Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mile 4261 -- Hanoi, Vietnam -- Day 26

I really wanted to title this post Great Communist Mummies of the East, Part 1. I really did. One of the fringe benefits of this trip is getting to view the cryogenically embalmed corpses of famous Communist dictators--Lenin, Mao, and in a more immediate sense, Ho Chi Minh. Each of these corpses inhabits a fine mausoleum in the capital city of its respective nation and is on public display within a glass coffin during certain visiting hours, though one might suppose that receiving so many guests takes its toll on even the most deceased host. As such, Uncle Ho left for his annual spa trip in Russia somewhat early this year: while I'm certain that his crack team of ex-Soviet morticians can keep Uncle Ho looking firm and youthful for many more years to come, I do feel a small sense of loss as I  am unable to complete the entire circuit of Communist mummies my first time around.

Oh, well. As MacArthur said, "I shall return!" With luck, in a month or so I hope to give you a better report of these 20th century mummies when I reach Beijing.

One of the benefits of visiting Hanoi at this time of year is that it roughly coincides with National Day, which was officially held on September 2. The general festivities continue on for quite some time, however, and the city is still decked out in red flags, paper lanterns and that pervasive Communist sigil, the hammer and sickle. There are also many veterans in town: their olive uniforms frayed around the edges and cigarettes dangling between ruined teeth, these are graying veteran units from the American-Vietnam War who have returned to Hanoi with their families to pay their respects to the war dead. Michelle and I encountered a platoon of them outside the closed mausoleum accompanied by their wives in bright silk costumes with waxed paper umbrellas to ward off the mist and drizzle. Their medals glittered as camera bulbs flashed in front of the tomb; some saluted while others simply stood aside and continued to smoke, regarding the gray stone tomb and its youthful honor guard with sharp bayonets and crisp white suits and safari hats with suspicion. Of course, one wonders why they felt the need to visit the tomb itself when the whole of Vietnam is filled with monuments and fields of tiny white headstones--there is nothing akin to the size and scope of Arlington Cemetery, but the graves of fallen soldiers are pervasive throughout the entire country in batches of up to a thousand or more.

Still, I am glad to have visited Hanoi. The city is warren-like, with web-like streets constantly turning circles and changing names. This makes conventional navigation difficult though it does enhance exploration: one never knows what they will find around the next corner (except for more motorbikes, a noodle stand, and perhaps a mattress store; the city is saturated with these). Of course, it is not easy to come and go from the city by train, as I have and yet plan to do. The train is one of the few industries left solely in the grasp of the Communist government, and as such does not offer kickbacks and commissions for third-party ticket sales like the air and bus lines are wont to do: many agents and merchants will simply lie to your face about the availability of berths, or name some absurd price in the hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single ticket. This lack of graft makes train travel all the more enjoyable for me, however, so I am happy to chase down tickets like a bloodhound.

Plus, traveling along the Vietnamese coastline is a truly beautiful experience. Much like California's Highway 1, the train snakes along the coast through jungle mountain peaks that plummet down into the emerald waves of the Pacific and wind their way through rice paddies and irregular karst limestone foothills eroded by rain and natural acids. The passenger can travel in style through these environs, nibbling at a generous portion of boiled pig's feet and rice in the dining car whilst sipping a local brew. (The meat in question was fatty and delicious, if a bit bony--not nearly as good as the brace of grilled rats I dined on last week, wrapped in cabbage leaves with their heads ceremonially served in a dish of plum sauce.)

Michelle and I will depart for Nanning in Guanxi province tonight in a similar fashion. I look forward to moving further north for both meteorological and cultural reasons: visiting China is really my chief purpose in visiting Asia. I hope to determine, among other things, if it the region is sufficiently fascinating for me to study it in graduate school. This is the last time you will hear from me in Southeast Asia, at least on this trip. Don't wait up for me: tonight we'll be turning our clocks an hour forward and breaking gauge as we enter into China by express train.

View Phnom Penh to Hanoi in a larger map

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