An, my new translator and guide, met me outside the hotel first thing in the morning and off we went on his scooter to run errands and see some of Hanoi. He still wouldn’t commit to a price so I named a fair one for three hours work and he said it was good. I first mailed some silk and other items back to Seattle. The main Hanoi Post Office occupies a full block overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, where the giant turtle lives, and has a special entrance for international mail staffed by English speakers. A woman who works there even wrapped the box in butcher paper and taped it up for me. Then to the pharmacy for cold tablets, weaving through the fierce Hanoi traffic.
As near as I can tell there are three notions that govern Hanoi traffic: 1) Whoever gets there first has an indisputable right to occupy the space, no matter how he got there; 2) Traffic lights are mere aspirational goals without the force and effect of law; and 3) Never take anything personally. These apply to pedestrians as well, who are regarded as vehicles without wheels. The hotel advises its guests to stride purposefully into the crossing and keep moving forward at all times, which is excellent counsel. I quickly got used to it and it appears to work. I heard lots of horns sounding but heard no screaming or gunshots, and saw no fingers displayed.
We travelled on the scooter down very tight back alleys to the location where the remains of a United States Air Force B-52, shot down during a December, 1972 bombing raid on Hanoi, can still be seen in a small lake. Although the lake is now surrounded by homes and even an elementary school, An told me that these were built well after the fact, and that in 1972 the area was largely agricultural.
I looked it up later and was reminded that the plane was shot down during the highly controversial 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi ordered by President Nixon allegedly to restart peace negotiations. There is a detailed article about that period of the war at the Smithsonian website.
Next we went to the Hoa Lo prison which began as a colonial French gaol for Vietnamese agitators seeking independence and was later turned into a prisoner of war camp for captured United States fliers, including John McCain, whose flight suit is prominently displayed. This is the place the American prisoners dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, It is grim, its high wall topped with broken bottles and shards of glass embedded in concrete by the French in the days before razor wire.
After the prison we rode past the Vietnam Ministry of Finance building which I assumed dated back to colonial days. In fact, An said, it was built within the last few years, which surprised me as I would not expect the Vietnamese to keep to that style in new government buildings, as it must be hugely expensive. It fits in well with the architectural style of the city.
There is now an authentic Hilton Hotel in Hanoi, not far from the Metropole.
This dog was chained to the low wall surrounding the lake where the remains of the B-52 are situated. When I came upon it it was making nice with a young Vietnamese mother and her 2 year old child. As soon as it saw me, however, it commenced this savage display of racial animosity that continued as I walked around the lake. Notice the raised hair on its back. When I got back to the scooter I asked An to participate in a sociological experiment by walking past the animal and he refused, citing a painful encounter with what I assume was a White Supremacist dog in his youth.
If anyone plans a trip to Hanoi, by the way, I can highly recommend An as a personal translator and tour guide. Send me an email and I will forward his contact information.