Monday, June 9, 2008

Hanoi, Vietnam

Leaving the airport for downtown was simple enough until we hit a terrible traffic jam trying to get into Hanoi -- on a road leading past giant factories (Canon etc). There was an accident on the bridge and once we cleared that, it was smooth sailing. Interesting mix of people in the van, mostly Asian but from all over the place: Hong Kong, Malayasia, etc. Everyone joked about the traffic, speaking English and once again I realized how fortunate I was to speak such a connecting language, but also sad that my grasp of other languages is so weak. I was constantly amazed on my trip by how just about everyone I met had some English, if not fluent (well… that is until I got to China).

As we crossed through downtown Hanoi, it occurred to me that yet again I’d arrived in a country with no hotel reservation… nor really any idea of where to look for a guesthouse. I don’t think that when I started out, I would have ever thought I’d just play it off the cuff like this. But then again, I’d only booked the first night in Mumbai and gone from there.

I chose to get off the bus in a rather backpacker-friendly area and walked down the street, peering into various hotels. Guesthouses were in abundance. I stopped at a cheery one but they quoted me approximately 15 dollars a night. I started to walk away and they said since it was not busy, I could have it for 10 a night. Score! My room was very nice. Two beds, cable tv, minifridge, HOT shower. Free internet access in the lobby. I showered and changed and headed out to find food. A couple blocks up I found a roadside pho stand (addiction!) and was invited to sit down by the owner.


Two gentlemen sitting nearby engaged me in conversation, or at least tried. I got out my Lonely Planet Vietnam book and tried out phrases with them and soon learned I needed work. Such a good meal… I know I already mentioned that pho is rice noodles in a beef broth. They bring you a plate piled high with basil, mint, and bean sprouts which you dump in to your liking. Usually there is pepper sauce at hand for spicing up and cheap beer. I think this meal runs about two bucks max… depending on the beer.


I was having a great time… I had passed a couple of bars packed with Westerners on my way to the pho stand but I think my time sitting with the locals was much more pleasant and memorable. And I love how the Vietnamese women seem to throw on their pajamas as soon as it’s after 4 pm.

IMG_8445 (guy on left was the one helping with my Vietnamese)

On my walk back to the hotel, a young Vietnamese man on a spiffy Vespa passed me and smiled. When I reached my hotel, he had circled the block and pulled up next to me. He introduced himself as Huy (sort of sounds like Who-eh), asks where I am from and invites me to go to a discothèque with him. Says he has a sister in New Jersey so he likes to meet Americans and practice his English. I’m not sure why, but I decided to take him up on it. It wasn’t that terribly late and it was Saturday night after all. And how often do I get invited to Vietnamese discothèques?

He hands me a helmet and we zip off into the night. The club is located on a dock on the Song Hong River about five minutes away. Huy parks his Vespa among the throng of motorbikes and we head towards the pounding music. It wasn’t exactly a local’s hangout as I was greeted by a sea of mostly Caucasian faces. Huy introduces me to an artist friend of his and later we danced. It was a fun club but it was also incredibly hot and I was tired. Huy took me home and offered to take me on a tour of Hanoi the next day. What better way to see the city but with a local and on a Vespa? I agreed and he said he’d pick me up at 10.


The next morning, sure enough, Huy rolled up at 10 and we set off. First we toured around the neighborhood with its French colonial buildings covered in creeping vines. Zipped past women selling bread and various fruits.





He took me to a Canon store to replace the battery charger I’d left in Rachel’s bathroom as well. As we hopped back on the bike, however, Huy noticed a nail in his tire so off we went to get it fixed. While waiting, we sat and had a soda and Huy serenaded me with various songs on his cell phone, including Elton John’s "Something about the Way You Look Tonight." Once it was fixed, it was time for lunch so Huy took me to his favorite Sunday pho lunch spot where we sat with other locals. I could tell he was getting a good-natured ribbing from the guys outside for bringing me. It was really quite good pho but I actually liked the pho at the stand from the night before better. Next stop was one of many temples. To get to it, we had to cross a particularly busy street and Huy kept me to one side of him as we stepped out into traffic. It was still unnerving to just walk out into traffic, as you’re supposed to, giving the mopeds enough time to go around you. If you wait for a hole, you’ll never cross the street.


We drove around the small lake in the center of Hanoi and to the Vietnam War Museum.

It’s a strange experience to wander around a museum with someone who may or may not have relatives who were the enemy of American soldiers. Strange to see the Vietnamese side of it – pictures of massacres and US soldiers doing terrible things. Huy and I had a short talk about it but our conversation started to get a little tense and we headed to the café for some iced coffee. There was a tower outside overlooking a sort of art piece made up of crumpled US aircraft and other wartime prizes so we climbed up to look out over Hanoi.



Back on the Vespa and zipped over to a temple on the lake. There were a lot of shrines where people burned incense as well as fake money to send to their ancestors and dead loved ones. The shrines also contained other various offerings such as chicken, bread and small bottles of liquor. You absolutely must take care of your ancestors.




Finally, we Vespa'd to the train station to get my Beijing train ticket but it was already closed. Huy dropped me back at my hotels so I could rest for a bit and we planned on meeting up later for dinner and playing pool -- his Sunday night tradition.

Next day, Huy was working so I was on my own. I struck out for a good walk around my neighborhood. I had noticed there had been a hat district nearby and I was intent on buying a straw fedora as I was certain that it was something nobody wore back in the states (boy was I in for a shock when I got home). However, the only one I found that was properly floppy and about the right color was too small. I came upon another that was okay but the brim was too wide. And I wasn't too crazy about the crown. The woman trying to sell me it wouldn't give up. I told her it the brim was too big and started to walk away when she seized a pair of scissors and cut into it then unwound the brim until it was the correct width. But now it looked terrible. I didn't know what to do -- I also didn't have enough cash on me. I went to an ATM and then decided to just not return. I feel badly about it, but... I didn't really want it and didn't ask her to mutilate it for me. I walked until I realized I was nowhere near the train station, which was my original intent. The streets tend to wind around in loops around the lake and I had no idea where I was. I hailed a moped driver who took me to the station, only for me to realize I didn't have my passport and of course they were going to want to see it. Idiot. Hopped another moped all the back to my hotel and back to the station, scared I was going to miss getting a ticket. No problem though and soon I was booked. Decided to walk back even though the steaminess was really hitting its afternoon peak. Back in my own neighborhood, I came upon an intersection of several streets with "bars" on each corner. By bars I mean there was a small store with a keg inside and chairs facing out towards the street. A beer was approximately 40 cents. It wasn't the best beer but it was nice to just relax and watch the rather hectic world literally zoom by -- in cars, tuk-tuks, bikes, mopeds etc.



Beer Lady.


Family outing. Pfff, Indians could get at least three more people on.

Since I had not yet had pho that day, I proceeded up the street for my favorite dish at my favorite roadside cafe. Later that night, Huy came by to take me out. We took a night time drive around the city (Huy was also helping me with my hat hunt, with no luck) -- out by the lake I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Parked alongside the lake every 15 feet was a young couple passionately necking, either leaning up against the lake's railing or sitting on their moped. Truly the entire park was strewn with young lovers kissing. Huy explained that most people live with their parents well into their adult years and have nowhere to go to make-out. So they go to the parks. It was hysterical. We headed to Huy's favorite lounge/ bar for a farewell drink as I would be leaving tomorrow before he got off work.

The next morning, I packed up and went out wandering again. My train wasn't until the early evening so I had some time to kill.

IMG_8474 Apparently the Vietnamese have already written off Britney (this is a funeral stone store)

Sorely low on reading materials for the two-day train trip (and the last few guesthouses I'd stayed in didn't appear to have a book exchange) I stopped at a bookstore and then wandered around a mall. I continued my walk, and realized I had stumbled upon an area with a number of chain stores and restaurants and that I was standing in front of a Gloria Jean's. I had worked at a GJ's for years in college and now a "Chiller" sounded perfect for the hot and humid day.


Picked up some treats for the train, went back to the hotel for some last minute interneting and to get some lunch. A cab picked me up and I was off. I was feeling kind of apprehensive and low at this point. Beijing was next and Beijing was last. I was going home in a week. How could it only be one week?

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