Day 17: Hanoi – Da Nang – Hoi An

Yesterday evening, Pati had arranged with the hotel staff to have a guide and driver for a short excursion this morning.  They wanted to see two places that were not included in their city tour of a few days ago: the Hanoi Hilton and the inside of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The “Hanoi Hilton” is the Hoa Lo Prison where prisoners of war were held  during the Vietnam War. The most fanous prisoners were John McCain, a US Senator and candidate for US President in the last general election, and Pete Peterson, who later returned to Vietnam as the first US Ambassador. Ho Chi Minh’s body lies in state in his mausoleum, even though he wanted to be cremated.

The new guide picked them up from the hotel at 7:30 am after breakfast. Their first stop was the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Since they had already toured the complex, they queued up to enter the mausoleum. They were in a very long line with mostly Vietnamese families. The line moved slowly and quietly up the steps into the huge mausoleum and into the large chamber containing Ho Chi Minh’s crypt with Ho Chi Minh lyimg in state. The line moved along three sides of the crypt, every eye respectfully focused on Ho Chi Minh, finally exiting the room, down the stairs, and outdoors again. Pati and BeeBee’s guide was waiting for them there.

Since they did not want to revisit the rest of the complex, the guide suggested that they visit the Temple of Literature. They had been there a few days before, but with all the crush of New Year’s visitors, it had been difficult to see everything.  This time there were very few other visitors, and the guide could point out and explain objects in more detail than the earlier guide. The revisit was worthwhile.

After this, they headed to Hoa Lo Prison. While most Americans think of this prison as the “Hanoi Hilton” that held American prisoners of war between 1964 and 1973, it was originally built by the French colonialists in 1896 to hold Vietnamese political prisoners through 1954, and afterward to hold criminals. Only part of the prison remains for viewing; the rest of it was torn down to build a shopping center. In addition to the cells themselves, documents, and other exhibits, the prison contains a full-sized guillotine with accompanying pictures of some of its victims.

While in one of the cell blocks of the prison, the guide described growing up in North Vietnam during the war. She and her mother were hungry frequently. She vividly remembers her mother telling her to “stand there” so that her mother could continue to work without worrying about her. It was clear to Pati and BeeBee that their guide found it emotionally difficult to enter this prison and explain its exhibits, but she did an excellent job.

After this, they returned to their hotel to wait for the driver to take them to the airport for their flight to Da Nang. (Thank you, Ms Tam.)

Their tour coordinator had changed their pickup time to 12 noon, and so they were checked out and waiting in the hotel lobby just after 11:30 am. At 11:50, a woman from the tour coordinator’s office called to confirm the pickup time; her English was not good, but she seemed to be saying that a guide and driver would show up, which was consistent with every previous departure. A few minutes after noon, a man arrived and the hotel staff confirmed that he was the driver. The hotel staff bundled the luggage, Pati and BeeBee into the waiting van. The driver spoke almost no English and there was no tour guide. He asked if they were going to the international airport, and they replied that they were going to Da Nang (a domestic flight). When they got to the airport, he deposited them at international departures, with no explanation. They began to wonder if they were even at the right airport. The terminal’s information desk was closed. BeeBee waited in line at the Vietnam Airlines ticket counter to ask where their flight was. The attendant haughtily said that she was in the wrong terminal and should go downstairs and ask someone (a policeman) where the terminal was. Pati and BeeBeee hurried downstairs, and BeeBee asked a tour guide (who was waiting for his passengers) where the domestic terminal was. He took them outside and pointed the way. A nice man who went out of his way, while the airline they were using would not help them. Finally at the correct terminal, the remaining check-in process went smoothly.

Their flight departed Hanoi on time and arrived at Da Nang on time. Their new guide and driver were waiting.

The new guide is anxious to please, and is worried that he will say something about the Vietnam War that will offend them. They told him that they want to hear the bad as well as the good; they want to understand. Upon hearing this, he told them that his house is located on property that is poisoned by agent orange from the war. There is a big conference planned in Da Nang in 2017, and he is hopeful that this will hasten the cleanup of this poison.

Da Nang, with its beautiful beaches, was an R&R site for the American military during the Vietnam War. While driving through Da Nang, the guide pointed out military bases and equipment (fighter jets and tanks) from the Vietnam War. Adjacent to one base, still with barracks, is a pair of hills that was a Vietcong base at the same time. It is riddled with tunnels and caves, one of which served as their hospital. Even knowing that the Vietcong were there, the Americans were unable to drive them out. After the Americans left, the Vietcong took over the American base.

Pati and BeeBee checked into their new hotel, which is beautiful, on the outskirts of Hoi An. Since they had missed lunch, they walked into Hoi An and had dinner (a pizza) at the Three Dragons, situated with a good river view. After this, they walked back to their hotel to rest up for the next day’s adventures.