You know you are in a communist country when the first place you are taken to on your visit to the capital is a mausoleum of the country’s dead leader.
Similar to his predecessor in Moscow, Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body encased in a glass tomb and guarded by the military is set inside a Greek-temple-like mausoleum towering over this chaotic city. “Uncle Ho” is still worshiped here almost as if he were a supreme being, although, it seems to me, not as much as his Russian and Chinese counterparts.
The rest of the city doesn’t come off as communist. Free enterprise is not penalized here and is flourishing. It’s communism light in this country.
The old quarter of Hanoi where we are staying is a remnant of its more glorious past. If you squint your eyes and imagine that the loud store signs are torn off the buildings, the cheap merchandise from the shops has evaporated, the tangled mesh of low hanging wires and bulky air conditioning units are gone off the walls, you will see the streets as they once were, or as they could have been, or maybe might have been. The buildings would regain their bright and pastel colors, the balconies would be adorned with flowers, and the trees lining both sides of the street would shade rickshaws rather than motorbikes and cars.
A throwback to the time of yore was our lunch at Home, a Vietnamese restaurant with a French accent housed in one such old city house restored to its former glory: vividly yellow in color, with green shutters, a courtyard, lanterns, exposed brick walls on the inside, and wooden painted tables. It was beautiful on the inside and the outside and served exquisite Vietnamese fare.
Street food in Hanoi, however, doesn’t do it for me. Nothing on the stands lining the streets entices me or looks appetizing. Besides, its hygienic merit is questionable. Vietnamese people, though, seem to like it a lot. They sit on the impossibly low plastic stools along the road and gobble it all up. The closest I came to street food, was with coffee. On Marla’s friend’s recommendation, we sought out a coffee shop at the end of a narrow alley. It was grungy and oddly reminded me of an opium den. Instead of opium, it served egg coffee: vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk that had been mixed with egg yolks whipped with sugar. You mixed this concoction into your coffee and drunk it. It was delicious! The whole place was filled with Vietnamese kids sitting on their low plastic stools, drinking coffee, and eating sunflower seeds spitting the shells on the ground. Marla and I shocked our Vietnamese guide by joining the crowd, while he was trying to direct us to a more appropriated for the tourists establishment
The old city doesn’t have any traffic lights or stop signs. The motorbikes and cars decide for themselves who goes first, and it’s a miracle, we haven’t seen any accidents. Crossing a street means taking your life into your own hands. You just have to carefully navigate between the moving vehicles and pray that they would stop before running you over. Our guide took us by the hands quite a few times to cross the street as if we were little kids. Even a huge, multi-street intersection doesn’t have any traffic lights. It’s an obstacle course, a video game in which you are a moving target being chased by the hordes of rushing and honking vehicles.