Crossing the street in Vietnam (Level 1: Hanoi)
03/06/2010 - 03/06/2010 80 °F
We are all really digging Hanoi. I had heard (okay, from people who are from southern Vietnam) that people in northern Vietnam are not very friendly and I was expecting Hanoi to be like Marrakech: stinky, full of pollution, crazy traffic, and people hassling us to buy something left and right. In fact, people are quite polite and friendly and the motor bikes must run on gasoline because it does not smell like diesel at all (although lots of people where face masks, some of which are quite stylish).
The sales pitches here are nothing like Morocco. As we walk through the streets, occasionally someone will ask us if we need a ride (on cyclo taxis or motorbikes) or try to sell us something, but they always give up the first time we say no (or shake our heads; we don't actually know how to say "no" yet, only "thank you"). Nobody is shouting "I make you democratic price" or trying to put things into our hands. Such a relief! In general when we do buy something, the seller holds up the appropriate bill to indicate the price or shows it to us on a small calculator (we haven't done any haggling yet; we've only purchased food and even the tourist price we are no doubt getting is SO cheap).
Traffic is definitely a challenge. There are few cars, but the streets are absolutely packed with motorbikes and bicycles. There are no breaks in traffic and stoplights are extremely rare and seem to be more of a stop suggestion that everyone ignores (we have actually seen a handful of people pulled over by police; I cannot even imagine what they must have done to get pulled over). There are also no lanes so traffic comes at you from every direction. Also people park on the sidewalks so there is simply no way to avoid the traffic. So if you are going to cross a street, you have to just walk out into the middle of traffic and move steadily across the street while everyone swerves around you. If you show any hesitation at all, people will cut you off and you find yourself stranded in the middle of the road. My strategy is to start into the street when I see a car or truck coming because they generally go slower than the motorbikes and theoretically (in my theory anyway) have more opportunity to see and go around me. Alternately, if I see a Vietnamese person starting to cross, I just squeeze myself right up next to them because I figure they know what they are doing.
The motorbikes in Hanoi are a spectacle all by themselves. I could happily sit at a fruit smoothie place for hours watching them and the bewildering array of things people load onto them, including very small children and startlingly large, awkwardly shaped things like ladders and plasma televisions. Seriously, Dan saw the very model of 50" flat screen TV that we own strapped onto a motorbike. There is also no limit to the places people will drive motorbikes. All the shops have little ramps leading into them so motorbikes can drive right in. I have seen them in quite fancy hotel lobbies, the inside of a temple that we accidentally entered, and even a train. Most fascinating to me, though, is the footwear that Vietnamese women wear while driving motorbikes I would say that 50% of the women under 40 (I can detect only two age categories for Asian women: under 40 and over 40) are wearing really high heels, like 3+ inches. Don't they snap those heels off when they have to stop suddenly and balance the bike?
Of course, it's god that we are getting to practice these street crossing skills here in Hanoi first before we go to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where by all accounts, the traffic will be far more frightening. To see for yourself, go to Youtube and look up "crossing street in Saigon" to see dozens of people's videos.
Today we supplemented our culinary tour of Hanoi (which included peach juice - where has that been all my life - fried tofu with rice noodles dipped into orange ginger sauce, some whole shrimp fritter things, grilled pork springrolls, and Vietnamese baguettes) with some historical and cultural sightseeing. We went to Hoa Lo prison, built by the French in 1899 and better known to American as "the Hanoi Hilton" where captured American pilots were held during the Vietnam War (known here as "the American War"). The interpretive narrative of the prison is fascinating. Clearly the Vietnamese trace the origins of their Communism to the people who were imprisoned here as political prisoners during the French occupation of Indochina. The displays dedicated to the Vietnam War era take quite a different perspective, as you might imagine. There was a tour of American ex-Marines just behind us as we toured the prison and I cannot imagine what they were thinking. It's just incredible to me that the could even come back here.
Afterward we wandered around Hanoi until we found the water puppet theater. The show was surprisingly understandable and really a spectacle. These are puppets operated in a pool of murky water by people behind a bamboo screen. The puppets reenact scenes from rural life accompanied by a live band. The puppets were amazing and it wasn't hard to figure out the story. I don't believe there was a single Vietnamese person there who did not actually work for the theater though.
At night we went by train to Lao Cai, 350 km to the northwest. The Hanoi Elegance hotel hooked us up with someone else's taxi (and thus free to us) to the train station and got a guy to accompany us to be sure we got onto the correct train (thank goodness; it was a very large train station and rather confusing, although I imagine we would have gotten there just be following the trail of Australian accents). So we drifted to sleep in our little bunks to the rocking of the train and the flashing of lights as train personnel checked the under side of the train for stowaways.