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Vietnam: Communism and the Museums of Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh

When you’re in Vietnam it’s fairly easy to forget you are in a technically communist country (except for the fact that Facebook is blocked!).

Hanoi, Vietnam

A good way to be reminded, and to learn about the history of Vietnam and how the war affected it (over there they call it the American War), is to visit a few museums.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

A must-see is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is part of a larger complex. Not only does the mausoleum house Uncle Ho’s remains, but you can actually see his embalmed, preserved body. For real. It’s all very respectful of course, with a long, slow line of visitors filing past his body, which is flanked by guards. Naturally, there are no pictures allowed inside–in fact you turn over your camera and bag before entering.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The hours are brief (8:00-11:00 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, last entry usually 10:15 a.m.) and it’s only open December-September because they send him off to Russia (you know, the professionals at preserving dead leaders) for upkeep October-November. The whole thing is fascinating, especially when you find out Uncle Ho actually requested to be cremated…

One Piller Pagoda

One Pillar Pagoda

Ho Chi Minh Museum

The surrounding complex contains the One Pillar Pagoda temple and some other sites, as well as an enthrallingly bizarre museum dedicated to…I’m not sure. Well, officially it’s to the life of Ho Chi Minh, but the museum is so all over the place, with communist undertones (overtones?) alive and well. The propagandic nature of the explanations really jumped out at us.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

Ho Chi Minh Museum

There are weird art displays accompanied by placards explaining their significance to the Vietnamese people, like a gigantic abstract table with produce on it that somehow symbolizes the Vietnamese people collectively farming to feed their families, as well as a Ford Edsel protruding from one wall, to symbolize the weakness of capitalism.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

Ho Chi Minh Museum

All these items share space with historical documents from Ho Chi Minh’s life, paraphernalia captured from American soldiers, and personal items that belonged to Ho.

Vietnam Women's Museum

We also managed to make it to the Vietnam Women’s Museum, which is fascinating and much more focused (and has much better placards in three languages). The museum focuses on women’s role in society, and has exhibits on everything from fashion, their role in the war, and their roles as mother and family provider. The fashion section has outfits from all of Vietnam’s various ethnic groups, detailing everything from wedding outfits to everyday clothing.

Vietnam Women's Museum

IMG_7193

The section on women soldiers is very informative and eye-opening, and while it still has propagandic undertones, it also manages to be very relatable. There is also an exhibit detailing how women from different ethnic groups collect and prepare food and care for their families–spoiler alert: it’s super difficult and time consuming work!

Hanoi, Vietnam

There’s also a military-type museum that we didn’t actually go to, but surrounding the building are lots of captured American tanks and aircraft on display. Yes, it was weird.

Museums in Hanoi are certainly eye- and mind-opening and an excellent way to learn about Vietnam’s culture. Coming from the West, this helped us begin to understand the cultural and political climate that has shaped Vietnam these past few decades. Of course we felt weird being there, as Americans, but outside of the slightly uncomfortable museums, all the actual Vietnamese people we met were very friendly and talkative with us, and they seemed happy to have us in their country–as guests.

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Thailand: Culture Shock in Bangkok

Arriving Bangkok from India was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. We had a 6 AM flight to get there, which meant we only slept a couple hours before the flight and I got no sleep on the flight itself. On top of this, it took four hours to go through customs (I guess I never appreciated the organization of Indian airports). When we finally reached the city, we were completely out of it, but looking around, it was clear that there were many things that were very different than the last few months had been.

A typpical Thai girl in the train station. Short shorts? Check. Trendy purse? Check. iPad? Check.

The most notable difference was skin. Everyone was wearing shorts. Girls were wearing short shorts. This was a big change from the much more conservative sarees and salwar kameez that we had become accustomed to seeing. And Westerners. So many Westerners. Westerners dressed like they’re at the beach. Westerners walking with locals. Westerners holding hands with locals (the sex tourism industry in Thailand is alive and well). In india, you would never see a local woman engaging with a foreign man like this in public.
We were so shocked by these aspects of Thailand that we barely noticed how clean things were. There was no trash on the streets!

Inside a mall in Bangkok.

Another crazy characteristic of Bangkok hit us pretty quickly: MALLS! The malls in Bangkok put suburban America to shame. These guys are not messing around when it comes to shopping–their centers are huge and sparkling and plentiful. We went to one six story mall where each floor had a different city as it’s theme. They had Tokyo, London, Paris, San Francisco (We’re now definitely west of the US).

The Tokyo floor of the mall.

Typical window display in the mall. Notice the lovely portrait of the King on the left side of the vanity. Also notice their obsession with bunny rabbits.

The culture shock took several days to get over and the most difficult thing to get used to was the number of foreigners. I found myself staring at foreigners as they passed. Who are they? What are they doing here? I finally began to understand why Indians stared at us so much.

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India: The Journey to Bilaspur

New Years day we traveled to the state of Chhattisgarh to visit the hospital I have been volunteering for.  The trip there was a typical Indian journey.  The hospital is in Ganiyari, a small village next to Bilaspur, a small city about 2 hours north of Raipur, the capital of the state of Chhattisgarh. Our plan was to fly to Raipur and take a train from there to Bilaspur.
A few hours before our flight, I received a text message telling me that our flight was delayed. Fortunately, we left enough buffer time between our flight arrival and the train that this should not have made a difference.
We started off from home at around 2pm on a rickshaw.  During our ride to the airport, a car pulled up next to our rickshaw and asked how to get somewhere.  Our driver proceeded to provide detailed directions. All this happened as we were going full speed on the highway.
We got to the airport early and, as the time arrived for us to board the plane, the gate still hadn’t opened.  The further delay of the flight by about 30 minutes made us more nervous about catching our train.
When we got off the plane in Raipur, we were stunned by something we were not prepared for and had not seen in four months – rain.
Watching the clock and fully aware that our chances of catching our train were slimming by the minute, we waited anxiously for our luggage. Of course, our bags were the last ones on belt.
We took the half hour taxi to the station and, not surprisingly, missed our train. I went the inquiry window to ensure that the train had already left and the woman there told me in very broken English that I can use the same ticket to get on a train going to Bilaspur that leaves in 15 minutes, but I have to get permission from the TT first, then told me on which platform the TT office is (I still don’t know what TT stands for, but I think it means Ticketmaster).
We went to that platform I was directed to, not really knowing what we were looking for. We started asking people where the TT office is, but the language barrier was quite difficult; although English is widely spoken in India, it is not used as much in poorer regions that see few tourist (the entire state of Chhattisgarh is 2 pages out of 1,200 of Lonely Planet India). It didn’t help matters that as we were running around trying to ask directions, a full marching band randomly walked into the station and started playing.
When finally we found the TT and he explained to us which train to take and wrote on our tickets that we could use them for any train going in that direction. He also explained that the ticket collector on the train would have to give us permission as well. As he was explaining all this to me, Devorah noticed the fire buckets that were hanging in the office. These are red buckets that you might see in a museum or old photos, except these looked as though they were still functional, since they were full of sand and water. I use the term function loosely because I don’t think they could put out a garbage can fire, let alone anything serious.
We got on the train without a problem, but when we got to Bilaspur we ran into another obstacle. Our plan was to call my friend Dan who we were staying with when we got to Bilaspur, but our cell phones had no reception. This was bit of shock since we are using Vodaphone, one of the country’s largest networks. We had to find a pay phone to connect with Dan.
Pay phones in India are just a regular phone in a booth. They are manned by someone (a phone-wallah?) who you pay according to the amount of time you use the phone.  The term for interstate calls here is Standard Trunk Dialing.  All the of the phone booths have the acronym S.T.D. on them, but most Indian’s don’t see what’s funny about that.
When we finally got an S.T.D., I called Dan, but I got an operator message. We were at a loss. We were at a loss – it was getting late, we were in a city we didn’t know and we didn’t have any way to reach our one contact there. And, it was still raining. I called a couple more times, but it was awkward to keep placing the same call in the small booth with the phone-wallah looking at me quizzically. We decided to call Ram, our mutual friend in Bombay and asked him to try to call or text Dan to let him know that wee were at the train station and our phones were not working. As soon as I hung up the phone, it rang and Dan was on the other line. With a sigh of relief and instructions in hand, we hopped in a rickshaw.
At one point our driver stopped for a minute and hopped out to deal with something. The radio was playing the type of song you might hear at an Indian restaurant in the states.  It was dark and muddy. The streets were quiet, save for a lone cow slowly walking down the street beside us.  It was an iconic ending to our 9 hour journey.

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India: The holidays in Bombay

We finished out our time in Bombay during the holiday season.  Bandra is one of the city’s two predominantly Catholic neighborhoods, so Devorah’s belief that we would go through an entire holiday season without hearing Christmas carols everywhere was mistaken.  Plenty of houses were decorated with Christmas lights in displays similar to those you might see in the states, but there were no giant Santas and reindeer made out of lights.  Instead, there were Christmas mangers in random places.
On Christmas morning, I was awoken at 7AM by giant loudspeakers blasting “Jingle Bells” outside from a courtyard close to our apartment.  It’s quite strange to hear songs about snow when you can still stroll about outside in a t-shirt and flip flops.  Most shops were closed and the streets were eerily quiet – it was like walking through the Jewish part of Crown Heights on a Saturday.  Of course, quiet by Bombay’s standards is busy by New York’s.
Chanukah in Bombay was a lot smaller than we’re used to, but fun all the same. We went to two Chanukah festivities.  The first was a party at our friend Rob’s apartment in our neighborhood. We got to light a real Chanukia and eat latkes, which the Indians called “Jewish Pakodas.”

Jewish Pakodas


The second Chanukah celebration we went to was in a synagogue in the suburb Thane.  Thane is a very large neighborhood at the end of Bombay.  The train station there is one of the largest and busiest in the city.  When we got off the train, we went up the stairs in a crush of people the likes of which are not seen anywhere in the west.

Crush of people
When we finally arrived in the synagogue, it was packed beyond capacity. There were at least two hundred people there. Since the synagogue could only fit about one hundred, chairs were set up outside to accommodate the rest.  We were the only non-Indians there. At one point a five year old Indian girl came up to us and timidly said “Shalom.” It turned out that her parents had moved to Israel and came back to visit for the holiday. After we returned her greeting, her shyness quickly disappeared. So excited to find someone new she could easily communicate with, she went off in Hebrew, telling us all about the intimate details of her family life – her parents’ fighting, her uncle’s drinking, etc. It was uncomfortably funny for us. When we told her we were not from Israel, she was baffled at how we could speak Hebrew.

B'nei Israel Synagogue
Although the services were technically for Chanukah, it was more of a celebration for the synagogue’s 132nd anniversary. We found out later that these Jews (B’nei Israel) didn’t celebrate Chanukah traditionally because they separated from the rest of the Jewish people before the events of Chanukah happened.
New Years in Bombay once again showcased the city’s obsession with fireworks. Unlike Diwali, the crackers did not go off all night.  It was relatively quiet until midnight, when all of the firecrackers appeared to go off at once.  For a three minute period it sounded as though we were in a war zone.  It was so loud you could barely shout over them and so bright it may as well have been daylight. By 12:05, the display had ended and for the next three hours we were serenaded in our apartment by people drunkenly singing along to bad 80s music. An interesting start to the New Year…

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India: Matheran

One of the most popular outings to take from Bombay is to Matheran. Matheran is a hill station at the end of one of the local trains, approximately 3 hours away from downtown. The trip out of the city is one of my favorites. Bombay is a great example of Urban sprawl. When taking the “suburban” train north from downtown, you see miles and miles of non stop city.  Even the suburbs over an hour from the city center would be considered urban by western standards (Manhattan urban, not Brooklyn urban). Then, after an hour or so, the city abruptly ends. If you stand on the last street, on one side you will see normal busy city streets and on the other side there is nothing but overgrowth. It’s a surreal site.
One of the main draws of Matheran is a ban on cars, a true respite from the pollution and constant horn honking of Bombay’s over-congested streets. The downside to this is that getting up to the hill station from the train station is a little complicated. We took a half hour shared taxi up from the train station, then hiked another half an hour from there into Matheran. The hike is pleasant walk in the cool air through a path on the side of the mountain. As you walk down the path, you are passed by horse riders, riderless horses, men pushing carts of materials, and monkeys. The path narrows somewhat at times and it can get a bit dangerous as horses run down the mountain towards you at full speed.  At one point we saw two horses begin to fight just as they passed us. They continued jumping and ramming one another until one of them shoved the other off of the path, where he fell 3 feet down the mountain.

No cars!


The Matheran area was quaint. There are lots of wooded paths, most of which lead to the top of cliffs and provide a nice view. We walked on these paths for a while, had some lunch, and then started heading back to the city. Aside from taxis, the other way to get to and from Matheran is to take a “toy train.” This is a small narrow gauge train that slowly winds its way up and down the mountain a couple times a day. I was especially excited to ride it because last time I was here the train was under repair. The ride is extremely popular and the line to get tickets was long. As with all trains in India, this one has multiple classes, but by the time we got up to the counter, second class was sold out and there was only one first class ticket remaining. We were extremely disappointed. We went to the train and started offering people money for their tickets. We started by offering three times the price and went up to as high as 15 times the price, but nobody budged.  A number of Indians noticed our dilemma and tried to help us. They suggested that we ask the train conductor to make an exception, which he would not. Eventually, someone suggested just buying the remaining ticket and having the other person hop on at the last minute and ride without a ticket. He said that at the other end, we will receive a fine that was about the cost of a first class ticket.
We did just that. I hopped on at the last minute and we crowded into the first class compartment–we were numbers 8 and 9 in a compartment meant to take only 8. The other people in the compartment didn’t seem to mind–this is India after all.  In fact, an older couple went so far as to offer us many of the homemade snacks they had brought along, which were delicious. The ride down the mountain was beautiful and one of the second class cars was full of school children who sang songs the entire way.  It was a fitting way to end a nice relaxing day outside the city.

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