A Hanoi Day Tour, or “Today I Saw Ho Chi Minh!”

It was a full day of exploring Hanoi with our guide, Son. He studied tourism in college for five years and has been working as a tour guide for ten. Megan, Donna, and I were introduced to ancient and modern history, an extraordinary lunch, a couple of touristy-type activities that I would normally avoid but was actually glad to have participated in, and then to a very special visit with a Vietnamese musical instrument-maker and his daughter. After today, I can now say I can cross a busy street in Hanoi independently and with confidence (well, not so much confidence as a grin-and-bear-it sort of spirit which is much better than the absolute terror that hit me before). There were so many highlights (read: that lunch was one of the best I’ve ever had in my life), but the most special for me was the music at the end.

For Donna and Megan, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum struck a deep chord. (Our visit there was actually delayed for a few hours because the Grand Duke of Luxembourg was visiting.) Ho Chi Minh is actually embalmed within. (Perhaps I should have titled this post: “Today I Saw Ho Chi Minh!”) After a bit of sign language from the guards motioning me to remove my hat and sunglasses, and instructing the young man in front of me to remove his hands from his pockets, and gently demanding that Donna take her clasped hands from behind her back and walk with them at her sides, we were lead into the mausoleum. We were told to walk single file, not to speak, and to continue moving. No dilly-dallying around Uncle Ho.As we walked around his slight body I noted that he was a small, handsome man and that he exuded wisdom even in death. According to our guide, Ho Chi Minh loved – and was deeply loved by – his people. Son certainly exemplified this: everytime he talked about “Uncle Ho” he spoke with a deep affection and respect. Looking through the windows into Ho Chi Minh’s simple but pretty house, we saw pictures of Lenin and Marx and books on Communism on his shelves. His storied history included a job as a cook’s helper on a ship (1912), residence in Harlem and Boston in the U.S. where he worked as a baker, working for a wealthy family in Brooklyn (1917-1918) and for General Motors(!) as a line manager. Apparently, while in Harlem, he was influenced by Korean Nationalists and his interaction with them formed the foundation for his political views. It’s strange that he lived and worked and developed at least part of his ideology in our country…I want to understand Vietnam and our participation in its history. There is still so much I don’t know and what little bit I have learned causes much ambivalence. (e.g., How can we have had such a violent relationship with a man who was – and is – so beloved by the Vietnamese people? But, perhaps this is too much of a generalization. Perhaps Vietnamese ideas about Ho Chi Minh are different in the Southern part of the country. I’ll have to find out about that someday…)  Son said the Vietnamese do not harbor any resentment toward the U.S. They do not look back. They stay in the present and look forward…Certainly, they have welcomed us here with warmth and many, many smiles. And with spectacularly good food!

Speaking of food, the restaurant we visited for lunch is the “Oldest Restaurant in Vietnam”: Cha Ca La Vong. (There’s a bunch of added symbols in this name that I don’t yet know how to include – I wonder if they include them on the Vietnamese keyboard ?) They serve one dish only, a river fish heated at table, and served over rice noodles along with sauces and herbs and other greens. Oh! And peanuts! And, great beer on the side! There were constant moans of pleasure from the time the fish arrived until we swigged the last drop of Bia Hanoi. This restaurant alone is reason enough to return to Hanoi; heck, it’s reason enough to visit Vietnam! I have the address on a card. Make sure that I give it to you should you ever choose to go.

Next, a quick walk to a coffee shop where we sat on small, plastic stools and drank fabulous Vietnamese coffee. I had it hot, Megan and Donna tried iced. It’s sweetened with condensed milk which you have to stir and stir to mix. It is decadent and addicting! And, what was even better was the people-watching! Even though we may have been a bit oversized for our little stools, once we sat down, we were able to blend in a bit and just watch life go on around us. There was a group of young ladies sitting close-by who laughed and giggled and I thought to myself, “Some things are universal – like prizing a good, good cup of coffee and the laughter and camaraderie of girlfriends.”

Okay, after coffee, as part of our tour, we rode cyclos and went to a water puppet show. When I learned that we were going to do this, I inwardly groaned, not wanting to partake in activities that were so blatantly touristy which, for me, is synonymous with “boring, a little embarrassing, and much too obvious,” (not that anybody is going to mistake me for anything other than a tourist in Vietnam, with my goofy American hat and my height which, at 5′ 7,” is quite  a bit taller than the average Vietnamese citizen, and my weight which is, er…shall we say…just a bit more than two Vietnamese women combined). Well, I was wrong and am so glad these events were part of our day. The cyclos are a variation – I would imagine – on the rickshaw theme except with a bicycle attached. We rode them through the busy Hanoi streets and, in large part because of the traffic, it ended up being not only interesting but exciting, too. The traffic was up-close-and-personal and zoomed by us as we made our way through the streets at a speed just shy of a mosey.

We were dropped off in front of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre where Son had already purchased our tickets and directed us to our assigned seats. The theater went dark and we were greeted with Vietnamese melodies full of high flute notes, zumming strings, and voices in the high registers full of, in turn, longing and happiness and determination.

The puppets had long sticks attached to their backs which were held by people behind a curtain. And the puppets swayed and danced in water while depicting stories of Vietnamese ideals and philosophies. As an example, during the “Buffalo Fighting” scene, because the buffalo typifies “the start of a peasants wealth”, the buffalo puppets were shown working hard in the rice field with the peasants but also engaging in lighthearted, playful fights with one another. And, at the end, when “the Carp is Transformed Into a Dragon,” a widely-revered legend is put to music (and water). This dance shows the legend of Emperor Ly Thai To, who transferred the royal capital from Ninh Binh to Hanoi 1000 years ago. It is said that, upon his arrival in Hanoi, the Emperor saw a golden dragon amoung the clouds, so he decided to name this divine land “Thang Long” meaning “a soaring dragon.” Lights and colors and music and water: it was beautiful and magical and I was so glad to have witnessed it.


But, the best part of the day was visiting with a local musician and instrument-maker, Pham Chi Khanh, and his sixteen year-old daughter, whose name escapes me.

She is also a master musician and plans to be a music teacher – like her father – when she finishes school. The two of them introduced us to Vietnamese music and instruments. They both actually instructed each one of us in the preliminary steps necessary to learn to play their favorite instruments, the sixteen-string for him and a one-string zither-sounding instrument for her. We were there for over an hour yet the time soared (like the golden dragon, maybe) as we received our private and incredible musical concert and lessons. I can still hear the vibratory melodies of the sixteen-string. It is still there, with me. A musical memory.

And, the day as a whole, was full of many lessons, many memories.

4 thoughts on “A Hanoi Day Tour, or “Today I Saw Ho Chi Minh!”

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  3. Megan Sary-Talbot

    My dear friend, Renate,

    Brava! A wonderful, insightful, portrait of ‘west meets east’.
    I was there and your pictures and words have helped to capture this incredible experience for me. I am so very grateful that I have shared this time with you. Thank you for your unique and generous blog!

    your pal for life,


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