“The fog comes on little cat feet,” American poet Carl Sandburg once famously wrote. Covid-19, it seems, has a similar agenda.
Sunday in Hanoi was a day like many others in this traveler’s lìfe. I awoke with a plan to visit the tomb of Hô Chi Mính, the architect of modern Vietnamese nationhood and the country’s greatest hero. In the afternoon, I would join a raucous party of 20 in the consumption of a weighty boar’s leg at Mediterraneo, my new favorite restaurant in the north of Vietnam. Then I hoped a romantic interlude might await me after the sun went down.
Historical curiosity came first. There would be plenty of time later for gastronomy and passion. Although images of Bac Hô (“Uncle Ho”) are ubiquitous throughout Vietnam in statues and paintings and photographs, there is only one place to get close to the man — literally.
Hô Chi Mính (1890-1969) lived his final years in the Ba Đinh district of the nation’s capital, having led Vietnam through its independence struggle against France and the first part of the American War. Today the Hô Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex embraces a beautiful park and botanical gardens, a vehicle-free acreage that includes the HCM Museum, Hô’s semi-legendary stilt house, Vietnam’s presidential palace and the ỉntriguingly approachable One Pillar Pagoda.
Men in White
From my hotel, a small but elegant boutique property at the edge of Hanoi’s Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem lake, it’s a walk of just over 2 kilometers (1.3 miles) to the mausoleum itself. That’s an easy half-hour gallavant, not a distance that normally challenges me. But on this chilly February morning, as a barely visible but lightly piercing drizzle stung my cheeks between my facemask and my Oregon baseball cap, I trod a little more slowly than is my habit. I wished I had worn an extra sweater beneath my rain-repellent jacket.
When I finally reached the imposing marble monument where Hô’s corpse is entombed, I was mildly put out to be redirected, not once but twice, to a gatehouse 500 meters further from my destination — only to join a small procession of other pilgrims in progress. We marched a carefully prescribed path, a covered walkway accented with video screens where performers sang patriotically of the greatness of the socialist republic of Vietnam.
The pedestrian way eventually reached the grand mausoleum, where an honor guard dressed in royal white ushered us inside with a stern “no talking, no photography” warning. They led us up a series of dimly lit stairways to the chamber where Bac Hô himself was laid to rest, under the watch of many more guardsmen.
He was waxen, flaxen, as thoroughly embalmed a cadaver as I’ve ever laid eyes upon. The yellowish-gray hue of his skin looked ungodly for a man who is revered as a god. I was fascinated. I’d like to say he looked pretty good for a guy who’s been dead for more than 50 years, but he really didn’t. I wanted to linger for long minutes staring at a scene befitting of a Guillermo del Toro movie. But the guards were having none of that. Keep moving, they said. Do not stop. I spent no more than 30 seconds with the man, or, rather, the corpse of the man. I think it will haunt me forever.
Whining and dining
It was only about 11 in the morning, and I was tired and cranky. At the Ho Chi Minh Museum, I complained about the 40,000 VND admission charge for foreigners (citizens are free) to visit a score of exhibits with interpretive signs written only in Vietnamese. And then I whined as I waited at a coffee shop for a taxi back to my hotel.
My legs were starting to ache. An hour’s hotel rest would make everything better again. Then the wild boar dinner and the good Italian wine would kick in. And add lively conversation — although I was the only native English speaker invited to the festa, I enjoyed meeting expats from Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium and Brazil.
But I cut the afternoon short and canceled my evening plans. I had developed a slight sore throat, and although I am double-vaccinated against Covid-19 (as my friends assured me they also are), I didn’t want to see anyone get sick on my account. I took a Panadol and went to bed.
Covid comes to visit
That was Sunday. I slept restlessly. On Monday morning, I awoke very early with a sketchy throat. I tried to treat it with a “super pack” of natural remedies that I had been carrying for just such an inevitability. I’ve had sore throats before. Those tonics and some green and herbal teas, provided by the hotel, would knock it out in no time, I told myself.
But when I awoke Tuesday, I was not better. My throat was burning and badly inflamed, with heavy mucus production. I couldn’t swallow; when I tried to drink a little water, it quickly became heavy phlegm. My little trash can was filling quickly with sputum. It wasn’t pretty. And it didn’t smell good.
I hurried to a pharmacy and described my symptoms. Fifteen minutes and US $40 later, I carried off a bag of six medications, including an antibiotic and two other pills to be taken morning and evening, plus throat spray, lozenges and salt solution to replenish lost nutrients.
Now, I had another problem. I couldn’t swallow the meds. I could put a pill on my tongue, but even a tiny sip of water left me gagging. I considered that I might have to admit myself to a hospital to be treated intravenously. At last, I resorted to chewing the pills very finely, crushing them with my teeth, waiting for enough of my own saliva to build and take their bitter taste from my mouth.
And then there was the matter of self-administering a Covid-19 test with a five-part, store-bought kit. Technically inept as I am, I bollixed my first attempt. Then I learned how to insert my nasal swab into a specially treated, miniature test tube and drip three drops onto a test frame. It didn’t take long to indicate a “positive” result.
Into the Twilight Zone
As Tuesday afternoon became evening and morphed into Wednesday morning, I lost track of time and space and slipped into the Twilight Zone. Sleep as deep as death seduced me into believing I had drifted off for 12 hours, when indeed it could not have been more than 12 minutes. Was it day or night? I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. I tossed and turned endlessly, woke up to pee, or to gag, or to pee and gag, and hoped there would be light at the other end of the tunnel.
There was. At some point, I found that I could drink small sips of water without choking. Soon I was able to eat … not a lot, but a little noodle soup was better than nothing at all. I never lost any sensation of smell or taste, as some Covid sufferers report. I could never not breathe.
By Thursday, although I thought it was Friday, my mind was unmuddled enough that I could write and read, which is far better therapy for me than mindless TV movies. I was regaining my appetite: I had a full bowl of cháo thit heo, a rice porridge with pork.
Friday, I felt a little light-headed (no surprise) and I fell back into occasional coughing spells, which I had not experienced in the previous several days of illness. I was more aware of fatigue and perhaps a little depression. I recall reading that these are not-uncommon side effects of the Covid virus. I only hope they pass soon.
And now it’s Saturday. Last night I ordered an Italian dinner to my room: meatball soup, salmon fettuccine, yogurt dessert, so there’s no doubt my appetite has come back. I’ve taken my morning medicine. I want to take a short walk, but that is ill-advised, as I look out my fifth-floor window and see the steady rain. I’ll re-test on Monday and hope that I’ve put this episode as far behind me as Uncle Hô’s corpse.
Hey, the man didn’t want any of this adulation. He just wanted his body to be cremated.