Across the Demilitarised Zone

Last week, I made my way into the old North Vietnam. I went on a tour of the old DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) which separated the North from the South, and across which the Vietnam war was fought. The trees are starting to grow back, and replacement houses in all the bombed towns have been largely rebuilt. Our guide was a child during the war, from a village near the border. He was moved several times when fighting came too close, ending up as a refugee far away in the South, separated from his parents.

The North isn’t so different from the South. The weather is cool, it feels like a dreary late winter or autumn day, with clouds and rain. It’s nice when it is sunny though. If partly because it isn’t sunny, people are perhaps slightly less smiley here. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam but doesn’t feel any more important than HCMC (Saigon), almost like Vietnam still has two capital cities.

The communist party presence is stronger though, and you can tell Hanoi is the political capital. We visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, where his body rests embalmed. This is done by the Russians, and every summer he goes on a holiday there to be touched up again. It was explicitly against Ho’s own wishes; he left instructions for cremation, and modest orders in relation to memorials to him. The communist government must have felt that they needed his charisma even after he died.

Viewing his body is a reverential occasion, with huge numbers of Vietnamese visitors. If you made a move for the body, the utterly still guards would bayonet you in an instant. Should you be a far-right, terrorist, old-communist-leader-corpse-desecrating fanatic, then you’d have to add “suicide” in there as well. Uncle Ho looks a bit wax like, but also peaceful and serene, still with his whispy beard, resting from the world’s turmoil.

We? I’ve now met up with Gavin, my friend who also used to work at Creature Labs. We’re going to spend two weeks together in the north of Vietnam, before he heads south and then to India, and I go to China. Say “hello Gav!” if you know him! At the moment we’re in Halong Bay, world heritage site, and home of Gavin’s French friend Nat. Nat works here for a French company, and we’re staying for free in a guesthouse rented by his company. It’s really good, and strange, to be suddenly welcomed in a foreign land. It makes me feel a bit colonial, but more about that another day.

Halong Bay is a fantastic erie place. Weird limestone rocks form thousands of islands in the mill-pond still sea. We went on a two day boat tour, sleeping over night anchored off from an island. There are excellent cave systems, with huge chambers very near their entrance, feeling like something from Jules Verne. Sailing through the bay itself it had clearly once inspired many legends, then fantasy novels, and no doubt now computer games. All these things have slightly less imagination than I thought, and the world more.

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