Monday, October 30, 2006

Hanoi City Tour: Meet Uncle Ho

Woke up at 5 am to the constant sound of horns blaring outside. We thought we were fortunate enough to get a room with a balcony which opens out into the street below. Oh well, at least we got a wake-up call, albeit two hours early.

It's amazing that people were honking non-stop as they made their way through the early morning Hanoi traffic. What's more amazing was that the traffic was 90% motobikes! According to our taxi driver, Hanoi is a city of 3 million people and 2 million motorbikes! And all of them seem to be on the road at the same time never stopping nor slowing down.

Since the city tour wouldn't begin for another three hours, we decided to go out and get some breakfast. Which wasn't very difficult as there were roadside stalls everywhere selling fruits, sweet pastry and desserts, steamed tapioca, pho and even crunchy deep-fried crickets. The hygiene level was quite suspect, as the food was just left uncovered and strewn all over the busy sidewalk, so we decided that the omelette back at the hotel restaurant would be a better idea.

This is Hanoi's biggest roundabout. And also the busiest. Motorbikes zoom past as if there's no one else on the road. Poor old lady crossing the street? HONK! Car going too slow? HONK! Poor tourist trying not to fall into the ditch? HONK! Out of my way! Coming through!

The first stop on our city tour was the Ho Chin Minh Mausoleum. It's a huge concrete building that is surrounded by guards in white uniforms and as the name suggests, houses Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body a la Lenin and Mao Tse Tung, even though he requested to be cremated and his ashes buried in urns on three Vietnamese hilltops, each in one of the three main regions of Vietnam (North, Central and South). According to the guide, every few years, his body has to be sent to Moscow to be reconditioned to maintain its pristine nature.

Just a short walk down the road lies the Presidential palace. It is a grand mansion of european architecture, and quite rightly was built with the then French governor in mind. When the Vietnamese army finally gained power, they offered "Uncle Ho", as he is affectionately known, the stately home, but being the humble man that he was, he declined to live in such a grand manor while his countrymen were still suffering in poverty.

So they built him another house, this one was 'less opulent' but still befitting his stature as the leader of the country. It is now a museum showcasing his life and his achievements. We were shown his study, his small and simple bedroom as well as the dining hall. It also has a centre courtyard complete with a badminton court.

They've even restored his car and true to fashion, it was a vintage Peugeot 404. The guide said that the car was in such good condition, it still retained its original coat of paint. Hmmm....

It's interesting that although Uncle Ho was the founder of communism in Vietnam (which isn't exactly the most popular ideology here), he is still very much revered by the people, to the point of preserving just about everything he ever touched, worked in, sat on or had affection for. Take the peacock for example. Apparently, because he had a thing for the multihued fowl, the authorities decided that there shall always be a peacock to roam the grounds; just like the way it was when Uncle Ho was still alive.

Ho Chi Minh spent his final years in this house called the House-on-Stilts. It is a simple yet comfortable two-storey wooden house with an open-air ground level while the upper floor was supported only by wooden beams (stilts). This is where the man preferred to spend his time reading or indulge in recreational activities like chinese chess. He also maintained a well-tended garden and is still maintained today with all kinds of fruit trees interspersed with flower bushes.

Everything is preserved as it was as on the day Uncle Ho died, on September 2nd 1969. One can see a white chair that was a gift from Fidel Castro as well as the entrance to a personal bomb shelter made during the American war (or the Vietnam War, depending on which side you are talking to). The view from the balcony was breathtakingly beautiful, overlooking a serene jade coloured lake and a tidy garden of fruit trees, palms and shady canopy. What a wonderful way to spend one's twilight years.

No comments: