TheDC’s Jamie Weinstein: Hanging in Hanoi — and surviving to tell about it

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

HANOI — Translated into English, Hanoi means city of motor scooters. Or at least it should. Because if there is one take away from the capital of Vietnam, it is that everyone drives one — recklessly.

Ninety-five percent of registered vehicles in Vietnam are motorbikes or scooters, according to one report. And judging from my short trip to Hanoi at the end of November, they are all driven atrociously. It’s outrageous, actually. We’ve occupied countries for less offensive behavior, but considering our unpleasant historical experience in Vietnam, I think the country is safe for the time being.

Scooters on the road.

In all seriousness, Hanoi has what you could call a suicidal driving culture. Each time you cross the street, you risk your life. I’m barely exaggerating. You have to perform what amounts to a suicidal dance if you don’t want to remain on the same block for eternity. Crossing the street is like playing Russian roulette.

Here’s how it’s played in Hanoi. You begin by turning your head to stare at the oncoming traffic. Then you slowly — very slowly — limp across the street. You must make sure you keep eye contact with the oncoming traffic at all times. Your goal is to be predictable in your movements. It is the motor scooters’ responsibility to maneuver around you.

And the suicidal driving culture doesn’t just manifest itself in the street-crossing dance: You can also see it in how their busing system operates. I witnessed this wizardry when I made the four-hour trek, each way, outside of Hanoi to Ha Long Bay (pro tip: It’s not worth it.)

I wasn’t in a bus for the journey. I was in a car. All of a sudden a bus would zoom past the car at breakneck speed. A local traveling with me referred to it as a flying coffin. I didn’t get the reference the first time, but when buses kept recklessly weaving in and out of oncoming traffic to get ahead of each other, I asked what the hell was going on.

I was told that the buses were owned by different families. And if one family’s bus got to where the passengers were before another, they basically got all the profit. So buses race each other, risking the lives of their passengers, themselves and everyone else on the road, in order to be first to the waiting customers. Hence, flying coffins. I can’t find any confirmation of this system on the Internet, but it seems like a reasonable explanation for why the bus drivers were acting like they were Jeff Gordon (or whatever NASCAR driver is currently famous).

It came as no surprise then that I read in the local English language paper about a televised memorial ceremony dedicated to victims of traffic accidents that took place while I was in country. At least 11,000 people died in traffic accidents in Vietnam in 2010, though there is apparently good reason to believe that the number is much higher.

On a more positive note, Hanoi’s scooters often carry interesting cargo. Kids play “Punch Buggy” in the United States, saying the color of a Volkswagen Beetle when ever they spot one. In Hanoi, my guess is that the equivalent game is “Punch Scooter,” but instead of naming the scooter’s color, kids say what the scooter is carrying. You’ve got “Motor Scooter, caged chickens” and “Motor Scooter, flower shop” and “Moto Scooter, piglets” and so on and so forth.

Even outside of its bat-shit crazy driving culture, Hanoi is an intriguing city. By government dictate, Vietnam’s late revolutionary communist leader Ho Chi Minh is deified. The city’s most highlighted tourist attraction is his mausoleum. They are very serious about it. Very serious. Soldiers dressed in formal white uniforms guard it. As you wait in line to enter, the soldiers demand that you take your hands out of your pocket and refrain from talking.

Inside the tomb, Ho Chi Minh’s body lays in the middle of the room, as if he is taking a nap, with four more guards surrounding it. I wanted to flick off the Mr. Miyagi looking corpse, but the risk of getting shot for doing so was prohibitive. Or, if not shot, detained like international outlaw Tucker Carlson was in 2000. So I refrained.

Despite the fact that the system Ho Chi Minh advocated has only brought misery and death to Vietnam, criticism of him is not particularly tolerated, nor are some factual details about his life. Trivial details, really, but it tells you a lot about the current Communist dictatorship that rules the country. For instance, we know Ho Chi Minh married a woman when he lived in China and had several love affairs throughout his life. It’s a fact. But not in Vietnam, where the government makes its own history and censors all other viewpoints on the matter. The official government line is that Ho Chi Minh was celibate; his only love the revolution.

It doesn’t bode well for a country’s long-term prosperity if the government denies reality as a matter of policy and — importantly — punishes those who dare counter their faux-history. Free speech is certainly not a cherished value in the country. In October, for instance, bloggers were sent to jail for several years because they had the audacity to criticize their government.

As a rule, you should never trust a government that reveres someone who kept portraits of Marx and Lenin above their desk, as Ho Chi Minh supposedly did.

Naturally, as an American tourist, I wanted to see all the sites in the city related to the Vietnam War. But you get the sense these are not the sites the Vietnamese want you to see. I scheduled a tour of the city that left out of the Hanoi Hilton — I had to insist on going. And believe me, there aren’t very many sights in Hanoi that are as interesting. Arguably none.

The one potential rival was Ho Chi Minh’s hidden war bunker from which he and top Vietnamese officials would direct the war during American bombing raids on the city. I only chanced upon that site thanks to a tip the day before I was set to leave. There were precisely zero other tourists there when I visited it. But since there wasn’t anyone around, I finally got my chance to flick off Ho Chi Minh, even if it wasn’t him in all his embalmed glory (or perhaps Madame Tussauds waxed look-alike glory).

But back to Hoa Lo prison, the real name of the Hanoi Hilton. The French built the prison — they called it Maison Centrale — when they ruled Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, American pilots shot down by the Vietnamese were imprisoned there.

The prison’s most famous resident, of course, was John McCain. And sure enough, his flight suit is on display in sections that remain of the prison, which was largely demolished in the 1990s. Also on display are pictures of the imprisoned Americans being treated very well by their Vietnamese captors. This, of course, is another gross inversion of reality. McCain and others were brutally tortured there.

Make no mistake about it, Vietnam is a Communist dictatorship. Its human rights record is far from praiseworthy. When I mentioned Ho Chi Minh’s love affairs to one local I engaged in conversation, he visibly recoiled, not wanting to discuss it any further for fear he might be punished if someone heard him talking about it.

Despite America’s history with Vietnam, the Vietnamese I encountered could not have been friendlier. I felt no resentment, and often outright affection. One person I talked to thought it was darkly ironic that the Communists fought to push the Americans out of Vietnam only to ultimately ask for their assistance forty years later in countering China in the South China Sea.

So would I recommend a visit to Hanoi? Absolutely. Hanoi is a great place to explore, at least once. And if you make it out without being massacred by a motor bike, all the better.

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