November 22, 2012

Good Morning, North Vietnam!

From Laos we flew to Vietnam, breezed through customs in under a minute, and entered the capital city of Hanoi

Even though it isn't, Hanoi feels small. It certainly doesn't give off the mood of a capital. Important government buildings and high rises are hard to find. Instead, Hanoi is a city of two faces. On one hand is the Old Quarter which is a contested mess of tangled streets that are grouped by the merchandise that's sold. There's the paper street, the shoe street...

On the other hand is the French Quarter with wide tree-lined boulevards where, as a pedestrian, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Every moment in the French Quarter feels a bit boring when you know that you're missing out on the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter.

Hanoi is an assault on the senses. It's fun to see, but I can't imagine living like this day in and day out. It's loud with constant honking, and the driving is the craziest we've seen to date. I guess technically vehicles are supposed to drive on the right-hand side of the road in Vietnam, but honestly, they're all over the place. Sometimes I used Steve as a human shield.

Sidewalks are reserved for motorbike parking and sales merchandise. This makes the streets even more hectic as pedestrians are thrown into the mix. 

The streets change names every two or three blocks so that Bat Dan becomes Hang Bo which becomes Hang Bac. We attempted to bicycle the city, but only on our third day after we had warmed up to the symphony of motorbikes, cars, and cyclos who weave through oncoming traffic. 

My most enduring image of Hanoi will be the women in conical hats who hawk goods from their baskets. Each woman specializes in one or two items and takes great pride in making sure that their displays are beautifully arranged.  

First there are the women who dangle their products from a contraption which perfectly balances on their shoulders. They kind of shuffle down the street, nearly breaking into a speed walk. They gracefully navigate through traffic mayhem to cross the street without dropping a single tangerine or garlic clove.

The alternate mode of commerce is via the bicycle. These displays on wheels are equally as beautiful, but often much more elaborate in size. There is a bike in here somewhere.

Many of these women have left behind their families in hill villages to try to make a few dollars in the city. They get up around 3:00am to buy their produce from the wholesale market. Then they arrange their baskets and begin selling around 7:00am. They finish anywhere from 5:00-7:00pm before they retire to their women's dormitory, where they stay for 35 cents per night. They shower, eat dinner, and then get up and do it all over again…a sign of the tremendous Vietnamese work ethic we've begun to observe.

It seems that when the Vietnamese in Hanoi want to kick back, they head to the streets for refreshments and perch themselves on the smallest plastic seats ever made. 

It looks so ridiculous to have this many grown adults sitting on stools built for first graders.

We can say from experience that these chairs get really uncomfortable after about 15 minutes. Their only redeeming quality is the accompanying Bia Hoi – a genius idea in which street-side entrepreneurs sell draft beers for 25 cents. Over three nights we became friends with one of the Bia Hoi owners who likes to tell people as they're getting up to leave, "See you tomorrow!" It worked on us.

One morning I went for a run around Hanoi's lake to take in the sites of the Vietnamese early morning exercise routine. The lake is feeling a bit segregated these days. On the west side is old-school tai chi where everyone is swinging limbs and limbering up. On the east side is modern aerobics set to loud music – if it gets any louder it's no doubt going to interfere with the tai chiers serene environment. On the north side are two South Americans trying to bring tango to Vietnam. They compete for space with some local ladies doing fan dances. It's quite the people watching scene.   

No matter what day of the week, it's pretty easy to spot brides (sometimes they allow the grooms to tote along) getting their photos taken. They are so predictable with their locations…in front of the Hotel Metropole, in the park directly adjacent to the Hotel Metropole, and the side of the lake nearest the Hotel Metropole. They wear Western wedding dresses but are typically so done up that at first I wondered if it was a fashion shoot. Hanoi's army of brides can be seen in full force on Saturdays when the Hotel Metropole gets so crowded that they have to sit on the tiny stools and wait their turn. They look pissed off. I would be too if it was my wedding day and I was relegated to take photos in front of the Cartier or Louis Vuitton sign…or maybe that was their intention. Either way, it was funny to watch these brides jostle for position – all for a photo with three other brides in the background.

Even though street life such as this is the real site to see in Hanoi, we also paid a visit to some legitimate places of interest. We bicycled and ate lunch along the small lake where John McCain parachuted when his fighter was shot down. Then we went to Hoa Lo Prison (AKA the Hanoi Hilton), where he and other POWs were held during the “American War”. 

Inside there were lots of picture of the POWs playing volleyball, opening up care packages from home, and cooking huge Christmas Day feasts. We wondered how few and far between these happy moments really were…and how many of these photos they stashed away when John McCain came back to visit in 2009. 

Not too far away was the building which houses Ho Chi Min's body. He lived a very modest lifestyle, but against his wishes, he was embalmed and put on display in an over-the-top mausoleum. We missed out on seeing “Uncle Ho” because he gets some work done about this time every year. 

The Temple of Literature is Vietnam's historical center of learning, and while we were there, The Amazing Race ran through. I hate to say it, but The Amazing Race is a bit fake. The leading contestants arrived before the human Vietnamese chess game was arranged, so they had to disappear and then reappear with the cameras rolling after everything was (slightly) more organized.

3.5 hours east of Hanoi lies Halong Bay, yet another self-proclaimed “8th Wonder of the World”. We if had a dollar for every time a country tried to weasel its way onto the list…

Halong Bay is a series of 1,969 limestone islands rising out of the sea. That doesn't even count the 2,000 additional islands further north towards the Chinese border. 

We spent three days cruising the bay, spending the night either on Cat Ba Island (depressing) or our fancy boat (awesome). 

We were unlucky with the weather, but to make ourselves feel better, we kept saying it was “mysterious”.

One of the highlights was going inside of Hang Sung Sot cave. Every boat in the bay brings their passengers here, and they use colored lights throughout for dramatics. We hated how commercial it felt, but as far as caves go, it was the most spectacular one we've ever seen.

We were reminded that sometimes Southeast Asian countries don't exactly know what to do when Mother Nature hands them a gift like this. Trash in the water was abundant, and even though there are probably thousands of caves inside these monoliths, they cram everybody into the exact same place…at the exact same time. We couldn't help but feel like it was a bit of a missed opportunity, but still, you can't deny that something very special happened to create this little place in the world.       

We rounded out Thanksgiving on a night train from Hanoi in North Vietnam to Hue which lies along the central coast. We have so much to be thankful for…our health and safety, a family anxiously waiting for us to get home, and 25 cent beers. Happy Thanksgiving!

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