This afternoon Elvis and I were to check out of the hotel at different timings. The arrangements had to be cross checked and finalised after breakfast. I confirmed that a taxi would pick me up after 6 pm and drop me at the bus stand from where I would take an overnight bus to Dien Bien Phu. The hotel reception arranged a taxi for Elvis at noon to get to the airport from where he would fly to Ho Chi Minh City by a quarter to three. We were to have driven from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by my car. But, thanks to the procedures in Vietnam, that did not happen. Despite the efforts of many at various levels, the car could not be brought in to drive in Vietnam. Nevertheless, we had had a wonderful time in Hanoi.
We still had a good part of the morning to make yet another attempt to go inside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Elvis and I had been to the mausoleum twice before without any success. Both times we were told that it is closed. Yesterday when we were there I met a Sri Lankan settled in the USA who told me that it would be open for three hours this morning. We reached the precincts of the mausoleum determined to be inside this time. Light rain had been falling since early morning and we wondered how we would be able to weather that without an umbrella especially since the number of visitors was so many, particularly school children. We braced ourselves for a long morning in queues. That was not to be – the queue, in double file, moved in such a disciplined manner, supervised and guided by security and military personnel that at no point was there a break in the winding queues or any breach of discipline. School children, people in wheelchair and groups by appointment are given priority in the queue. Fortunately, the rain also cleared up.
Discipline is paramount and it was enforced at each point. No cameras are permitted beyond a certain point. Photography with mobiles is also restricted as one gets closer to the mausoleum. An American backpacker, who was with us, got a loud warning when he tried to take a picture close to the entrance of the mausoleum. Hands can neither be in pockets nor folded across the chest, they have to be by your sides. The head must not be covered. Talking or laughing are not encouraged; solemnity and respect are the watchwords. As one goes through the entrance of the mausoleum the effect of the centralised air conditioning hits. The large wooden and glass casket containing the embalmed body of “Uncle Ho”, as he is affectionately addressed by the Vietnamese, is in a large recess guarded by four men in military uniform. Visitors file past in silence without stopping. The face and hands of the great leader are highlighted using special lighting so that one does not have to strain to see the features of the embalmed body. The rest of the body is covered in grand vestments. In a little while we were out of the mausoleum after getting enough time in the queue to see what we wanted to.
The disciplined manner in which the entire process is controlled permits large number of visitors to cover the monument without wasting any time. The mausoleum is open only for three hours every day, with the exception of Monday when it is closed. Therefore, there is enormous rush during the opening hours. Effective control is the only solution to facilitate so many who come from within the country as well as abroad. With us in the queue was a young man who worked with the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Ho Chi Minh City. He was visiting the mausoleum for the first time as was his family. He spoke extremely good English and we struck up a good conversation. Since he said that he dealt with issues concerning foreigners I told him about the problem I faced in driving my car through Vietnam, hoping he would suggest a solution. Instead he looked me full in the face and said, “You may be happy to know that you are not the only one with such problem”. That ended any further discussion about the serious matter and I just enjoyed light hearted banter with him thereafter.
The taxi we took to get back to the hotel seemed to have a dodgy meter. Despite it being a small cab the fare it ran up was more than what we had paid for a big cab on the forward journey. Joachim Fernando of the Indian Embassy had warned us about such shams. There was little we could do under the circumstances. Back in the hotel room we completed the rest of the packing and Elvis left at the stroke of noon. His presence and company helped a great deal to get over the disappointment of having to leave the car behind at Tay Trang, the Vietnam border.
I waited a great deal at the hotel reception following the India-Australia world cup match, which unfortunately was not going India’s way. My booking was on the 7pm bus to Dien Bien Phu. A mid sized bus picked me up from near the hotel. There were just 5 passengers on the pick up bus when I alighted at the My Dinh bus stand. A representative of the bus company, Hai Van, met me at the bus stand and took me to the designated bus. I had to put the backpack in the luggage section, about which I was very apprehensive. All my money and documents were in the backpack. I had to risk it. I carried the passport on my self and left the rest in the backpack. The commerce that happens around a bus in the stand was very interesting to watch. An elderly lady sat on a small stool with many such for customers and vended tea and tobacco. The ‘mobile stall’, apart from the drinks, had the traditional bamboo smoke and hot water that customers could ‘demand’. The elderly lady who had the ‘business’ in front of the bus I was to travel by tried her best to induce me into buying a tea or a can of Red Bull. Another vendor did brisk business with breads, eggs and stuffed rice cakes.
The sleeper bus had accommodation for forty. Not even half the berths were taken. Given this, it is understandable that the company markets space for parcels quite vigorously. The bus stopped at many locations on its way out of Hanoi, primarily to pick up parcels – the dinner stop was extended for the sake of transhipping parcels from another bus. The bus was expected to reach Dien Bien Phu by 6 am. Given the en route stoppages to pick up parcels, it looked unlikely that the schedule would be met. Finally, it was goodbye to Hanoi. It was certainly heartbreaks not being able to drive through Vietnam. Who knows, HE may have a very different reason.