Tuesday, July 31, 2007
I stood on the train platform in the cool dark of the early morning, dazed, wishing the train back from Sapa were longer so I could continue sleeping. I also longed for the past, when the course was in session and I had a nice comfortable hotel room at the Bao Khanh. Now I had no place to go. I was welcome at Dung’s house but I didn’t think it was appropriate to show up before 10am. It was only 4am now. So I had six hours to wander around Hanoi.
That wouldn’t have been so bad under normal circumstances, but I was seriously short of funds. Of the more than 15 million dong that I’d come to Vietnam with, I was down to just 308,000, around $18, plenty for a day in Vietnam. The problem was that I would have to take a taxi to the airport that evening, which would cost 180,000 dong. And I had stupidly extended my visa to July 30, a day shy of my actual departure. I anticipated trouble from corrupt cadres at the customs office, and considered it prudent to save another 100,000 for a fine, a bribe, or both.
So I stood in the dark with no real place to go and only 28,000 dong, or about $1.70. I decided to go to Hoan Kiem Lake, which I knew well and I could sit on the park bench and wait things out. I began to walk in the direction of Hoan Kiem, but the sun was only just coming through and it was still dark. All the shops were closed and the streets were completely empty. The only sign of life was the smell of early breakfast cooking fires, which wafted out of narrow alleyways. I quickly became lost and decided to go back to the train station and find a cheap cab.
I bargained hard and got a driver to take me to Hoan Kiem for 17,000 dong, a good rate that I could ill afford. Now I was down to 11,000 dong, less than a dollar. I was dropped off in the familiar district just as the red sun was coming through the trees. I found a bench on the lake near the Bao Khanh, and sat there for a long time.
All summer I’d heard that Hoan Kiem comes alive at dawn, when cool weather brings thousands to the lake for their morning exercises. It was something I’d always wanted to see but not enough to wake up four hours before class to observe. Now I had nothing better to do than watch the masses of Vietnamese beginning their day with a slow jog or synchronized exercises. Ho Chi Minh had been a fervent advocate of calisthenics and he had hundreds of diligent followers that morning. Lines of women followed numerical instructions from a scratchy radio, where a female voice chanted the first eight numbers with maddening repetition. “MOT…HAI…BA..BOOON…NAAM…SAUU……”. The women followed along, lifting their knees and flailing their arms in unison.
Elsewhere men did pushups and some just stood around and took in the sunrise. A few sat on the edge of the lake in the lotus position, meditating in front of the rising sun.
Thankfully, the irritating MOT HAI BA routine ended and the speaker transitioned into a peaceful Vietnamese string tune. The women slowed down and began to perform tai chi, which made them look like the Backstreet Boys dancing at a tenth of the speed.
It was all very nice except that I was hungry, thirsty and incredibly poor. I circled the lake, trying various ATMs in the hope that somehow my credit card would let me buy money. It didn’t. I wandered around gloomily, buying a donut from a lady for 3,000 dong.
By then it was past 7am and I was struck with an idea. I was going to visit Ho Chi Minh himself. I’d been to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum twice, but each time they weren’t allowing visitors in to see his frozen body. I’d since learned that you have to go early in the morning and there was no better time than now. So I walked over there and found it open. I stood in line with hundreds of people who could be loosely thrown into two groups. There were the Vietnamese, who waited somberly with their families, dressed in their Sunday best. And then there were the Western tourists, clad in dirty shorts, flip flops and Tiger Beer shirts, who had to be told by the stern guards to quiet down.
We were all channeled into the cool marble mausoleum—the best air conditioning in Vietnam—and fed through the central chamber around a big mahogany box with windows on three sides. Slowly, the familiar face of Ho Chi Minh came into view, excessively illuminated with a strong yellow light. His skin glowed luminously in the dim chamber and everyone filed through quietly mesmerized by the revolutionary leader, who lay there peacefully, with a half smile, covered in a blanket up to his chest. He looked, in a way, like Snow White waiting to be kissed by the prince.
I emerged back into the hot sun and started to walk back to Hoan Kiem. But something went wrong and I found myself on big commercial avenues, plodding along endlessly in the hot sun on streets I’d never seen before. People eyed me amusedly, joking to one another about how I was obviously lost. I asked a few people where Hoan Kiem was but they gave vague directions that were less than helpful and sometimes patently wrong. I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole, in a city that was suddenly so mercilessly foreign, where I was too poor even to buy a water. For a short time, I hated the city, hated the people who couldn’t tell me where the lake was, who couldn’t discount their water, who couldn’t move their stupid motorbikes out of the dirty sidewalk.
But I couldn’t stay mad at the city for long. After a full two hours I eventually made it back to the familiar Hoan Kiem district and rested in the Bao Khanh lobby. I called Mr. Thanh, the kindly assistant to American ambassadors in Hanoi and the logistical supervisor of our course, to return my cell phone to him. He showed up within minutes and brought a very welcome development.
Over our six week stay in the Bao Khanh, a number of things had gone missing from the hotel. Desaix and Mr. Thanh had confronted the ornery hotel owner who grudgingly agreed to refund half the value of a few lost items. In total, Mr. Thanh had received $250 in crisp American bills, which he now pressed into my hand so I could distribute it to the right people once I got back to school. It was a complete fairy tale. I had come into the hotel nearly penniless and left with hundreds of dollars, which I could borrow from to buy a water, food, and pay any customs bribe for my expired visa.
I skipped out into the city, suddenly enamored with the place, and cheerfully entered Dung’s house, where of course I wouldn’t need money after all. My impoverished morning of homelessness on the mean streets of Hanoi was over.
Tu and Dung at Dung's house