Art Galleries, Prisoners and a haircut...finally - Hanoi, North Vietnam


Outside our hostel, the streets are wet with rain. On a drizzling day in my own capital I like nothing better than a stroll around town - ducking and diving into an art gallery or two. So what better to do today on a rainy sunday in Hanoi. 

But first I decide to chance a long over due haircut at a very posh place that uses Joico products. Its essential really as my hair length has gradually made the transition from “happy go lucky beach babe” to “Lives alone with cats.” Time for a trim. 

When I get back I see Christine who has just come from the hospital. She managed to break her middle finger swinging over a waterfall in Luang Prabang. It was seen to by a Doctor from the same hospital who were unable to disgnose a simple case of appendicitis in The Essex. The bandage is off but her middle finger is decidedly wonky and veering to one side: 

“The Doctor here said they should have bandaged it to my fourth finger so that it could heal straight. But because they didn't its bent...” she says morosely. 

When she says it it makes obvious sense – you always see people with their fingers bandaged together - oh dear - another victim of the Luang Prabang emergency services!!! 

She decides to go and do another sight – Tam Oc island which has the same strange lumpen karst formations but is inland. I decline – I know the weather shouldn't matter but it does! I know i'm not going to enjoy any natural sight in the pouring rain. 

I go for lunch at a street food restaurant called Bam Bo Nam Bo. It specialises in one dish only from the South of Vietnam which is delicious – grilled beef and noodles in a sweet soup topped with mint, coriander, green mango , peanuts, chilli and fried shallots and at just under 2 pounds a satisfying feed. 

Because I really don't walk anywhere I decide to confront my fear of the motorbikes and hail one for a for 30,000 dong (a quid) . He drops me off at the Women's museum slightly damp but exhilarated and alive! 

Hanoi, North Vietnam

Its interesting to have a museum entirely dedicated to the role that women play in Vietnamese society. I've always made the crass and general assumption that Asian women play a secondary and submissive role in Eastern culture but the parameters of their role are less clear cut in this country. You only have to look in the fields and on the streets to see how many of the people bent over double and hoeing or plying their goods on the capital's streets are women. The first item is a film on female street vendors. The streets of Hanoi are filled with women of all different ages in their traditional conical straw hats with back breaking yokes of fruit. The film looks at why some of them do it and where their men folk are. They often live in the rural areas outside Hanoi and work 12 to 15 hour days getting up at 2.30am to buy flowers or fruit from the market to sell on the street , only returning home each night around 7pm when they have made enough money. Very often the husbands are sick and so they have no choice if they want to be able to feed their children and put them through school. They talk about being chased through the street by the police that constantly try and move them on and how they never get to see or spend time with their husbands. Its an interesting short film that humanises these women that are so easy to ignore. Other areas of the museum explore the Vietnamese worship of their Mother Goddess of beauty, pure heart and joy. She is a Gaia or Pacha Mama type deity that has various incarnations representing the heavens, earth, water, mountains and the forest. Special Dancers invoke the spirit of the incarnations and give away gifts to the crowds that gather to watch their transformations. 

There is also an exhibition on the role of women in the ethnic tribes of Vietnam. Whilst some are traditional patriarchal communities where the bride is offered as a dowry - some are actually matrilineal and it is a daughter that they pray for to be their first born. Later that evening when a vendor tries to sell me some deep fried chocolate buns and sees the 20,000 dong in my wallet and says: 

"please 20,000 me poor." I part with it readily... 

I take a short pitstop for a milk chocolate coffee and then another motorbike in the rain to the Fine Arts Museum which is a tranquil haven and just the perfect place to while away a rainy afternoon. There's an interesting collection of sculpture of Buddha in various forms ( unusally skinny) as well as paintings from the 19th and 20th century that both mimic the European style as well showcasing the traditional Vietnamese technique of using laquer, wood carvings and crushed egg shell. There are also statues of more strong women highlighting their contribution to the war effort – crouched and setting barbed wire traps....making bamboo spikes for road traps. 

I finish the day with some clothes shopping down Hang Bo and walk towards the great Central Lake. In Lonely Planet they recommend a little cafe above a silk shop that has great views over the lake at night. Word has obviously spread as a surly woman on the door makes me take my order there and then mount the slippery wrought iron steps to roof level. I have the local speciality of a coffee with egg white folded into it which makes it light and fluffy (salmonella here I come!) and watch as the rain sweeps the lake and red and green lights start shimmering on. The sound of the motorbikes and horns are distant here. 

The next day I somehow manage to sleep til 12 – back of the net! Lunch is Bun Cha – grilled pork patties in a bowl of sweet soup with green mango slivers, with mint, coriander, lettuce and vermicelli along with deep fried spring rolls stuffed with fresh crab meat. Yum. Christine and I walk down one of the main roads lined with great big trees and their dangling tendrils strung with song birds in cages. 

Birdcages of Hanoi

Today we visit Hoa Lo Prison. The area was a village that specilaised in making earthenware pots before the French colonised Vietnam and cleared it out – building the huge prison and their own head quarters in the town. There they kept some 300 revolutionaries including women penned up in tiger cages (underground chambers with slatted poles for rooves that the guards could walk over.) They tortured them and fed them maggoty fish, stringy morning glory river weed and buffalo meat so dried and old it looked like leather. They were kept shackled in tiny dark cells with some sentenced to death as young as 14. There is a section here just focusing on the tole of female revolutionairies who were praised by Uncle Ho (Ho chi minh who eventually led the communist revolution) as the fabic of Vietnanese society. 

One – Nguyen Thi Min has written: 

In defiance of all tortures: 

Beating, Hanging, squeezing or wrenching, 

I remain always resolute and loyal, 

Ready to sacrifice myself for the assignments

To be done to the utmost. 

In her blood on her cell door. 

It explains how the women looked after each other in their compounds, the younger ones giving up their floor space near ventilation to the older prisoners – rationing their scoops of water and rewarding those who used less. 

In the 60s and 70s the prison was used to house American P.O.W s who sarcastically referred to it as the Hanoi Hilton, although they were treated well in comparison to other prisoners, allowed to play chess, basket ball, celebrate xmas etc. Its interesting how Communism can rally a country....and again i'm appalled at my terrible knowledge of history. I know nothing about the Vietnam war – my history lessons stopped at 1945. They had a saying - "one does the job of two" – to get everyone behind the war effort – and that became "one does the job of three" when people had to sign up to fight. 

Emaciated mannequins  - prisoners of war

The Vietnamese like to bring the horror of the prison alive with emaciated mannequins and sinister, foreboding music. I'm amazed again at how tough Vietnamese women are and how hard they have fought. And again at how tenuous and fragile our liberty is. Vietnam has had such a bloody history of invasion and I am stunned again at the pointless barbarity of human beings. Have you ever read Eckhard Tolle ? He writes very eloquently on the craziness of war in the opening chapters of either "A New Earth" or "The Power of Now" I strongly believe that human beings are essentially good. But this is a sobering point of reflection on our race's easy capacity for senseless cruelty towards each other.