Room with a View

Main entrance -- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum -- Hanoi
Main entrance, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Certain rules exist among writers. Here’s one: take a pensive protagonist, and, chances are, he will gaze (longingly? bitterly? without clothes?) out a window.

He’ll think, and as he thinks, you, the writer, will take the pains to sketch his thoughts. Fingers pinch chin, unblinking eyes, fixed stare. I make a point to reenact the pose as often as possible, and I imagine I’m not the only one. It’s easiest when traveling. Different windows, different rooms, different views. For instance: Hanoi, Old Quarter, a hotel’s sixth floor, the side that doesn’t face the street. Here: corrugated rust, a slow-moving industrial fan. A French balcony (probably yellow, undoubtedly pastel) wrapped in ivy nudged next to a three-story slab of granite. Clothes-pinned linen drooping next to a tree’s branches; a caged bird on a telephone wire. A stack of red stools, like a hot drop of blood below.

(Do not put your forehead to the glass. It’s sweaty, and the maids are watching.)

You are in a position that is higher than most all of the buildings around you. Maybe there is a skyline; you don’t see it. “Skyscraper,” the word, the concept, as architecture, feels sleek – slimy as the plastic-bag goby sold on sidewalks.

Narrow streets, crowded crevices: each square foot pressed in and up, the desperate squeeze on a tube of crusted toothpaste.

I swear I heard bagpipes in the distance – or maybe screeching tires?

All of this, of course, is one window, just one view. There is a temptation to categorize; because this is the way we (I) make sense of the world. It’s easier, so much easier, to shorthand Hanoi’s streets in punchy terms. French colonial, no, Post-French-colonial, no, Post-colonial-Bouge. But what of the Buddhist temple there, the raw communist concrete here, the nondescript office building, the Western-looking hotels, the crumbling cornices?

Same principle, smaller scale: the city’s mausoleum, home to an embalmed Ho Chi Minh. Steeped in hulking granite, sharp angles, a portico and pillars, you could call it “of the communist style,” and that would not be wrong. The architects took inspiration from Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow, and military guards remind visitors of the central political nature of the building’s mission. Still. Leafy greens, flowerbeds cut the acidity of it all. A friend compared the scene to Disney World, and that felt strangely right. The building has been named one of the top ten ugliest buildings in the world, but I wonder whether this is because we reserve ugly for things hard to couch in familiar terms. Lenin’s tomb didn’t make the list, but why? Are its angles any less sharp against the Soviet wind? Or can we better understand its intended austerity when bonsai trees are not there to confuse us?

(The windowpane is not any cooler than the air. Sticky fingertips on glass on hot air.)

Then, there’s the urge to layer. Don’t blink. A stack of precarious pancakes, Hanoi can instead become a palimpsest of different-era styles mashed together into one sloppy salad bowl. Communist Austerity thrown atop French Colonial just above “Traditional” with Modern and Art Deco as occasional garnish. I’m not convinced that this is enough. The view below is more than the sum of its parts. It is impossible to describe. You can try, and you will probably fail.

This is terrifying, and fantastic.

Hayley Byrnes