The old Western song notwithstanding, it probably never occurred to you (why would it?) that the literal translation of Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi means “between the rivers”, the rivers in question being the Nhue and the Red. Parts of the city are periodically flooded because of this, and there are actually dikes that run through part of town.
We arrived this morning, met at the airport by our group lead Phuc Nguyen, who wisely goes by “Phil” to avoid three weeks of puerile jokes from his American charges. Phil is a handsome, trim 40 year old who like all OAT tour leads seems to require no sleep whatsoever and has an inexhaustible supply of cheery enthusiasm and useful information.
Hanoi has a population of 7.8 million, who get around via a mere 600,000 cars…. augmented by approximately 11 billion motor scooters. The latter are absolutely everywhere, the streets and even the sidewalks choked with weaving phalanxes of them and the air filled with the ceaseless din of their honking. Interspersed among them are the occasional bus and tourist-bearing rickshaw.
Those scooters, despite their tiny engines, clog the streets in such vast numbers and operate with such inefficient combustion that air pollution is a real issue. The humidity is very high here — it is monsoon season — and the combination of the water vapor and the scooter exhaust creates a hazy blanket over the city through which a watery sunlight filters. Phil describes Hanoi as a “second world” city: visibly more advanced than a less developed country but still trying to break into the First World big leagues. They’re working on it: the downtown area includes a lot of very modern high end stores (e.g., Prada, Lamborghini) that would be quite at home in a European capital city.
And indeed, Hanoi does present itself as a struggling-to-be-less-seedy European capital. The architectural DNA of its French colonial history is obvious: broad boulevards, ornate cornices and eaves, tree-lined avenues. The trees are stout, leafy, and old; they clearly weathered the bombings of the war, now 50 years ago, just fine. You still wouldn’t mistake it for Paris, though. Traffic is random and dangerous, and that French architecture often overlooks odd, densely packed storefronts selling all manner of jumbled up, vaguely unsanitary looking stuff ranging from random electronic gadgets to food of questionable provenance. (My characterization of the latter did not stop me from buying some delicious still-hot deep-fried dough balls with custard centers.)
Our hotel is excellently situated in the center of town, very near some of the street markets and major sights (e.g., the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain was held, which we will visit tomorrow). It’s also a several block walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a small (600 x 200 meter), shallow (1.5 meter) freshwater lake surrounded by an elaborate legend involving a magic sword and a giant turtle. The weird part is that there are giant turtles in the lake, a species of rare soft-shelled turtles nearly six feet long. Or at least there were; the last sighting of one was three years ago.
At the northern end of the lake is a Buddhist temple where all manner of activity was going on when we arrived, having walked the mile or so from the hotel. People were lighting incense and praying at the censer; others were posing in rented traditional costumes; and some kind of presumed Ladies Auxiliary were selling something whilst in costume as well.
We kept walking north past the lake and found ourselves in a no-kidding Asian market district, block after block of crowded storefronts and makeshift sales counters, this street housing a dozen consecutive shoe stores, the next redolent of marinating fish from 20 different vendors. Scooters clogged the sidewalks, vendors spread their wares on tables, on blankets on the ground, on makeshift counters, in Plexiglas display cases on spindly legs.
The smells were exotic, the colors all saturated, the hubbub nearly impossible to navigate. It was a hoot, the kind of thing you can only experience in a not-altogether-developed Asian or African country.
We walked back to the hotel, at this point drenched in sweat from the humidity. (The weather today was several degrees cooler than in Hong Kong, but the humidity just as bad and the afternoon punctuated with a downpour.) We’ve been going through our clean clothes way faster than planned, and are thus about to drop a small fortune on the hotel laundry service. This is some kind of karmic balancing for the fact that restaurants here are extremely cheap, our nice meals coming in at about five bucks a person. (It takes an active act of calculation to realize this is because the Viet currency, the dong, is of microscopic value: the exchange rate is about 23,000 to the dollar. So one suffers a moment of confused sticker shock when a restaurant tab for two people comes in at 196,000 dong and it takes you a moment to realize that you just spent all of nine bucks.)
Phil took us all out for drinks at about 7 PM, both to show us some typical night life and to teach us how to cross the street without getting killed. (Hints: safety in numbers, and do not waver from your path despite the vehicles weaving around you within inches.) Here’s half of our group, including Alice at lower right. The woman in the red teeshirt is the waitress.
The Vietnamese love beer, and there are a couple of native brands that flowed freely. Our snacks were also typical for the locals: steamed peanuts, pork sausage steamed in banana leaves, and fried tofu. (I liked two out of three; tofu and I are generally not on speaking terms.) Afterwards we went out to one of those wonderful $5 dinners and called it a day.