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August 20, 2007

Vietnam Today - Part One

Tom McLaughlin

The man in the crisp white uniform gave me a hard nudge. I looked around quizzically. A person behind me whispered, "You were talking too loud!" I nodded and lowered my voice. The line moved agonizingly slow in the 99-100 degree heat of Hanoi, Vietnam.

My daughter and I were on a tour of Southeast Asia and - having wandered around the equator and, on the advice an American Professor of Forestry - had met in Borneo, we decided to head north to Vietnam. I also had always wanted to visit a communist country and the airfare was negligible. I signed up for a tour of the city and the visit to the Ho Chi Minh complex was mandatory.

They lined us up in two's, pulling out the young women whose shorts were a little too much so, in their opinion, for the walk through the mausoleum. Most of us thought Uncle Ho, as he is called in Vietnam, would be in a coffin on a dais.

We entered a large room where the lighting was similar to a darken movie theater with the film flickering. There, in the center and surrounded by an honor guard was Uncle Ho in repose on a slanted board. He had an absurd grin with his famous white beard draped down his pajama clothing. I guess they thought he would arise if the culled young barelegged females strolled by. We later learned they send Uncle Ho to Moscow every year for three months to have him re stuffed or whatever they do to preserve the remains.

All of us thought that would be the end of Uncle Ho and we could proceed to other points of interest, not wanting to have anything to do with the former leader in the first place. But, the government decided we should see a lot more. We saw his three cars, old French Citrons. Then we saw where he slept, in a single room with a bed, a dresser and a chair.

Then his office with a desk. Then his goldfish pond. Then a 10-gallon aquarium with descendants of the goldfish that were alive when Uncle Ho walked the earth. I am surprised they weren't mounted.

Then his garden where he thought. Then up a hill to another building where he received guests. And on, and on and on. Towards the merciful conclusion, we walked through the communist inspired gift shop where photos of Uncle Ho with children, the elderly, farmers and anyone else who happened be within the photographers lens were sold. Dumped onto Revolutionary Square, we headed back to our tour bus seeking relief from the heat.

Hanoi still retains the French colonial buildings but the storefronts have changed to rip off the tourists who venture into the city. Street after street holds rows of the tackiest souvenirs yet invented. Imagine the lower part of the Ocean City Boardwalk that sells all that junk extended by a couple of miles through tree covered streets and alleys.

Occasionally there was a restaurant but most house these "explorations into capitalism," as one na´ve scholarly person put it coupled with urchins who grab onto you and try to drag you back into the shop after you have made a quick glance.

There are very few cars, trucks and buses in Hanoi. Rather, swarms of motor scooters of biblical proportions (sorry Uncle Ho) clog every street. Crossing seems impossible until you learn the trick.

One steps slowly into the street, and in a terrifying leap of faith, walk into the oncoming hordes. The scooters will go around you, sometimes missing your toes by a few inches. One must never dodge, jump, or perform a basketball maneuver or anything else that would deviate from your predicted path to get to the other side. On my first try, I managed to say over 100 rosaries while crossing a particularly wide boulevard. Given the traffic and pedestrians, I saw only three minor mishaps during our six day visit.

Chris and I stayed at the Army Hotel, a four sided three story affair with a huge swimming pool in the middle. Three of the wings were reserved for the military while the fourth was open to tourists. The cost was about $80 per day for a room with breakfast furnished from the French Colonial period but clean and comfortable. The local Hilton and other big named places charged about $295-$325 per night. Most of the guests were from Europe in the process of adopting children, performing scholarly research, or were visiting teachers.

I was very uncomfortable with the adoptions. I spoke in hushed whispers with people from Ireland, Italy and Canada, who were involved in this process. I was told Americans can no longer adopt from Vietnam. Some had stayed at the hotel for over month awaiting final approval.

The paper work is agonizingly slow and expensive. From what I could gather, people apply through an agency for a child and then a person from the agency scours the countryside for families willing to give up their children for adoption for a payment. All the wheels need to be greased from the host country contact, to the westerners living in Vietnam who find the children, and then bribes to the government officials.

Christine and I did not see any children who were impoverished on our many trips outside Hanoi. Perchance this is part of the "explorations into capitalism" mentioned earlier. If it is, I am surprised Uncle Ho has not marched out of his mausoleum in protest.

Tomorrow: Hanoi - Part Two

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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