I had a terrible time during the first week of my stay in Hanoi. The year and month were 1987 and February. This was my first visit to Hanoi or Vietnam and had some official business to perform. My brief was to meet with the Ministry of Education and select and agree upon where our scholarship program could be implemented. This could have simply been done through sitting in a ministry room and going through the relevant papers, but my host thought otherwise.
I was taken to almost every higher education institution called ‘universities’ and even had to speak to some potential recipients of scholarships, of course through an interpreter. There were around 34 institutions in the Hanoi province if I remember correct. Therefore, my days were hectic and gruelling. Hanoi is a nice old city, and Hanoi meaning ‘the city of lakes.’
I was staying at Danchu Hotel and danchu means democracy, I was meant to believe. But everything was quite nicely regimented of course for my own sake. The days of February were quite cool or rather cold and in the hotel, there was no proper heating. It is a hotel obviously built during the French colonial times, but neglected thereafter particularly during the war times and only now there were new improvements after the economic reform programs two three years back.
I had to wake up early morning and get ready by 8.00 after having breakfast. Then I was taken out. Every morning I was given an itinerary for the day and I didn’t have any say on the matter. If we were in the city area, I was brought back to the hotel sharp at 12.00. Then I was asked to take lunch and have a rest and get ready sharp at 1 O’clock. When we go out in the afternoon, sometimes it was late in the evening when we came back. Dinner was taken out.
I was not sure whether this strict regimentation was followed to impress upon me or that is the way the government bureaucrats operated under still an ‘orthodox’ communist regime. When I arrived in Hanoi, the first thing they did was to take my passport on the pretext of some official reporting, but that was never returned to me until my day of departure. I was little annoyed about the matter but for the sake of politeness or tact decided not to make an issue of it.
My main host was Dong Ho and he was the Second Secretary to the Ministry of Education. Then there were two interpreters, a young man and a young woman, and they both were extremely nice in their own ways but awfully obedient to Mr. Ho. I cannot remember their names off hand. Dong became exceptionally friendly with me eventually and one reason for this change perhaps was my patience and the other being my nationality.
I understand that the Ministry has had a bitter experience previously dealing with NUFFIC, an organization based in the Netherlands, a person like me visiting but indulging in some espionage work or propaganda against Vietnam using the information he gathered during his visit. That is what they told me. This could be one reason why they were quite careful about my visit as well.
One unusual day, I was brought back to the hotel quite early, perhaps around five O’clock in the evening. The two interpreters were rather excited. Dong asked me whether I eat some meat and I couldn’t gather what it was but nevertheless said “yes, yes.” I remember that the woman interpreter had an amusing smile in her face, but I couldn’t understand what it was.
I could have a decent rest that day and a second shower. I only had to get ready by 7 O’clock. What a luxury, I thought.
I was in a fancy shirt and a mild pullover. I knew that we were going out for dinner. Dong wore a tunic. The young woman interpreter was in a colourful gown and a shawl and the young man, the other interpreter finally was not there. I think we travelled for about twenty minutes from my hotel. My notes say it was Tay Ho area or district in Hanoi.
It was a square like place and in the middle, there was a small park with colourful lanterns and some people were selling flowers, sweetmeats, pots, decorations, paintings and curious.The place reminded me of what Thomas More described as a market place in his ‘socialist’ Utopia. This was just after or the last days of their national Lunar New Year. Most colourful were the mandarin plants in pots with full of fruit. They were excelled in hybrid plants. On all four sides, there were small restaurants built with timber and wood. I was taken to one of them and at the entrance there were three other officers from the Ministry who joined us. It appeared that they were subordinates of Dong from their behaviour until all loosened up after some drinks.