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A Bizarre Ride

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 13 June 2017 | Views [224]

Hanoi, Vietnam

A Bizarre Ride

Upon arrival in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, I sat down with the manager at the hotel where he gave me a map of the city and we discussed local tours and attractions. This sort of free service is more helpful than a heavy tour book that discusses ALL the highlights. Tour books fail to give any idea of how much time should be spent at each attraction or if it's even worth the travel effort to get there. We planned a two day one night boat cruise to the infamous Ha Long Bay. Transportation to and from Hanoi is provided along with all the accommodations on the boat. Done! Cruise booked.

In the meantime I explored the city that afternoon. In the middle of the city proper is the Hoan Kiem Lake that provides a nice walk and nearby coffee houses overlooking the lake. I first weaved through the heavy traffic roads, where no rules apply, and to this Vietnamese coffee house on a deck overlooking the lake. I cruised around the Lake then ventured southeast into the older part of the city, the Old Quarter and the French Quarter. Retrospectively it would have been ideal to take a guided tour of the area to understand more of the history but I chose to walk around myself. I mildly brushed up on the long convoluted history of Hanoi but I won't dare try to explain it here. Simply put, the points of interest, primarily the architecture, infrastructure, and attractions are a result of the multiple occupations by different nations, all of which were vying for control of this prominent trade center throughout history.

The Old Quarter and the French Quarter for me was difficult to determine the exact boarders. Old Quarter is represented by the overcrowded and disorganized mess of buildings. These accommodations were the result of people migrating from the villages and the growth of their families that occurred as the city was booming. Lining the main streets are these semi-ratty looking 12 ft by 12 ft box-like stores usually selling food, coffee and shakes, and various mini-mart products. The back alleys are a continuation of the store fronts where the impoverished vendors reside. The buildings are all connected and have been subdivided many times. It was difficult to sort out individual residences as your peak into the entrances. Many cots are set up inside, clothes lines cross the upper portion of the alleys, and the vendors are crouched down lining the alleys rotating the sale for their goods, usually produce, throughout the day. I often wonder how much of the goods are actually sold, by whom, and how much goes to waste?
Again, I'm not sure where the French Quarter is separated from the Old Quarter but usually the buildings on the wide tree lined streets are of French influence. The buildings stand out as they are larger, distinctly separated from one another. The building are dressed with the provincial light yellow color with green wooden shutters around the windows. The area in general has a mix of Vietnamese people but one thing I found amusing was the men in the cafes. Regardless of whether or not they are decked out in slacks and dress shoes or shorts and sandals, they all huddle around small plastic child sized tables on plastic stools. Drinking the rich Veitnamese coffee they smoked one cigarette after the next. Although I don't understand the content of the conversation it is amusing to hear their tones wax and wane, the pinching of their consonants, and making exaggerated hand gestures. I have to wonder, do they work? How long do these session last? Does the coffee high not hurry the conversations?

In the same district I visited the Hoa Lo Prison where many Vietnamese were detained and brutally tortured prior to the Vietnam war. It also housed American POWs during the war. I also passend by and admired the St. Joseph's Cathedral built by the French to represent Norte Dame.

Lastly I had to visit the night market since markets have become my mild obsession. This market was less crowded and more geared toward tourists so I decided to hit up the street food vendors which always provide a unique experience. At this particular vendor I sat at a table that had a ten inch tin foil lined pan on a burner. I ordered meat and pork not knowing really what I was getting. A young guy comes over to light the burner adding a little oil and butter to the pan. A woman then brings a large plate of meat with a few veggies, some banquet slices, sauce then walks away. I have no idea what to do so I did the most obvious thing and put the meat in the fryer and started pushing it around. Apparently I was doing it wrong. The woman came back, stirred the meat with her chopsticks, removing the cooked meat and adding more raw. I'm not entirely sure how I messed that up, kinda think she just wanted to be helpful.

The following day the shuttle bus picked me up at 8 am and then made several stops picking up other passengers. We picked up a few Vietnamese tourists but mostly all westerners from various countries. Upon arrival, the pier where there were at least one hundred people stumbling around being directed to their tour boat guides. I realized that myself and the people on the shuttle bus weren't on the same boat together. I was paired up by Ka, the boat guide, and one other guy from the shuttle ride, Rob. Ka had to go gather our other group members leaving Rob and I sittings awkwardly making small talk and waiting to be told what to do. Ka returns and informs us that we will now board the boat but he warns us that all the other passengers are Vietnamese and do not speak English. They were having a reunion and all met for the tour. So 33 people boarded the boat and only myself, Rob, and Ka spoke English (Ka spoke Vietnamese too). Rob and I looked at each other with out saying a word but communicated "are you serious?". After boarding and checking into the rooms, we met on the second deck for lunch. Of course Rob and I sat together, but we were joined by four teenage boys. The food came out and it was evident that my chopstick skills may not be cut out for this activity. Fortunately I did well and we all ate off the same plates from at least eight different dishes. I wish I was exaggerating but the amount of food was more than all six of us could eat. There must have been eight fully loaded plates each with a different dish. The young boys took a liking to us and proceeded to send beers down the table and demanded we chant some Vietnamese cheers slogan (quite long to remember) then slam beers. After only one beer at that velocity the buzz came quick and so I shoved the food in even faster.
Shortly after lunch we visited a large cave, a go to spot for tour guides. All the bay boats rotated unloading visitors to have a once in a lifetime experience to witness a mysterious cavern. Caves were nothing knew to me, I had visited a few tourist exhibits as a young kid. In Costa Rica I did a few small group trips actually exploring somewhat raw caves with spaces you squeezed your body through, hoping your head lamp didn't fall off or the bats swoop over your head. I made an effort to allow the attraction to exist despite my observations of commercialization along with the blatant disrespect for the natural wonder as illustration by trash in the cave and Bay.
Other activities previously mentioned included a short swimming trip and a brief kayaking trip to see monkeys. At night I enjoyed listening to the women on the boat belting out Vietnamese karaoke, and seeing the men in crouched positions, smoking and playing high stakes poker. I also gained a new fiend, Hang, a 20 year old college student studying English and business. Her mom was very ecstatic to have me meet her and speak English, her mom did not speak English. Hang was somewhat of a shy girl with fair skin, a round face, bobbed haircut, and she nervously parted her bangs as we spoke. That evening on the boat we spoke for a good while but as it goes practicing a new language was tiring for both of us. I soon decided to grab a pillow and a sheet and retire to the lounge chairs on the upper deck. While the limestone rock formations at Ha Long Bay were beautiful, spending time with the Vietnamese clan was by far the icing on the cake. I later found it funny that the boat guide, Ka, thought I would somehow be upset to be paired with this all Vietnamese boat but to me it was preferred.

The following day after the trip, Hang came by with her friend and we hung out in my hotel as I packed. We chatted about the difference in our cultures, like how she would stay at home with her parents until she was married. She then took me to a back alley where we sat and had noodle soup; she helped me with my chopstick skills. We visited the imperial Academy, or temple of literature, Vietnam's first university and dedicated to Confuscious. Hang told me it's customary to visit and make offerings to pray for good luck with their academics. She showed me how to bow to each elaborate statue while asking for good fortune.

Not sure if I've previously conveyed this sentiment but the experience isn't in the number of things you accomplish when visiting each place, which can make you feel rushed and tired. Yes, some attractions definitely need to be seen, but maybe not ALL of them. At the prison I saw many young tourists sort of hurrying through the exhibit and quickly peering into the rooms. For me it was more important to read the history. As I went along I took the time to step into the actual prisoner cells trying to get a feel of what it would be like to be locked in for undetermined amount of time. I observed the details of the building, the double bricked walls, the impenetrable locks on the large steel doors, and all the mechanism that illustrate the claim that no one could break free of the confinement. It takes more time and I'm missing out on all the shopping districts that the guide books and suggested on the online itineraries recommend. The tour books also don't know how write about the relationships we make with others like Hang and her family. I just not sure how you could make that happen and check it off the list, it simply doesn't make the list.

The details! The smells, the noises, the people, the feel, and the integration of yourself. I let go of pushing to make things happen and instead accepted that my casual experience is just as special.


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