Breakfast at the Metropole Hotel, Hanoi is quintessential time warp. Baskets of perfect freshly-baked buttery Croissants and Pain-au-Chocolates bookend one end of the buffet. Decor is French colonial Art Nouveau. There is music, of course. It is subtle, of course. It switches to the soundtrack from A Man and a Woman, that most romantic of all 60’s movies. I have instant recall. I see the beach at Deauville, the dog gamboling in the surf, an iconic metaphor for pure joy, excitement and promise of love. That was light years from Hanoi in the 60’s. So is this and I almost have to pinch myself. I order tea attempting to return to reality. Today we visit Uncle Ho.
Outside the morning is raw and rainy as we head to Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place. In his lifetime he eschewed trappings of power and promoted a fatherly Uncle Ho demeanor. His wish,
it is said, was to be cremated and his ashes scattered in north, central and south Vietnam, symbolizing the country’s unification, to which he had devoted his life. His cause may have been accomplished but the Vietnamese government politburo, aided by the Russians, saw a grand resting place for their hero. So Uncle Ho’s wishes were sidelined and he lies, for ten months of the year, in a mausoleum reminiscent of those honoring Lenin and Mao. (September through December he is in Moscow for maintenance).
The building is heavy and ponderous, built with marble from a mountain near Danang. The design inspiration was a lotus flower but something was lost in translation. It looms forbiddingly rectangular in a large park fronting a vast bleak parade ground. We line up. Single file we are reminded. Children also line up. Security is serious, no cameras, phones or electronics. Rules for comportment are rigid, no mini-skirts or shorts (too cold anyway). The line inches forward eventually snaking into the back of the building. All hats are removed. We must take our hands from our pockets where they were keeping warm. White uniformed guards eye us somberly, impassively as we eventually enter the cavernous dimly-lit interior and see a glass sarcophagus. We continue inching along around three sides of the case where Uncle Ho lies peacefully in simple clothes, hands crossed.
Back outside we head to Ho Chi Minh’s simple but attractive stilt house where he lived and worked, prefering that to the mansion of the former French Governor of Indochina. The stilt house is by a lake filled with carp – where there were fishing opportunities for him – says the guide. Though the idea of him calmly fishing for his supper while creating the Ho Chi Minh trail seems somewhat far fetched.
Leaving the mausoleum complex we head back out into the swirl and eddy of the traffic tsunami which overtakes city streets. Motorcycles with kumquat trees, tomato plants and flat-screened TV’s riding pillion. Eventually we return to the Metropole Hotel, a
venerable grand dame who has shaken off the ravages of the war years in true Parisian style and emerged elegant, unscathed and more beautiful than ever. Two vintage pre-World War II Citroen’s flank the front entrance and it is easy to imagine Noel Coward, Graham Green and Charlie Chaplin, on his honeymoon, walking up the front steps with its elegant iron balustrade. It was once considered the finest hotel in all of Indochina. Now restored, and in a communist Vietnam which sought to eradicate every vestige of French colonial influence, Hermes and other French luxury fashion icons have boutiques and appear to do a brisk business. This too seems incongruous and surreal. Today was surreal. It is clearly time to head for the bar, reflect on the day’s events, experiences, images and dichotomies. With a glass of fine French Champagne of course. TTFN