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The Flip Side of Vietnam

Seen in the Old Quarter on a Thursday morning:

  • At least 20 species of exotic birds chirping away in beautiful cages hanging from ironwood and tamarind trees.
  • A man nibbling on a half-formed chick, boiled in its shell. This is a popular street snack, which foreigners often assume is just a regular boiled egg. Also popular: chicken gizzards, beaks, and deep-fried feet.
  • Framed photos of Baby Spice. (But none of the other Spice Girls.)
  • Two backpackers' cafés facing each other, both with notices in their windows saying the other is a FAKE and will RIP YOU OFF DON'T GO THERE DON'T LET THEM DO IT!!!
  • Little boys tending shops filled with cognac, pig snouts, durians, jars of Tang, and cartons upon cartons of cigarettes.
  • A girl in the window of a ground-floor apartment, sitting alone on a couch with a microphone, quietly singing to her karaoke machine.
  • A block of shops dealing in headstones and caskets, on Hang Hom (Coffin) Street. Revealingly, few caskets are longer than three feet. Engravers carve impressive likenesses on the headstones. (A street nearby is lined with portrait artists, but you'd probably get a better portrait done by the headstone guys, if it wouldn't freak you out too much.)
  • A very old woman with at least 50 dozen eggs stacked atop her bicycle.
  • A Westerner on a motorbike smashing headlong into a sidewalk lottery stall, shattering the table and knocking all the tickets into the gutter. The Westerner was actually me--I use the third person because I basically watched this transpire as though it were happening to some other schmuck. I'd swerved to avoid the egg woman, who'd stopped in the middle of the road. Seconds later,I was in a heap of splintered wood. The stall keeper was incredibly forgiving, especially after I bought all the soaked lottery tickets. No idea if I won.

'WELCOME TO LATE PRESIDENT HO CHI MINH'

So says the sign outside Hanoi's most famous landmark, the tomb of Uncle Ho, freedom fighter, revolutionary, and ultimate icon. Every few minutes a guard escorts a dozen visitors through the door of the mausoleum. You're led upstairs, single file, to a refrigerator-cool chamber where Ho lies in a spotlighted glass case--hands folded across his tunic, surrounded by soldiers about as animated as the body they guard.

Ho's shiny plasticine face is eerie to behold, particularly after you've seen it on everything from cigarette lighters to dinner plates. The underwhelmingness of the sight is overwhelming, or vice versa; I can't decide which. In any case you're given only seconds to look, before the wordless guard swiftly leads you out.

Apparently Ho's wish was to be cremated, but that wouldn't do for an icon. After his death in 1969, his body was embalmed; it went on display only in 1975. The mausoleum overlooks Ba Dinh Square, where Ho read the Declaration of Independence in 1945. The tomb is an immensely popular sight, particularly with school groups, though it closes for a few months each fall when the body goes to Moscow "for maintenance." (I don't want to know.)

HELLO, DALÍ

As if in deliberate contrast to the somber mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, 200 yards away, is the craziest-looking place in town. You may not understand a thing about what you're seeing, but the experience is all the more surreal for it. Opened in 1990--and seemingly designed by Antoni Gaudí, Salvador Dalí, and some Russian Constructivists--the museum takes a metaphorical approach to the history of the Great Cause. Allegorical exhibits are arranged chronologically, though even after you've read the labels their meaning is never entirely clear. For example: "Cat Bo cave, presented here in the form of a human brain, served as Ho's headquarters in 1945." (Eh?)

Allusions are also drawn to events outside Vietnam. There's a sculptural take on Picasso's Guernica (pretty cool, actually) next to a wall bearing the signatures of Chagall, Miró, and Kandinsky. All of which puts Ho in context as a thoroughly modern(e) hero. The best installation, however, has a 1958 Edsel smashing through a brick wall--a witty dig at one American blunder.

PICK A CENTURY, ANY CENTURY

Hanoi is a veritable palimpsest of architectural history, layering era upon era, style upon style, without diluting or degrading the city's essential character. A patina of decay unites colonial mansions and ancient pagodas; tree-lined boulevards connect socialist monuments with shimmering glass banks--and it all somehow coheres. The sights around Ba Dinh Square alone are a motley mix: beyond the stark mausoleum and the high-modern museum sits the glorious Belle Époque Presidential Palace, built by the French in 1908 and later occupied by Ho, while next door is Ho's final residence, the spartan House on Stilts, all teak and tatami, fronted by a tranquil carp pond.

Walk a few blocks southeast and you're on the edge of the French Quarter, where humble, blocky concrete houses mingle with the cracked and mossy villas of a century ago. Ornamented eaves and louvered shutters, once brilliant green or crimson, have been left to peel and fade. Wall colors have grown more evocative with age: soft ochers, saffrons, and creams cloak the neighborhood in a dreamy aura.

**TWO-BEDROOM VILLA, $3,000/MONTH**

Yes, notices like this are common in the English dailies here, though the average monthly income is $150. (That's merely reported earnings, of course. A recent Vietnam Business Journal speculated that "dollars under the mattresses" add greatly to this figure.)

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