Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hanoi: A million here, a million there

The numbers don’t lie:
Hanoi population: 7 million
Hanoi motorbike population: 3 million
2 million dong = $100 dollars (usually the most money you can get at one time out of an ATM). 
20,000 dong = $1. 
It’s hard to keep track of all those zeroes!

Our first full day in Hanoi started with a trip to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. He’s displayed there for 10 months of the year, but in September his body is taken for a couple of months to a secret place in Russia for refurbishing. Fortunately, he’s not due back in the mausoleum for public viewing until later this week, so we didn’t have to do the obligatory lineup and shuffle past the body. We watched the changing of the guard (guards spend 6-hour shifts standing in the sun—not a fun job) and then toured the compound behind the mausoleum that contains the three houses Ho Chi Minh lived in between 1958 and his death in 1969. He lived a simple lifestyle.

Hanoi isn’t really about famous sights—it’s more of a place to experience the hustle and bustle of daily life in the city, which I found fascinating. The old French quarter still contains many French colonial buildings, now showing an unsurprising amount of tropical decay. The one really interesting destination, for all us tourists who crave them, is the Temple of Literature, a compound dedicated to Confucius and honoring scholars of the past on large stone stele, each resting on its own stone turtle. The place was full of happy young men and women (the latter in traditional Vietnamese dresses) who had gathered for their group graduation photos.  

If they’re lucky they’ll get a job with the government. According to Hieu, our guide who is traveling with us for 9 days, the government workday runs from 8 to 5, but most workers show up about 9. At 11 they stop answering the phone since their 2-hour lunch break starts at 12 and if they answer a call they might get sucked into doing something that eats into their lunch.  Same thing applies to quitting time—around 4 they stop answering the phone so they can be sure to leave by 5. Hieu worked for the government for 3 years after he graduated (before becoming a guide), so he knows what he’s talking about.

Art student at the Temple of Literature

The Museum of Ethnology is worth a visit. It highlights the ethnic minorities of Vietnam and provided an introduction to the people and customs we will be seeing when we travel in the mountainous area of northeastern Vietnam.

Water puppets
Another fun thing to do in Hanoi is to attend a water puppet performance. Water puppets were developed in villages to provide entertainment to the locals. They’re simple wooden dolls that are operated using sticks under water—the puppets stay on top of the water. The puppets are in the form of people, water buffalos, dragons—the normal stuff you’d see in a village—cavorting and dancing to a live traditional band of musicians and singers. It was surprisingly fun to watch (once).

There’s tons of street food sold in Hanoi, but we haven’t gotten quite brave enough to buy from the various vendors. We're trying to avoid unpeeled fruit, uncooked vegetables, and anything that looks unsafe. (Yet our first night in Vietnam, in HCM, the beer we ordered came warm with a glass of ice. If we wanted a cold beer, we had to pour it onto the ice. What do you think we did? And lived to tell about it.) Instead of having cheap street food we went to lunch at Koto, a restaurant established by an Australian guy that does the good deed of providing career training and lodging for disadvantaged kids. It offers excellent meals in the bargain, cooked and served by the graduates of the training school. An admirable project, and good food to boot.

After a couple of days in Vietnamese cities we’re getting more comfortable with the traffic and the motorbike mania. We can even cross the street! The key is to wait for even the briefest lull in the onslaught of motorbikes and then start across the street. Don’t stop, but don’t rush either. The next wave of traffic, which comes quickly after the lull, can gauge where you will be if you keep a steady pace, always looking at the traffic out of the corner of your eye to make sure there’s not some rogue vehicle coming your way. Not exactly easy, but there comes a time when you just HAVE to cross the street.
Motorbikes are to cities as water buffaloes are to the countryside: beasts of burden

Next: To the countryside! The land of ethnic minorities, mountains, and rice paddies. 

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