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Hanoi: My Fond Memories

by: Frank Nhat Trinh

Frank Nhat Trinh, lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, Australia returned in 1991 to Vietnam after a 17-year absence from the South and a 36-year absence from the North. It was in the North that he spent his boyhood, and his memories of this period in his life came flooding back…


Back to the North

I arrived at Noi Bai Airport at 4pm after a two-hour flight from Tan Son Nhat Airport on Vietnam Airlines. Foreigners or overseas Vietnamese travelling on foreign passports would have to pay $US150 one way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, whereas Vietnamese nationals would pay about two-thirds less. When I was processed through the airport, a Vietnam Airlines hostess informed me that I had about 15 kilos of excess baggage and that I had to pay $US21, which I did. Maximum baggage is 20kg. I was a bit annoyed at having to pay excess as everything was in order when I left Tan Son Nhat earlier in the day. I was also a bit puzzled as to why I suddenly had excess baggage. It wasn't until later that I came to realize that I should have carried one piece as hand luggage.

Noi Bai Airport lies north-east of Hanoi, about a half-hour drive from the Thang Loi Hotel. Along with the other delegates, I went by bus to the Thang Loi Hotel which overlooks the West Lake. The weather was mild and cool, about 20o Celsius. Along the road, I could see luminescent green paddy fields. Away in the distance, I could just discern, along a country lane, the figures of children coming home from school in their warm clothes, together with peasant women wearing their conical hats and carrying baskets on a pole straddled across their shoulders; the sights of yester-year still very much in evidence.

When we passed through some residential areas, I saw at least three billboards advertising the virtues of Bún Chả Chó (Rice Vermicelli with Barbecued Dog Meat). Luckily, my Australian colleagues travelling with me on the bus didn't ask for a translation. A moment later, the tourist guide, Hoa, announced that we were about to come to the Long Bien Bridge over the Red River. The water of the river was described as having a reddish colour, but I didn't see it as such.

As we drove on I noticed that a lot of brick houses were being built. A popular spoonerism in Vietnamese [đầu tiên (the first thing) vs tiền đâu (where's the money?)] came suddenly to my mind. Rumours have it that in any dealing with government officials at all levels, to get anything done, the first thing one should ask oneself is whether one can afford "under the table" payments. When we arrived at the hotel, Vien, a solicitor friend from Sydney, who had recently arrived from Bangkok, was waiting for me. Quang, a cousin of mine, had left me a message with his telephone number at the hotel reception desk, I knew then he'd called with my sister Nhan as they were expecting me on the earlier flight.


In the evening, I went with Vien in a hired Toyota Corolla to see Nhan at Uncle Chuan's on Tran Hung Dao Street where we had dinner. Uncle Chuan and his wife introduced their children Quang, Thu Ha, her husband and daughter, and Minh Hoa. I was told that their eldest son, Chuong, had died of illness over ten years ago. Thu Ha is a graduate from a College of Fine Arts. Her husband works at the Swedish Embassy. Minh Hoa, Uncle Chuan's youngest daughter, had just arrived home two months previously from Iraq where she had served as a nurse. Uncle Chuan was a veteran of the Dien Bien Phu battle, and was covered with scars. He later told me the house they were living in had belonged to a wealthy friend of my father, known as Uncle Man. Thinking about Uncle Man, I remembered quite a tragic story. As the story goes, Uncle Man's beautiful but arrogant daughter treated her many suitors very badly. To avenge themselves, the suitors dressed up a pedicab driver and sent him to court her. She apparently fell in love with him and became pregnant, which was an horrendous disgrace to the family in those times. Also, it would have been unthinkable for the family to have let her marry a pedicab driver; I asked Uncle Chuan's wife what had happened to this girl, and she told me she was living in poverty. She would be an old woman of about sixty now. When the Communists first came to Hanoi, the wealthy were stripped of their possessions, so it came about that Uncle Man's house was confiscated. Uncle Chuan became a somewhat high-ranking official and took over Uncle Man's French-style villa. From Uncle Man's point of view, it was better for Chuan to have it rather than the Government. At least it was still in the family.

The villa is now divided into a great many rooms, all occupied by various other families. I couldn't believe the fact that Uncle Chuan's family and mine had been invited to have dinner in the very same house where Uncle Chuan had once entertained us with his stories and Vietnamese and Chinese revolutionary songs, not long after the Geneva Agreement was signed, dividing Vietnam in two. We had been in Hanoi at that time, visiting, as we were on our way South. It was early 1955 and we had travelled by overnight train from Haiphong to Hanoi. I remembered the evening we took leave of Uncle Chuan, his wife and his eldest son Chuong, he and my father walked up and down the platform of Hanoi Central Railway Station (Ga Hàng Cỏ), chatting for a full hour. Not only did Uncle Chuan not ask us to stay on in the North, but he also told my father that for the sake of the children's education it would be better to go South.

I also met Son, my sister's son at Uncle Chuan's place. The minute the car pulled up in front of the old villa, Son was beside the car, chattering excitedly and embracing me enthusiastically and calling me "uncle". I revelled in his welcome although the term họ hàng (relatives) came unwittingly to mind. "Southerners welcome their họ (relatives), while Northerners welcome their hàng (goods)", as people in the South often comment in a sarcastic way. When the North and South became one country after the war, the much poorer Northerners came South to visit their relatives, with requests for financial help or gifts.

A tourist in my native land

On our way back to the Thang Loi Hotel we stopped to look at the Ngoc Son Temple and the The Huc Bridge on the Hoan Kiem Lake. I remembered the last time I'd been here early in 1955. It was day-time then and the place was crowded with uniformed Viet Minh soldiers--at least the part of the lake near the shopping area. While fighting in the jungle, away from civilisation, they blackened their teeth, possibly to preserve them or for camouflage, I'm not sure exactly why they did this. The last time I was here, they were all attending makeshift dentists to have their teeth cleaned and whitened. For women it was once considered attractive to blacken their teeth, but perhaps not for the men. At that time the colour of the lake had turned green with falling leaves. On my present journey I couldn't see the colour of the lake as it was night and the area wasn't lit. Vien and I walked onto the bridge to pose for photographs and in the process disturbed many courting couples who'd come there for privacy.

Afterwards, we drove back to the Thang Loi Hotel which is a fair way out of Hanoi. The hotel had about 170 rooms and I was told that it had been built by Cuba in the early sixties, but perhaps because of a shortage of paying customers, it didn't seem quite up to standard, although it is recommended as the best on offer for foreign tourists. I could smell the mould in some of the rooms and before we left the Saigon Floating Hotel, we were told by the Qantas Jetabout Holidays people not to drink or even clean our teeth with the water in the North. We were also advised to sleep under mosquito nets, use insect repellent and wear long-sleeved shirts. I didn't heed the warnings too much, but I did use the net although there didn't appear to be any mosquitos in the room at the time. The mosquito net was in a wooden box with a hinged door above the bed and the net spilled out when you opened the door, and spread tentlike over the bed. When I went to the toilet that night, there was a cockroach about the size of my thumb in the wash basin. I instinctively reached for the Mortein which wasn't on hand. I then grabbed the fellow in a piece of toilet paper and flushed it down the toilet, feeling quite pleased with my bravery.

One morning I was up very early, about 5.30am and walked onto the balcony to look over the lake. The balcony sat above the waterline. In the peace of early morning, everything was very still and a mist drifted over the lake. I watched fishermen in their tiny craft plying their nets. Not so unusual perhaps, but what was unusual was the fact that instead of moving the oars with their hands, the fishermen lay back in the boat and worked the oars with their feet. There was nothing on the oar at all to hook their feet into.

Breakfast was from 6.30am-8.30am. It was difficult to distinguish whether we had been served coffee, milk or tea as each one was served in three different teapots. You had to lift each lid to see what was inside and sometimes the knob on the lid wasn't there or the spout was slightly broken, but it was still considered alright to use them. The blank-faced waitresses served us in a very perfunctionary manner, never smiling or making us welcome. To be fair, they are possibly employed by the Government, which strips people of any motivation.

Another morning I went on a short bus tour with other members of the delegation to see the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the Hanoi Museum and the Temple of Literature. While the others were still looking through the Museum, I left them to make my way to the Temple of Literature. The Temple was built in the 11th century, and was originally used as a school for children of the Royal Family. It was dedicated to Confucius. In the courtyard, there were 82 stelae, of varying heights, inscribed with the names of noted academic achievers. Around noon, I hired a pedicab, after some bargaining with the driver, to go to Uncle Chuan's. I met my sister's oldest daughter, Loan, and her husband and son who had come to Hanoi on business.


Nhan accompanied me by pedicab to Nga Tu So where I visited Loc. Loc's family had been tenants in my parents' house in Haiphong and we had grown up together almost like brother and sister. I remembered Loc at 15 bursting with life and young womanhood. No wonder one of my friends Chi had a crush on her. Loc, together with her younger brother and sisters, had quite an unhappy childhood. They used to be constantly beaten by their mother. Loc, being the oldest child, seemed to come in for more than her share of the beatings. To this day I have never seen anyone as violent as Loc's mother. She died of some type of cancer, while the children were still young. As a teenager, Loc loved singing as much as the rest of us. The only trouble was that she sang loudly and very much out of tune, which irritated me. Ironically, after Loc's family left our house for Hanoi in the mid-fifties, she joined her auntie, Khánh Hợi, a famous classical Vietnamese singer, in her theatrical group and spent eight years in show business.

But the Loc who stood before me now was an old peasant woman. Her house was on the south-western outskirts of Hanoi, in a small narrow alley, quite a walk from the main road, past a public toilet and we had to hold our noses as we walked past. Loc's husband is a veteran from the war. Their house was typical of those on the outskirts, having a pond nearby with a deck where people wash themselves or their clothes.

After chatting for a while, my sister and I hired a pedicab to visit Loc's youngest sister, Hong. To show the way, Loc went ahead on her bicycle with her grandson on the pillion seat. Hong's place was on the third floor of a dilapidated block of flats. Loc wheeled her bicycle up a narrow ramp which was set in the middle of the stairway for the purpose. The flat was bare of any furniture except for a wardrobe and a bed. We all sat together on the bed while we talked. I didn't really remember much about Hong as she was only about six when I left Haiphong. She was a stranger to me. I was told that her husband had been in Czechoslovakia for the past three years working as a labourer but he rarely sent money home. She had three children to support--the youngest about six years old. I felt distressed by her situation and although it wasn't much, I borrowed back some money I had given to my sister and gave Loc and Hong 30,000 dong each. I had intended to visit Loc's brother, Duc, and another sister, Bich, but time was running short, and I wanted to call in at the Australian Embassy.

The Embassy

Loc left her bicycle at Hong's place and we walked to the main road to wait for a pedicab. After quite a wait and no pedicab, an army-style jeep came along. The jeep pulled up and Loc seemed to know what to do. The driver asked us where we wanted to go, and when we told him he said he was going that way. It's common practice that anyone travelling in motorised transport will give lifts to people for a bit of spare cash. The Embassy was at No. 66 Ly Thuong Kiet and we were dropped off at an intersection. We thought it would be only a short walk but soon realised that each number in the street had a letter attached to it, for instance, following No. 32 were Nos. 32A, 32B, 32C, etc. We walked for ages, with Loc carrying her grandchild. Everytime we thought we were getting close, we were just as far as ever. We finally arrived at No. 66. The building was a two-storeyed, ivory white French villa. I was told that it is to be included in the proposed restoration of the old sector of Hanoi. Some restoration was already in progress on the premises.

I had some difficulty with the uniformed Vietnamese guard at the gate. He wanted me to produce a "travel permit", which allows people to travel from place to place in Vietnam. As my Australian passport was with the travel agency, I produced my driver's licence, gold at that, but he was not impressed. He became a bit sarcastic, suggesting that I have become used to the good life, but I didn't buy into that. Thinking that he was too used to people bribing him to gain entrance to the Embassy, I explained that I merely wanted to visit the Ambassador as we had been exchanging correspondence for the past few months. Because I was so adamant, he eventually backed down and let me in. Later, I was told by my driver that a packet of cigarettes would have made all the difference.

I had to wait for a while as the Ambassador had visitors and I hadn't made an appointment. Finally, I was ushered in and during the course of our conversation, I asked his advice regarding my proposed trip to Haiphong the following day, because, as an Australian citizen, I didn't know whether there might be any travel restrictions outside Hanoi. He made the suggestion that I get in touch with Hanoi Tourism, whose office was just around the corner, and intimated that I hire a car to make the trip quicker and more comfortable. I also made the suggestion to him that perhaps the Embassy might conduct an ESL test for those interested in entering an Australian tertiary institution. The Ambassador, Mr. Graham Alliband, said if there were any voluntary organisations prepared to run the tests then the Embassy would play a supporting role. He then gave me the telephone and Fax numbers of the Melbourned-based Overseas Service Bureau and suggested that I contact them on my return to Australia. Coincidentally, I had in fact met an employee of this agency, Ms Barbara Mullock, on the inaugural day of the language education conference held in Ho Chi Minh City as we lunched at a Vietnamese restaurant on Saturday, 30 March.

In the evening, in a hired Toyota, we returned my sister, Loc and her grandson home. Then Vien, Mike and myself went to do some shopping in Hoa Ma, Hang Ngang and Hang Dao Streets because Mike wanted to buy some silk and other gifts for his wife and daughter. Vien also bought an embroidered circular tablecloth. The driver then suggested a meal of chả cá (cubed fried fish) at the La Vong Restaurant which is famous for this particular dish. The dish well justified its reputation. I found bún (rice vermicelli), Hanoi style, particularly good, being freshly made, coming from the press in plump, white strings much tastier than packet style. Chả cá is usually eaten with a mixture of shrimp paste with lemon juice and chilli. For those who don't enjoy the smell of shrimp paste they can have a combination of fish sauce and chilli instead. For both the fish and local beer (Brand "333") we paid just over 50,000 dong ($A12). Later we joined the others at what had been described as a variety show but the program simply included a number of traditional songs mostly from the highland areas of Vietnam.

Frank Trinh

17 June 1991


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