Right now I’m about to order my third Vietnamee coffee in the Hanoi gecko cafe, while Nel sleeps in our room just down the alley.
We’ve been in Hanoi for a day, and it’s a discordant symphony of noise and movement and smells.
Motorbikes buzz down the alley inches from the doorway with impossible loads strapped to them, and westerners with rucksacks plod around with bad backs looking for cheap hotels.
Evan and Bjela’s place is in a relatively quiet place in the old French quarter and our hotel is near to the old town with all its street vendors and markets and a large French mock gothic cathedral.
The weather is getting warmer and it’s now in the mid twenties again and set to reach the mid thirties and we’ve a stack of laundry that we need to get done.
There’s much to see in Hanoi, including the embalmed Ho Chi Minh, for those who want to pay their respects. I’d kind of like to see him and kind of like to avoid seeing him.
The lake that John MaCain parachuted into when his Skyhawk was shot down isn’t far away.
He was lucky to survive the missile that took his wing off, then the almost drowning and then the beating he got from the enraged locals before he was tortured at the Hanoi Hilton. Lucky man.
We sat in the first floor of a cafe yesterday watching the traffic. In the West we’d call it a multiple pile up, but one that never quite happens. Bikes, cars – a good number of which are expensive SUV’s, busses, taxis, the driver of any one of which would be arrested back home and incarcerated for their own safety, drive at each other in what looks to us like a massive game of chicken. The Vietnamee call it commuting.
Photographs don’t convey the dynamism of this chaotic system. Photographs look like a picture of many vehicles poised inches from one another with only one cataclysmic outcome possible were they to be suddenly animated. And through it all, ladies with baskets suspended from bamboo yolks saunter, regardless of the inevitability of the bone crunching impact just a millisecond away that never happens. It’s astounding.
Evan had flown in from Australia to Kuala Lumpur last week, and from there he’d flown to Phnom Penh, bussed to Saigon and flew to Hanoi the day before they came out to meet us at Cat Ba. He’s understandably worn and exhausted so we’re doing some Hanoi exploration on our own today.
An inconveniently narrow convenience store
I went back to the hotel after coffee this morning to find Nel scratching at mozzie bites in her sleep, I looked at the BBC news and the news of the bombings in Boston, and now we’re sat in a cafe drinking lemon tea opposite the cathedral which we can just see through the leaves of the trees and the many tons of electric cabling strung between them.
The cathedral. We sat there for a couple of hours drinking tea and deciding what we are going to do next. Evan and Bjela had said they would come with us to Sapa for the weekend. We’d carry on to the border and into Laos and they’d come back after the weekend, and so we went to the station to try to get tickets for a sleeper.
As it happens it’s a Vietnamese holiday next weekend and there were no sleepers left.
All booked up, and this was four days in advance. We could get a hard seat train on Saturday morning but we wouldn’t get there til the evening. We did some research and rooms we’re going for twenty dollars each person. Each person, not twenty dollar per room as is normal, per person. We decided to give it a miss this weekend and make other plans.
We’ve been in Vietnam for very nearly six weeks and we really need to be moving on and Evan and Bjela can do it any weekend they choose. So after we’d sat in the cafe for a couple of hours we’d decided to go by relatively unused route down to Phosavan and miss out Sapa Sapa is said to be beautiful but so is Laos. We went down to a travel agent opposite the cathedral and see what their options are.
They conned us terribly.
I don’t know what it was, perhaps we were tired but we paid far too much for the bus and then later when we looked it up found that the first class sleeper bus we’d been booked on is in fact a minibus and we’d paid even more way too much for that.
We should have been more wary but the two girls were so sweet we dropped our guard. Perhaps after so long being wary of everybody you have to make a transaction with you put your faith in someone who seems trustworthy. Hm. Lesson learned, won’t be doing that again.
Still, it’s worked out ok because we looked online and you can by law stop a debit card transaction, so we called the bank and sorted it out. I suspect the agency will be rather furious with us but that’s tough.
Evan and Bjela had invited us for a Barbie on their roof last night.
Myself, I’ve never been that keen on pink food that tastes of paraffin but Aussies are meant to be good at that sort of thing so I thought we could chance it.
There are three taxi companies in Hanoi that insist on their drivers using a meter. Mai Linh, Taxigroup and ABC. Some of the other companies have rigged meters for tourists, there’s actually a rip off switch that changes the meter to tourist setting. Or they will try to get you to agree to a fixed fare, which won’t be fair. Not to the tourist anyway.
So we found a good taxi, and there are plenty of them around, and Evan came out to meet us to go shopping.
Where they live the passages between the big old French houses are maybe six feet wide or less. If you look up, the houses are so close you could climb out of your window and into your neighbours bedroom.
Motorbikes thrash down these tiny alleyways like they do everywhere and you have to be extra alert to them because they may come round a corner and be up your nose before you see them. Bam! and you’re on your back with tiremarks on your face.
A likely place to get run over
We eventually exited this labyrinthine amble into a street packed with the usual Hanoi traffic madness.
No matter how wrong it feels, no matter how every fibre of your being screams out against it, you just have to step off the pavement and stare at the oncoming mass of metal and tires. Eye contact is the way to do it.
At least two or three times across every road you will be sure that you are about to be hit and end the day in hospital with broken legs but each and every time, a deft twitch of the bars, the tiniest of swerves and the bike will miss you by literally an inch sometimes and you breath a sigh of relief. Then it happens again.
There’s a supermarket that caters to the expat community of mostly teachers from Europe, China and Japan and you can buy sausages – snags, Evan called them. Why do Aussies have a stupid name for everything that the rest of the world understands quite easily? Snags.
We got salami and chicken and even cheese and carried on down to the market where we bought salad.
They really do eat dogs in Hanoi you know. We saw them.
Roasted Rover, fried Fido, poached Prince. Yep, you can see it laid out, head, teeth, tail looking exactly like a whole roasted dog.
Apparently dog is eaten at the end of the month and celebrations. It’s not an everyday meal, more celebratory. Times when all the family get together, but the family pet is not as boisterous as he usually is.
More traffic almost mayhem
The barbeque was really good. Not a hint of paraffin. Salad and cheese and everything and we had a right old chinwag there, up on the roof, looking across the Hanoi rooftops. We talked a lot about history, which they’re both quite knowledgeable about.
Bjela is a very accomplished woman, she speaks English almost perfectly, she’s a teacher, studied old German, is a classically trained singer and stuff like that.
Evan’s laid back even for an Aussie, the only man is Asia surely, who walks slower than a Vietnamee, he’s interested in a lot of different stuff too.
They’re excellent company and they will be coming to visit us in June this year. Bjela was telling us that the Germans don’t have the prehistoric stuff that you stub your toes on all around our neck of the woods and she’s fascinated by it.
She thinks of England as a place full of fairies and folklore. Wait til we take them to our local pub, we can introduce them to the faerie folk.
Be good if there’s a couple of crop circles to show them if you’re up to it back home.
No no, I mean to say if there are any aliens reading this, if you wouldn’t mind traversing the infinite emptiness of interstellar space to do a bit of a squiggle in a field that’d be good.
Or Terry if you’ve got a spare evening.
Evan put us onto a travel agent that all the expats use. An excellent woman called Lai at True Colour agency. She looked after us and explained everything and if anyone needs the address its 18 Hang Be, on the north side of the lake by where you buy shoes.
I’ve needed shoes for a while. We went out yesterday into the Old Quarter looking for some fake Converse or something and we walked for hours around many streets, as it happens just very very near to shoe street, we found today.
Streets are dedicated to a single product. I imagine that once they were the streets in which a specific trade was practiced, and so you find silk street, where people sell silk, haberdashery street, where you might by habers and dashes, painting street and even a street where taps and plumbing equipment is role exclusively.
We’d been meaning to get some silk sleeping bag liners since Thailand but not got around to it yet. Silk is the only thing that will stop a bedbug because it’s so finely woven.
We asked for a price. Eight dollars, we moved on. Six dollars, I said no so the girl asked how much we wanted to pay. I told her you can buy them for three dollars on eBay, which you can, so she gave them to us seven for two and was quite happy.
Today we found the streets of shoes and the same thing happened. Twelve dollars for Converse, so I said do you have anything cheaper, not Converse maybe, so she said these seven dollar, pointing to a pair of Converse. Eh? It’s not haggling, I just asked if they have anything cheaper and they give you the same thing at a lower price. I don’t know if this illustrates anything, but it just goes to show eh?
Evans global trotting has caught up with him and last night he was feeling rough so we left about ten so he could get some sleep. We’re meant to be meeting for drinks tonight if he’s up to it. Meeting for drinks! Who do I think I am eh?
I should say going to a bar.
It’s another night now, close on midnight here and six in the evening for you.
Lloyds bank have been arseholes again and fucked up, so the travel agency that scammed us have been paid. I’ll get the money back from Lloyds because I will not let them not pay us back after explicit instruction and explanation why they shouldn’t but I’m really pissed off that the travel agency got away with it. They’ve got our money.
The bloody idiots! We had a chance to show them that not all Westerners are stupid and Lloyds go and confirm that we are. Arseholes. If I ever meet anyone who works for Lloyds I will punch them.
Friday, and we got back last night at about tennish. It’s a Vietnamee holiday today so the pavements were crammed with people on tiny plastic stools. Not a hope of walking anywhere but in the roads, which were even livelier than usual, motorbikes at a density of ten per square meter, and that’s not an exaggeration.
We visited the Women’s Museum yesterday. My wife’s a woman and I suppose it’s time I showed some interest.
It’s worth the dollar to get in, I understand more about the Vietnamese now than before we went. A lot of stuff was about women’s role in the wars. These tiny women were quite formidable, although a lot of it was propaganda.
I’d like believe the story of the unarmed woman who captured eight French soldiers and was awarded the title of ‘Hero of the war who captured eight French soldiers unarmed’. They’re quite literal about things, the Vietnamee.
There are many photographs of women heroes working in the fields with a rifle strapped to their back and a picture that sticks in my mind of the smallest Vietnamee woman the photographer could find escorting the world’s biggest American soldier.
There’s a gap. Run!
Today we’re meeting Evan and Bjela by a lake and taking out some swan boat pedalo things. Fun things to do on your once in a lifetime adventure!