Thursday, November 11, 2010

One time, back in 'Nam...

After the trip to Halong Bay, I spent a couple of days exploring Hanoi.  First, I visited an old French prison located near Hanoi's French Quarter.    During the French occupation, it was intended to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners fighting for independence -- many of whom were often subject to torture and execution.  The prison was later taken by the Vietnamese after they ousted the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese used the prison to house American POW's and was sarcastically nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton".  This is the same prison where John McCain was held after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in October of 1967.  He endured five and a half years here as a POW  before finally being released.  From the beginning, U.S. POW's endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions.  Today, the prison is filled with war memorabilia, old photographs and  propaganda.

John McCain's Flight Suit
Later that day I visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body is kept.  Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader who was prime minister (1946–1955) and president (1945–1969) of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). He led the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War until his death in 1969.

One thing you should know about Ho Chi Minh is that he is revered with almost god-like status among the Communist Vietnamese.  He is still referred to as "Uncle Ho" and his pictures are everywhere, even on every single piece of their currency.  Ho Chi Minh was a well traveled man especially for that day in age.  Living parts of his life in the U.S., England, France, Russia, and China, the communist leader took a bit of political knowledge from every country he lived in. 

I know I've forgotten to mention it up until this point, but the Vietnamese currency is known as the Dong so you can only imagine the jokes I've heard while traveling.  Currently, $1.00 is roughly worth 20,000 dong, which means it only takes $50 to be a millionaire here.  I remember going to the ATM to take out 8 million dong when I bought the motorcyle and stuffing a wad full of dong in my wallet!  I can tell you it's an awesome feeling to have 8 million dong burning a hole in your wallet.  Walking the streets back to the hostel, I felt like I should have had my dongs secured in a locked metal briefcase and handcuffed to my wrist, but then again it was only $380.

____Observations on Northern Vietnam

In Hanoi, communism is alive and well.  Mandatory curfews are enforced at midnight when police patrol the streets, ready to smack any late night "revelers" with their batons.  I've been told the cops don't hassle foreigners too much, but the locals, they get this fear of God look in their eyes and run like hell when the "gestapo"shows up.

One comedic episode involving some curfew breakage occurred one night on the main alley where most of the backpackers stay.  A local bia hoi (draft beer cafe) was serving past curfew when the men in blue showed up.  The bia hoi was jam packed with people, but the bar owner had posted look-outs on each end of the alley to scan for the baton-wielding police.  As the cops turned down the alley, the lookouts gave the bar owner the signal.
Sign Next to the Bia Hoi

The owner shoved as many customers inside the tiny bar as possible...and when I say tiny, I'm talking around 30ft x 15ft and standing room only.  Then, the owner used a remote control to close an accordian-like overhead door over the entrance of the open-air bar.  As the police rolled up, three other guys and myself (who hadn't been able to squeeze into the bia hoi) dropped our beers like a bunch of busted high schoolers at an after-prom party.  Unsure of how they'd react, we stood there with a blinded deer-in-the-headlights look on our faces.  But the cops just gave us an unfriendly scowl and told us to go to bed as we slowly backed away. 

As the police proceeded to beat on the garage door of the bar, we hung back to see what the outcome would be.  Finally, the garage door slowly opened and the owner sheepishly appeared.  To everyone on the outsides chagrin, no one but the owner was in the bar.  We knew what the police were thinking because we thought the same thing ourselves.  "Where in the hell did everyone go?"  The police walked inside the bar, sniffed around a bit, and then I caught the owner give me a wink.  Highly aggravated they wouldn't be collecting any bribe money that night, the men in blue yelled back at us to leave the area.  They then hopped in their paddywagon and sped off into the sweaty night.

I still couldn't believe what I'd seen.  Really, where did all of those people go?  Apparently the bar owner built a door in the back of his bar that lead into his small apartment behind the bar.  When he got the signal from his watchmen, he funneled everyone into his tiny apartment where he cut the lights and told everyone to remain silent.  As I stood there laughing and amazed, I kept thinking about how I love all the surprises that happen in this country.  It also kindof reminded me of the prohibition era in the U.S.  when everyone gatheredi in the speak easys to schnog down some ole-fashioned boot-legged spirits.

Oh and one other example of communism here... Facebook is blocked and you have to log in using a special website or you've got to get the head guy at the internet cafe to change some funky proxy settings for you.

Below is a picture of an old Russian Minsk that I meant to post a while back.  They're a legacy left behind by the Russians and they look super cool, but they are really really pieces of crap. 

Even though I'm home now, I'll try and put up posts since I spent another month and a half in S.E. Asia without posting anything. 

Where I learned to drive a motorcycle

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