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Hectic, Hectic Hanoi

VIETNAM | Saturday, 23 February 2008 | Views [2587]

Old Quarter, Hanoi

Old Quarter, Hanoi

Part I

I spent my first day in Hanoi wandering around the Old Quarter in a state of astonishment, gripping my Lonely Planet and trying not to get run over or fall into a gutter or trip over someone or be knocked over by a motorbike. It was total sensory overload, especially after the slow pace of Laos. It was also very cold. In the Old Quarter there is so much activity per square inch that I had to walk down the same street several times before I could finally see it. I’d walk down the same street many times and each time, I’d see something completely new. Of course part of this is because I was just trying to walk without being killed. The streets are very narrow, and each block is crammed with shops, their wares and shoppers spilling out onto the sidewalks.

People are selling and buying and negotiating at a frenetic pace. You can literally see, feel, and smell the Vietnamese economy growing at 8% a year in these transactions, and it’s impossible to imagine how these people tolerated a centralized economy for so many years. Originally, each street in the Old Quarter was dedicated to selling a particular ware or service, and this has survived to some degree, with entire streets dedicated to selling things like silver, herbal medicines, funerary plaques, altar decorations, cell phones, clothing, shoes, motorcycle repairs, school supplies, toys, and all sorts of other things.

The sidewalks are an ecosystem in their own right. Small restaurants and food stands occupy a good portion of the sidewalks, entire kitchens and giant pots boiling out in the open, with small stools and kindergarten-sized tables and chairs set up for clients. Then there are the ambulatory vendors who march up and down the streets. Women in conical hats tied with a scarf under their chin carry baskets laden with wares balanced on a bamboo stick held over their shoulders. Their baskets, shaped like the inversion of their hats, create a lovely symmetry. They sell everything imaginable, and one even carried a portable restaurant in her baskets, complete with pots, bowls, chopsticks, a stove, and stools. Other vendors transport their wares on bicycles – entire department stores literally crammed onto a bicycle. It’s all about buying and selling, and it’s hard to imagine that there ever was a centralized economy here.

Then there are the motorbikes. Vietnam is a nation of motorbikes. They are everywhere, and I am convinced that there is nowhere (except maybe Ha Long Bay) where one can escape the sound of motorbikes. (Earplugs and iPods are highly recommended). There are 4 million people in Hanoi, and nearly 2 million motorbikes. In Saigon, it’s something like 8 million people and 5 million motorbikes. I was told that cars are taxed at something like 100% in order to discourage people from buying them. If everyone who drives a motorbike drove a car, Vietnam would grind to a halt with the whole nation stuck in gridlock.

The streets of Hanoi are rivers of motorbikes, a sea of shiny metallic and pastel colored helmets. The helmet law was only a month old when I was there, but everyone was compliant. The helmets were not always buckled and it seemed that children and babies seemed oddly exempt from the law, but pretty much everyone wore one. Someone told me that there are an average of 50 traffic fatalities a day in Vietnam – most of which involve motorbikes – so hopefully the helmets will improve this statistic. Many people – especially women -- wear cloth masks that stretch across their mouths and noses and hook behind their ears as protection against the pollution, sun, and cold.

In Vietnam, the motorbike is king, both on the street and on the sidewalk. This is the irony of the cities in Vietnam: it’s often impossible to walk on the sidewalk because they’re packed tight with parked motorbikes. In the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the pedestrian has to skirt the narrow space between sidewalk, the gutter, and the traffic. Even when you find an unobstructed sidewalk, you’re not really safe since at any minute a motorbike will come speeding at you, roaring up onto the sidewalk, looking for a parking space or lurching into an alleyway.

Crossing the street is an art in itself. If you were to wait for a break in traffic, you’d never get across. Instead, you have to slowly move yourself forward into the stream of traffic. If you move slowly and deliberately, the motorbikes will veer around you. That’s the idea, anyway, but it’s terrifying to put into practice for the first time. I looked for more seasoned pedestrians and using them as cover, mirrored their movements. There are also cars, trucks, cyclos, bicycles, and the occasional bus to contend with. The worst is when you’ve carefully looked both ways and are confidently moving across a gap in the traffic when out of nowhere, a motorbike turns the corner and comes right at you – on the wrong side of the road. There seems to be a rule that motorbikes making turns are allowed to drive on the wrong side of the road, at top speeds. I found this particularly unnerving.

Then there is the noise. If the motorbike is king, the horn is the loyal consort. It seems like everyone – even on a deserted street in the dead of night – is blaring their horn to announce their presence. Bus drivers are the worst, but everyone seems to do his or her part. It’s a symphony of the most discordant and grating instruments ever, a strange form of democratic expression, everyone clamoring to be heard, to announce their presence, to demand way, to force others to the side, to say “Outta my way!” “I’m coming through, get over, get over!” “Move it or lose it!” “Watch out!”

Part II

The most wonderful thing about Hanoi was meeting my friend Vickie’s cousins. Vickie was born in Hanoi, but left as a child, and returned a few years ago on a fellowship to do fieldwork on motherhood and modernity. She put me in touch with her cousins, Ha and Tuyet, who were absolutely lovely and took me all over the city and fed me delicious Vietnamese food. They were very hospitable and kind to me, and it was such a treat to have local tour guides.

Ha picked me up on Sunday morning and took me for a breakfast of steaming hot pho – rice noodle soup with beef, spring onions and herbs. It’s simple, but incredibly satisfying on a cold day. Then we had super strong Vietnamese coffee, with super sweet evaporated milk. The coffee is incredibly thick, smells and looks like chocolate, and is pure rocket fuel. I loved it. We talked about traveling, and all the places we’ve been and want to go. Then, he took me to see a very old pagoda, and then to the excellent Museum of Ethnology, where we caught a water puppet show and ate some more food. Later that night, he invited me to dinner with his wife, two daughters and a niece. It was a veritable feast. We started with many small dishes of appetizers: fried corn; juicy grilled pork; grilled duck; salad with liver and pineapple; rolls of sticky rice with a delicious sauce; spring rolls; and cucumber and pineapple salad. They kept placing more and more food in my bowl and I happily ate it all, even the meat. The main course was a lau, Vietnamese hot pot. The pot is served over a flame at the table and the broth and meat are boiling (a very good thing in cold weather) and you add noodles, greens and herbs to the soup as you wish. It was rich and wonderfully warming. The girls (12, 10, and 7) were very sweet and were excited to practice their (very good) English with a real foreigner. Later, we went to the night market, and munching popcorn, wandered through the streets taken over by a carnival atmosphere. It was a few weeks before Tet, the lunar New Year’s holidays, and it felt very similarly to the frenzied lead up to the Christmas holidays at home. The girls kept asking me if I liked things – a purse, a necklace, a figurine – and finally their mother told me that they wanted to buy me a gift. They presented me with two beautiful flowers cleverly crafted from tinfoil and glitter. I was very flattered.

The next day, I met Tuyet, another cousin of Vickie’s. She’s a teacher, and had the afternoon free, so she took me all over Hanoi on the back of her motorbike. I only had to close my eyes a few times, which had nothing to do with her driving, which was excellent, but more with some of the more harrowing intersections and merges. Did I mention that many major intersections have no traffic lights? There is traffic from four directions forcing their way through in seeming chaos, horns blaring and engines revving – and imagine if you have to make a left turn against the traffic. Somehow it all works, but it seems incredibly stressful.

She took me to the Temple of the Literature, where students go to pray and leave offerings for good luck at exam time. It is the site of the oldest university in Vietnam, founded in 1070, and dedicated to Confucius. There are stelae atop turtles, and the heads of the turtles are shiny from where students have rubbed them for good luck. She explained that teachers also come here to pay their respects to Vietnam’s oldest teachers and to ask for help to be better teachers. Then we went to the Quan Thanh Temple, dedicated to the God of the North. It turned out to be the 15th day of the month, and the temple was busy with people making offerings of money, fruit, and incense. Tuyet told me that the tradition is to make an offering of money and rub the foot of the statue of the God of the North to ask for protection from evil spirits. Last was a visit to the lovely Tran Quoc Pagoda, where a Buddhist ceremony was in progress, the pagoda filled with cross-legged devotees being led in chanting by a monk. We also visited a gallery famous for silk embroidery, which is brought to level of a fine art in Vietnam. There was room after room of elaborate, intricate “paintings” made from silk embroidery. They were truly a trompe l’oeil.

We ended our day at Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant famous for the one dish they serve, a cook-it-yourself grilled fish feast. They bring you a pan of fish cooking in oil over a hot flame and you add spring onions and cook it yourself with chopsticks, and then eat it over the freshest, most delicious vermicelli rice noodles with herbs, peanuts, and fish sauce. Just writing about it makes me hungry. It was delicious, and the place was packed with both locals and tourists, with a line out the door by the time we left.

Part III

In terms of accommodation in Hanoi, I was not so lucky. In the first five nights, I slept in four different hotels. The first hotel (Manh Dung on Pho Tam Thuong) failed to pick me up at the airport as promised over e-mail. When I finally arrived, the room price was higher than had been agreed upon over e-mail, and the room was not at all as described, and in a different building several blocks a way. It was down a long, dark, narrow and wet passageway, and a huge rat nearly ran over my foot when I went out to find dinner. Annoyed, I left early the next morning. It was rainy and cold and I couldn't find the place I was looking for, so went to another to check and the woman literally wouldn't let me go. She literally woke up the sleeping guests in order to show me the room that would be available at noon (it was about 8.30 am). It was cheap, and a good location and I didn’t really feel like trekking around in the cold and rain so I took it. But after two nights, the mattress was giving me a backache, the linens never really seemed very clean, and the windowless room was starting to make me feel like a prisoner. The problem was, the receptionist started whining and complaining when I said I was going to leave. I feared that she might refuse to give back my passport, so I had to tell her that I was meeting friends. This seemed to satisfy her, especially because all throughout Vietnam, when people realize that you are traveling alone, they inevitably ask “where are your friends??” So, it can be very helpful to invent some friends to get out of certain situations.

I thought I had found the perfect place just down the street (Ocean Stars II – avoid!). It was $15, much nicer, and even included a hairdryer, a major luxury and a very nice thing for long hair in cold weather. Then I woke up the next morning, and brushed aside a dark object, which, once I put my glasses on, turned out to be a bedbug who had several friends hanging out in the duvet that had seemed so fluffy, clean and warm just the night before. I happily squashed them to death. After my experience in Thailand, I am an expert bedbug identifier, and I was not at all happy to see the nasty little buggers again. They bite you while you sleep, but you don’t feel a thing because they anesthetize you while they suck your blood. In fact, you might not notice the bites until later the next day. Bedbugs are literal vampires – they need blood to live. The thing is, they only need a blood meal every 3 or 5 days or so, so you could be sleeping in a bed with bedbugs and not even know it unless it’s feast night. I seem to have the bad luck to show up when they’re at their hungriest. Not once, but twice in this trip. They tend to bite in clusters of three, known as “breakfast, lunch, and dinner bites.” These turn into huge red welts that itch like crazy. I had been absolutely devoured in Thailand – a whole shoulder swollen with bites, all up and down my legs, ankles and feet, my back, both arms, so this time was not as bad, except they got me on the face and neck, which was just not at all attractive.

So I promptly checked out and brought everything that had touched the bed to the laundry and prayed that none of them were hitch-hiking with me. At this point, I just gave up and went to nicer place and after some negotiating, got a room for $20. It had heat, clean sheets, a thick duvet, and nice towels. It felt like pure luxury and the heat alone was worth the money.

Tags: bedbugs, cities, food, hanoi, motorbikes



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