Ho Chi Minh’s body lay motionless in the center of his glass case. His lips seemed frozen in a subtle smile and the way his hands rested on his stomach, he could have simply been taking a peaceful nap in the glowing orange light of the afternoon. Exiting the mausoleum, we debated whether his fresh and unsunken features were really the lasting corpse of Vietnam’s first president, or the conspirical work of Madame Tussaud’s. His presidential palace was a bright yellow, Sponge-Bob color that looked like a life-size creation of Playmobil. We then ventured to the Temple of Confucius where local college graduates were taking pictures and praying to giant, sacred turtle statues.
After another bowl of Pho-Ga at a small family-owned restaurant across the street from the hotel, my family and I took a gander around the lake to a humbling statue of captured John McCain. Carved into pumice-looking rock, he hung in a position not unlike Jesus on the cross.
The next morning, we carved up the dragon fruit from the gift basket and passed it around the group for tasting as a communal cultural experience. The bus ride to Halong Bay was about four hours long. Halfway there, we stopped at a giant statue shop featuring carvings of Buddha, turtles, lions, and little boys with their pants at their feet. Climbing along the sea front, the monolithic islands of the bay came into full view. It was like a scene out of Avatar, and I half expected an Ikran Makto from Pandora to land on our boat.
Our “junk” was called the Destiny Star and like a floating five-star hotel. The owner was a well-dressed but rather plump French man who kept dabbing at his forehead as he lectured us on the rules of sea living. On the other side of the bay, we climbed the one hundred-something steps up to some swirling limestone caves deep in the side of the island. Penguin trash cans lined the walkway and I wondered whether the local houseboat fisherman would have been able to identify them as such. A sweltering kayak to the beach left us as spectators to some crisply tanned tourists in wedgy-inducing Speedos playing volleyball.
The night concluded with a five-course seafood dinner that got me thinking about the starving children in Vietnam. The waitresses presented each plate simultaneously and delicately removed the heads from our shrimp appetizers. Charades entertained us into the wee hours of the night after a “cooking class” that was really our observing the chef and then eating his creation. Outside, lightning struck down on the horizon as the ship’s attendants stood laughing at our imitations of Batman and Ricky Bobby.
After racing around the bay in double kayaks, we returned to Hanoi, where we saw a small traditional music performance before hopping back on the bus late in the night to catch a train to Hue. At the train station, we slumped into some chairs facing Zombie Apocalypse playing on the TV screen. Just as a young girl was about to be torn limb from limb, our train pulled up to the platform before we could see her fate. I half expected the train to be like the Hogwarts express, but while a woman did walk down the corridors with a trolley, she didn’t offer any Chocolate Frogs or Fizzing Whizbees. In the hallway, the walls were so close together you could not extend your arms, so for entertainment we did relay races up and down the corridors as the train jolted back and forth. Naturally, the one who touched the wall first was the loser.
Breakfast, after a night of being tossed about on the surprisingly comfortable bunk, consisted of peanut butter-flavored biscuits and bananas. We arrived at the Thanh Lich Hotel in Hue around midday where quiche and carrot cake awaited us at a French Boulangerie. The city was much cleaner and calmer than Hanoi, although here the heat was — what had previously seemed impossible to achieve — even more unbearable. Even the breeze from the Perfume River could not quell the humidity clinging to our every step.