Leaving Hanoi, pedalling a swan, getting irked and miming a sock puppet

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Lichfield cathedral, but there is a beautiful sculpting there of two young girls who died many years ago. They’re depicted asleep, cuddled up on a mattress, and it is remarkable for two reasons.
First, it’s a very very beautiful sculpture, and also Francis Chantrey, who made it in 1817 was so humble that when he was praised for the beauty of his work, he left a small unfinished piece of rough stone on one of the girls feet to demonstrate to the world that he wasn’t perfect.
I imagine he was a very pious Christian and he believed that his works shouldn’t be compared to the divine perfection of god. 
This hotel in Hanoi has the hardest mattress ever devised by man, harder even than the marble mattress that these two poor long dead children are sleeping on. Every morning that we’re here I wake up with friction burns. The place got a bad write up on Tripadvisor but it’s ok. Apart from the marble mattress it’s not so bad. It’s damp, but that’s normal for Hanoi we’re told by our friends who live here.

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The stupidest mode of transport in the world bar none

Today we met up with Evan and Bjela and they took us to the West lake, which is big, really big, and I imagine it’s in the west of the city but I don’t know for sure because I have a rubbish sense of direction and the streets all look the same anyway. We ate a small meal on the top floor of  a cafe overlooking the lake.
Every time we order food I know it’s not going to fill my huge fat western stomach, it’s going to be like eating a bag of crisps or something. Not enough to get you through to dinner time at any rate, and so it proved today.
Last night we went out to a Thai restaurant, me and the tiny wife.
I don’t know why the Vietnamee never sussed that a chilli can make so much difference, or the Cambodians either for that matter.
Both countries border Thailand but they don’t share the Thais love of chillies and are often bemused when we ask for it.
We got lost on the way there and then on the way back again.

Down by West Lake is a more expensive part of Hanoi where many expats live. We sat in the top floor of this restaurant and ate a small lunch and then walked for about a mile down a promenade round the lake. The actual distance is probably closer to half that but when you take into account the amount of weaving around trees, ducking under canopies, leaping from the path of motorcycles and dodging men with fishing rods, then you must have doubled the distance you’ve walked, and you’ve got a bad back from stoopping doubled up under the branches of trees.
The motorcycles will also come at you down the pavement, horns blasting, from in front and behind, and from left and right. When the roads are congested to the point that its slowed down intolerably, the Hanoi motorcyclist will have no hesitation in mounting the kerb. The device that allows this maneuver is the fog horn, which, blasted continuously legitimizes the use of pavements, restaurants and pedestrians as a highway. Or so it seems.
There are traffic laws but they aren’t energetically enforced, they aren’t enforced lethargically either although Evan tells a tale of a man who got fined for taking off his t shirt while texting and steering with his feet.
No doubt you think this is wildly exaggerated but spend a day here and you wouldn’t find it so hard to believe.

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A million dragonflies

We’ve seen several small accidents. You will hear a bang as somebody hits the tarmac after having clipped the rear wheel of the motorcycle in front so you look across to see somebody picking themselves up and two hundred more motorcyclists carefully dodging around them. In every incident we’ve seen, not one person has stopped to help, to pick the bike up or see that the crashed person is ok, not even for tiny young girls struggling to pick their bike up. Evan told us he’s seen a policeman shouting at an injured woman for obstructing the flow of traffic.
You will find scant sympathy in Vietnam.

We were forced by Evan and Bjela to hire a pedalo in the form of a giant swan.
As a means of propulsion, the pedal powered paddle is only marginally more efficient than blowing hard in the opposite direction to where you want to go.
The engineer Brunel proved this when he designed a propeller for the Great Britain, launched in 1843.
Without Lance Armstrongs bag full of cycling pills I was done in after pedalling 100m and at the mercy of a breath of a breeze which was very very slowly blowing us across the lake towards China. Maybe.
The plastic swan design has never been used for racing yachts and there’s a very good reason for this. It’s useless, and it’s a bit scary having a huge crudely painted swans head with eyelashes looming over you.
We pedalled valiantly and within the hour we were close to the bank from where we had departed.

I believe to athletic types the pain in your legs is known as ‘the burn’
As well as ‘the burn’, I was suffering from ‘the bruised shin’ from being struck by Nel’s enthusiastic pedalling and ‘the nose bleed’ from my own oversized legs smashing me in the face. The pedalo is not designed for people taller than a child.

My cramped leg bones and my t shirt had mostly dissolved by the time I got out of this stupid boat and hobbled off the jetty and Bjela suggested we went to eat after visiting a pagoda on the way.
This was quite a spectacular pagoda with a huge incense burner and a huge Bhodi tree that had been planted in 1959 by Ho Chi Minh and the former pres of India.
There were several shrines inside the building in front of the pagoda and the tree, where people were contributing money and praying.
The shrines have offerings stacked on them and it seems incongruous to look at the Buddhist statuary and all the gold and rich decorations that seem timeless and I expect looks exactly like a shrine of a hundred years ago and see a pile of Chocko Pies on it.

Another mile walk to a restaurant where Evan was sure we could buy pies. And I’m sure you can, they are listed on the menu after all, and they may be very good if the waiter remembers that you’ve ordered one.
We ate an unusually good Vietnamee meal though.

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A pot bellied incense burner

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A pot – bellied Aussie, and Bjela

Waiters in Vietnam are always very keen to snatch away your menu before you’ve really had a chance to  look at it much or choose what you want to eat. This is annoying because they stand by you while they’re thinking about taking the menu from your hands so you find yourself gripping it tightly in case they make a grab for it, and then trying to decide what you’re going to eat very quickly.
Once you’ve given your order, he will then whip the menu from you and disappear for many many minutes, during which time you’ll have finished your drink and will be thinking you’d like to order another one.
Now there will be no waiter in sight, the cafe will probably be empty and you’ll probably begin to think that you should perhaps forget it and go somewhere else.
Then a waiter might appear.
In Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, it’s rude to put your hand in the air and wave to a waiter. To attract his attention you have to raise your hand to about head level, hand toward the waiter and flap your fingers against your palm as though you’re holding an invisible sock puppet that’s saying ‘rah rah rah rah rah’. No doubt you will feel very self conscious doing this, I know I do.
Your food will arrive at some time during the evening, and it’s likely to not be what you ordered. Your dining companion may get their food sometime soon also and you’ll still not have the second drink that you ordered ten minutes ago and the waiter will have disappeared again.

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A pagoda jammed full of chocolatey goodness

So tonight we’re heading to Sa pa in the hills. We’re told its very beautiful. We’re told also that we will need dollars to exchange for Vietnam Kip, but we forgot that it’s the weekend and don’t have any. I’m sure we’ll find somewhere in Sa pa.
I was a bit careless ramming my cash into my wallet a couple of days ago and was handed back a 500.000 dong note because it had a nick in it about 5mm long. They’re funny like that.
We’ve booked a sleeper bed which gets to Sa pa at 6 tomorrow morning. Actually it doesn’t, we have to get a bus from the station to Sa pa, about an hour away.

I have mixed feelings about leaving Hanoi. We’ve been here six days and not seen that much of it but then getting around isn’t easy. Well it is, if you’re in a taxi but walking is a constantly irksome. The noise and the fumes and the hard psychological sell from the vendors gets to you sometimes but it’s certainly lively.
Nah, I’ll be happy to get away to the hills.

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