Embalming the dead bespeaks a meaningless defiance against nature. Yet, it was a stirring moment for me to file past the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. No cameras are allowed inside the beautifully maintained mausoleum in the Ba Dinh square. After hearing stories of the bravery of the Viet Cong and visiting locales of the war, I felt like giving him a lal salaam. Ho Chi Minh looked like he had just lain down to sleep and would wake up any time. His offices and houses, behind the mausoleum, are well-preserved too. Most fascinating was the room in which politburo meetings were held and the garage where his cars were kept. There’s a house on stilts in which he used to receive some visitors, and the garden there is like an Eden of Revolution. It’s immaculately maintained, like everything else in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, the meandering queue of visitors to the mausoleum had its share of Americans, some of them veterans of the war, I guess, who had come to purge their guilt or maybe pay a secret tribute.
For a nation that has been through the most ravaging of wars, Vietnam is a confident country, looking to turn into a mini China. Though a Communist state, it has a liberalised economy. The police are not present, giving travellers a pleasant sense of cool. Beer is available everywhere, even in small shops. Tourism is booming, with Japanese, South Koreans and Chinese crowding the streets. Everything is neatly organised, the guides and cars arrive on time and no one honks. Though the streets are crowded with two-wheelers, there’s hardly a hit or thud and everyone makes way for others—and for themselves.
About three hours out from Saigon are the Cu-chi tunnels. The bomb craters, the captured US tanks, the traps give you an eerie blast from the past. The Viet Cong used footwear pointed in the opposite direction to confuse the marauding US army, which carried out Operation Crimp with 8,000 soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division. At the end of the tour and a backbreaking grovel through a war tunnel, you are served boiled tapioca and local chutney. For a Malayali, it was like winning the war.
The Vietnamese have no rancour and narrate stories about the war as a matter of fact. Our guide’s father had lost his hand in the war. The war also produced some excellent journalism, movies, literature. One of the most poignant war articles you can read is Daniel Lang’s, in the October 1969 issue of New Yorker, about the rape and killing of a Vietnamese girl by four American soldiers, one of whom outed the crime. As the girl is led out of the house by the GIs, her mother runs after her, innocent of what awaits her daughter, and hands over her favourite scarf. The soldiers use it to stuff her mouth.
Vietnam is foodie paradise. Every home is a restaurant, it seems, for you can see women and kids serving noodle soup at almost every doorstep. It’s mostly boiled food, with sauces added in the right proportions to add some punch. The fish sauce is a killer brewed in vats. The soup pot is kept boiling on the table: you may add prawns, squid, beef, pork, clams or leaves. The national favourite is phoe, or beef noodle soup, which people eat from breakfast on. Vietnamese run the most quaint restaurants in the world, serve fast and move with lightening speed. A large buffet restaurant in Hanoi had hundreds of people at various counters and never was anything amiss. In India, there would have been a food riot.
I started with unshelled prawns, chicken satay, then moved to the next counter with various types of rice and noodles. I had my fill of beef and clams, of course. I did balk at fried alligator meat. But I brought back a piece of crocodile in the form of a classy black belt which cost $65 in a small shop in the Mekong delta but was priced at $125 at a shop at Bangkok airport. I wanted to pick up a python belt as well, but was dissuaded by my wife, not because it might have a slithery feel to it, but because she thought that natural yellow-and-black pattern was too tacky. There didn’t seem to be a ban on selling such rare leather.
For some venomous memories, I bought a small tube of cobra venom cream for muscle pain and hopefully my ever-sore back will heave a sigh of relief. A small bottle of snake wine with small pickled cobra added on inside (or was it embalmed?) was for three dollars. There’s a subtext: all such products with creepy-crawlies in them are claimed to be aphrodisiacs.
I saw dog meat only in one small restaurant in Hanoi. An old lady cut round pieces for two customers from a roasted dog on display. On my return, only the head and tail were left.
Delhi-based journalist Binoo K. John is the author, among others, of Entry From Backside Only, a study of Indian English
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