The morning of Vietnam’s 70th anniversary of Independence is quiet. Oh sure, there are still shouts, dogs barking, several more roosters crowing than usual (at least until lunchtime), propaganda blasting over the loudspeakers that are set up at regular intervals around the city and the general 5.00am pandemonium of Hanoi’s Câu Giãy district. Still, compared to usual, it’s dead silent.
We jump in a taxi, fully aware massive road closures throughout the city will make it impossible to get near the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, our intended final destination and the start of the Independence Day military parade. A local woman had mentioned the day before that she would be camping overnight with her family to ensure a good spot. We thought she was just overenthusiastic, turns out she was doing it out of necessity. We were not at all prepared to be kicked out of the taxi so soon.
It’s madness. Guarded barricades mean that we’re stuck a block behind the parade route, with no way of getting through. Some people are let through occasionally but not even the locals seem to understand the reasoning for who may pass and who is barred.
Dozens of soldiers in crisp green uniforms blow whistles and direct traffic, both on and off foot. It’s still not clear where we’re being directed to. Maybe the parade is actually coming this way, what with all the people clambering for a position? Surely they wouldn’t block the roads if there wasn’t actually something to block it from? But there’s noone to ask.
The only thing we understand is that there’s an outdoor coffee shop on the corner, from which we will see just as much, or as little, as we would standing on the street being crushed by the crowd. Coffee it was.
I should note now that I don’t drink coffee. It tastes like sadness. Today I was having a coffee. Two sips into my iced coffee (yes, two, don’t judge) and I was drunk. Coffee is one hell of a drug. In the midst of my hyperactivity and giggle fits, a group of Hanoi locals, wearing matching red shirts with yellow stars and stickers on their face of the same design, also sought refuge in the coffee shop. I was caffeine drunk, so naturally I wanted to make friends.
Much to my excitement, their English was fantastic. Much to their amusement, my assumption they were uni students was incorrect. They were our age and freelance photographers, trying to find even just a peak of the parade. They had also given up and settled on coffee. Only the crowd dispersing about an hour later indicated that we’d officially missed it. But then, we were just doing as the locals did.
Assuming, as with any Australian celebration, there would be some sort of after party event, I asked our new friends. Blank stares is all I got in return.
“Parties? No. This is Independence Day. You go home, come back for fireworks.”
Right, time for breakfast then. The parade was all over by 9am after all. If we thought it was crowded before, it was nothing to what we were now trying to walk in the opposite direction of. No wonder it was so quiet back home, the whole of Hanoi was packed in the centre of the city.
The strangest thing to get used to as a white person in Vietnam, as in many Asian countries, is being treated like a celebrity. This mass of people who would otherwise have felt intimidating, happily made way for us; shouting out hello, reaching for a handshake, trying to get photos. All this for a random white person looking quite unglamorous while sweating profusely. I’d hate to a bystander when an actual famous person comes here.
Finally escaping our adoring fans, we spot more of our group entering a shop selling the traditional Vietnamese breakfast noodle soup, pho. We stick out here like an avocado in a pile of oranges, but on occasions like this it comes in handy. Unlike us, our cohorts actually managed to see the parade and had the pictures to prove it. I pull up a stool while they tuck into steaming bowls of beef pho. Like many legitimate Vietnamese food places here, vegetarian is not an option, so I content myself with flicking through their photos of the parade.
In nearly 40 degree heat and such high humidity that you almost have to push against the air, the poor men and women of various Vietnamese forces are wearing long pants, long sleeves and jackets. JACKETS! Whether their uniforms were dark green, bright white or somewhere in-between, the sweat glistening on their small patches of exposed skin were visible even on the camera screen. That didn’t seem to stop them from marching vigorously and holding their guns just so. Incase you weren’t certain before, this parade left no doubt that this was an impressive display of strength, and the locals were eating it up.
Bellies full and coffee buzz wearing off, we head back home with the locals. We nap like the locals. Then we make full use of our large rooftop and the sunshine for a good old-fashioned house party…not so much like the locals.
One long party, several downed tinnies and a typically unpredictable monsoon later, it was time to head into the city and bags a place for the fireworks. There are 70 people in our group, about 40 of which made it to the rooftop party. Only 5 of us dared to brave the torrential rain for fireworks. That’s dedication.
Especially when you factor in that all of Hanoi is also willing to brave it. And that the most dangerous place for a 6-foot tall person to be is in a sea of umbrellas held by the Vietnamese. Not even kidding, you will loose an eye.
Hours pass. Our group of 5 turns into 2. Even we last 2, resigning ourselves to soaking, fighting off poncho thieving families and short men who decide your head is the perfect height to rest his open umbrella on, are losing patience. These fireworks should have started half an hour ago, they’re probably not even worth it.
They were worth it. Beautiful patriotic flashes lit the sky over Hoan Kiem Lake and the small temple in the middle of it, while an adoring crowd oohed, ahhed and squealed in delight. And we squealed too. Fireworks get me every time.