Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Chaos of Hanoi, Vietnam

 July 24th - July 28th, 2012

 The first morning in Hanoi Julian rose early as usual and headed off for an early stroll around the city. Wandering around the military headquarters, a restricted compound covering several blocks in the heart of Hanoi he is told off in no uncertain terms by a Kalashnikov wielding military guard for walking too close to the restricted zone. Apparently outside the walls is not enough and he has to cross four lanes of traffic to the other side of the road. Paranoia is apparent and abundant, on first impression the rumours appear true: The authorities are fearful of those they seek to control. Generally heading west he made his way towards the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself, preserved and lain in state in a glass sarcophagus. After getting told off once more for trying to take a short cut to "Uncle Ho's" residence he joined the queue and filed past the body (or for the cynically minded, the Madam Tussauds copy) of the father of modern Vietnam. 

Ho Chi Minh was a visionary. Having grown up under the French 'protectorate' which did little to protect the Vietnamese in the first half of the 20th century, he strove for an independent nation. After forming the French communist party in Paris he received training from Moscow and later from China, Ho Chi Minh led the Vietnamese struggle for independence in the war with the French from 1946 to eventual victory in 1954. The ceasefire was bittersweet however as after post war negotiations in Geneva the country was split in two and the DMZ formed along the 17th parallel, just north of Ho Chi Minh's home town of Hue. In 1963 after it became apparent that Diem, president of South Vietnam would refuse to be party to national elections, the North turned officially from political to armed opposition to the regime in the South. The struggle for reunification would last for the following 12 years, the repercussions are still begin felt today. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and never saw his dream realized but it is testimony to his contribution that the country's second largest city, Saigon has been renamed after him. His former home in Hanoi has been preserved as a museum and crowds pass quietly through the grounds in almost a reverent atmosphere.

Following the tour around the palace complex the obvious final stop is the Ho Chi Minh museum. The political propaganda in this building is extreme and exactly as a boy growing up in the home counties of England had been led to expect. Row upon row of photographs of 'important' political and military leaders receiving awards and medals for one act or another. The text is boring, even to scan read and repetitive and on the second floor the static displays are monotonously grey and equally as dull as the pages and pages of text, poorly translated into English. A quick circuit was enough to satisfy curiosity before a return to the hotel and breakfast. 

Gate entrance to the Temple of Literature

Stepping out of our air conditioned room into the chaotic, hazy heat of mid morning; Hanoi was already a hectic buzz of activity.  An overwhelming amount of vehicles; motorbikes, cars, pedicabs, trishaws and bicycles swell the streets to capacity.  There appears to be no rules on the roads here. Horns are blazed to warn when one is about to overtake, enter an intersection, turn at a junction, reverse, execute a three point turn and even for no apparent reason what so ever.  There are no stop signs and traffic lights appear only at SOME major intersections.  Other than that, it appears the road is free game. Accidents are apparently commonplace and disputes solved with either fists or bribes, on the spot; apart from the inconvenience of waiting goodness knows how long for the police to arrive (should you care for them) of course that would introduce a third party to any incident and that would correspondingly increase the costs as he would need to be "compensated" for his time and judgement.  Three lanes turns into seven or eight lanes of traffic and any extra space is immediately taken over by any vehicle or pedestrian of the right shape and size. Crossing the streets is a game in itself.  Generally I just take Julians hand, close my eyes, step into the void and hope for the best. 

The sides of the road are lined with street vendors of all sorts.  Women carry their goods in two large baskets which balance on their shoulder on a bamboo support; fruits in one and their young child in the other.  Their day starts around 4am, loading up and walking in from home just before sunrise to set up their stalls if they are fortunate enough to claim space.  If not, they will walk the streets with a heavy bamboo beam supporting baskets digging into their shoulders, resting at intersections, perspiration beading on their foreheads under their conical hats. 

"You buy from me, Sir?  Very cheap!  Special Price for you!" they call out to passers-by. Quoted prices are always at least twice as much as they expect to get which bring forth the game of bargaining between merchant and customer.  This game is always played in good humour and with giant smiles (Lonely Planet states "frowning is not a bargaining tool"); each person wanting to get the best deal. Julian has got this game down to a 'T' by now, enjoying the haggling process intertwined with good humoured conversation, language barriers always making things more interesting.  Admittedly, and despite the good nature of this business, I find the process challenging and sometimes uncomfortable.  Everywhere we turn, as "wealthy" western tourists we are continuously kept out our toes and often taken advantage of as, with a lifetime of experience, they pry every last dollar and dong they can get from our pockets, often pressing for much larger amounts than the goods are worth.

Throughout old town we are constantly called to purchase fruits, sunglasses, sweet deep fried dough and savoury meals from vendors aging from four years to 100; children sent out to help support families at a very young age as school is not an affordable option and retirement usually not an option for the elderly.  Sometimes shaking our heads 'no' politely with smiles on our face is enough to send people in search of other customers but often 'no' is not enough.  They will follow us down the street pushing their goods in our face in hopes we will "Please, take a look, Sir!".  Eventually Julian, having learnt from Bangkok in particular, began to have fun with the vendors as they walked with us for a few blocks having full but somewhat one-sided conversations, using the english language to its full capacity knowing full well his words are not being understood, developing his own rapport to match their sales pitch.  With a smile on his face he will insist that should make a purchase now he will be "unable finance little Johnny down the road for the new yo-yo he desperately needs nor send May and her sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and second cousins-once-removed to school so they might better themselves in this harsh and dangerous world and besides, if we bought all the zebras, elephants, bananas, pastries and coach tickets we have been offered; how on earth would we carry it all in our merger backpacks? After all, we don't have any walls to hang them from and the postage would triple the costs despite the 'special price' and really, a new suit is no use whatsoever to a travelling trucker unlikely to be invited to any weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations or bar mitzvahs in the near future and the dragons we're sure to meet in China next year would suffer as a direct consequence of any purchase today, and you wouldn't want that, would you?".  He is just as persistent as they are, barely drawing breath until the exasperated merchant will stop in amused amazement, shaking her hands at us in defeat.

This becomes routine as we explore Hanoi; constant interaction causing our perception of the mood of the city to change dramatically as we visit the sights.  Some who are eager to get into our wallet and whom are used to regular interaction with tourists are generally friendly.  This is not always the case however and as we venture out of the tourist zone we are often greeted with narrow eyed glares and a very different, not so positive energy.  One man called out to me "Hey, you American?!".  Shocked and suitably offended I responded to him that I was definitely not American which seemed to satisfy him and he went back to his business.  Cold stares followed us around parts the city from the older generation and the conversation between Julian and I focused very much on me picking his brains for information about the Vietnam / American war and I began to understand the ill feelings from the people in the north a little more. 

We visited one of the several temples in Vietnam dedicated to Confucius; The Temple of Literature which hosts the Imperial Academy, Vietnams first university.  The grounds are gorgeous; large pools such as the 'Lake of Literature' surrounded by mature trees with impressive root systems.  Large potted bonsai trees decorate the courtyard amongst various statues of important teachers and scholars.  Despite war and disasters the temple has undergone major restorations preserving the ancient architectural style.


In most cities we will read up on the popular sites of the city and spend time touring these areas.  In Hanoi however, the "sites" are few and far between so our experience was related much more to the vibe the city gave off; the people, the chaos, the energy and noise of the streets and narrow alleyways and we spend a couple of days simply wandering the streets and taking it all in.  In book and from fellow travellers we have heard that Vietnam boasts some of the best food in SE Asia.  Within the first few days we spent in Hanoi I have yet to be convinced of this and have been consistently disappointed with the menus on offer and dishes laid before me.  Finally, on our last night before leaving for Sapa we found a street stall which offered the best food so far.  Shrimp and noodles for me while Julian ordered "beef and fried potato'.  He was presented with a plate of french fries with sautéed beef and smothered in a gravy thick with garlic and ginger.  Poutine, Vietnam style.  I only wish I could have indulged in a entire plate myself, my health conscious guilt taking over.  I'm finding things tough enough that foods I choose not to consume on a 'normal' basis are unavoidable here as I find myself eating rice or noodles daily. My body is definitely having trouble processing it along with issues with lack of the nutrients I'm used to through not having available either the variety nor quantity of vegetables we're used to eating.  My usual active lifestyle limited here to yoga (when I can cope with the heat) and walking around new places is taking its toll on my mind and body and I anticipate spending the next few days trekking up to hill tribe villages in northern Vietnam. 

No comments:

Post a Comment