I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

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January 25, 2012

The last few letters home from Vietnam. (Previously, and also, and as well.)

Long Hung Hotel, Hanoi

Really crappy start to Hanoi, unfortunately. I got off the bus and pushed past the hotel touts, set off walking to find a hotel from a list of guidebook recommendations. Like anything, though, when you're actually looking for them, you can't find one. Hanoi doesn't have a backpacker ghetto like Bangkok, Saigon, and many other cities do. After a long time - it was about 6am, and I hadn't had anything to eat or drink since the afternoon before - I found a hotel, but it was booked full. It was a really nice street, though, and although the hotel next door wasn't listed in any of the guidebooks, it looked okay. So I went in, checked the price, and went up to have a look at the room. $10, included hot water and a/c. Seemed fine, so I handed over my passport (that's the check-in procedure in Vietnam) and agreed to stay.

Ugh. Mistake. There was no remote for the a/c, so I called the front desk. The creep explained that there was an extra charge if I wanted to use the a/c. (He suddenly had this smarmy "I gotcha" thing going on.) I told him we agreed on $10 and I'd pay $10 or I was leaving. He brought up his register book and was pointing to lists of people who'd paid the extra charge, as if that meant something. I told him to give me my passport. Finally, he backed down and said he'd waive the a/c fee. He handed over the remote to the a/c (and the television). I went back up.

So, of course, the a/c didn't actually work, and for good measure, the television was making a loud buzzing sound on every channel, and there was grime all over the bathroom, table, and chair, which in my sleepy state I'd failed to investigate. I flipped out, went downstairs and told him to give me my passport. He said I had to pay for half a day's use of the room. I refused, and we argued. But he had my passport locked in a safe, so there was nothing I could do. That handing over the passport thing sucks, because it eliminates all leverage that you, the guest, have. I knew from walking around that there weren't any police in the neighborhood, and unlike Thailand, where the Tourist Police are the toughest cops in the country and all of the hotels are terrified of them, the police in Vietnam don't care about tourists. I told him he had to give me working a/c and television or it was in legal violation of our agreement, and the police would pay attention to that. (Bluff on my part, but it basically worked.) It took that loser more than half an hour to go from room to room in that dump to find a working television, to find a room with (barely) working a/c, and to bring the television in there. I went to sleep, furious, and made a reservation for tomorrow at the recommended hotel down the street. When I left for the day, I did have the good fortune to run into five backpackers who were about to walk in there, and told them to stay away. So that helped my mood.

(ED: In retrospect, I should have just given him the $5. I had lost perspective by then.)

Old Quarter traffic

The other hotel is very nice, though. I think tomorrow will be a better day. I'll go see the embalmed Ho Chi Minh in a glass case, making the second Communist leader-in-a-box I've seen (after Lenin in Moscow), and in the afternoon, I have a ticket to Water Puppet theater, which everyone loves. The day after that is kayaking and sleeping on a boat in Ha Long Bay, supposedly the natural wonder of Vietnam, and then back to Hanoi for a night before the flight to Bangkok on Thursday.

(This internet cafe is a dirty hole in the wall and reeks of cigarettes, but it's like 20 cents an hour!)

Stamped walls in Hanoi

I had a random brief conversation with a Vietnamese guy who said he was from Wisconsin a few days ago. I like how, in America, nobody is necessarily a foreigner - anybody can be from anywhere.

(You know what else is awesome about America? Everybody gets charged the same price for things. Even though the "foreigner price" is rarely very expensive here, it's usually double or triple the "local price", for everything from food to tickets to museums and historical monuments. We'd never do that at home.)

Communist mosaic

I'm at the nicer hotel now. Check-out from the dump was easy enough. They wanted to pull a trick with the minibar (e.g. charge me for drinks that were supposedly missing), but I saw it coming and told them I'd taken photos of the minibar right after I checked in and right after I checked out, so they let that one lie. (Kind of funny, though - drinks in minibars in Vietnam are cheaper than they are on the street. I think they're unfamiliar with the concept.) I'm paying way more for this hotel than any other on the trip - $17 - but that does include a good buffet breakfast, a palatial room, and open-the-front-door-for-you service. (Also laundry. I was at the end of my shirts.)

Couldn't get in to see the Ho Chi Minh Box, though, as the mausoleum is apparently closed on Mondays. (Lonely Planet = wrong on this one.) So I'll have to check that out early Thursday morning before I fly back to Bangkok. The water puppet theater was dope, as I'd thought it would be. I have a couple of good videos. I couldn't follow the story, but I doubt anyone in the audience could. (Seemed to be about how some fish are hard to catch, and dragons spit water at each other except for times when they spit fireworks instead, and there were some boats, and a giant turtle.)

Water puppeteers take a bow

Tomorrow night, I'm sleeping on a boat on Ha Long Bay, so I don't think I'll be able to check in.

Boarding the junk

I'm back in Hanoi, catching the flight back to Bangkok this afternoon. It was a beautiful old wooden junk, very comfortable - we sailed for a few hours, and then set anchor at sea, surrounded by small islands, like the scales on the back of a dragon ("long" means "dragon"), and slept.

Ha Long Bay (5)

Morning on Ha Long Bay (2)

(ED: more news from the Western world: a friend wrote to me about the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, which had just happened.)

I hadn't heard about the college shooting - I was away from television and the internet for a few days. There are a couple of Asian English-language news channels at my current hotel, though, and they're covering it extensively. A lot of the coverage seems to be about whether Asian students in the US are going to suffer some kind of backlash as a result. Personally, I'm more concerned about what this will mean for creative writing students. They have it hard enough already.

I'm off to see the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh this morning, allowing me to check off the #3 spot on the Dead Communist Leaders In Boxes list. (I can't say when I'll be able to get to China for #2, though.)

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

You raise a great point about Kim Il-Sung. I did some research, and he is apparently on view in Pyongyang; also, there are apparently only four Dead-Leaders-in-Boxes in total. (I read a great book by the son of the guy who came up with the process to embalm Lenin. I think he said that a lot of those Eastern Bloc dictator fuck-heads went for the embalming, too, but as the upkeep was expensive and everyone hates those guys now, they were allowed to rot. Stalin got the leader-in-a-box treatment too - Google around and you can find a supremely creepy spy photo of him lying next to Lenin. But then they buried his ass in concrete.)

So Lenin is tops-in-a-box, and Mao is second, but there's room for debate about who's third. The personality cult around Kim Il-Sung is more intense than Ho Chi Minh's, who is beloved but is portrayed as a folksy grandfather in his own country, not a living god. And Kim gets extra points because his country is still communist, whereas Vietnam has quietly gone proto-capitalist like China. But Ho has the iconography of the war behind him, which is of incalculable value, and he gets more visitors because he's not in fucking Pyongyang. So I'd give the third spot to Ho, but I'd be interested in your opinion.

Ho's tomb, by the way, was nearly identical to Lenin's. It's grey on the outside and doesn't have the same pyramid shape, but inside, the design is exactly the same, and they're both bathed in this eerie rose-colored light. Russians still handle the corpse-maintenance for them, so maybe they did the design, too. Both men are short, kind of waxy, and appear to be sleeping with a mild discomfort.

Conflating War with Industrialization in that Distinctive Way Only Communists Can

Western Imperialism in South America Is What's For Dinner (and Dinner is Falling)

You're right about the way history plays out, and how plans at the time don't necessarily account for it. In all of the talk about the domino effect, nobody seems to have considered that communism simply doesn't work as an economic philosophy, and that - much moreso than a war - would be what kept it from taking over the world. Vietnam and Laos were among the poorest countries in the world (Laos still is) until they started moving back toward capitalism. North Korea probably spends 25% of its GDP on the Kim Il Sung box. Obviously, there are other reasons for Cambodia's ongoing struggles, but their economy was completely erased by communism. Nobody embraces that which does not work. And that which is simple and obvious now completely escaped the grand theorists of the past.

Not that anyone told Natan Sharansky and his book club.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.