Evening In Front of Uncle Ho

Bubbles blowing and bats swooping. Children giggling. The squeak-squeak of those little shoes they put on toddlers.

It’s nighttime in front of the Mausoleum, summer in Hanoi. The last time I was here it was winter and the city had a strict bedtime—10pm and like a light switched off: wide streets vacant, narrow alleys thick with shadows that slunk from the sharp cast of headlights.

But it’s different now. Or I’m different now. The season has changed and the city is full, parks blooming and bursting with people. Kinda like dusk in Phnom Penh, the “Golden Hour” I always called it—sky all pink and breezy, everything made even more excruciatingly beautiful by the fact that it’d all pass so goddamn fast, like sand through your fingers (have you ever held sand through your fingers like that? I hadn’t till then).

The stadium lights beat down and the bats swoop behind.

I’d wanted a walk. I needed a walk. It had been my first real shit day in Hanoi, following what had been my first real great day in Hanoi. It was the xeoms that had done it—stranded and lost and giving myself heat stroke, showing the driver the wrong address, him screaming at me when I realized my mistake, my eyes welling up, men at the cafe staring placidly, legs crossed and coffee. He had me. He charged me $6. I paid it.

I never did find the school I had the interview at. I felt about as broken and lost as I am in this city, in my life right now. My friend took me out for dinner; I ate too much; he said, “Remember that Bukowski poem: ‘it’s not the large things that / send a man to the / madhouse… but a shoelace that snaps / with no time left.'”

Exactly. Another chopstick full of noodles please.

So I needed a walk, something to clear my mind. He lives on this little peninsula and if you follow it down, you go on an isthmus between two lakes. The couples sit on benches and the lights stream pass and the old men sleep on their motorbikes. Get to the end, there’s women doing line dancing; they’re dancing in pairs and then they line up and “Macarena” comes blaring on the speakers and they start to dance with no irony whatsoever. There’s a boy up front, away from everyone else—socks pulled high and shirt tucked into his shorts—and he’s dancing to his own rhythm, wild and unrestrained and tragic. I can tell before I see his face that he’s got Down Syndrome.

He dances alone.

I keep going, cross another park, another roaring street and I come to the wide open green in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. They’ve got those big white stadium lights on and it washes everything in brightness, seems to make each blade of grass gleam. In the cement stretch in front of the building—block-shaped and austerely uplit in red—families are strolling, powerwalking, children chasing bubbles while a thousand hand-held fan whir.

There’s guards milling around, uniforms and little hats. It feels almost Italian the way the people are out. There’s a breeze and it feels like luxury across my arms.

I realize I haven’t seen a single prostitute during my stroll. At least a blatant one. I’ve got a head full of Phnom Penh and half my heart too, and all I keep thinking is—“Grass: you’d never see that in Phnom Penh”; “Look how nicely cobbled the pathway is”; “It’s after 9pm and normal people are out, families and kids.”

I like this, I think. This feels good.

I watch a mother blow bubbles for her toddler son; he squeals, waves his fat arms and chases them. A girl snuggles under the crook of her boyfriend’s arm. Two girls sit on the walkway between patches of grass, giggle in close towards each other. “Hello!” a boy exclaims at me. “Hello!” I exclaim back, just as jubilantly.

Had all this really been waiting? Really been going on—hidden under the cover of winter and of my own distance?

It had.

Just then the stadium lights start to snap shut—one, two, three—and a dimness is cast over the grass. It’s suddenly quiet, still, dark, backlit but the thousand motorbikes that snake around on the street beyond the grass. It feels further away than it is.

The guards start to blow their whistles. People gather their things, make their way towards the street.

I check my phone: 9:30.

I smile. So the city does still have a bedtime.

7 Responses to “Evening In Front of Uncle Ho”

  1. 1 dutchiesgoglobal June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    Hi! Just saw your tweet! I only get spam emails too. Thought I would leave you a genuine comment… Nice post, will follow you some more.

  2. 2 dutchiesgoglobal June 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Hi! Just saw your tweet. I only get spam emails too lately. Thought I’d leave you a genuine comment. Nice post, will follow you some more…

  3. 3 Becky Tu Nguyen June 10, 2012 at 2:35 am

    Just subscribed recently after stumbling upon one of your blog post. I’m currently in NY but Hanoi is where I’m originally from. Thanks for the post! It’s nice to know your impression, and yes, Hanoi has a bedtime 🙂

  4. 4 Long June 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Been following your blog for a while, ever since you landed in Cambodia. Was quite sad to read about you leaving there and when I read this post I thought: everything here apart from the curfew is exactly how I’d describe my evenings/nights in Phnom Penh.

    Couples sitting on benches: Check.
    Old men sleeping on bikes: Check.
    Women dancing along the boulevards: Check.
    Children chasing bubbles: Check.
    Grass: Check.

    I really don’t know how you missed these in Phnom Penh.

    You can see some of it in my video: https://vimeo.com/43015599

    • 5 laurenquinn June 18, 2012 at 9:50 pm

      Nice video. And you’re right—Cambodia did have all those things. I guess it’s all the things that were missing that struck me most. And I’m not ready to write about those yet, to name them, cause it comes off sounding sensational or despising when really it’s something else, something much more depressed and soul-crushing.

      Your comment made me wonder how long you were in Cambodia. There’s a lot of shit beneath the surface that you don’t start seeing till you stick around for a bit. As the semi-famous quote goes: “Cambodia is the most dangerous place on earth: you’ll fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.”

      • 6 longsien June 18, 2012 at 11:52 pm

        Glad you liked the video. I first learned of that style of music from reading your blog 🙂

        I lived in Phnom Penh for over year from 2000-2001 and go back to the region for vacation every 2 years or so.

        I totally agree that there’s much that is sinister under the surface, but what country doesn’t have it’s mafioso and triads? Sure, you notice the signs disallowing guns and grenades into coffee shops and restaurants, but they’re generally ones that don’t have ice-cream anyway.

        I guess not as many countries have the current ruling party as it’s mafia, but corruption is so open that it’s just not scary if stay out of the opposition parties.

        When I started reading about your feelings of something beneath the surface:

        “Sometimes I feel like there’s this whole undercurrent here, like there’s this dark fucking shit going on just beneath the surface. And I’m terrified of getting swept into it.”

        I really wonder what causes this feeling? I’d really love to hear more on your thoughts on this. First impressions stick eh? From March 2011:

        “After Vietnamese cities, Phnom Penh feels leisurely, luxurious, and it’s easy to feel enamored, to imagine none of it happened. But there are images, glimpses—dark things that I don’t understand, have nowhere to put, can only see.”

        I guess you must still see these dark things you don’t understand, still have nowhere to put it? I’d love to see you put it in a book 🙂

        And regarding this:

        “…but most of the folks I see that speak Khmer and have been here a long time,” I shook my head, “I don’t want what they have.”

        You’re obviously hanging out at the wrong bars 🙂

        From what I saw, you’re right in saying there are a lot of people there for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, just passing through. I thought of what it must be like to try to make a life in a new country, in one where you don’t speak the language or don’t fully understand the culture.

        Then I think of immigrants into Western society. We in the West expect people who come here to assimilate into our culture, assume our values as their own, and yet when I see tourists or even expats in Cambodia, it becomes “I’ll do what I like, I’m Australian/British/American!”

        But there are people there to embrace the culture, the language, the lifestyle. These people, you can see that they love Cambodia. And sometimes Cambodia loves them back. Hard. You understand. You knew her past. She’s recovering from trauma.
        From American bombings.
        From self inflicted genocide.
        From Vietnamese occupation.
        From political unrest.
        From poverty.
        From corruption.

        There are some people who see this in her and want to exploit her. There are some people who see this in her and want to help her. Then there are some people who see this in her and just want to love her, for they see that there is beauty.

        Beneath those scars, beneath the dirt, she has a smile, and she has hope.

        I think you did damn well to manage to live in Cambodia for as long as you did, especially with no financial incentive. I’m glad you managed to fall in love with her, I’m just sad she broke your heart 😦

        Maybe she’s just not hipster enough. Not yet. Just wait till I open my fixie/longboard shop there.

      • 7 laurenquinn June 19, 2012 at 8:50 am

        Well, glad to hear you were there for awhile. I appreciate your insights. Different places have different kind of darknesses, I suppose, and the brand in Cambodia is just not a good fit for me. Yes, some people can totally manage without losing themselves but I’m not one of them. And at least in my experience, they’re the exception to the rule. Maybe it was the bars I was hanging out in—as in, I didn’t hang out in any bars.

        I guess I would just disagree on two points. One is that “corruption is so open that it’s just not scary if stay out of the opposition parties.” That’s what I was telling myself the whole time and it wasn’t until my final weeks in Cambodia that I realized that that isn’t true. At least not for me. The corruption and violence is so pervasive and endemic that you have to relate to it; you do without knowing it. At least that’s what I discovered. I thought my life was pretty safe and insulated from all that there, and then I discovered that it wasn’t and it scared the shit out of me. It reminds me of people who move to bad neighborhoods in Oakland and tell you how it’s not really that bad, that if you don’t fuck with people they won’t fuck with you. Well, yeah, that’s true most of the time, but when shit is that out of control and widespread, it’s not going to nicely stay put. You’re going to be affected and you’re going to interact with it in some way, whether you know it or not.

        The other point I don’t agree with is that Cambodia is recovering. I think it depends on how you understand “recovering,” but for me, recovering isn’t just about paved roads and skyscrapers. Recovering has to on some level include facing/addressing/resolving the past. And I really don’t see that happening. The extent to which it is is pretty much all foreign/NGO-driven, and for foreign consumption. (Let’s not get started on the shitshow of the Tribunals.) And I don’t think that recovery can happen when all the same people from the KR are still in the country, living largely with impunity. Or more than impunity—power. I know this is a really pessimistic view and some of the younger folks I met totally gave me reason for hope, but I really wouldn’t call what’s going on in Cambodia right now “recovery.” At least not for the vast majority of people.

        But I do totally appreciate your thoughts. Places are different things to different people, can be vastly different experiences, and there’s folks who I love and respect and adore who are making it work in Cambodia—doing cool productive shit, living immersed lives, not losing themselves. But fuckin hell that wasn’t going to be me.

        And definitely not hipster enough. Can’t be hipster without good coffee.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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