Tea with Ho Chi Minh
Back above ground we chewed on tapioca and peanuts (the V.C. staple foods) and watched a documentary beneath a portrait of Uncle Ho. Grainy black and white footage, newsreel style. Vietnamese guitar music. Out in the jungle under decades of merciless attack by the French and then the US, the guerillas were always happy, nobody ever had disagreements. Cut to laughing V.C. guerilla chewing tapioca. Story of peasant girl winning ‘Most Killer of Americans’ Award. The narrator seemed to have a Vietnamese–Australian accent.
We took a boat back down the Saigon River to the city. Soon enough I left Saigon and flew to Nha Trang for scuba diving off Mun Island. I read Maugham’s The Book Bag on the beach. From there I took a sleeper train north to Da Nang. My two mates and I were herded into a ‘hard bed’ carriage. I had never done a sleeper train before. I wasn’t expecting North by Northwest and Eva Marie Saint, but I hoped for some rest.
This, however, was much worse than a simple train seat. Two triple bunk beds per compartment. There was a Vietnamese family in the bottom bunks, so I was assigned a top bunk. The space between the top bunk and the ceiling replicated the dimensions of a coffin. The mattress was indeed hard, like all beds in Vietnam. This was okay. Not too much coiled pubic hair on the top sheet.
We three guys dumped our backpacks and went to the dining carriage. The walls were hospital green and spattered with a half century of dirt, grime, food. We sat at a scratched table on torn leatherette seats and ordered round after round of Heineken at $1(US) a can. Merriment for all. We talked old school memories and women. We stopped short of slurring Cold Chisel’s Australian rock classic Khe Sanh. Should we sit out the ten-hour train ride in the dining carriage rather than cram ourselves into our coffins? Good idea. Fill me a bottle of sack!
Half a dozen drinks later, at midnight, the workers in the dining cart stopped their poker game. They needed the booth tables for beds. We were gestured out. No worries. But, considering our spirited imbibing, a bladder draining was in order for two of us. Earlier we’d passed the bathrooms: tiny cubicles, an aluminum floor, footrests, and a gaping hole. An inch of sloshing, steaming piss. Luckily my shoes were waterproof. Come midnight my mate and I encountered locked doors on the toilets in each carriage. We found a blue-uniformed train attendant.
“Toilet?” we asked.
She frowned with disgust and waved us away. Undesirables. “But we have to use the toilet!” Same reaction, now more vehement. We stalked up the carriage and found another attendant. Identical response. Disgust. Dismissal. The implication? You bloody Westerners should have gone at the allotted time. These hundreds of other comrades went when they were allowed. Now it’s lights out. With all the authoritarianism of primary school teachers, they were declaring power of attorney over our bladders.
I pissed into a sink while my mate stood guard. “Hold it!” he hissed. “She’s coming back!” Hasty pause and zip. My bladder muscles were put to the test. The guard herded us into our dark compartment and slammed the cattle door. Our tipsiness had faded. We fumbled up into our bunks. My mate reached sadly for an empty water bottle. Not me! I jumped back down from my bunk and tried to open the door. It wouldn’t open. Locked? No, just jammed. I wrenched it open and scurried to the sink and let two litres flow in a big wonderful gush.
From Da Nang we moved on to Hue and then by plane to Hanoi. Looking across Hoan Kiem Lake and its Ngoc Son Temple, I had a long lunch and espresso with cognac. It was cooler in Hanoi, rainy and grey, but thickly humid. A bulky Italian woman staggered from the restaurant bathroom, vomited on the tiles, and collapsed into her mess. Her leathery travel companions faced the lake and left it to the waiters to mop her up. I strode along the grand French boulevards that circle the lake.
I checked into a hotel in the Old Quarter, narrow streets dense with motorbikes and scooters, buses, pedestrians, touts, backpackers, kids. Two-or three-story buildings throughout. Although the district predates the French by nearly 900 years, the Old Quarter in 2010 seems like Paris of the ‘20s. A Moveable Feast. At dawn you wake to a swelling cacophony of scooter horns, barking dogs, music, people singing and screaming, buzzsaws, jackhammers.
Outside you have to walk with the traffic because the footpaths are taken over by workers carving tombstones, cross–legged butchers cleaving hunks of pork or beef or chicken, women washing their hair in tin buckets, vendors selling hotdogs and iced tea, mounds of flaming fake money, hundreds of parked motor scooters, dozens of little plastic stools upon which people squat to eat noodle soup cooked on oil stoves. Of course, the street never has less than a few hundred scooters hooting their way through the pedestrians. There are cluttered shopfronts selling bespoke suits, pho, furniture, tours to Ha Long Bay. Narrow alleys at the end of which you spy courtyards where half-naked men doze watching telenovelas.
Along Pho Gia Ngu begins the food market, a cluster of stalls under canvas. You find women sitting over buckets of still-writhing fish, lobsters, eels, crabs, shrimp. Women butcher the fish on chopping boards, blood runs onto the muddy concrete, a scooter blurts through. Other stalls sell every kind of vegetable.
The clouds cleared above Hanoi. The city was steaming. I walked through the broad streets of the French Quarter, dodging dangling electric cables and excavated pavement, and arrived at the Metropole Hotel, built in 1901. The Sofitel chain has restored the place to a prohibitively expensive grandeur. Greene used to stay here in the early ‘50s before the French lost at Dien Bien Phu. At the outdoor bar, La Terrasse du Metropole, I ordered a ‘Graham Greene’, a concoction of gin, vermouth, and crème de cassis under an icy slush, his preferred cocktail. Other cocktails were named in honour of former guests such as Charlie Chaplin and W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour at the hotel.
It was now time to depart Hanoi for Siem Reap in Cambodia, but I had time for one last social call. According to his book of autobiographical essays, Ways of Escape, Graham Greene took tea with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi in 1955. Feeling ill on the day of the meeting, Greene calmed his stomach with opium pipes and Eno’s. Well, Uncle Ho is still in Hanoi and my stomach felt fine. I lined up outside his cold stone temple, was asked to surrender my knives – I had none – and followed the procession. Armed soldiers marched us along. Be quiet. Remove your sunglasses. Bow your head. We filed inside the building. Darkness. A glass coffin. Chalky hands resting on a chalky black blanket. That white goatee. All I can say is I hope I look so good at 119.
Cau Go Street in the Old Quarter, Hanoi / Photo (partial) by © Ben Packham