Ho Chi Minh

When we visited the Ho Chi Minh complex, our main reason for the visit was to check out the mausoleum and learn a bit about communism and culture in Vietnam. We knew Ho Chi Minh was an important figure in Vietnamese history, but honestly we didn’t think much about learning about the person. But as I recalled our experience visiting the Ho Chi Minh complex, and read about the life of this historical figure, I learned some interesting facts about Ho Chi Minh that I thought is worth writing about.

Ho Chi Minh was born Ngunyen Sinh Cung. He grew up going to a French school in Vietnam, then he got a job as a cook’s helper on a ship that took him to the United States. He lived for a few years in New York City and Boston area, working various jobs including as a baker at a hotel. Then he made his way to England, where supposedly he trained as a pastry chef to the famous chef Auguste Escoffier. After that, he lived in France where he started learning about communism, and then he moved on to Moscow, Russia, and Canton (present day Guangzhou), China. In China he was involved in the political movement, but he also met a Chinese woman and got married there. Then when the anti-communism coup happened in China, he went into an exile in Moscow, then made it back again to Asia by the way of Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Switzerland, and Italy. He stayed in Thailand for some time, then moved to India and back to China. The British government arrested him in Hong Kong, then quietly released him, and he ended up in Milan, Italy, working at a restaurant there before returning back to China. Then as an adviser to the Chinese communist forces, he also led a Vietnamese independence movement that led to the proclamation of independence and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. Later on he also led the North Vietnam to fight against the South Vietnam and eventually resulting in the Vietnam War. While the war was still going on, in 1969 Ho Chi Minh died from heart failure, but his followers continued on the fight, and he was still revered as their leader, and his body was embalmed and until today can be found on display at the Mausoleum in Hanoi. After the war, the city of Saigon in South Vietnam was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.

It’s pretty interesting to observe that the majority of visitors to the Ho Chi Minh complex when we went there were Vietnamese. I didn’t ask what these folks thought of Uncle Ho, as he affectionately was known and respected in the Vietnamese culture, but it’s clear that the government really put him on pedestal as their national hero (though interestingly Ho Chi Minh himself when he was alive supposedly was quite a humble man and did not seek the honor himself).

On the way out of the complex, however, we saw a souvenir stall selling t-shirts for tourists. You could see from the photo below that they had the communist flag and even a caricature figure of Ho Chi Minh on the t-shirts. I’m guessing only western tourists would get these (I couldn’t see a Vietnamese wearing one of these and not feeling irreverent or uncomfortable among their countrymen), but I thought it’s interesting that in the end it seems that even in this communist country at such an important landmark you could see the idea of capitalism was present.

Ho Chi Minh T-Shirt

Visiting Uncle Ho

The first place we visited in Hanoi, Vietnam, was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Out of all places we planned to visit, this was one that I was a little worried about. From reading guidebooks, I knew they had strict protocol that we would have to follow, and since we’re visiting on our own, I wasn’t quite sure how we would go about even arranging the visit. It seemed that we could just show up, and then go from there, so that’s what we did…

After an unpleasant experience with the taxi ride from our hotel to start the day, we found ourselves outside the Ho Chi Minh complex. It’s clearly the right place, but we were not sure exactly where to go for entrance to the complex. So we decided to just walk around the perimeter of the complex hoping to find any entrance that looked like for visitors. This was the first time I visited a communist country (not really sure what that meant or if there’s anything to worry about for visitors from western country), and knowing that they revered ‘Uncle Ho’ I wanted to make sure we didn’t do anything that could be misunderstood as being disrespectful.

We found an entrance that looked like the place we needed to go through. There were quite many visitors already there, considering it was a Sunday morning. We finally saw some signs in English explaining that we would have to leave our backpacks or any large carry-ons at the gate before entering. It was okay to carry small point and shoot cameras for the photos after the mausoleum, but everything else had to stay. That caused a little bit of concern since I had some expensive photographic equipments in my backpack, and Kristi had an envelope with our cash allowance for the day in hers. The backpacks would need to go through x-ray machine for security check. I don’t think they would do anything with my equipments, but we were worried that if they saw the cash in there, someone dishonest may take the cash and there was nothing much we could do about it. So I told Kristi to split the cash and just pocket them in our wallet rather than leaving them in the backpack. We were given a stub for picking up the backpacks later on (not sure where, but okay, at least there was something we could use to claim them). Then we just followed everyone else in front of us to walk in a line.

Most of the visitors seemed to be local Vietnamese (we didn’t see any westerners until sometime after). We had to walk double file, and everyone seemed to be following the instruction and continued walking in silence. After walking in the complex for some distance, we reached another checkpoint where we were asked if we had point and shoot cameras, and we had to leave them there before continuing towards the mausoleum. Then we continued our walk towards the front of the mausoleum, where we saw armed guards at every corner.

When we reached the entrance, before entering, one of the guards motioned his hands at me. Apparently I had my hands inside my jacket pockets, and our hands were supposed to be on our side as a sign of respect. Thankfully that was it, and we then continued on walking inside the mausoleum. The main room was dark, with the center of the room lighted where the body of Ho Chi Minh laid in state. We had to continue walking slowly while observing and paying respect to ‘Uncle Ho’ as the Vietnamese called Ho Chi Minh affectionally. It was a surreal experience walking past the embalmed body of someone who had been dead for more than forty years. It actually wasn’t as creepy as I had thought; it looked like he was sleeping peacefully there. In few seconds, the whole experience was over and we exited the mausoleum. At that point we saw a counter where we could pick up our point and shoot cameras and continued our visit of the complex.

The photo below was taken from a distance afterwards. You can see the big mausoleum at the center of the Ba Dinh Square, the place where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in September 2, 1945. Notice the guard watching the large lawn area in front of the mausoleum to prevent trespassers to go across. In front of the mausoleum you can see the line of visitors walking towards the entrance, and in front of the entrance there were guards in white uniforms.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Using Cash in Hanoi

One of the considerations you must make when traveling to a foreign country is how much cash you’re going to carry with you, and in what currency. On one hand, having cash in the right currency handy with you allows you the convenience of being able to make purchases especially at the places where banks or foreign exchange places are not easily found. On the other hand, carrying cash with you is somewhat risky because if somehow you lose them, there is pretty much no way you could trace and get them back.

In the United States, I usually have a small amount of cash with me wherever I go, though in most cases I use credit card to pay for purchases. Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere, including in store in small towns. For me, not only it’s convenient and provide some protection in the event I lose the credit card, but also it helps me to keep track of my spending as those purchases will show up on the following month’s credit card statement.

When traveling to Vietnam, however, we knew that even though we have our credit cards with us for places that may accept them, we also carried a reasonable amount of cash with us because we knew that very likely we would like to make small purchases at street vendors and we would also go to a couple of places outside Hanoi where the likelihood of finding banks or foreign exchange places would be very small. We figured it would be easier to get Vietnamese Dong in Indonesia than in the United States, so Kristi was in charge of getting that taken care of prior to our trip.

After breakfast at the hotel, we started our first full day in Hanoi with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Complex. From looking at the city map, the location seemed a little too far to reach on foot from our hotel, so we decided to take a taxi to go there. We asked the lady at the hotel front desk about getting a taxi and also about the estimate pricing to go to the Ho Chi Minh complex. She told us the rough amount she thought it would cost us to get there. We had enough cash in hand for that, so we thought it wouldn’t be a problem. I also obtained a city map from the hotel that I thought would be useful especially later on in the day when we expected to walk around in the Old Quarter area of Hanoi.

The taxi cab we ordered arrived, and the driver understood some English and got it right away when we said we wanted to go to the Ho Chi Minh Complex. As we drove there, I tried to follow our route on the map. And this was when it started to go somewhat wrong — at least I thought it was.. The route that the cab driver took to go there seemed to be a ‘scenic route’ — i.e., not the most straightforward route to get to the destination. I like to think may be there were road closings or detours that he had to take, or may be he wanted us to see parts of Hanoi that are nice for tourists to see (we did drive past the Hotel Metropole, one of the nicest places one could stay in Hanoi, along the way), but I think he took us through that route so he could run up the meter.

When we finally arrived at the Ho Chi Minh Complex, the taxi driver stopped near an entrance (we were not even sure that it was the right one where we should be going to enter the complex). He seemed to be illegally stopping, so he kind of rushed us to pay and get off the taxi. Kristi pulled out the cash for paying the cab driver, but since this was our first spending in Hanoi, all she had was a large bill. The cab driver shook his head and said he didn’t have any change. Since we’re in a rush, and we didn’t want to have to spend yet more time dealing with this situation, we decided to just let him keep the change (I think that was like more than 30% tip for the already more expensive than expected trip). In the grand scheme of things, fortunately it was not a very large amount when we converted to the US dollars, but it still left a bad taste from our first visit to Hanoi.

The lesson learned from this experience was that you should be prepared not only with some cash in local currency, but also with various denominations on the cash at hand including some small notes.

The photo below was taken at the Ho Chi Minh complex on our way out of the complex. Similar to many tourist attractions elsewhere, they had a refreshment area where visitors could get foods and drinks. This would be one of those places where having cash, especially the small notes, could become handy. This particular stand sold the Vietnamese version of hot dogs — looks like they also had grilled meat on a bun, though from the picture on the card it looked like it’s pork instead of beef.

Hot dog stand

Hanoi

Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam. The city was established more than 1,000 years ago (on October 10, 2010, it celebrated its 1,000th anniversary), and over the years had been an important political city in Vietnam. In the 19th century during the Nguyen Dinasty, the capital was moved to Hue, but in the 20th century Hanoi served as the capital of French Indochina, then the capital of North Vietnam, and now the capital of Vietnam. Today Hanoi is one of the major ports of entry into Vietnam and it’s the second largest city in population. It’s a popular destination among tourists visiting Vietnam especially for those wanting to learn about the rich culture and history of the city and to taste some of the best street foods you can find in the world (the popular noodle soup dish phở is perhaps the most famous dish thought to originate from Hanoi).

We visited Hanoi twice during our trip to Southeast Asia at the bookends of our visit to Vietnam. Since we only had one week allocated for visiting Vietnam during this trip, we decided to spend it in the northern part of the country (since Kristi had been to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and we didn’t have time to go to the central part of the country). We arrived in Hanoi in a flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia, and then spent several days in Sapa near the border of China, and in Ha Long Bay at the coast east of Hanoi. We went through Hanoi during the transit, and spent some time before and after the trips to these other areas.

It was winter time when we came to visit Hanoi in December, so the temperature was roughly in the 50s and 60s F when we were there. It was quite pleasant to walk around with light jacket on.

We stayed mostly in the Old Quarter part of Hanoi, and for the most part of our stay there we walked to the places nearby that we wanted to visit.

The photo below was taken near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum that we visited on our first full day in Vietnam. This monument commemorated the 1,000th anniversary of the establishment of the city of Hanoi. It’s quite impressive to think of how old this city is.

1,000th birthday

Good Morning, Vietnam

After the flight delay at the Siem Reap International Airport, we finally left on our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. We arrived in Hanoi more than two hours after the scheduled arrival time. It was pretty late in the evening by then, so it did not take long for us to get through immigration and wait for our luggage. I had requested a pickup service through the hotel where we’re staying in the Old Quarter part of Hanoi. I was a little worried that because our flight was delayed we would miss the pickup. However, thankfully the driver actually patiently waited for us, and we were able to locate him when we exited the airport.

The drive from the Hanoi Noi Bai Airport to the Old Quarter took about twenty minutes or so. Hanoi seemed quite more modern than Phnom Penh, but not as developed as Bangkok. When we got closer to the Old Quarter we saw what we read in the guidebooks: narrow streets and very dense areas. It was weekend evening, so there were still quite a lot of activities out on the street.

When we arrived at our hotel, the Hanoi Serenity Hotel, we were welcomed by the young lady at the front desk that doubled up as the concierge and also a tour business. She gave us our room assignment, and it was on the fifth floor of the building. There was no elevator to go up, so she had one of the hotel staff members helped us with our luggage to go to our room. Originally we were planning on at least getting a dinner at a restaurant in Hanoi for that night. But it was close to 11 pm by the time we settled in our room, and since we’re not even familiar with the area near the hotel and we had a long day following, we decided to just call it a night.

In the morning, we got up pretty early, and we went down to the ground floor to a breakfast area at the back of the hotel. There they had complimentary breakfast made fresh to order. We looked at the menu, and I ordered scrambled eggs and bacon. The breakfast items were pretty much like what I expected, though it was served with a baguette. Similar to Cambodia, some of the French colony influences remained in the culture, including the use of baguette for sandwiches or as part of a meal. The baguette in Vietnam seemed to be lighter and more airy than the French baguette I had elsewhere.

Along with the meal, we could also make our own coffee serving. This became the favorite way to start the day for Kristi and me… making a nice cup of hot Vietnamese coffee mixed with condensed milk (cà phê sữa nóng). After the nice meal and coffee, we’re ready to start our day exploring Hanoi. Technically we were checking out from our room that morning as we would be going to Sapa that night, but the lady at the hotel front desk was nice enough to allow us to leave our luggages in our room, and she said they would bring those down to the ground floor and store them for us while we went out and about in the city, and we could just pick up the luggages before we leave in the evening.

Here was the nice breakfast I had that morning, the scrambled eggs, bacon, and baguette.

Breakfast

Traveling Business Class

After our visit to the Bakong temple outside Siem Reap, our tour guide Vanna and driver Hour took us to the Siem Reap International Airport to catch our continuing flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. For this leg of the trip, we decided to fly Vietnam Airlines as they were the only airline that flew direct from Siem Reap to Hanoi. Our other options for that day were either flying AirAsia with transit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Bangkok Airways with transit in Bangkok, Thailand. Both options would essentially require us to leave early in the morning and travel the whole day, and we would risk getting stranded if for whatever reason we couldn’t make the connecting flight. So we didn’t want to take a chance, and decided to go with the Vietnam Airlines option. For that day, there were two flights we could consider, and we decided to take the earlier flight so we could get to Hanoi earlier in the evening, and also to have a fall back option in case there is anything wrong with the scheduled flight. When we booked the flight, we found out that the only seats available were in business class. We decided to go with those even though obviously they were pricier than the economy class, as the business class price was still within our budget and making the schedule was important to us given what we had planned the next few days in Vietnam.

When we arrived at the Siem Reap International Airport, the check in process was quite smooth and nice as we could go through the business class line. When we got to the counter, however, we found out that our flight was delayed by at least an hour. Not a good news to hear, but since we’re flying business class, we were given vouchers that would allow us access to use the Executive Lounge at the Siem Reap International Airport to wait for our flight.

Another thing we learned at check in time was that there was a USD $25 airport tax per person that we had to pay to depart from Siem Reap. We had that taken care of by the time we reached the security check area, but we had to wait for few minutes as a group of Japanese tourists that were in front of us reached the front of the line and found out about the airport tax there. Since they didn’t know before hand, they tried to argue with the officer at the security checkpoint to no avail. Fortunately we were not in a big hurry as our flight was delayed anyway, so waiting for the argument to finish didn’t have any negative impact to our plan.

We went to the Executive Lounge, and it was pretty nice to relax there and waited for our flight. They had complimentary snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and drinks available for the guests, and the seating area was quite comfortable as well.

We ended up spending more than two hours there until our flight was finally ready to go. Ironically the other Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi ended up leaving within ten minutes to our flight’s departure time.

The actual flight to Hanoi was about two hours, and it was quite a pleasant flight. We had a nice light dinner on the way there; it was pretty good but nothing especially memorable; they served westernized dish with some touch of Vietnamese/Asian flavors, clearly considering the typical western travelers who go on this particular route.

The photo below was taken while we were waiting at the Executive Lounge for our flight. You can see the nice ambience inside the Executive Lounge. I guess this was what we ended up paying extra for.

Executive Lounge

Wealth Equals Happiness?

While waiting at the foot of the Bakong temple when my cousin Kristi went up to the top of the towers, I had an interesting discussion with our tour guide Vanna. He asked me at one point about my background, and I told him about growing up in Indonesia but then continuing my education and now living in the United States. He said I must be very fortunate and it must be ‘living the dream.’ He also said that it must be nice living in a wealthy country like the United States as you don’t have to deal with the poverty like in Cambodia. That when I told him that while I certainly agree that I feel blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to get to where I am today, life in the United States may not be as ‘nice’ as it might seem to be to those looking from the outside. It has its own set of problems.

I told Vanna about some contemporary issues that we’re dealing with in the United States. I live in the area of the country that was ranked highest in the list of counties in the United States based on the median household income (in comparison, that number is almost 40 times the average annual income of people in Cambodia). On the surface, it’s a very nice area with many single-family homes, well manicured lawns, nice cars on the street, and people seemed ‘happy.’ But the reality is that a lot of the people here are living beyond their means, and their under heavy debt to finance such nice living. About 1 in every 1,000 homes in the area received foreclosure notice in the last year (and Virginia is actually not doing as bad as many other states in the US like California or Nevada). When I asked Vanna if he’s ever heard of the term foreclosure, I drew a blank stare. Even after I explained the concept of people borrowing money from the bank to purchase a home, and then if they couldn’t pay up, the bank would reposess the home, that idea was such a foreign concept to him that he was very surprised to hear that such ‘wealthy people’ would be in financial trouble like that. I also told him about one of the executives of a large company that manages the home mortgages committing suicide after being under heavy stress on the job. Also, the fact that there are so many broken homes in the United States — divorced parents, the concept of ‘blended family’ with the step parents/children/sibling — a lot of things that was foreign concept in Cambodia. Basically, my point was that even in ‘wealthy country’ like the United States, there are problems, and simply making more money does not really make it problem free — just different kinds of problems.

So what was the point of all of these? I think it shows that sometimes we think ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ and seeing life is better elsewhere. After seeing the difficult life that they live in Cambodia as they are rebuilding from the years of civil war, I can’t fault them for wanting to have what others elsewhere in the world have. However, it’s important also to think that having the material riches does not make life trouble free, and there are also other things in life that contributes to the sense of happiness like the relationships one have, the belief that one has about the meaning of life, etc. In fact I thought it’s interesting to hear frequent comments from visitors to Cambodia about coming to the ‘land of smiles’ where they seem to be greeted with friendly faces everywhere in the country, even when meeting people who may not have much materially. You don’t hear that kind of comment from people visiting to a ‘powerhouse’ city like New York City, for example (in fact my initial impression of New Yorkers from the first business trips I made there was that they are very cold, individualistic, and it didn’t seem to be a friendly place to be around).

As a visitor who is fortunate to have the means to be able to travel and visit places like Cambodia, my lesson learned is to appreciate the gift of life that I have and be grateful of the circumstance I’m in (even though at times life is also challenging/difficult even when you have things materially). I think it’s also important to not be a snob, feeling entitled, and looking down at the locals who may not have as much materially. These folks may have other things that we don’t have (for example, a closer-knit family, or wisdom and contentment that come from perseverance through hard times), and in general I think we should respect the people we’re visiting as we’re merely guests at their home. Also when considering such difference between the income level there and where we come from, I think we should be generous especially when we’ve been provided with great service. And sometimes the gratuity does not have to come in the form of money — it can be in the form of souvenirs/keepsakes from our home country, or even just simply doing something nice for those who serve you, like inviting them for a meal during your trip. You’ll make wonderful friendship (and memories) that way.

The photo below was taken by Kristi from the top of the Bakong temple tower. You could see some locals — looked like they’re female monks — coming to the temple as a group to worship. It’s probably a good example of something rich that they have (culturally, spiritually) that you may not see in other places where the emphasis is more on material things.

Worshipper at Bakong