This Blog was written on 4 November 2013.
It was published once we had returned to Hanoi from SaPa.
After walking around the old quarter, delighting in the speed and confusion of the place we went to the Women’s Museum. It was wonderfully uplifting. The ingenuity and creativeness of the women of Vietnam over the last few hundred years is inspirational. It also seems that women, on the whole, have a better grip on reality, more stamina and more resilience than us men
We also visited the Hoa Lo Prison which was an altogether different experience. Most people know it as the “Hanoi Hilton” the nickname that captured US aircrew gave it in the American war. It was built by the French in the late 1890’s for about 450 prisoners but saw increasing use rising to over 2000 political prisoners the fight for independence gained pace.
Most of the prison has been demolished but enough of it remains to give an idea of what detention in the French Colonial rule was like. They were really thoughtful, the guillotine even had a clever and rather artfully designed container at the front to catch the head and stop it rolling around and making a mess. Thats the Colonial French flair for design for you.
In another part of the building they have preserved the various implements that were used for torture. I am always surprised by the mundane approach to torture in places like this. There is not anything clever. Just a small and dirty hand generator and some electric flex, old and partially broken machinery, and things that have been used fro their proper purpose then recycled for inflecting pain. Its almost like they resented spending any money and converted everyday objects for the mechanics of torture as a ‘make do’. The ordinariness of it is shocking. It reminds me of the “Topography of Terror” museum in Berlin. How can people do that sort of thing both in the past and in our own time. How can other people know about it and do nothing.
Emotionally drained and we made our way to the currency exchange to sort out the money we needed for our SaPa trip. It felt odd and disrespectful to be sorting out things for a trip we were looking forward to after seeing what we had just seen.
The currency exchange had been recommended by our hotel as giving the best exchange rate. Its hot and humid in Hanoi and walking is tiring. It was rush hour and it had been a long day. We needed to get Dollars to pay the SaPa Sisters before we caught the 8:00 pm train as there was no chance of getting anything sorted in SaPa.
Arriving at the Currency exchange place we asked them to change our Travelers Cheques into Dollars. We smiled ant them. They smiled at us. They said no.
After a long and complicated conversation helped by mime we realised that they were saying that they could not cash travelers cheques and we should go to the bank.
Hanoi tends to be arranged so that all the food shops are on one street, all the metal shops on another, all the glasses shops on another and so on. We asked where the banks were. They showed us on the map- it was where we had just come from.
So, all the way back, playing chicken with the traffic to the bank area and into the Bank of Vietnam. We asked the teller. She said “No” and pointed us to someone who spoke better english. After a long and confusing conversation we finally understood that the Vietnamese had recently stopped accepting travelers cheques and that as a result the way we were carrying our cash rendered it worthless.
This is a strange feeling. You have money but it is not worth anything in the place you need it. We have in our pockets Vietnamese notes worth less than £15.
“Do you take a card?” I asked. She said “Yes.”
I got my bank card out. She said “No – not Visa only Access.”
I must have looked crestfallen and confused. She added “Some other banks take Visa, but you will have to be quick because they are shutting now.”
We raced to the next bank. “Do you take Visa?” “Yes” they said. I asked for Dollars “No” they said
It appears that you cant take dollars out of a bank in Vietnam, you have to take out Dong, the local currency. We had to do the inevitable and both Jo and I drew out the maximum Dong we could on our respective cards in order to pay our way in SaPa. For a short period we were both Dong millionaires many times over.
Anyway, running short of time, we made our way back across town to the currency exchange to swap our millions for the necessary Dollars to pay our way. On the way back to the hotel to pick up our things for the journey we stopped for a quick meal. It was particularly welcome as we had been running back and forth across town for hours in the heat and had not had anything to eat since breakfast.
After the meal I felt much better. Calmer, more confident, things were in control again. I had been really worried about having no money and no means of getting any. Now it was OK. I thought “Alls well in the best of all possible worlds”
And that, I suppose, is how it happens. I had totally forgotten about the horror of detention and torture, both past and current. Caught up in my own little crisis, consumed by my own worry I did not give another thought to what I had seen and what I know to be going on in the world today. A line from the Marquis De Sade came into my mind. “ I can stand anything as ling as I don’t have to see it”