I hadn't planned to stick around too long in Hanoi on my way back through going south, but I had some life admin to take care of, and I wanted to see Ho Chi Minh. Despite his express wishes to be cremated (and not have anything named after him) he is lying in state in the stark Soviet-inspired Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. Viewings are only three days a week in the mornings, when the area is entirely cordoned off, with a line-up stretching endlessly through the large empty grounds. It's probably the largest open, empty area in the city – an expanse of flat concrete that could otherwise make parking space for many of the motorbikes that make the sidewalks impassible everywhere else.
Though long, the line up to pay respects moves fast, as the efficient guards take their jobs seriously. We were urged along in a procession into the viewing room where Ho Chi Minh looked serene and comfortable lying between grey silk sheets in an elegant glass coffin. There were guards to the left, guards to the right, and guards nudging me when I spent too long in one spot staring. I had been busy wondering what it would be like to have the job of the four guards who flanked the coffin with rifles at attention, likely all day long. Sure, it was air-conditioned, but spending all day in a windowless room with a dead guy, not being able to speak, much less look bored or fidget, wouldn't that lose its appeal after a while? At least the other guards were able to get in the occasional poke and frown at the passersby, liberties their colleagues could only try to ignore. While I admired how healthy and relaxed Ho Chi Minh appeared after so many years (apparently his looks are improving with age and modern technology), I thought his staff were likewise impressive, in their silent stoic attentiveness.
I caught another glimpse of Hanoi from days past on my last night in the city. I had gone to see my friend Julie perform with the international Hanoi choir at the opera house, after which we headed to the Sofitel Metropole Hotel for a drink, where I was transported to another world. It wasn't just my expensive Charlie Chaplin cocktail with accompanying sorbet, but more the fact that Charlie Chaplin stayed at the hotel. Famous artists from history have flocked to the place, including Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, both of whom wrote classics during their visits. The hotel has been renovated to regain its colonial grandeur, and it felt like a step back in time. Not the time of a poor and oppressive regime, but a classy, rich time filled with cigar wielding dandies, wealthy adventurers, and the exotic tastes and discoveries of Indochina. It would be a great place for a 1920's costume party, and I was a little disappointed that the other guests didn't look quite as suitably elegant as the setting called for, although if there was a dress code I probably wouldn't have made it in the door. Beautiful rattan ceiling fans rotated towards us in the outdoor bar, where we lounged not far from the tasteful quietly-lit garden and outdoor pool. I didn't manage to get a look in the rooms, but I did get to see into the underground bunker built for guests (not enough room for the staff) during the American War, as it is known here. I was loathe to leave, but if I ever come back to Hanoi in a less budget-constrained future, it's one place I plan to stay.