Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Hanoi, a strange and magical place
My first thought as we rode into Hanoi from the airport is that the name of the city must be the Vietnamese word for either noisy or dirty. The hotel we booked online in Hanoi agreed to provide a driver for $18, and it was a welcome sight to see a man holding a sign reading “Bill Bangert” once we picked up our luggage at the airport. We had read about the aggressive taxi drivers who would sometimes take fares places, and refuse to let them out of the car unless they paid more money. Our driver spoke no English, but happily loaded all our luggage in the large boot of the four-door sedan he was driving.
The sky was indecipherable as we headed into Hanoi. No blue sky, no dark clouds, just a mass of gray mist, completely obscuring the landscape. Most vehicles were covered at least to some degree by a thin layer of grime. All four of us sat in silence, watching the gritty scenes pass by on both sides of the car.
Many buildings were in various states of disrepair, some of them with wooden scaffolding erected to make restorations that in most cases seem to be in the abandoned stage. One word that kept coming to mind for me was squalor. Store fronts were dirty, with the floors littered with pools of water. That tableau repeated itself many times during the drive, which took about 40 minutes.
Our driver was first chair in the symphony of car and truck horns along the way. Drivers constantly sounded their horns, and it seemed to be mostly a way of letting whatever car, truck or motorbike they were nearing know of their presence. The painted lines on the three-lane highway seemed to be just a suggestion as drivers drifted along, coming extremely close to making contact.
The first real traffic pattern shock came as we exited the airport. The road we were on was the main one heading into Hanoi, and shortly after leaving the airport grounds, the traffic coming the other way runs right across the traffic heading into town. There are no stop lights, no Give Way signs, no roundabouts that seemed so charming in Australia and New Zealand. Drivers would feel their way through the oncoming traffic, and size didn’t appear to matter as large trucks would pause for smaller cars such as the one we were in. In a chaotic way, it worked, something we would see more of once we got deeper into Hanoi.
The hotel we booked happened to be in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which we had read was the best location for travelers who wanted to get the feel of the charm of the city with supposedly French influences. I was a bit shocked when the driver put on his turn signal indicating he was about to pull over, and I looked to the left and there was our hotel. It looked fine, but the street it was on was much more crowded and cramped than I expected.
I guess I had anticipated kind of a lower rent version of a Paris neighborhood, maybe resembling one of the more outlying arrondisements that doesn’t attract as many tourists as those around the Champs de Elysees or Eiffel Tower, or even over on the east side of Paris, around Notre Dame and the Louvre. In reality, it appeared to be more of a rent-controlled section of New York back in the 70s.
A large part of the grungy feel was the drizzle that feel from the featureless gray sky, which turned the dusty streets and sidewalks slick with a thin layer of mud. Not wanting to look too touristy, I put on sandals instead of my running shoes to take a stroll out on the streets- as if my blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes would allow me to meld right in with the locals if only I was wearing the proper footwear.
Before we left Australia for Singapore and Indochina, Marley had a bit of a meltdown one night, all upset about what she was going to eat in Vietnam. I had gotten online that night in our place in Brisbane and showed her that there were places that offered pizza and other Italian foods. In our hotel in Hanoi, I found a place that looked to be within walking distance, but with the ongoing drizzle and our complete unfamiliarity with the streets of Hanoi, we asked someone at the front desk to call a taxi for us.
I had written down the address, 98 Hang Trong, on a piece of paper and gave it to the taxi driver. He worked his way through the darkened, damp streets of Hanoi towards Pepperoni’s. It’s an Italian restaurant that definitely caters to Western tourists. As much as I would have loved to gotten down and dirty with the locals and tried some of the street food that was filling the air with amazing smells, our daughter, who has a well-documented limited palate, had only had a chocolate muffin for lunch and needed a decent meal. We got exactly that and enjoyed some free wi-fi to do our first check-in from Hanoi.
By the time we got done with dinner, the rain had let up enough, and I figured out that we could walk back to our hotel without too much difficulty. Our first foray into the streets of Hanoi were tentative at best. Traversing those streets on foot is an art form unto itself. There is the occasional crosswalk, and even a red/green-cross/don’t cross electric sign here and there. But most crossings are done randomly across busy streets filled mostly with motorbikes, with the occasional car or bus buzzing buy.
The key, as we had read, is eye contact. You take a look in the direction of where the majority of the traffic is coming from, confidently stride off the curb and walk with a stern determination toward the other side of the street. After a few successful attempts, it actually became quite enjoyable, and gives you a feeling of power.
Motorbikes are speeding toward you, but instead of plowing you over, they know the drill better than you do and manage to guide their vehicle past you with no contact. It’s an amazing display of synchronized chaos and it really works. I studied this closely from many angles, including from above a cafe and even with construction equipment involved in the equation, I never saw anyone even sideswipe another traveler. The whole experience added to the magic of Hanoi.
Navigating the sidewalks of Hanoi takes some talent as well. They are dominated by people on small plastic stools, crowding around some sort of cooking apparatus. People pull up stools and chairs and hunker down with plates, bowls and spoons. Cooks would be brewing up all varieties of concoctions, emitting an amazing array of smells.
There were also more established stands of food, many featuring what appeared to be intestines and other animal parts that we had no interest in sampling in any sauce. The scene was repeated on every single street we walked down.
The people walking along the streets with us were made up of more Europeans and Americans than I expected. Many wore the detached look of world travelers who felt Hanoi was just another stop along the way. For the more nouveau world travelers like ourselves, it was a challenge not to walk the streets with a wide-eyed wonder. More than once, we had to remind ourselves, that we were in VIETNAM. The scene of the most brutal war the United States had ever been involved in. We tried to explain to our kids that it would be a little like them taking a trip to Iraq in 40 years.
Having been born in 1961, I was just a little too young to be impacted very much by the Vietnam War. It was over by the time I was 12, and I vaguely remember the grim casualty counts being broadcast on the nightly news by Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley. My parents weren’t all that politically active, although I knew they voted Republican most of the time. They didn’t talk about politics or the war much, which in retrospect kind of disappoints me. Looking back, I would love to know what they thought about the turmoil that was going on at the time.
I have two memories of my Dad saying anything politically related when I was young. One was when I was at my maternal grandmothers house in Warren, Ohio and there was a newspaper on the kitchen counter featuring a photograph of Lyndon Johnson when he was still president. The photo was one where his mouth was wide open during a speech and my Dad said “That’s about all he’s good for!” or words to that effect. The other was when Richard Nixon, a man my father voted for twice, was announcing his resignation plans on TV. I remember that it was happening late at night, and my Dad told me he was glad I was seeing this, that it was an important piece of history of which to be a witness.
The thing that influenced my view of the Vietnam War more than any other was a book written by Philip Caputo, called A Rumor Of War. It was published in 1977, and my Northwest High School American Literature teacher named Burt Cameron had us read it when I was a junior, shortly after it was published. That probably caused a certain amount of controversy considering the book described some of the atrocities committed during the war by soldiers on both sides. It’s considered one of the most insightful first-hand accounts of what it was like to be on the front lines of the conflict. The book made enough of an impact on me for me to buy an electronic copy of it to read as we head from Hanoi into the mountains of North Vietnam and the picturesque town of Sapa. I’m hoping that reading this as we head into the heart of the darkness that was the defining event for a generation of Americans and Vietnamese will provide me a greater understanding of one of the darkest periods of American history.