I can see by your coat, my friend / That you’re from the other side

The route from Bangkok to Hà Noi, across the north­east of Thai­land, over Cam­bo­dia and then Laos, was – I assume – pret­ty much the same route US behe­moth B‑52s took thou­sands of times dur­ing the Amer­i­can War to rain death more or less indis­crim­i­nate­ly, despite the claims oth­er­wise, down upon the peo­ple of North Viet­nam. The main US B‑52 base in Thai­land was at U‑Tapo in Pat­taya just south-east of BKK — and is a pri­ma­ry rea­son for the sleaze in that town even today.

I won­dered what the many young Amer­i­cans on the flight thought – giv­en the lay­ers of Orwellian dou­ble­s­peak that gen­er­ates what pass­es for truth in the Unit­ed States – but then, we were there too, our gov­ern­ment keen, as they are now, to ingra­ti­ate them­selves with their mas­ters in Washington.

Unques­tion­ably the Holyoake gov­ern­ment played cab­in boy to John­son and Nixon’s Cap­tain Pug­wash as did the Australians.

My father was there – I recent­ly found the let­ters he’d writ­ten me on the back of his Saigon hotel laun­dry lists. They talk of machine gun nests and vast Amer­i­can sup­ply dumps full of bil­lions of dol­lars of every­thing, most sit­ting unused as room was made for more being unloaded dai­ly from the end­less shut­tle of Star­lifters and Globe­mas­ters from state­side that spilt their guts at Bien Hoa and Da Nang.

Land­ing at Hà Noi I not­ed — bizarrely, or so it seemed to me — a huge grey USAF C‑17 Globe­mas­ter II, the suc­ces­sor to those car­go humpers that took large chunks of their home­land across the Pacif­ic in the 1960s and 1970s as they sup­plied that tor­tur­ous and dis­as­trous two decades or so of failed and flawed Domi­no The­o­ry-dri­ven imperialism.

Across the oth­er side of the run­ways sat 17 Mig-21s, the suc­ces­sors to, or per­haps even the same air­craft that used to take off from this very same air­field and take on — quite suc­cess­ful­ly at times — US air­craft bomb­ing their homeland.

Walk­ing though Hoa Lò Prison, more infa­mous­ly tagged the Hanoi Hilton in the west, a few days lat­er I over­heard an Amer­i­can woman announce that she sim­ply could­n’t believe that ‘Asians’ could shoot down ‘Amer­i­can aircraft’.

How’s that re-edu­ca­tion sys­tem going state­side these days?

Indeed Amer­i­can observers and trav­el pub­li­ca­tions love to reas­sure that all this was a long way in the past and most of Viet­nam was not even alive then. They’ve for­got­ten — they want to be just like us — they say.

It’s bull­shit. Lik­ing a West­ern pop star or two, wear­ing jeans and drink­ing coke as a part of your world does­n’t strip away who you are or where you come from any more than hip-hop has destroyed the Haka or New Zealand’s absolute­ly unique nation­al pas­sion for Rug­by Union. 1000 years of Viet­nam, defeat­ing the USA and France, the sto­ry of Ho Chí Minh, Dien Biên Phu and the his­to­ry that total­i­ty embraces, is even to the most casu­al observ­er, the nation­al foundation.

It’s very arro­gant — racist even — to assume that the whole nation has been sub­vert­ed by glob­al­ism and walked from their his­to­ry and a pri­ma­ry rea­son to exist.

Research­ing our short trip to Viet­nam I came across sev­er­al VN vet­er­an sites all still argu­ing that if they just pound­ed the North Viet­namese a lit­tle longer/used nukes/sent the army north then the four-mil­lion-dead Amer­i­can war would’ve been won. This still hor­ri­fies me.

I sup­pose they need to find a way to jus­ti­fy the wast­ed years, the bod­ies they left behind and took away and the hor­ri­ble point­less­ness of what they did — most­ly invol­un­tar­i­ly but not always. 1

It seems to me — and I’m pret­ty sure I’m not alone in this — that if the US had­n’t extract­ed them­selves in 1972 they would still be fight­ing today. That they could­n’t see that was cen­tral to the quag­mire they found them­selves in.

But to Hà Noi in late Octo­ber 2011.

It’s an odd town.

I expect­ed quite a bit more. It feels small — like a cen­tral Javanese town — nar­row, over­crowd­ed and dirty in its cen­tral, very touristy in parts, Old Quar­ter, with wider French styled boule­vards (in Java read: Dutch) as you go beyond that.

And all just a bit run down.

Even with the ‘burbs it’s hard to work out where the 6 mil­lion who live there are.

I’ve become used to the huge bustling Asian cities that rival New York in their mod­ernism, com­plex­i­ty, urban­i­ty and sophis­ti­ca­tion — Bangkok, Shang­hai, Hong Kong, Jakar­ta, Sin­ga­pore — even KL. For some rea­son, I assumed Hà Noi would aspire to all or some of that, but it had lit­tle of it aside from the con­fus­ing and glar­ing dis­par­i­ty in wealth that all those oth­er places also offer and an obvi­ous com­plex­i­ty that I could­n’t begin to grasp in a few days.

That said, I did­n’t need anoth­er few days trekking through mul­ti-floor mega-malls gaz­ing into yet anoth­er Paul Smith win­dow. In BKK I have an abun­dance of that option in just about every com­pass direc­tion if I so desire, and I most­ly only do so when there are vis­i­tors to enter­tain or I need a new book.

I was excit­ed about the food, though. I like Viet­namese food.

Or at least I think I do. I thought I did.

In Auck­land, we used to often go to some very cool cheap Viet­namese places in Otahuhu some years back. I liked those but they start­ed to get a bit pricey. Or we were eat­ing more.


There, once upon a time, was a big­gish Viet­namese joint on top of the Auck­land Civic The­atre Build­ing — about where the IMAX is now — and Phil War­ren used to take me there when I was a poor label own­er. I loved it. I sus­pect I’d hate it now. It was called Saigon.

I went to Hanoi in Auck­land in the mid­dle of the year. It dis­ap­point­ed. Nice wine. Food was dull.

Restau­rants named after big cities in Viet­nam seem to have cur­ren­cy in New Zealand. There is more to the coun­try I think.

On the first morn­ing in Hà Noi, we went to the place rec­om­mend­ed by our hotel for breakfast.

» as an aside the Hotel was the Hanoi Art Hotel and it was — ser­vice-wise at least — per­haps the best bou­tique hotel we’ve stayed at. Any­where. Ever.«

The small place next door had a long wood­en table with bench­es. There was no menu to speak off. They served pho and pho only. You sat and they brought you a bowl of pho. It was hot and it had brown meat in it.

In Viet­nam when you are served meat part of the rou­tine is won­der­ing whether it used to bark. We played that game: is this dog we asked each oth­er. Brigid was con­vinced it was. There was lit­tle point in ask­ing the staff. Con­vinc­ing your­self it is canine and then fret­ting about it for the rest of your trip is part of the going-to-Viet­nam game. I was­n’t con­vinced but real­ly had no idea.

I added chilli sauce and decid­ed it was delicious.

It was the last deli­cious meal we ate in Vietnam.

It may have been dog. Brigid thinks so. If so it was canine­ly delicious.

So then we walked. We walked all day, try­ing to find the inter­est­ing bits and we quick­ly found the cof­fee I want­ed. The great Aus­tralasian myth is that the best cof­fee in the world is found in Aus­trala­sia. It’s not true. The best cof­fee in the world — a strong dark sweet, almost choco­late, syrup — is found in grub­by lit­tle cafes in Hà Noi — served in a glass over con­densed milk.


I manoeu­vred Brigid west­wards — towards the famous mil­i­tary muse­um and Lenin Park. When in a for­mer Sovi­et satel­lite, head to Lenin Park and any­thing with guns and flags. They do these things rather well.

The roads they don’t do quite as well — nor the foot­paths — and we encoun­tered motor­bikes. We were warned about motor­bikes by past vis­i­tors and var­i­ous web­sites. I expect­ed much worse. I’ve crossed roads in Den­pasar and Semarang. This was noth­ing like the apoc­a­lyp­tic rush of met­al I’d been warned about.

Cross­ing the roads was rather easy — you sim­ply set out and they go around you — some­thing that per­haps takes nerve if your ref­er­ences are only west­ern pedes­tri­an cross­ing rules, but a lit­tle less har­row­ing after any time in Asia or parts of South­ern Europe.

The Mil­i­tary Muse­um cel­e­brates Viet­nam’s great vic­to­ries — France, USA and Chi­na — as well as var­i­ous parts of the pre-Colo­nial his­to­ry. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing, old and like the city itself, very run down — almost a muse­um of a muse­um. I could­n’t help but feel that this was a coun­try sore­ly in need of anoth­er grand vic­to­ry to keep the lin­eage going. There was no present or future in these rooms, only a cel­e­bra­tion of the nation­al myths and sto­ries. It was their FoxNews.

The big Pana­son­ic and Canon fac­to­ries on the city out­skirts were not going to pro­vide that. There were plen­ty of Aud­is and Range Rovers in the streets but the folks in the Old Quar­ter and in the depress­ing mar­kets did­n’t seem any clos­er to own­ing the keys to one.

There was nation­al glo­ry in these halls but the rev­o­lu­tion seems to have stalled some­where between the wide boule­vards of the wealthy bits of the city and the rest.

The big bits of big Amer­i­can planes, fash­ioned into art­works, or just there in their entire­ty, were very sober­ing too — peo­ple died need­less­ly inside and under those. It was a muse­um com­mem­o­rat­ing an awful lot of mis­ery. Most are.

Young Viet­namese walked around in some num­bers in pret­ty much com­plete silence, and I real­ly don’t think they’d done the right thing by the Amer­i­can tour advi­sors and ‘for­got­ten’ all this.

We drank Bai Hoi — the morn­ing-fresh, preser­v­a­tive free (it needs to be con­sumed the same day), pilsen­er intro­duced by the Czech work­ers in the six­ties and now part of the dai­ly rit­u­al of the city. Peo­ple drink it for break­fast but we passed on that bit.

The bar was grot­ty and the first beer glass had a huge crack. We swapped it — which caused con­fu­sion: why? — and drank more. At 30c a glass­es you do, and it tast­ed won­der­ful. We ordered ribs in the grot­ty bar. They tast­ed like pork and verged on tasty.

The restau­rant next to the bar was full and looked mid-range authen­tic. It was awful. So we walked some more to get rid of the greasy flavours that refused to leave the back of your throat.

The next day we drank more cof­fee. It was as good great as before. And then we went to see Uncle Ho.

Sad­ly the father of the nation was­n’t in. Every Octo­ber they appar­ent­ly ship him back to Rus­sia for a month or three to restuff the car­cass and blow him up again, so the vil­lagers who the Amer­i­can writ­ers tell us have long for­got­ten the past and become aspir­ing and com­pli­ant GaGa lov­ing glob­al cit­i­zens can arrive in their dai­ly bus­loads and shuf­fle past in an end­less ador­ing line as they do for the next 9 months.

So we went to the Ho Chí Minh muse­um — up long stairs, past Aus­tralian and Chi­nese (many) fam­i­lies being offloaded from hotel minibus­es, on a hill in a vast Sovi­et styled mono­lith — and it was real­ly sur­re­al in way that only an Asian muse­um in a Sovi­et styled con­crete mono­lith ded­i­cat­ed to the founder of a total­i­tar­i­an state who want­ed no memo­r­i­al could pos­si­bly be.

South East Asia does­n’t do total­i­tar­i­an very well — with the excep­tion of course of Cam­bo­dia but that was anoth­er heinous lev­el alto­geth­er — as the chaos inevitably sub­verts what­ev­er the state is try­ing to dom­i­nate no mat­ter how they try. The Old Quar­ter, away from the sub-Kuta-ness of Ma Mai and the lake­side hus­tlers, is evi­dence of that in Hà Noi.

They counter that by hav­ing these odd — stand­alone dis­con­nect­ed — cel­e­bra­to­ry places where the real world is kept away by con­crete or oth­er bar­ri­ers — this case a vast ster­ile con­crete-path crossed, per­fect­ly man­i­cured grass field where I was firm­ly told off by an armed guard for step­ping over some semi-vis­i­ble line. This was one such place and it was odd­er inside than any oth­er I’ve seen. Every­thing was extreme and noth­ing made any sense at all — from over­sized fruit plat­ters, semi-mason­ic pyra­mids, a glass maze that sup­pos­ed­ly rep­re­sents Paris in the 1920s where Ho honed his rev­o­lu­tion­ary trade, to the best part — a vir­tu­al walk through of Ho Chí Min­h’s brain.

I loved it — but just the once I think.

We went to the mar­kets. Thai­land does those bet­ter. Thai­land does mar­kets bet­ter than anywhere.

After hunt­ing for hours we bought bad food in a tourist trap and I refused to eat it. We walked out of two oth­er places and I end­ed up eat­ing French desserts from the cake shop next to the hotel. I need­ed some­thing after walk­ing all day.

The next day the shoe street did­n’t have our sizes or shapes and we took pho­tos of old French Colo­nial build­ings. We found an Ital­ian place in an appar­ent­ly upmar­ket part of the French Quar­ter and ordered piz­za. It was awful. Brigid went out the back and came back gag­ging — we had already eat­en so yet anoth­er meal stayed in our minds and mem­o­ries far longer than it should have.

And it rained and rained. Dirty, fume-filled rain.

We passed the old French courts — all grimy and nine­teenth cen­tu­ry-like for­mer­ly grand. It is still in use, and giv­en Viet­nam’s his­to­ry of doing bad things to its own peo­ple, prob­a­bly just as unpleas­ant as when the French were using it to send Viet­namese next door to the prison.

It was almost a relief to final­ly get to the gates of Hoa Lò and pay our entry dong (is the plur­al of dong ding, dongs or just dong? The last one I guess, but when you’re deal­ing with nev­er less than thou­sands at any one time it becomes academic).

It’s not a hap­py place — the prison that is. The French were evil and for all the archi­tec­ture and won­der­ful light baguettes (I always used to think these uni­ver­sal­ly tore the roof of your mouth off until I left New Zealand and came to under­stand that that was a par­tic­u­lar NZ twist on ‘French bread’) every­where — yes those were great — you leave the place despis­ing what that nation, and all colo­nial pow­ers includ­ing the British despite the myths we are taught, once was and what it did in the name of Empire.

French tour groups were ‑when they weren’t repeat­ed­ly block­ing the only exits smok­ing — notice­ably silent.

I just wish the mid­dle Amer­i­cans look­ing at the bomb dam­age from the car­pet bomb­ing of Hà Noi in 1968–72 were a lit­tle more gra­cious and reflec­tive: “This is all bull­shit” one loud­ly exclaimed.

I guess it is when you’re still throw­ing this ‘bull­shit’ at parts of the third world dai­ly and call­ing it freedom.

It took three days to find the most inter­est­ing part of the Old Quar­ter — the shops, gal­leries, cafes and streets around the goth­ic French con­struct­ed Cathe­dral — which seemed to toll the hour about 7 min­utes behind sched­ule. I won­dered how long it had done that but in SEA you don’t waste ener­gy won­der­ing these things for too long.

The best food we had in Hà Noi was there — at a cute Span­ish tapas joint which made me feel like a trai­tor to some sort of odd unde­fin­able eat-Asian cause. I was a farang and in Hà Noi — dogs or no dogs — I was made to feel it.

I was glad I went to Hà Noi — glad because it was Viet­nam and I’d want­ed all my life to go there even though I’d just been to the cap­i­tal, but like Chi­na, all my ear­ly life this city had per­son­i­fied my coun­try’s ene­my, as ridicu­lous and point­less as all that was; glad because I was able to put all that togeth­er in some sort of men­tal order; glad because the old build­ings were won­der­ful and I loved the noisy bro­ken streets; glad because I love look­ing at com­mu­nist edi­fices and Viet­nam edi­fices quite well; and glad because I like going to fas­ci­nat­ing places espe­cial­ly ones with mind-blow­ing­ly good cof­fee for a few cents.

I was glad to leave too — hap­py because I think I’ve done Hà Noi as ridicu­lous as that sounds (and yes I’ll go back at some stage to do the Muse­um of Eth­nol­o­gy which I’m told is very good, and use Hà Noi as a base to see the coun­try) and had walked and seen all I need­ed to see in the small­ish cen­tre; hap­py because I missed the food and sophis­ti­ca­tion of my cur­rent home; hap­py because I don’t like being always on the watch for scams; and, yes, I real­ly don’t like dog. I think.

After we returned to BKK we queried sev­er­al expe­ri­enced Hà Noi vets. Where is the famous good food, we asked? The uni­ver­sal cho­rus was, more or less: ‘nah, the eat­ing is most­ly bad there — good cof­fee and beer but…’

So it was.



Show 1 footnote

  1. John McCain vol­un­teered to drop bombs on the peo­ple of North Viet­nam — sev­er­al times. I can see no rea­son for hon­our­ing such a man as a hero.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

November 6, 2011 at 11:56 am

great read.…so rice is the only edi­ble thing then:(

November 20, 2011 at 9:21 am

Stum­bled across this blog post, and as a for­eign­er liv­ing in Hanoi, your obser­va­tions are both sen­si­tive and famil­iar. Being a large­ly gov­ern­ment city, Hanoi suf­fers from nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion at almost every lev­el. Also, you can escape the mil­i­tary any­where in Hanoi. They even have their own bank called Mil­i­tary Bank. So there is an air of sup­pres­sion here that makes it dis­tinct from HCM and prob­a­bly the provin­cial cen­ters. I agree about the food, but it per­me­ates on every lev­el. The Japan­ese restau­rants are awful and over-priced. The best Viet­namese food I’ve expe­ri­enced is when eat­ing with large groups, but the street-lev­el stalls and restau­rants are more miss than hit. I fre­quent the French-run tapas bar for lunch and for social­iz­ing. As an expat, I active­ly seek it out for­eign com­pa­ny, unlike I did after liv­ing in Japan and trav­el­ing often (busi­ness and plea­sure) in Korea, Chi­na and SEA

It is a time of great hope and antic­i­pa­tion in Hanoi.

November 20, 2011 at 9:35 am

thanks Jim, I was war­ing about post­ing this as I thought I was being a lit­tle neg­a­tive how­ev­er I just wrote as I (briefly) saw the city in a few days.

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