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 06, 2011 at 11:11 AM

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

November 20, 2011 at 09:11 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 09:11 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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