Monday, August 14, 2017

August 12 – Hurray for Hanoi

Our sleep was shattered at 4:45 am by a shrill, earsplitting air raid siren that screamed forth from the loudspeakers on the train. We leaped out of bed, expecting something horrible was underway, and then realized that this was just their way of broadcasting a friendly wake-up call as we were nearing the Hanoi terminus. The siren was silenced, which was a relief, but then it was immediately replaced by a high-treble Vietnamese folk song whose only lyric I could make out was the word “Hanoi”, and it was repeated endlessly. Again, it felt like this was a throwback to the days of torturing American POWs and I sure felt sorry for those poor dudes.

As we exited the train we were accosted by an army of taxi drivers, all vying for our attention and our business for that all-important first cab ride in a new city, where you are virtually guaranteed to get ripped off, no matter how much research you have done. We had a few of them offer us fixed rates, and then decided on one guy that had a metered taxi so seemed like a good bet. As we drove through the city he was particularly chatting, asking us about our kids, where we were from, telling us all about this family, and as he chattered on I noticed that, at some point during the trip, his taxi id card had been strategically positioned to obscure the price on the meter. I slid it over and saw that we were already up to 150,000 dong, which is twice as much as we’d paid anywhere else for any length of cab ride. The final meter settled on over 250,000 so he obviously had some sort of acceleration device on the meter. I fought with him for a while then finally gave him 200,000, throwing in the towel. It was still not much money, but it just never feels good getting ripped off. But like I always say, we just consider it a “tourist tax”, forget about it and move on.

We stepped into the hotel Muong Thanh and the lobby was choc-a-block with parked scooters, so many that we could barely walk through. The receptionist was sleeping soundly on the couch so we had to wake him up so that he could help us get sorted with a room, which he did, and then immediately went back to sleep.

After getting settled in our room and cleaned up we went out and found a breakfast place and had a decent feed and then went out to explore the area. We were staying in the Old Quarter part of the city, where virtually all of the hotels and tourist infrastructure is located. Streets are narrow, densely packed with buildings, and hidden alleyways seemed to be everywhere you looked, if you looked closely enough. There were not a lot of what I’d call western style restaurants and bars - most of them were local places, with the tiniest plastic tables and chairs, built for slim backsides and best for those shorter in stature.

We began walking, blindly. I was thinking we’d head towards the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but we ended up going in the completely opposite direction, but at this early stage of the game that was okay, as the goal was simply to get oriented with the city. I spotted an art gallery across one street, so I walked over there while Ana and the kids were in a shop. It was a stark, open concept building with concrete floors and walls and had a dozen or so large paintings on easels. As I was looking at one painting, I heard the noise of an engine, and a man with a smoke hanging defiantly out of his mouth burst out of a backroom riding a scooter, headed for the door. He whizzed by me, leaving an odourous trail of gasoline fumes and tobacco exhaust and blasted out the front door, turned left, and disappeared down the street. That has never before happened to me in an art gallery.

We continued walking and came across a lake and, surprisingly, the entire area around the lake was blocked off for pedestrian traffic only, which was a very strange and wonderful feeling, being able to walk down the middle of the street without scooters bearing down on you from behind, from in front and edging in at your sides. We browsed at a couple of bookstores that had reasonably good English sections, and the kids found a place where they were renting hoverboaards, so they got one to try out for twenty minutes. Standing here watching the kids, with a lovely lake in the backgrounds, and no motor vehicles lent a luxurious sort of urban tranquility that we didn’t feel in Saigon. Hanoi had won us over.

The street led us to the Opera House, where there was a troupe of uniformed beauty girls taking photos of each other on the grand steps. Continuing past here we found a large History Museum, and I was tempted to enter but the rest of the gang was not too keen so we decided to give it a pass. Just down the street was one of those street barbers I was searching for a few days ago, and I asked Magnus if he wanted to stop for a haircut.

“Dad, look at the guy. He is bald and has a bandage wrapped around his head. I don’t trust him,” he said.

“Good point my man!” I replied, “And I think he also has a few shaving cuts.”

Shortly after that we passed a short Vietnamese lady who gave us a gigantic, happy smile. She was obviously a fan of the betel nut as her teeth and lips were stained red, giving her a ferocious look. This spawned a new song, “Betel Nut Smile” and Magnus immediately started humming a tune and spitting out some fantastic, burgundy lyrics.

Our walk took us in a large loop and we soon found ourselves back at the lake, where we claimed a bench and sat down for a little break. There was a row of artists seated near us, and a man and his daughter approached one of them and made a deal. The girl sat down on a chair while the artist readied his drawing materials and went to work. I stood there watching this skilled young man first draw her eyes, and then her nose, and then shaded in her face and hair, and in less than 15 minutes had created an incredible portrait of her. I was sold, so I asked the kids if they were okay sitting for a portrait, and they agreed so I paid the man and he got to work. By this time quite a crowd had gathered, so the kids had a lot of onlookers. The portraits turned out fantastic and I think will be the most valuable souvenirs we bring back to Canada.

Up until this point of the trip we hadn’t touched any fast food, but today it was time to test out the local fast food franchise called Lotteria that we’d seen in many other places in Vietnam. We ordered burgers and fries and it was…okay. Yes, we could have gone for a delicious local pho, but visiting the Lotteria was a cultural experience in itself - seeing what the locals were eating, watching the teenagers goofing around, and observing the raunchy music videos playing on the giant screen.

Despite the overcast day, which was a glorious break from the sun, we were still getting overheated so we went back to the hotel for an afternoon cool down session and that blast of AC really hit the spot. Around 5 pm we went back out for the evening and the streets were wild with activity. We walked north this time into the commercial area of the Old Quarter and found streets densely packed with vendors selling everything from toys, to ceramics, to fabric, to spices, to musical instruments. Here, the traffic was insane. Besides scooters, there were women with wide Vietnamese hats, local men with their shirts pulled up, exposing their bellies, and plenty of blindly wandering tourists filling the available space between vehicles. The sidewalks were so jammed with parked scooters that it was difficult to find a place to walk, so you had to alternate between the available sidewalk space and the crazy street. But, like elsewhere in Vietnam, you just move slowly, don’t make any sudden moves, and the traffic will (just barely) flow around you.

The chaos eventually became too much, so we went back towards the northern end of the lake where there was a huge pedestrian area and – guess what – more hoverboard rentals, except these ones had been rigged up with a seat and side handles to drive them around like go-carts. It looked like a lot more fun than standing on them. The kids each rented one and went racing around the area, threading their way between the tourist targets. Actually, Magnus was doing that – Stella was just moving at low speeds, trying to get the hang of the controls, but she is no speed demon and was probably too scared she would smash into somebody.

By this time we were getting pretty hungry and thirsty, but we hadn’t seen much for restaurants in our wanderings so far. There were a number of local places, where the food looked great, but it was just so stinking hot outside that we wanted to find somewhere with AC, or at least some fans, so we wandered around for a while and finally found a street with several venues which fit the bill. We chose one, went upstairs, and soon I had a frosty Bia Hanoi in front of me, a fan blowing behind me, and I was in my happy place. But it got better when they dropped a steaming hot “bun cha” in front of me, which I spiced up with the leftover chilies from Magnus’s pho. My dish was similar to a pho, but instead had five little mini, spicy hamburgers floating around in the slightly fishy broth, and of course, a load of basil and lettuce packed in, soaking up the delicious juice.

Although it was only about 9 pm, the big dinner and oppressive heat had really done us in, so our imagined night of partying late into the early hours and making the most of the Hanoi nightlife was abandoned in favour of an easy evening relaxing in a nice, cool hotel room.

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