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David Sovka: Bottoms up in the hustle bustle of Hanoi

In part one of a series, David Sovka is in Hanoi, Vietnam, about to embark on the first of two two-week cycle trips.

Part One — Hanoi: In which the author is duped into a month in the tropics, discovers the benefits of beer in a five-thousand-year-old city, and considers propaganda in prison

In the warm comfort of the setting September sun, my wife and I hold hands and talk about our next cycle adventure. Southeast Asia has two bike trips that look interesting: the first is a two-week trek from Hanoi in northern Vietnam to Saigon, 1,700 km to the south; and the second is another two-week trip from Saigon south to the Mekong Delta, and then northwest through Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand. My wife smiles and says — I remember this quite clearly — “Why don’t we do both, back to back?”

The warm glow typically inspired by a setting September sun does not, as it turns out, allow for much rational discourse. No, the autumnal sunset is more the kind of thing that inspires poetry, like this from Wordsworth, penned in late August 1802:

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free, The holy time is quiet as a Nun Breathless with adoration; the broad sun Is sinking down in its tranquility; The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea

Notice there is no mention of middle-age bodies, heatstroke, deep vein thrombosis, poisonous snakes, and a super-abundance of dangerous tropical diseases. I don’t mean to be finicky, but it strikes me that the gentleness of heaven brooding should probably not enter into any serious developing-nation travel planning. I mean, what about inadequate sewerage, and rabies, and Japanese encephalitis, and universal government corruption, and laissez-faire attitudes toward basic traffic laws?

Nevertheless, I am sucker for autumnal sunsets. So my brain answered the why-don’t-we-do-BOTH trips question with empty-headed agreement: “I’m an Ideas Man, and that definitely sounded like an idea to me!” The main idea here, just in case you missed it, is to entirely avoid the dark, cold month of January, the Monday morning of the year. That can’t be a bad thing, right?

And so here we are in Hanoi, Vietnam, about to embark on the first of two two-week cycle trips. It only took 26 hours and three flights to get here. I feel fine. Tip top. Tell me again what a bed looks like, and what it is for?


Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. Generally speaking, it is a safe city in that there are no active volcanoes within the central business district. There are, however, quite a few pickpockets who specialize in a rapid snatch-and-grab manoeuvre involving a couple of guys on a scooter and all of your money. Also, your passport and hotel room key. My advice is to store all of your valuables out of view, deep in your underpants. The heat and humidity will naturally deter all but the most desperately insane pickpockets.

Hanoi is crowded and polluted and noisy and electric with a furious hustle and bustle. The city has more than eight million people, each of whom owns and operates several scooters, often at the same time. Everywhere you look somebody is selling something, usually something gross.

As a settlement, Hanoi is at least 5,000 years old, although it smells much older. It has been the capital of various empires over the years, most recently after the end of the Vietnam War in 1976. It still displays a fascinating mix of Chinese and French influence in both architecture and municipal corruption.

At its heart is the chaotic Old Quarter, made up of 36 narrow streets named for the 36 trade guilds who once sold their wares (“hàng”) near the Red River. Hàng Bac sells silver, Hàng Dao sells silk, Hàng Be sells bamboo, and so on. I only mention this economic geography so that you don’t have to look around at street signs. WARNING: never look around! Keep your eyes on the sidewalk in front of you, where you need all your wits to fight past parked scooters, caged chickens, moving scooters, wandering chickens, barrels of living sea creatures, open fires, open sewers and small incense-burning shrines. Also, restaurants.

A very popular spot for both cooking food and cleaning the dishes is the gutter in front of a collection of tiny plastic chairs, the sure sign of a popular local restaurant. I’m not making this up. In a country where businesses are taxed based on the width of their building frontage, it makes sense to keep things very narrow and focused: use the street and gutter where you can, and build upwards when you have to.

Bia hoi

One of the more delightful ways to cope with Hanoi’s heat and humidity, as well as to de-stress from the street level chaos, is bia hoi. Literally “fresh beer,” bia hoi is a draught pilsner that is especially popular in northern Vietnam. Although introduced by the Czechs, Hanoi is where bia hoi brewing was perfected, and it’s found in every small bar and on every street corner. Pretty much everybody up and down the street spends the afternoon on one of those tiny plastic chairs, working at mending a tire, or selling fish, or folding banana leaves, with a small glass of bia hoi at his or her elbow. The beer is brewed fresh daily, and only allowed to mature for a few hours before ending up in somebody’s cold glass, for about 50 cents. Most bia hoi contains around 3% alcohol, which is just enough to keep you interested. None of it is regulated or monitored, which is also just enough to keep you interested. Pro-tip: tram phan tram! is the Vietnamese equivalent of “bottoms up!”

Ho Chi Minh

It is difficult to overestimate the reverence modern Vietnamese still show toward Ho Chi Minh. Part of this is a Buddhist thing, and part is because he is a genuine hard-luck hero. The more you learn about the man, the more you understand and share that respect. A good place to learn — as long as you remember to pack a healthy dose of western scepticism — is at Hanoi’s massive Ho Chi Minh complex.

The complex includes a mausoleum, museum, gardens and government buildings where Ho Chi Minh ruled the Worker’s Party of Vietnam from 1951 until his death in 1969. The complex is a little disquieting for a Westerner, which is probably the point. There are many lines in which to quietly queue, and many signs and rules to quietly observe. Also, there are a lot of frowning men with guns.

The whole place looks extremely Soviet. A colossal granite mausoleum dominates the centre of Ba Dinh Square. Its drab grey walls were inspired, if that’s the word I want, by Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow. And just like in Lenin’s tomb, the nation’s former leader is on full display in a silent, air-conditioned room surrounded by thick glass and a half-dozen armed military honour guards. It’s as creepy as hell, and the opposite of how Ho wanted to Go. But his surviving party cronies were not going to pass up on leveraging this old cult of personality trick to help keep the country together, despite Ho Chi Minh’s written orders to be cremated.

You file past Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse in reverential silence, along with thousands of surprisingly well-behaved school children, tourists and locals making their regular pilgrimage. It smells faintly of preservatives and disinfectant agents, but that could be due to tourists whose tummies have not yet adapted to pho for breakfast, lunch and supper.

Next to the mausoleum is the Ho Chi Minh museum, looming over a massive, reinforced concrete causeway, where only pedestrian traffic is allowed, apart from national holidays when the tanks and troops are on parade. The museum also leans heavily toward a brutal Soviet aesthetic, much like the Saanich Municipal Hall building.

The museum documents Ho Chi Minh’s life through a series of eight galleries. There are no holograms, nor giant stuffed mastodons, nor much of a modern museum vibe, but somehow the big, clunky displays feel all the more honest and real. Helpfully, most of the information is translated into English, which aids in feeling terrible about the West’s self-serving interference in Indochina.

John McCain was here

A must-see in Hanoi is the Hoa Lo Prison Museum near the city’s Old Quarter. Its broken glass-topped walls surround the last few remaining buildings from the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, a vast penal colony built by the French in 1896, when they were running Indochina and often felt the need to torture and murder uppity locals.

Originally designed to house up to 450 prisoners, by the early 1930s Hoa Lo had more than 2,000 men, women and children clinging to life inside its dark, damp walls. The museum does a terrific — if disturbing — job of showing the indignities and terrors these people had to endure during French rule. The actual, working, totally authentic guillotine on display also adds a certain je ne sais quoi that makes you want to root for anybody in the world over le Palais Bourbon.

You may know Hoa Lo by its more recent name, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” ironically named by U.S. POWs captured during the “American War” — which is a far more accurate name for the conflict you and I grew up calling the Vietnam War.

The late Senator John McCain was imprisoned here for almost six years, two of which he spent in solitary confinement. Like other POWs, he was routinely beaten and tortured. McCain’s flight suit is on display from when his plane was shot down in 1967, the year I was born. My point? The violent events of this foolish, unpopular, pointless war are recent history. They are real and frightening in ways that stories about the Battle of Trafalgar or the War of Spanish Succession are not.

Before his death in 2018, Senator McCain returned many times to Vietnam, and he visited Hoa Lo in the spirit of peace and forgiveness. “There is no reason for me to hold a grudge or anger,” McCain said. “There’s certainly some individual guards who were very cruel and inflicted a lot of pain on me and others, but there’s certainly no sense in me hating the Vietnamese.”

This sentiment is echoed by a score of museum displays devoted to then-and-now looks at individual Americans POWs. We see them then, in black and white, young and handsome in threadbare uniforms, unbowed even under very difficult conditions. And we see them now, in colour, old men whose strength has diminished, but whose overriding desire to never again visit the horrors of war on a foreign people is undaunted.

Yes, it’s propaganda. Yes, it conforms to a war narrative that favours the underdog Vietnamese against yet another nation in a long series of oppressive invaders: Chinese, Siamese, Khmer, French, American…

But faced with such recent history, who can argue with messages of peace and forgiveness? Who still clings to the self-destructive lie that there is any real difference between Them and Us? They are just as moved by autumnal sunsets. They find just as much relief in cold beer on a hot day.

We are brothers.