Posts Tagged With: stores

The Other Red River Valley

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kamakura, For Sure-a

Kamakura is a scenic shrine- and shop-laden town of 175,000 apparently very religious souls, located about an hour and a half drive southwest of Tokyo. It is particularly famous for the Giant Buddha, which is exactly what it sounds like: a 44-foot tall Buddha, dating from the year 1252, located at the Buddhist (obviously) temple of Kōtoku-in. The statue sits in a courtyard in the middle of the temple, apparently as Buddha himself or some equally influential deity intended, since every few centuries the monks try and construct a building around it, only to have said building destroyed by hail, or a tsunami, or what have you. So now it looks like this:

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Notice the grayness and the umbrellas. “Ah,” you say, “it was raining while you were there.” If only. It was in fact pouring, a cyclonic downpour that left our shoes squishy and our pants soggy, despite our having had the foresight to bring umbrellas. So despite the fame of the statue we did not linger worshipfully, or at all. That said, I will note that this guy was having a great time in the rain. His parents, not so much.

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Continuing with our Buddhist theme — and hoping that eventually the guy upstairs would accept our touristic devotion and ease up on the goddamn rain — our next stop was the Hokokuji Temple, which is famed for its serene and beautiful bamboo gardens. We learned more about bamboo than anyone this side of a panda needs to know, e.g., the fact that Chinese bamboo is better to eat, but Japanese bamboo is better for weaving and construction. Remember this when you are bamboo shopping. But in any case, here are some shots of the temple and the bamboo grove.

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It is traditional to have one’s picture taken among the bamboo, and so of course we did. We then moved on to the Jomyoji Temple, a serene little place (“little” in comparison to the others) that is known for offering a tourist-level tea ceremony. Obviously we were not going not pass that up, and so we and about 20 others gathered at low tables in a quiet, severe room, all wooden floors, tapestries, and bamboo, and watched as a silent young woman moved fluidly through the rigidly prescribed process of wiping the utensils, mixing the tea, rotating the bowl in her hands, and other highly symbolic gestures whose significance was unsurprisingly lost on us. The drink itself was a very bitter green tea, a green powder (“matcha”) mixed with a bamboo whisk into hot water poured from an earthenware pot. The ritual was very…..precise.

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They do not have Lipton’s, so don’t ask.

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Our smiles belie the fact that the stuff tastes terrible.

By now the rain had finally let up, Buddha apparently having been mollified by our visits to three temples, so we decided to push our ecumenical luck by shifting theological gears and visiting a Shinto shrine. The major one in Kamakura is Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, which is dominated by a large traditional dance hall at the top of a long flight of stone stairs. The hall has a commanding view of the grounds and indeed much of the town and is not in fact used for dances (though it was once used for a ritual dance) but rather for other religious ceremonies. Before you approach it you must purify yourself at a hand washing station, like so:

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As with many Shinto shrines, the grounds include a number of locations where you can buy the Shinto equivalent of a fortune cookie: a scroll that, when you open it, reveals your predilections in areas of health, career, relationships, and so forth. You pay your money, and you are given a cylindrical shaker about the size of an oatmeal tin with the scroll inside. You shake, shake, shake the container, then open it and remove your scroll, which you then unwind to read your fate. If you like what you see — and you don’t always — you hang it on a sort of clothesline next to the shrine, along with everyone else’s wishes, like this:

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Many people — young women in particular — visit the shrine wearing traditional clothes, and it is quite delightful seeing groups of them strolling around, giggling over their fortunes.

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I should add that the other structure dominating the grounds is a huge wall full of sake casks, each about the size of a beer keg.

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In the immortal words of Slim Pickens in Doctor Strangelove, “Hell, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with this stuff!”

By this time it was 3 PM or so and we were pretty much templed- and shrined out. We walked around the shopping district for a while so that Alice could ogle pottery, then boarded the bus for the drive back to Tokyo. It was starting to get dark by the time we arrived, and since the bus had dropped us off at the Ginza railway station, we took advantage of the hour and the lack of rain to walk around that famously energetic shopping district before finding some dinner. After a day of cultural immersion we decided that having a Western meal would not compromise our touristic integrity, and so found a surprisingly good and reasonably priced Italian restaurant on a side street.

[Tourist Tip: when dining in Ginza, “side street” becomes an important restaurant selection criterion. The main drags are filled with Prada, Tiffany, Dior, Gucci, et cetera, et cetera stores, and consequently the restaurants on those streets have prices suitable for people who shop at Prada, Tiffany, Dior, and Gucci stores. Prices drop by about a factor of four when you move a block away.]

I will close with some shots of the Ginza, so that you can see exuberant consumerism at its energy-intense finest.

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Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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