How much would you pay this gentleman to snap a pic of him atop his cross-eyed water buffalo?

He asked for 10,000 VND, roughly 0.51 USD/0.37 EUR. A bargain not worth bargaining over.

Patiently waiting in the shade near the entrance to the Dihn Tien Hoang Temple at Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s first capital, the gentleman quickly stood as I approached with my camera. He straightened his hat, fluffed the flowers on the buffalo’s horns, grabbed his bouquet and mounted. The buffalo seemed a bit jaded to the drill.

Hoa Lo, aka The Hanoi Hilton: an Abbreviated Tour

Most Americans like to refer to it as the Hanoi Hilton, but Hoa Lo Prison’s notorious history dates back well before the American War killed 3 million Vietnamese and claimed the lives of more than 57,000 US soldiers.

In literal translation, Hoa Lo means “fiery furnace”. The name comes from the potters who fired their kilns day and night in the area, but the prison soon gained a reputation as a true hell hole. First by the independence-seeking locals, then by the invading Americans.

With anti-colonialism sentiment on the rise, the French began construction in 1896, and hastily began filling its cells and stockades less than three years later before construction was completed. Originally built to house 500 inmates, it held more than 2000 by mid 1952. The bulk of its tenants were political prisoners, men and women, many of whom were involved in the early days of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Torture was common. It has its own dark and dank Death Row. Executions were carried out by guillotine. There’s a mobile guillotine and vivid pics of decapitations on display.

After Hanoi’s liberation from the French in October 1954, the jail housed common criminals until August of 1964, when it made way for downed and captured U.S. pilots. Among them was John McCain, who would later be known as the man who unleashed Sarah Palin onto the world. Here’s McCain’s flight suit and a picture of him being treated by a doctor. Looks a bit staged to me.

All of what remains of the complex –two-thirds of the former prison was demolished in 1993 to clear room for Hanoi Tower, a high rise office and apartment building– is now a museum, focusing primarily on the French period, both a blunt reminder of colonial brutality and a source of revolutionary pride.

If you’re looking for remnants of the American War period, you’ll be a bit disappointed. (This was after all, a prison built by the French to detain and torture pre-revolutionary Vietnamese.) There are two rooms dedicated to the U.S. POWs; besides the McCain flight suit, plenty of propaganda photos of generally happy-looking soldiers grace the walls. Among the most interesting items on display is a letter written by POW Monika Schwenn to the prison chief requesting permission to keep her cat upon release (click and then magnify the image below if you want to read the letter). There’s also a carton of L&M cigarettes, a gift to the prisoners from the International Red Cross. (Does the Red Cross still dole out cigarettes to soldiers these days?)

Admission 10,000 VND (0.51 USD/0.37 EUR); Open Tues-Sun 8:30-11:30 and 1:30-4:30

There is an actual Hilton in Hanoi, by the way. Opened in 1999, it was carefully named the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel.

Previous Vietnam posts:

The Prince of Hàng Bè

I’m too tired to plow through the 800 pics I snapped today at Tam Coc and Vietnam’s ancient capital of Hoa Lu, but I have to put in a good word for Duc, my motorbike taxi, or xe om, driver the past few days. He’s now officially The Prince of Hàng Bè Street.

Motorbike is the best way to get around — at 10,000 to 50,000 VND ($0.50-2.50) a ride it’s cheap, and it’s a rush. And it’s difficult to walk more than 30 seconds without being offered a ride. Take note: If you’re not comfortable riding on your own, Hanoi is probably the worst place on the planet to learn.

I wanted to visit Ho Chi Minh today, but he wasn’t there.

I’m not having much luck with visits to the embalmed bodies of communist icons.

Lenin’s mausoleum was closed on the frigid winter day I visited Moscow in 2006. In Beijing two years ago, I had no time to even think about standing in line to get a quick peek at Mao’s glass coffin. And now, in Hanoi, my visit coincided with the Vietnamese national hero’s two-and-a-half month respite in Moscow for his annual maintenance. I suppose there’s always Kim Il-Sung but a visit to Pyongyang isn’t on the agenda any time soon.

At 42 meters wide and just over 21 meters high, the structure is impressive, if a bit severe for the chaotic energy that is Hanoi. It’s likely too severe for Ho himself, since he clearly stated in his will his wish to be cremated. But instead of his ashes being scattered throughout the country, pieces of the country were brought here and incorporated into the mausoleum. It’s located in the center of Ba Ðình Square where Ho delivered Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945 and was formally inaugurated almost to the day 30 years later.

Besides face lift time from September through mid-December, it’s open Saturday through Thursday from 8-11am, free admission. But come early. Lines are reportedly very long.

A couple more shots:

Women of the Temple of Literature

The stunning Temple of Literature, or Văn Miếu, is one of Hanoi’s most visited attractions. Built to honor Confucius nearly 1000 years ago (in 1070 to be precise), it also later served as Vietnam’s first university. These days it’s a popular location for young women and couples to get their portraits taken.

The women arrive with a full entourage in tow –several photographers, a few assistants, a make-up artist– and move around the sprawling grounds, stopping at nearly every building or larger structure where their teams snap away. So do many from the throngs of tourists who converge here. I snapped quite a few as well; if I’d come a little earlier and stayed a bit longer, I’d probably have enough for an unauthorized calendar.

Yes, it does get a bit exhausting.

More about the Temple itself another time. I am on holiday.

Klimt in Hanoi

More specifically, at a Traditional art gallery in Hanoi.

Like many bigger cities in neighboring China, Old Hanoi is teeming with these small galleries which offer everything from cheap quickly-produced reproductions of renowned masterpieces — one I saw last Monday went so far as advertising ‘Van Gogh HERE’– to more selective collections that only feature works by Vietnamese painters. But even many of those are reproductions.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with buying one of those fakes, as long as you know you’re not getting a deal on a piece by a local rising star whose works are demanding upwards of $25,000 (or more) on the open market. Or even in the millions, as in the case of my Yue Minjun acquisition in Shanghai last spring. But if you’re thinking about spending more than a few hundred dollars/euros on a piece, do a little research first. In many instances, little more is required than visiting a small handful of galleries and browsing a bit to see if indeed one location has an exclusive arrangement with certain artists. In some cases it’s true, in many it’s not.

In any case, it’s still fun watching the locals at work.

Visits to a couple upscale Hanoi galleries is on the agenda for next week. Vietnamese art is on the rise internationally, and I’m curious to see why.

45 Minutes in Sapa’s Central Market

Here are a few snaps from the central market in Sapa, Vietnam’s gateway to the northern highlands. Markets are always a joy to explore; this one had some of the most marvelous aromas I’ve ever had the pleasure to inhale. Also some of the most putrid.

Some of the finest came from the humble food court where I also had lunch.

The streets, alleyways and squares are teeming with women from local hill tribes selling their wares. Below are a couple on their lunch break. These two are H’mong I believe.

There were women gossiping.

There were women snoozing.

Some were dreaming. (Or, more likely, just hoping that I would move on.)

This one was reading a photocopied version of the day’s newspaper and wasn’t very pleased with what she read.

And some of course were shopping.

And finally, another shot from the meat department.

Vietnam, Northern Highlands

The second day of a four day/four night trip between Hanoi and Sapa in the furthest reaches of northern Vietnam, and back. Today began in Nghia Lo and wound through and above the extraordinary Tu Le Valley, up and over the Tram Ton Pass, the highest in Vietnam, and ended in Sapa, the focal point for this now-heavily visited area.  More specifics about the trip another time, but here are a few quick shots.

The first is about an hour north of Nghia Lo (itself about 200km northwest of Hanoi) where the day began. Saw LOTS of rice paddies today.

These are overlooking the Tu Le Valley.

We made a brief visit to say hello at a primary school in a village just north of Mu Cang Chai, just in time for gym class. I made a quick guest appearance at an English class.

A view of the Tram Ton Pass road, absolutely breathtaking. Highest point is 2074m.

And finally, a woman in the market in Sapa who sold me a cheap pair of pants I’ll probably never wear.

Tomorrow is a trek to some fairly isolated villages, and a homestay with a local hill tribe family. I requested a bunk with wifi, but my hosts haven’t gotten back to me on that yet.