Sunday, November 21, 2010

Greetings from the Hanoi Hilton

No, it's not the one John McCain stayed in: it's the one next to the Hanoi Opera that helps pay for the comfortable lifestyles of Paris and the rest of the Hilton clan.  But the two "Hiltons" are within walking distance of each other. This is my second trip to Hanoi. Gertrud and I were here about 5 years ago where we spent our most memorable Valentine's Day ever.  The Vietnamese are gradually adopting many Western traditions, and restaurants all over Hanoi were hosting special Valentine's Day events.  Hotel staff recommended a small, intimate restaurant which had less than 10 tables with a waiter for each.  On arrival, we were greeted with roses and champagne and the service got better from there. We had a meal of 8 courses, each more sumptuous than the previous.  We wanted to stop several times but couldn't because we love Vietnamese food and everything was so good.  And every Valentine's Day since we reminisce how special that day was.

The highlight of my current stay was a weekend cruise on Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin where the historic incident with the same name ultimately triggered the Vietnam War (  Ha Long Bay is the oft-photographed UNESCO World Heritage site which has provided a backdrop to many movies about Southeast Asia, including "Indochine." I really enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of Ha Long on this short cruise which I shared with about 80 people, mostly French.  And through the wonders of Youtube, you can now see Ha Long's beauty for yourself (!  As a side note to this excursion --  my travel agent arranged for me to be driven to the Port of Ha Long by private car. I became a little concerned when I met the driver and discovered that he spoke almost no English.  However, I became more relaxed a few minutes into the trip when he suddenly asked "ob ich Deutsch spr├Ąche."  Turned out that he is quite fluent in German, having spent 5 years in Dresden as a student in the 1980s under the East German regime. We had a few interesting conversations and I was able to describe for him the lovely Dresden of today now that it has been restored to its pre-World War II splendor.

Ha Long Bay, Gulf of Tonkin
On Ha Long Bay

Returning to the subject of Hanoi: the city has some of the most colorful street scenes in all of Asia and it is a great place to watch people. It is of course very crowded with hawkers selling an incredible variety of wares and foods in front of their shops, groups of women haunched along the streets eating from their rice bowls with chopsticks, incense smoke rising from small Buddhist shrines, electrical wires running every which way, and of course the constant buzz of motorbikes which intimidate most Westerners and who continuously blink in disbelief as to what they see on bikes.  Today I saw a family of 4 on a motorbike including a baby being held by the mother.  Here are some other bike scenes:,isz:m&prmd=iv&source=lnt&sa=X&ei=7uzoTPCvCoWwceWS6I4K&ved=0CAgQpwU. One enterprising expat has published a picture book and used a play-on-words to entitle it "Bikes of Burden."

Hanoi is a vibrant center of culture, both Vietnamese and foreign.  I have been very impressed with the young musicians that perform every evening in the hotel lobby.  A classical string quartet plays from 6 to 8 followed by either a Jazz quartet or a trio playing excellent Flamenco guitar. Tonight,  the city staged an impressive musical, open to the public, on the portico of the Hanoi Opera, next to the Hilton, which was complete with dancers in brilliant costumes and high-tech sound and lighting systems

Last month Vietnam celebrated 1000 years of nationhood and it was apparently quite the celebration in Hanoi. There are still many decorations, lights and political posters hanging in the streets. And of course, the national hero, Ho Chi Minh, was the center of much of the celebrating.  His picture hangs everywhere in Hanoi and he is revered for having driven the French out of Indochine and for reuniting the country by driving the American out of South Vietnam. It is not difficult to understand their pride when one recalls the images of the last Americans leaving by helicopter from the top of the Saigon embassy,  Many American military vehicles, aircraft and weapons, captured during the war, were on display during the celebration.  However with the war now in the distant past the Vietnamese genuinely like Americans, with the young emulating American youth in most everything, both positive and negative. It's as if the war never happened except during times of national celebration.

20Feb 2011: A tourist boat sank this week on Ha Long Bay.  When I read this it made me shiver!


Judy Kuhel said...

Great job, Paul. I'm a friend of Ingrid's and she's been forwarding your travel emails to me, which I've enjoyed very much. It'll be great to have this source to read at my leisure.

Judy Kuhel
Oro Valley, AZ

Joyce said...

Wow! Nice blog. You have outdone me with the design and features you've added. I will definitely be checking for updates.

Ingrid said...

Paul, this is one of the best websites ever. I shall follow you on your trips regularly. They take me to places which most of us will never reach, not having your kind of access and knowledge. Their intricacies are becoming a little clearer through you writings ... Ingrid Sulich, Patagonia, Arizona

surfwriter said...

Paul. Nice job on your blog and the photos add so much interest. I'll be looking forward to my armchair travels with you as you report from South Africa and places beyond. It's a wonderful way to see and know about places I'll never visit. Thanks. Lynda