Currently reading, The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh
“Xing Chian” everybody, or to you and I, hello!
I’m in the land they call Vietnam, or sometimes in the American jargon as ‘Nam, and it’s really rather strange being in a country that we’ve all grown up with as a war shown on our TV screens through American shows and movies. However, despite picking up a few illegal counterfeit books about Vietnam, (including a 9 pounds photocopy of Lonely Planet’s Vietnam). I am of course, I am still finishing a book incongruously enough about the American Civil War! Regardless, of more interest to me is the fact that I had two semesters studying the Vietnam War whilst at university and it was fascinating if a touch depressing. Anyway, I wonder what it’s really like?
Well, first off, this place is Communist, yep, another one! And the flag of Vietnam, which is everywhere, is of course red with a “Soviet” style yellow star in the middle. Ho Chi Minh is everywhere too, and rightly so, it was his leadership which fought the Japanese and took control over Vietnam during the Second World War and he also who directed the guerrilla war
and kicked out the colonial French culminating in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. It was his desire to unite North Vietnam and South Vietnam under the communists which ultimately defeated American attempts at keeping them separate. He actually died in 1969 before it actually happened, and the North invaded and took over the South. I went to this mausoleum and his museum and a fascinating man it has to be said, but I doubt whether he’d recognize market economy and barely communist Vietnam if he was around today. That’s the irony of Vietnam, it had this big old war principally over two political ideals, communism and capitalism and Vietnam is pretty much the latter these days.
One of the first things I’ve noticed is that contrary to us Westerners who want to endlessly discuss the war and to obtain their side of things, people here would rather do business then wallow in the past. This is both surprising and refreshing; but it has similar echoes with people from Northern Ireland, who suffered the fate of being asked about the troubles as soon as they showed the accent. What’s less surprising however is the younger people in particular who
do not show an interest in the war and universally declare that everything between them and France/America is in the past. I think this is probably healthy as nationalism or chauvinism has not got in the way.
Floods and missing Uncle Ho
So, one of the first things I have to do after arriving in Hanoi, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is of course wear a rain jacket! The very night I arrived there was a violent thunder storm, and it pelted it down with rain, which continued heavily into the late morning. By the time I got up and out my little narrow street was flooded with dirty water up to and above my ankles. I’m not sure if this is a regular occurrence because the hotel reception staff seemed to be bemused by it all, and I have to say I was bemused also! I was not expecting to step out into Hanoi flip flops and rain jacket, whilst wading into flood water!
So, I did not heed the advice of the hotel and went to the post office to mail my passport insurance claim but found myself trapped in streets because I couldn’t cross
the large pools of water created. I got there eventually and took a cyclo taxi to the Ho Chi Minh museum, through the flooded streets, incredible scenes really. I just wish I had my camera because large parts of the city were in fact flooded, with part of the lake moving onto the roads. 90,000 Dong (about 3 quid, or 5 bucks, seeing as the average Vietnamese earns one dollar 50 a day…) well it seemed a bit much, but the museum seemed pretty far from the centre of the city so I accepted. He stopped and I got out to a museum entrance that the guards in green uniforms had said was closed. I scratched my head and the sign in small French said the Army Museum, and NOT
the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Buggery! Of course, as soon as I looked for the cyclo guy he was long gone; I’m still not sure if he ripped me off or just misunderstood where I wanted to go to. Anyway, Vladimir Lenin on his plinth across the road didn’t seem interested in what had just happened. Typical.
I like the food in Hanoi and I have been eating at
a place called “Pho” - which is just that (beef noodles) and super cheap places to eat, and where you get to choose the cut of the beef and it’s fully of scruffy locals and scruffy premises but very tasty beef noodles. I’ve been eating at local places where the food is fried in batter and very tasty and no English menu in sight, sitting on these tiny nursery seats and tables.
I don’t know if it’s just me being over-sensitive and perhaps a squealing London boy but it seems that with any group or gathering of people, I get bumped (barged out the way or just generally manhandled), and not just the accidental bump, but an actual careless I don’t give a shit that you’re there, or that I’m actually invading your personal space or that I might have just stubbed your toe kind of carelessness. I’m quite used to it now, this general up close and personal Vietnam style and tend to avoid all situations where I get shoved, pushed or petted.
One of the highlights about Hanoi was managing to visit St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral as well as Mass on the same day
as having visited an actual exhibition about Catholicism in Vietnam. It’s an interesting experience seeing how others do what you’ve been brought up dong for your entire life, but in a foreign culture and it gave me a certain familiar warm feeling, that sense of community of belonging to something. Often, any sort of service in another language you can’t understand is perplexing but for some reason, the reciting in Vietnamese of the Lord’s Prayer and the overall liturgy was really beautiful to hear. Even, the turgid hymn singing that occasions such services were absent and really beautiful singing instead. A nice local touch was at the shaking of hands, and the usual “peace be with you”, the locals all bowed their heads to each other.
Ban co noi duoc Anh khong?
Do you speak English?
Other stuff I’ve noticed is that compared to other countries Hanoi people in general are more reluctant to speak English with you, I mean to the stage where they are very timid if you ask anything in English. Most people I’ve met in South East Asia, including Myanmar are pretty eager to test out their English, but Vietnam even the young are reluctant. I
wonder why that is, but all it means to me is that I have to try and use more Vietnamese. Again, as in the rest of the region it’s a very tonal language, for instance, five tones of one word can mean five different words. What is unique to Vietnam however, and you notice this as soon as you step off the plane is the written language. After 1000 years of Chinese domination up to the 11th Century AD the language used written Mandarin characters, but after the Great War, this changed and they began using the unique phonetic written language of quôc ngũ
invented by a French Jesuit priest in the 17th Century.
However, I’ve found that the further south I have gone and out of big cities the more people want to use their English with you.
Oh, how can I forget the traffic, it’s both maddening and hilarious.
Crazy traffic and riders in Hanoi, bleeping beeping Hanoi I’ve called it. It’s exhilarating but a pain in the arse, maddening but amusing as whole pavements are taken over by rows of parked scooters. And to think that 15 years ago it used to be all
Everyone just disregards all rules of the road, be it keeping to your side of the road, jumping red lights, making right turns on red lights, dangerous over taking, I could go on. It’s us pedestrians that are stuck in the middle of this 70-30 scooter-car ration, having to walk very slowly across the road, watching both ways all of the time. And all the while, the beeps and horns are used to warn others that they are coming, an incessant (and when it’s right behind you damn right alarming) noise which is completely unnecessary if people just obeyed the law! Out of macabre interest I’d like to know the mortality rate of road usage in this country, because seriously I’ve seen speeding scooters around corners chock full of people, bus drivers on mobile phones whilst driving, and speeding vans ducking in and out of traffic and usually into oncoming traffic. Where’s the fun part? Well, it’s so crazy you have to smile at the sheer bravado and steely insouciance of these people to treat their lives so cheaply.
Stuff I’ve been doing
Getting camera repaired that’s what, and ultimately it took all day long to get a
new one because it couldn’t be repaired locally and Fujifilm send it to Saigon, which takes forever. So, new one it is after traipsing around second hand shops, trying to exchange it, nearly buying one in a posh camera shop but changing my mind as it was a display model and they weren’t willing to discount! Then, nearly buying a top end one, and in fact I had until I found out that the warranty was only for that shop (???) and the manual was only in Japanese. Finally got myself to a shopping mall and bought a lovely Sony touch screen camera. So welcome everybody to John’s new pics.
Meeting people is easy
So, I decide to go to a “Bia Hoi” station on a street junction in Hanoi, basically dirt cheap local beer being served and I get talking to a Russian and German guy, who fascinated and enthrall me as to what they had done. 1. German Johannes who had taken his bike with him (jealous already), motorbiked it to India with his bro, then starts hitchhiking around Vietnam. He meets the Russian guy Alexander whilst couch-surfing in Hanoi, most impressive as I’d actually forgotten about the
potential of hooking up and staying with locals. Anyway, they have been travelling together hitch hiking, even to Halong Bay which is tourist central they managed to hitch a ride around the bay. Alex, was something altogether by actually hitch hiking around SE Asia for two years and disregarding the trouble of not obtaining tourist vias to countries because he’s Russian and they suspect he’s doing something wrong! Anyway, it makes my journey sound like a bloody walk around a park with the dog, so I’ve decided to follow in their footsteps and go locals more often and try to get off the beaten path, make a bit more of an effort to make this an experience to remember as opposed to a journey through a list of must-sees. Not only that, it was really good to see a German, and Russian and a Brit just sit down together and have a few drinks and chat away (admittedly in English). Makes you optimistic for the future of Europe.
I organized a trip to Perfume Pagoda, which has a very nice boat trip through giant karst formations and rowed by families of those Vietnamese who were killed in the war.
The cave and pagoda itself is a popular Vietnamese shrine full of Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist and Hindu symbols but that and the cave itself are overrated. There was a pretty cool cable car up to the top, but the only real highlight was the boat journey through the karsts and the people I met on the journey. I got chatting to an amiable Dutch guy from Amsterdam called Bart who was on holiday for a few weeks. Also got chatting to a Flemish guy who was with a Viet girl on the trip, apparently it was kind of a first date
as he was in a park in Hanoi and he asked her if she wanted to join him for the trip. Not sure how it went, she was a little bit unprepared what with high heels and a descent of 30 minutes.
On the same journey I got talking to an interesting retired couple from America who were working out in Vietnam for some education charity work. He managed to escape the draft for the war because he was a college graduate, but their time in Vietnam was more recently scarred. According to her, there are quite a
few organizations trying to help with the after effects of the war, but Agent Orange which injured so many from generation to generation including servicemen who came into contact with it's use is not officially recognized by the U.S. Government, and that was from the US Ambassador’s wife!
The streets of Hanoi
So I’m directing myself along the street one evening, referring to a street map, or rather ducking in and out of traffic and on and off the pavement. A woman seller sat on the pavement shouts across to me and asks me where I want to go. She beckons me over, and so I wanna get back to the vicinity of St Joseph’s Cathedral, so instead of mangled Vietnamese I decide upon sign language, that of making the sign of the cross. She then excitedly makes hand gestures for the direction I need to go to. Then the trouble starts and she wants to sell me some bananas, which I agree to but then she puts more than a bunch into a bag and then mangos and then other fruit. The price she wanted was 180,000 Dong, which is extortionate, and so I balked but especially as I
only wanted some bananas. Anyway, she dropped the price a bit but not enough, then again, but not enough, so I walked. She hadn’t given up however and as I briskly walked to the opposite side of the street she actually followed me, grabbed me, and after a short trot, ran after me too! I only got rid of her after a short sprint! Rip off merchants!
So, I’ve actually really liked Hanoi, and Vietnam so far. The weather has been mixed which makes for a nice change, it also has a hustle and bustle about the place which is just exciting to walk in to.
Next stop Halong Bay, a massive bay full of giant mountainous karsts jutting out of the sea.
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