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October 30th, 2000 · No Comments

Departing from “the group” Hanoi to Hue

Day 304 – 305

After spending the first night in Vietnam in the safety of the TK&A chosen hotel, I set out with my backpack to find a place in the “old quarter” of Hanoi. I shared a cab with friends and was dropped off at Handspan Adventure Travel, a fabulously helpful travel agency.

From there I was referred to a guest house located just around the corner. The guesthouse was still in the process of getting rooms cleaned but showed me a sample room. It adequately had all the essentials but dramatically lacked comfort and appeal. Of course for $10 a night maybe I was expecting too much!

I left my pack in a pile of backpacks under the stairwell and set off to explore the city, with the “Lonely Planet” guide book in hand. It was then that I experienced a feeling of, Wow! Here I am in North Vietnam the home of my country’s former dreaded enemy. What if they didn’t like Americans? Did I need to be extra careful and how was I going to do that?

My feeling of in trepidation soon passed. From what I could see and feel, the Vietnamese have moved beyond the war and are busy into building a strong economy. All I had to watch was my wallet. Their smiling faces greeted me everywhere, “Madame? Madame? Taxi? Water? Postcards?” You name it, they have it for sale. I was being bombarded with street salesmen from every direction. I did my best to ignore them.

The hustle of the city was impossible to ignore. Motorcycles, bicycles and cyclocabs were everywhere. People were everywhere. The traffic flowed where it needed to go ignoring stop signs, traffic lights or any sort of conventional control device. Once again I was surprised how it actually worked. Everyone just seemed to “flow” with the movement. The rules seemed to be “No sudden lurches, no running, no stopping just flow through empty spaces in a semi- predictable manner”.

If I had crossed the street here, as I normally did back home, by waiting for the ebb of traffic to recede, I would still be would there. The traffic never stops.

I learned to cross the street by watching others. At first I saw chaos but then realized that was not true. There was organization in the methods, it was all in “the flow.”

Motorcycles ride 2, 3, 4 abreast, they weave and swerve from side to side, flowing with each other but avoiding the constant invasion of pedestrians walking crosswise or with them in the streets. The road is shared with cyclocabs, pedicabs, cycles and cars. Everyone beeps their horn to warn of approaching or just to make noise. No one moves. Most people whether driving, riding or walking ignore the needs of others and just continue about their business. Amazing as it is, it seems to work.

Arriving in this environment where everyone is in “the flow” but you, it is difficult to avoid looking like you just came “up from the farm.”

I was no exception. Walking down the street, vendors hawking postcards followed me, persistently trying to get me to buy something. Shopkeepers beckoned me from their stalls to come in. From every direction I heard people calling, “Madame! Madame!”

My first instinct was to be polite saying, “thank-you, but no thank-you.” That did not get rid of them, actually it seemed to encourage them. Finally after awhile I was able to tune them out, ignore the please and not make eye contact. It was the only way to survive this jungle.

Surprising enough it took an hour for me to get into the flow of the city. It was equally as long for me to lose the “up from the farm” aura. I was now a regular city dweller. That was as long as I kept the map put away.

Vietnam is a third world country. Hanoi has a fascinating mixture of third and first world amenities. On the streets it is normal to see peasant women carry yokes with fruits and vegetables on them or baskets on their heads. Children play on the sidewalks and on the door stoops. Women cook on anything they can find, hibachi pots, grills, metal tanks and rock pits. All this is done on the sidewalk of the gutter just outside their home and between the doors of internet cafes. It makes walking especially around dinner time very challenging. You must watch your step for fear of tripping over someone’s stove!

The smells, sights and sounds fill my mind and ears with pictures for my memories. I didn’t dare invade their privacy with a camera.

I signed up to take a walking tour of the city. It was led by a young man who introduced himself as “Son”. He said his father was a soldier and his mother a nurse. They met, fell in love and in 1976 on Liberation Day, he was born. Standing here looking into this beautiful young man’s eyes, mine filled with tears. He was my son Zack’s age. His father the soldier was a North Vietnamese. My son’s father was a soldier, an American. At that place in time, they were enemies. It was a poignant moment for me.

Around here the Vietnam War is known as the American War. We were the aggressors. Now, when we forget and ask someone about something in the “Vietnam War.” You get a blank look of non recognition. The Vietnamese don’t know what you are talking about! Even funnier was asking how to get to the “Hanoi Hilton,” I was given directions to the Hilton, not the prisoner of war prison.

Adorable little boyThis young Mom and son lived next door to my hotel. She screamed in delight at seeing her photo on my digital camera. The little boy was so kissable! He was waving bye bye to me.

Hanoi in the morningThe very early morning was the only tie the streets were clean and quiet. Later in the day it would be congested with people and pollution.

The walking tour with Son as our guide was very informal, myself and 3 other riders went. We were able to talk and freely ask questions. Son did an excellent job of helping us understand his country and it’s customs.

We visited a communal house where several families lived. As many as 40 people lived in one building, each family had their own room or portion of the building.

Street frontage determined the price of a building, so the buildings tended to be narrow but deep. We traveled down a long hall of the building from front to back dissecting a city block.

The buildings are constructed of block and stucco, reducing the potential for fire. They have electricity and it is miraculously billed per room or family unit. The wiring for the building was not “up to code.” Just looking at it scared me to death. It was a death trap.

Like in China the front of every building has a “garage style” opening. It seems everyone has an “in home” business. If there isn’t a business then it is used as a living room. In this particular building there was no business, all the rooms were used as living quarters. As we walked the length of the hall wall I would steal a peek into the rooms. Entire families occupied one room, sleeping, eating and recreation was all done there.

The bathroom was down the hall, actually it was a trench with 2 stalls. If running water was needed, you ran to get it. Each day the women would carry water on shoulder yolks to store in the building’s cistern. Naturally excessive use of water is frowned upon. It was just to hard to come by!

This was my first close up look at primitive housing in the city. Even though the place was dark and put together haphazardly it was home to a bunch of people. I felt moved and privileged to be able to experience a small part of their life.

Son explained how Vietnamese have very strong family ties. The man is the most important. It is his job to earn money so the family can eat and the children can go to school. It is the Mother’s job to make sure the family is happy. If the family is not happy it is the Mother’s fault. Mom cleans and cooks good meals and the family is happy. Father is the disciplinarian, he is revered and feared. The children feel compelled to follow his rules or otherwise be disowned.

Young people do not “live together” prior to marriage. Fathers of boys and girls will not allow it. Most Vietnamese are Buddhist but many admit they are not religious. They merely follow their upbringing.

The women dress very modestly It is inappropriate for females to show cleavage or even wear shorts. They wear beautiful high mandarin collar tops with side splits and pants, much like pajamas.

I wore shorts and was accepted because I’m a foreigner. I do feel much better wearing slacks.

Our tour took us through a communal meeting place. It was interesting to learn, even though Hanoi is a huge city, the neighborhoods are divided up into smaller chunks, much like our “subdivisions” back home. When a person moves into an new neighborhood, the man is expected to go to the leader of that neighborhood and ask for his blessing and advice. Usually he will be instructed to go around and introduce himself and family to all the people in the area. He is given the rules of the area and expected to follow them. In the meeting place large meetings were held on a regular basis. One thing I noticed was the huge stacks of beer cases piled along the wall. I guess they consume while they meet.

We are similar after all!

Son showed us the different shopping districts of Old Hanoi. Each street is named for the wares that it sells, making it very simple to know where to go to find what you need. I was delighted to see the “paper street, where all sorts of paper and party goods were sold.

Son showed us a paper model of a house. He said when his father died, they burnt a paper house like the one he was showing us. They believe that when you die you go on to live again, by offering a burnt paper house it will assure you of getting this object in the next life. Son’s father never owned his own house. I hope by his son’s actions, he is enjoying home ownership now.

They also sold paper U.S. dollars, clothing samples, models of expensive cars etc. Who says communists don’t have capitalistic tastes? The whole idea was quite charming.

Other shopping districts including what I called the “home depot” street, where plumbing supplies to bricks could be purchased from the multitude of little stalls. Then there was the “silk district”, computer city, backpacks and just about anything else one could think of. I loved just roaming the streets watching it all.

Sarah went crazy in the silk district. Before we left on the trip, most folks bought “sleep sacks” to line our sleeping bags with. I remember paying an outrageous sum of $60 to REI for this very special fast drying silk sack. Here on the streets of Hanoi, we could bargain down to $5! This drove Sarah mad, she couldn’t pass up the bargain and purchased at least 5 or 6 of them.

The most famous entertainment in Hanoi are the Water Puppets. We had Son take us to the theater and help us buy tickets. This turned out to be a stroke of genius, because had we not engaged Son to help us, we would have had to wait to the very late show, as our friends were doing. When they found out we walked up to the window after them and got better tickets, they were a little miffed to say the least!

Vietnam seems to work that way. There are two (or more) prices for everything. Locals pay one fare and foreigners pay another. I guess it’s their way of keeping the economy steady for the locals. Prices for us are so cheap, we don’t even realize it. On several occasions I have seen something and purchased it, only to find out later I paid way too much!

The Water Puppet show was an interesting experience. We arrived just as it was starting, they escorted us to the very front row. I was very impressed to get such excellent seats, that was until the first act when the dragons came out. At first the dragons were playfully squirting water at each other, then the water turned to fire. As I was splashed I got to thinking maybe here front row is not an honor! I did manage to survive.

The show was only an hour and that was about all the time I could take. Listening to very loud music and words you can’t understand didn’t help my attention span. I did enjoy the puppets and the colorful settings. The most interesting part was seeing how many people it actually took to put on the show. While watching I figured there were about 2 people doing it. In the finale, a whole troupe of a dozen young people came out, they were all wading in the water, which surprised me too. I would have thought they could work the puppets from the outside of the pool. But no, they were soaking, dripping wet, standing waist deep in the water. What a way to make a living!

The second day in Hanoi, I went sightseeing, visiting Ho Chi Minh’s museum and mausoleum. The Museum was more like an art gallery. As is anything I can’t read, I walked thru rather quickly only stopping to look at a few pictures. It was merely OK.

Uncle Ho Chi Minh’s MemorialThe mausoleum was closed this time of year Uncle Ho (as the Vietnamese refer to him) goes on his annual visit to Russia. Guess you know when you are famous, because even after you are dead you get to travel. What a life….or death of the rich and famous.

One little funny story occurred at Uncle Ho’s memorial. Sarah and I were walking along trying to find his house. Since neither of us had any clue as to which way to go and no one around could speak English, we just strolled looking for what we could find. At one point we approached a very military looking barracks. I said I hoped we were not in an “off limits territory or we might get shot.” We turned the corner and stood for a minute, just taking in the scenery. At the same time we both noticed some pigeons clustered around a pigeon condo. There was an usual clacking noise, we both thought the pigeons were making the noise. Sarah even started to say they sure were noisy pigeons, then we both noticed just beyond the pigeons a dozen young uniformed soldiers laying on the ground pointing their automatic rifles at the sidewalk where we just had walked. Gulp!

The soldiers were not firing the guns, but just practicing in a “laying down” position. They were not visible unless you were looking for them and then not completely noticeable. We giggled at the thought of them aiming their guns at us, waiting for us to make a wrong move. Of course we knew that wasn’t the case, but then who knows? This is after all Hanoi.

I am so far from home.

Bright and early the next morning we boarded a Vietnam Airlines jet for Hue.

Kristal Kraft Flies Vietnam AirlinesKK flies Vietnam Airlines

Tags: SE Asia · Vietnam