Uncle Ho Says Hi

Uncle Ho Works Bankers’ Hours

Uncle Ho and the boys out for a stroll on a postcard.
The other side of the postcard, which was sent to a close friend.

“Ho’s looking a bit waxy.”

–Backpacker in a Hanoi restaurant

Despite numerous recommendations on places to stay, we hadn’t decided where to go when we got into Hanoi, but we knew the cyclo drivers were charging way too much to get there.

It may sound odd now, but it made a certain amount of sense at 6 a.m. when the train vomited us forth in a strange city after a long, painful night punctuated by rocks clanging against windows, waking us up each time we had almost nodded off. It didn’t help when we found out we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the train station until we showed our tickets. I knew where mine was, but Sunny didn’t and had to run back to the train before just to find what she thought was a useless piece of paper.

The ordeal was especially tough on Sunny because she was sick. 


By this point in the trip I had developed a set strategy for arrival in a strange city. I would typically take a look at my guidebook either the night I left or up to half an hour before my arrival and pick three places. My choices were based on a combination of factors including distance, convenience, the availability of directions (Lonely Planet gives surprisingly good directions to places that can be hard to find) and cost. 

In this case, cost and difficulty were the primary considerations. Sunny’s sickness changed the equation. I deferred to her judgment because she was ill, she knew how far she could walk and she knew where she wanted to stay. That was my first mistake. Not killing her was my second. 

She didn’t like any of my suggestions–including a cheap hotel a block away from the train station–because the manager of her hotel in Hue had suggested a place and had given her an awful map with vague directions. After a half-mile walk we found the street where it was supposed to be, but couldn’t tell which direction to turn. I left her on a corner while I did the legwork. No matter which way I went, I couldn’t locate the place, but she insisted it existed even though she’d never seen it. 

Just as we were about to come to blows, Sunny heard a guy at a coffee place behind us speak English so we asked him about places to stay. David, a Chicagoan visiting Hanoi to set up a business exporting handmade tablecloths, took us back to his guesthouse where the owners were gracious enough to offer us their daughter’s bedroom (their daughter was away) at an amazing rate when they saw how ill Sunny was. Sunny still said no even after we’d negotiated a phenomenal price. David suggested several other places, but she didn’t like those, either. 

I’m still not sure why he did it, but David took time out of his schedule to walk us to the backpacker district a kilometer away. Considering how disheveled Sunny looked, he suggested hopping a cyclo and I agreed. She still refused on the ground of expense. By this time I was ready to throttle her because I just wanted to to sleep but couldn’t because she was being far too finicky for me even though my wallet was lighter than hers. 

As the chain of events unfolded, I was shocked at how I stuck with her despite how difficult she was being. After all, we had no claims on each other. She wasn’t my girlfriend. In fact, had she been I would have either stopped searching after the third place David mentioned, or I would have left her to her own devices. I know this sounds harsh, but I was tired and cranky and she was being unreasonable. My loyalty was puzzling. I decided I would walk away if she turned down the next place, no matter the cost. Fortunately, the owner of the next place asked $15 for a large double and I talked him down to $12.

George Washington may not have slept here, but I did.

He must have seen the desperation in my eyes.

Sunny wasn’t happy that it was a double, not a single, but I didn’t care. I would have promised not to look at her when she got into bed, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to see her for the next few hours anyway. Not even in my dreams. 

Since David had a chaperoned first date with a young Vietnamese teacher that evening and wanted moral support, he invited us along. By the time Sunny and I awoke hours later, rested and refreshed, we were glad to see each other. That didn’t stop her from showing her disdain with my chopstick technique. Because the restaurant served locals, not tourists, forks weren’t available. So, I had to bumble as best I could, occasionally sending pieces of meat, vegetables and rice skittering everywhere in an effort to get them to my mouth. She repeatedly showed me the proper technique, but it didn’t take, which only frustrated her more. The only person who was amused was the teacher, who saw me as the evening’s comic relief. Hey, it wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done.

When we got back to our hotel I called home to let everyone know I was okay, even though I couldn’t really afford the call. Since it was Memorial Day weekend back in the States, I wasn’t sure who’d be home, so I called my sister and left a message on her answering machine. I didn’t know what time it was, but I was sure it was late. So, I left the phone number and went back to my room to hang out with Sunny. When the phone at the front desk rang five minutes later, I looked at her and joked, “That must be Mom now.” Much to my shock, it was.

“Thank God you called. I was going to start calling embassies in the morning,” my mother said. Although the comment amused and irritated me at the same time, I had to admire her self-restraint. When I was incommunicado for only a week in Thailand she had seemed quite panicked. This time around I was out of contact for three weeks and she had only just started considering drastic measures. I wasn’t trying to torture her, I just couldn’t afford a $7 a minute phone call back to the States, not even a fax. And there was nowhere to send e-mail.

Once again, she said it would be a good idea for me to leave Vietnam. Once again, I refused.

After all, I still hadn’t seen Uncle Ho. 

Although I was too out of it to pay attention to my surroundings when we arrived, I began to get a sense of the city as we walked to the train station to buy Sunny a ticket for the next leg of her trip and then on to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Hanoi is to Ho Chi Minh City in the south what New York is to Los Angeles. It is the older, more established, more genteel city that serves as the country’s seat of government, while Ho Chi Minh is where the action is, deals are done, growth is explosive and the city is always on. Despite having more than a million people, Hanoi is sleepier and has retained more of its French colonial roots. There’s still plenty of traffic on its major thoroughfares on a Sunday night, but crossing the street isn’t the life and death affair it is in Saigon.

Much of the difference stems from the way the city runs. Because it is the center of Vietnam’s government, it is naturally more staid and more resistant to change. It’s also because of the city’s repressive past. Since Vietnam’s brand of Communism started here and worked south, the party’s policies had more time to take root, making it a stronger police state with all of the features associated with such a political structure, including human-rights violations, detentions of people seen as a threat to the government and secret informers providing police with a steady stream of anonymous denunciations. 

The North’s repression has eased in recent years, but its slow-to-fade hostility towards Westerners still resonates. Sometimes it sounds like the impact of anonymously launched rocks hitting the sides of passenger trains. At other times it manifests itself in the form of pieces of bread and other food flung at the feet of passersby on city streets. 

No one ever threw anything at me, but many of the backpackers I talked with along the way had suffered the indignity, even though they’d done nothing to deserve it. I can only recall one time when I experienced outright hostility during my visit to Hanoi–and I brought it on myself. It occurred when a young hawker showed Sunny a cheap piece of luggage with the word “tourist” in many different languages painted on it. I don’t know why I did it, but I told Sunny I didn’t know many travelers who would want to advertise their out-of-towner status.

“You might as well just paint a target on the side of the bag,” I said, archly.

“Fuck you,” he said, loudly.

Maybe the word is French, after all. 

Even the location of the incident reminded me of how different Hanoi feels from Saigon. 

The exchange took place a block away from Hoan Kiem Lake, a park in the center of the city. While there is a large garden-like area surrounding the Presidential Palace in Saigon, I still think of the loud, traffic-choked area near the Saigon River as being the city’s dominant element. When I think of Hanoi, however, I remember the lake featuring an island with the Tortoise Pagoda in the middle. I also remember the city’s wide boulevards, public parks and French colonial embassy buildings.

Hanoi may have an air of Old World charm and sophistication, but looks may be deceiving if the story I heard about the North’s takeover of Saigon is true. As legend has it, some of the first troops to hit Saigon were great fighters, but they weren’t too bright. When soldiers sacked the residences of Saigon’s well-to-do, they came across a device that allowed them to wash food before they ate it. So they put food in it, closed the lid and hit a lever at the top of the contraption. When they pulled up the lid after the water stopped, they were shocked to discover the food was gone. In anger and frustration, they smashed the toilet to bits. 

I had no idea Uncle Ho worked banker’s hours.

I foolishly assumed Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum operated like most of the country’s museums, closing for lunch at 11:30 and reopening around 1. The flaw in this theory is that Ho doesn’t need a lunch break . . . because he’s dead. But if he’s dead, why close at all? It isn’t like he’s not going to get enough sleep or has a long commute. The other flaw with the theory is that the mausoleum closes at 11:30 and doesn’t re-open. I didn’t discover this information, however, until I was in the train station around noon, reading my guidebook while waiting for Sunny to get her ticket to Naning, China. Given that LP had been wrong before, we walked to the landmark hoping to get in. Sadly, LP was right. 

Breaking bricks–something to do when you miss seeing Uncle Ho

The mausoleum may have been closed, but the sentries patrolling the place maintained their vigil and were quick to chase us off the vast expanse of sidewalk surrounding the building once we took pictures. There was no rule against standing in the middle of the wide boulevard near the site and snapping shots, however. Other than the rules of common sense.

Our mistake completely smashed my chances of going to Halong Bay because the mausoleum’s hours weren’t just limited to three hours a day; they were also limited to a few days a week. We’d planned to spend two days in Hanoi, go to Halong Bay and return late Thursday and leave early Friday. Unfortunately, the site is closed on Friday and I didn’t want to leave ‘Nam without seeing Ho. So we stayed.

We got up early to make sure we didn’t make the same mistake the following day, got dressed up (shorts are prohibited) and headed to Uncle Ho’s by 8:30, in case there were lines. 

I wasn’t going to see Ho for his historical value. I was going for the potential of hilarity. Although I’ve long been interested in graveyards and cemeteries, I’ve never been interested in corpses perhaps because Judaism forbids open casket funerals. I wanted to see Ho lying in state, however, because many backpackers said the whole spectacle was so wonderfully kitschy it was all they could do to keep from laughing (perhaps out of fear that the soldiers guarding the body might shoot them dead on the spot). I didn’t find the visit funny at all. I wanted to, but couldn’t. It wasn’t out of respect for Ho, though. It’s just that it all seemed so sad knowing that Ho never wanted to lie in state for eternity. He wanted to be cremated and have his  ashes scattered. Instead, he must lie here in state for 10 months a year with two months off for good behavior when his body is sent to Moscow for cleaning and maintenance.

Now, that’s funny. 

 I can just see some Vietnamese Party leader walking into a Russian One Hour Martinizing place in Moscow (which aren’t all that easy to find to begin with) and asking their rates:

CADRE: Excuse me, how much do you charge for dry cleaning?

PROPRIETOR: That depends on the item. Pants, 100 rubles; shirts, 75; and sweaters, 150. What have you got?

CADRE: What about a body?

P: Well, we have a special this week on dead Communist leaders. We can do it in three weeks for a million rubles. We charge an extra 100,000 for One Hour Martinizing and you have to remove all the change and personal items from the pockets before you bring him in. Just make sure you bring him in before next week because we’re expecting Lenin any day now and that’s always a rush job.

C: Could you Federal Express him back to Vietnam?

P: Throw in an extra 500,000 and you’ve got yourself a deal.

C: Fine, just one last question: What the hell is Martinizing, anyway?

Ho didn’t look waxy to me. In fact, he looked so life-like I expected him to wake up and yell, “Get the hell out of my living room” or move mechanically like an audio-animatron fresh out of Disney World and greet passersby in a deep, resonant American voice (it’s Disney, after all), saying, “Hello. . .I’m Uncle Ho.”

As we left I couldn’t resist stopping at a souvenir stand and buying a set of tacky postcards featuring tinted photos of Uncle Ho in his later years. One showed him walking with military leaders, another showed him working out and wearing boxing gloves and a third was a picture of him smoking as he sat at a typewriter. They were almost too funny to send to friends back home, but I had to share the wealth. On the back of the first one I wrote a note about “Ho and his boys in the ‘hood.” I sent the second one to Gena Shapiro telling her that the reports of Ho’s death were greatly exaggerated. I then said the picture on the front of the card proved it because it showed him working out as he prepared for his upcoming fight with George Foreman, which was scheduled in February 2010. I sent the last postcard to my niece.

Once we saw Ho we both felt it was time to move on. Sunny was headed to China (and tried to convince me to go with her) and I had cashed in my next-to-last traveler’s cheque and was almost out of money. When I learned there was an American Express office in town I rushed there hoping to get a cash advance, but the staffer in the tiny, one-person office up the street from Hanoi’s main bank told me the office didn’t do advances. It also didn’t offer emergency cash, refunds or replace stolen cards.

When I heard that I felt like saying, “Well, what can you do, then?” But I knew what her answer would have been. 

“Say ‘Hello.'”

The American Express Card, don’t leave home without it. 

Yeah, right. Go to someone else’s place and leave it.

Sunny and I spent much of the rest of the day rushing about trying to book passage out of the country. Sunny went from one government office to another trying to change her visa so she could take a train out of the country instead of flying out. As a result, I spent much of that time in government waiting rooms reading and falling asleep while I waited for her to determine it wasn’t possible. After hours of dealing with bureaucrats, she gave up and booked a flight on South China Airlines for the next afternoon. I used the last of my open airplane tickets to book an early morning flight to Hong Kong. 

It may not sound like much, but it was a momentous occasion. Using up the last leg of the ticket I bought in the States meant I was on my own when it came to finding transportation for the rest of the trip. While the thought of it would have panicked me when I was in Seattle, I was comfortable with the change. I knew I wanted to book passage to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway once I got to Hong Kong and work my way through Eastern Europe, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. Although I had heard about a backpacker travel agency that specialized in booking Trans-Siberian tickets, I was still so green a traveler that I didn’t even know the train left from Beijing, not Hong Kong. Even if I had known, it wouldn’t have bothered me because I felt smart enough to handle any challenge anyone could throw at me.

Although we weren’t Vietnamed-out at the start of the day, we had had enough by late afternoon. I was tired of chasing around with Sunny, she was tired of battling the bureaucracy and we were both disgusted with Hanoi’s uniquely obnoxious cyclo drivers. While cyclo drivers in most Vietnamese cities are content to just harass tourists as they walk by, these guys have their own special brand of marketing, which drove us crazy. When they see us looking down the street, they raised their arms into the our field of vision, waved and yelled something that sounded like “Yoo hoo!” It is a surprisingly effective and completely irritating technique because the sudden movement vision not only jars, it’s also so compelling that you feel you have to trace the movement to its source, which is, of course, a cyclo driver. Although I think just getting the attention of a potential customer should be enough, the drivers apparently disagree. They continue flailing their arms so that it’s quite difficult for the average traveler to concentrate on what they’re trying to find. 

Sunny put it best later, saying, “When someone bothers me, I usually just say, ‘Shit!’ but with cyclo drivers I want to say, ‘Fuck you!’ I want to shoot cyclo drivers.”

In celebration of our final night we agreed to go to a water puppet show with two of her Israeli friends we saw while rushing around Hanoi. Although Sunny was too tired to go, other backpackers had told me such great things about the show I just couldn’t miss it. I’m glad I went.

A water puppet show, like marionettes, but the controls are under water.

For me, the big attraction was figuring out what the hell a water puppet was. Were they marionettes made out of water? Was the show performed in the middle of a lake? If so, how did the puppeteers move the strings on their charges? Remote control or some weird platform set up? 

The answer: none of the above. Instead, the shows were performed inside a playhouse that looked like any other with one major exception. The floor of the stage was water and, as far as I was able to piece together, the puppeteers stand in the water behind a large piece of machinery and use controls underneath the puppets rather than above. As well, instead of entering from stage left or right, the stars in these plays swim in from left, right or center. 

I thought I’d outgrown puppet shows, but not this one. The movements of the characters were more fluid than marionettes, the stories were fun, the choreography was amazing and it was easy to understand because there was no dialogue. One of my favorite scenes centered on daily life in a village and started out slowly with one puppet on stage but ended with rows of farmers tending crops and harvesting rice in unison. It wasn’t “Miss Saigon,” but it wasn’t supposed to be. I enjoyed it immensely.

Sunny had a surprise waiting for me when I returned to the hotel. She sat me down, looked at me seriously and said, “There is not a man, woman or child alive today that doesn’t love tasty beverage.” I don’t surprise or shock easily. Even on this trip it took a lot to truly rock my world, but Sunny’s memorizing the phrase delighted me and sent me into a minute-long laughing fit. When the tears finally cleared, it took me a half-hour to persuade her to let me record her saying the phrase. I didn’t have a tape recorder, but I did have a laptop with recording capabilities so we spent the next hour trying to get it right. I also recorded her saying one of the favorite phrases of all children in Vietnam, “You buy postcard from me?” The high ceiling in our room gives the recording an echo-like quality, but it was still on my laptop years later. I use it as an error message. Whenever I hit the wrong button I hear her again and that last evening in Vietnam comes rushing back. I don’t have many other souvenirs of Vietnam. Just a cone-shaped hat, a Hard Rock Saigon polo shirt and some money. The sound of Sunny’s voice is my favorite.


Maybe I should have kissed Sunny goodbye. After all, I was curious to see what it would be like, but I didn’t want to offend her or get slapped. So, we held hands briefly and then I left, taking a cyclo to the Vietnam Airlines office where I picked up an airport shuttle. Ironically, it was the only time during my entire stay in Vietnam when a cyclo driver quoted an acceptable rate on the first try. 

Just before the shuttle left, a guy whom I thought looked strikingly similar to the hotel manager rushed up to the shuttle. To me, this was a sign that it was time to leave because all Vietnamese were beginning to look alike. It turned out that it was the hotel manager, however. Apparently, he had given me the wrong visa when I left. It’s a good thing. I don’t look even remotely Korean. 

By the time I finished paying the hotel manager, the cyclo driver, the shuttle driver and customs agents, I was all out of cash except for a $50 travelers cheque and the American Express card that no one should leave home without. It should have been plenty, but it wasn’t because, well, it wasn’t. The airport restaurants wouldn’t accept the cheques, the duty-free shops would only take it if I spent half the face value in the store and wouldn’t accept the card unless I purchased at least $150 in merchandise. Since my backpack was full, this was not an option. As a result, I found myself trying to convince a merchant to take an American Express card for a bag of M&Ms.

Having nothing better to do besides listening to my stomach rumble, I took out the postcard of Uncle Ho sitting at a typewriter smoking and wrote a silly note to my niece. I don’t remember how it happened, but at some point during this trip I began writing her short, silly notes with twisted histories that were far too mature for her to understand. It may have been that I was trying to amuse myself or maybe, just maybe, I was trying to amuse and embarrass her parents since I knew they would have to explain it all when they read it to her. 

Regardless of my reasoning, I had a good time writing the following note:

Dear Lindsay:

Uncle Ho told me to tell you he says, “Hello.”

He would have said hello to you himself but he can’t because he’s dead.

Dead, dead, dead.

He died because he smoked too many cigarettes while writing you this letter. 

In case you don’t know who Uncle Ho is, I will tell you.  

He is the founder of the Ho Chi Minh Underground Railroad Trail, which was used by Viet Cong soldiers to harass American soldiers during the Vietnam War, and also used to smuggle slaves to freedom in the North during the American Civil War.

Uncle David would love to write more but he can’t  because he’s about to run out of space and because he’s hungry.

Hungry, hungry, hungry.

He is hungry because he is out of money, none of the restaurants will take travelers cheques and he couldn’t convince a shopkeeper to accept an American Express card for a bagful of M&M’s.

Which is why he finds himself sitting, starving in the Hanoi Airport early in the morning, hanging out with Uncle Ho and drinking beer.

Beer, beer, beer. My only true friend.

Yours Hungrily, 

Uncle David

Thank God, Vietnam Airlines served breakfast. 

The first thing I saw once I cleared customs at the Hong Kong airport was an American Express cash machine.

Go figure.