In Hanoi I visited the St Joseph’s Cathedral. It was built by the French in 1886 on the site of an 11th century pagoda. Who needs old pagoda’s? the French said, we bring progress, get away with it. When the French left in 1954, the cathedral was closed. as they couldn’t take it with them, and it didn’t open again until 1990. It had gathered a lot of dust by then.
The lofty interior brought a welcome escape from the frantic traffic outside and I took my time to admire the stained glass windows. They were beautiful. Especially John the Baptist who was dressed in rags, but looked proud and defiant at the visitors. In this case two Chinese women who were making selfies with Jesus.
During one of my last evenings in Hanoi I sat at the lake again, with four or five disciples around me, ostensibly to practise their English, but in reality it was me lecturing on a wide range of topics. Tell us about…. And I told them. I told them about religion, about science, about history, about economy, about politics (treading carefully there) and about language.
– In Germany they talk Dutch? One of them asked.
– They try, I said, but they speak it badly, it’ s terrible Dutch. They call it German.
The sleeper bus from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu was awful. A motorcycle taxi took me to the bus station through traffic that would scare the shit out of Jason Bourne. The bus was very uncomfortable and they had stuffed as many people as they could in the contraption. It was a different model than I had experienced before and it had double seats which made for intimate relations with your neighbour. Around 10 o’clock we stopped. Now we eat, my neighbour said. Sleeper bus protocol requires you to put your shoes in a plastic bag and during stops passengers are provided with flip flops. Since I was one of the last to leave the bus, I ended up with two, one size fits all, but still too small, flip flops. Two left ones…. We walked into the restaurant but it was very unclear where and how to order food. I didn’t see anyone sitting down and eating, so I bought some cookies. Just as I was doing so, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, come and eat! With the help of Google Translate, I was told that the meal was complimentary, so I sat down with my fellow travellers and food was placed on the tables. A young man took my bowl and filled it with rice and another handed me politely my chopsticks. Then we ate.
In Dien Bien Phu I found an okay hotel. It was actually extremely okay after a little bargaining and considering I then got cable tv, airco and marble floors. When I went out for a walk, I saw, quite unexpectedly, some colourfully dressed women at the market who belonged to minority groups, but they seemed even more surprised to see me. I smiled friendly to show them I was really harmless. Later I sat down at a small café where the waiter giggled and pointed at my arms. Then he pointed at his own arms. Hairy arms. Hi hi. And I thought this was the banana pancake trail….
In the evening I climbed the hill to inspect the monument built there to commemorate the battle that was fought here in 1954 between the French and the Viet Minh. The French lost and it meant the end for their Indochina colony.
– Would you please surrender?
– Non, of course not. We have many cannons, now go away.
– But we have more cannons than you.
– Don’t be silly…
– But it’s true.
When the Viet Minh started shelling the French positions, the French artillery commander committed suicide with a hand grenade. The Viet Minh closed in on their enemies. Another French colonel was depressed and stayed in his bunker. More fighting ensued and in the end the French were overrun.
Then the guns stopped.
It was silent.
History used to be written by the victors, but these days it’s all Wikipedia.