22 May 2009

Vietnam from the Back of a Motorbike - Careening Through Old Hanoi

I thought after all of the countries I have visited in the last 7 months I would discover that the intense love I felt for Vietnam during my brief visit last year would be revealed as more a love for travel and Asia in general. I was wrong. Still, like an addiction, Vietnam feels like home.

I was wondering if Vietnam would feel the same this time, if it would affect me and change and move me the way it did last year. The amazing experience I had then, on a work trip, could be chalked up to a few things: it was practically free, the amazing people I met and traveled with, the fact it was considered 'work" and I got paid to be there and was treated to high end hotels and food. It was such a life changing experience that it was the lynchpin in my decision to quit my job, cash in my RSP's and savings and travel this insane, sweaty, colourful, ethereally strange continent - Asia.

Vietnam, as you probably know, was not my first stop. In fact, I had been traveling for 6.5 months before I made it back here. While I backpacked through India, Maldives, Nepal, Laos and Thailand, people constantly asked me why Vietnam was my favourite of all the countries I have been to, and I could never give an answer that felt right. I would sit there, like a self absorbed douche with a smug dreamy look on my face, and say " I...I don't know. I really can't, I mean it's not just one thing....it's...It's just everything."

And it is.

I still can't describe it entirely, but I am going to try.

Vietnam from the Back of a Motorbike - Careening Through Old Hanoi

Sean and I stayed an extra six nights beyond what we really needed in Hanoi, so that Sean could take advantage of the free wifi and work on his VFX reel, more important in his industry than a resume. During that time, I lazed a bit, had some foot massages, ate food, took walks and wrote. On our second last day, I decided that I needed to see one more "sight" - The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. After debating taking a local bus to the museum located 30 minutes from the centre of Hanoi, I hopped on a motorbike instead.

People talk about the terrible traffic in Hanoi, but the reality is that the seething mass of pedestrians, motorbikes, cyclos (pedaled rickshaws), bicycles and cars (each carrying at least 3 times the recommended amount of passengers - I have seen 5 people on one Honda motorbike) never comes to a complete stop. The vehicles perform a complicated ballet of gentle swerves and honking horns that at first baffled and frightened me. As a Westerner trained never to step into oncoming traffic, I had to undo years of Pavlovian response to set my foot off of the curb and stare directly into the eyes of a motorbike driver 1 metre a way, let them swerve around me and begin crossing the street. Rather than shock or anger drivers,slowly crossing with deliberate movements is the norm here, and stopping or running is a guaranteed ticket to the morgue. Or, at the very least, a surefire way to an up close meeting with the pavement and the scorn of passersby.

As my driver and I careened through the streets, my knees brushed against many other people, cars and lampposts. Motorcycyling in big cities always freaks me out a bit, so I decided to concentrate on what was on either side of me rather than focusing straight ahead into the traffic, as I think that the driver had had enough of me shouting "Oi Choi Oi!" (Oh My God!) in his ear.

The sidewalks and narrow lanes that make up the Old Quarter are Hanoi's beating, bloody heart. The area surrounds Hoan Kiem Lake and is pulsating and manic, yet in ways seems like a glimpse into ancient history. Every street is named for what is sold there, there is Shoe Street, Metal Goods street, Gravestone Street, Toy Street, even Counterfeit Street (less fun than its sounds - dozens of shops selling fake money and paper goods used in Buddhist ceremonies.) This is a traditional Vietnamese way of organizing a city and it is not meant just to impress tourists – but it does. Sparks flew asI zoomed down the Welding Street. Sawdust filled my mouth and eyes on Woodworking Street, and my ears filled with the cacophonous tweeting of thousands of small sparrows on Birdcage Street.

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These traditional stores are not the only places to do your shopping. In fact, it seems tome that most commerce in Vietnam happens on the street. Sidewalk hawkers set up stalls selling anything you can imagine. On my right side we passed a man in a conical hat holding 6 dead geese in each hand, gesturing to the traffic to entice people with the notion of a goose bbq that evening. On my left side minutes later we were swarmed by women running into the road at a rare stop light, trying to sell us plastic raincoats, umbrellas and sunglasses. Blankets were laid out and covered in toiletries, traditional balms, trinkets, books and firewood, and officious looking people sat at small tables,selling lottery tickets, offering scales to weigh yourself and services as letter writers for the illiterate.

And food was everywhere. So much food! Not the sanitized, pre packaged neat-n-tidy things we associate with take-out in North America, but vibrant, spicy morsels and soups guaranteed to make you happy. Mobile restaurants on wheels zipped in and out of traffic with us, and beside the parked ones small child sized chairs were lined up on the sidewalks for people to stop and grab a bowl of noodles and a bia hoi (fresh draft beer - 10 cents for a mug.) Some streets smelled divine - like ginger and garlic just dropped into a sizzling wok, and other streets reeked of the pungent, dirty genital smell of fermented fish sauce. Globes of shiny fruit were carried by women with yolks on their shoulder, the heaviness altering their walk into a jaunty bounce, and we passed entire streets that only specialize in one dish - cha ca (grilled fish), Nem (springrolls) and thit cho (grilled dog - I try to never glance inside those ones, they are filled with small dogs in cages. No kidding.)The words Com and Pho (Rice and Rice Noodle Soup) were emblazoned on every available surface, and usually a small old women will be perched beside, working on her own signature broth.

My moto driver and I zipped and weaved past parks full of children playing badminton, imposing communist buildings covered in red and yellow hammers and sickles, chattering old men playing mah jong, all surrounded by piles of garbage in the gutters. The evening broadcast of “Voice of Vietnam” blared eerily into the streets from mounted speakers – a'la Big Brother, while huge propaganda posters of Ho Chi Minh and the happy proletariat beamed down at me and everything was kind of coloured by this haze that is common in Vietnam, this smoky, misty cloudiness that makes everything seem muggy and exotic.

And though this is cliche - after touring the museum for 2 hours and marveling at the replica hill tribe houses, the handicrafts and the tribal art on display - I can't help but feel that the most truly interesting anthropology of Hanoi is not in its museums, but on its crazy, beautiful, hectic streets. I learned far more about Vietnam there.

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