offered the palace to Ho Chi Minh, but he refused. For him, his living requirements were simple. So instead he lived in a small house to the side of the palace, where the electrician or grounds keeper would have lived.
After that, for the trail end of his life, he had a house built for him on the same grounds. Instead of the French architecture, he opted this time for a more traditional Viet architecture from the mountains where he was born. This is the House-On-Stilts.
After lunch (which was roast duck and orange sauce), we opted for a bike tour of some parts of Hanoi. The first thing we had to do after getting on the bikes was cross the road. Now, this may not sound so tough, but if you imagine walking across a pedestrian crossing and having nobody actually stop, while you’re waking across, that is quite literally what this is like.
We ride through the old quarter, and over to a bonsai garden. Cast aside the thoughts of small Japanese bonsai trees, these things were massive. They were kept on concrete slabs that you’d need a forklift to move. Many trees might have been owned by the garden owner, but some were owned by other, reasonably rich people, who sends their bonsai trees too the garden to be cared for while they work, as bonsai trees need a lot of care and attention.
Onwards from there, we visited a local Viet household - a friend of the bike tour guide. Here we were offered fresh cut fruit and tea, which we all gladly partook. It was here that we learned mite of Viet culture and done of the background of our bike tour guide.
Next we were off to banana island, which is exactly what it sounds like. Vietnam seems to have a great environment for growing produce like bananas, and this island on the red river was devoted to it. While here though, we stopped at a group of floating houses, and visited a person of lesser means - a widow in this case.
Now, we don’t just visit these people willy nilly or at random, these people we visit are nominated and carefully selected. These introductions are designed to also introduce us to Viet culture. In the case of this widow, we learn something of the sadder side of this culture. In Vietnam, a woman is selected by a man for her beauty and her health. If she is healthy, then her future children should be healthy as well. As they get older, children (especially boys) are expected to help the family make money, as the older people are less able to work. If somebody gets old or disabled and has no children, they cannot earn money. Now this woman whose husband died was no longer able to afford a good living, so now she lives on the river, in much worse living conditions.
What was really painful during this experience though, was that she offered us all water. For those who don’t know, Vietnam water is not generally considered safe, due to pollution and large amounts of bacteria. So most of us were sitting with a full cup of water, not wanting to drink and feeling really guilty for not consuming her offering.
From there we rushed back to our hotel, as we were due to go see a water puppet show. I can only describe this as a bizarre yet still cool display, with fisherman, dragons, phoenix and tigers. I don’t describe it here as it really just had to be seen (and further description would be rather droll).
After the show we walked along a river, hard a story about a turtle god, all on our way to dinner. Given that the next day we had to be ready to go by 7:15, we high-tailed it back to the hotel… then proceed to stay out for “one more drink”.