The Krypton Factor


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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hanoi
August 11th 2006
Published: August 25th 2006
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Hà Nội street sceneHà Nội street sceneHà Nội street scene

Can it be ? An intersection free of traffic ? Well, it was the weekend !
A certain guidebook describes Hà Nội as "assuming the role of capital of the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam with style and dignity". We therefore felt justified in expecting a visit to the city to put a finishing touch of calm to the all-consuming craziness that is this nation.

Fat chance.

We had barely stepped out of the minibus that took us to the city centre from Nội Bài airport that we realised our expectations were a bit off...The short walk to our hotel took us through a veritable cloud of mopeds, trishaws and bicycles, emitting as a group a symphony of hooting, honking and howling. This was the first of many interesting/challenging/traumatising (delete as appropriate) forays into the mind-boggling madness of the Old Quarter.

The Old Quarter is a virtual rabbit warren of narrow streets occupying that part of the city north of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a large pond that dominates downtown Hà Nội. The Old Quarter offers the observant visitor countless beautiful glimpses of both French colonial grandeur and workaday Vietnamese life. Problem is, if you value your arms/legs/life, you cannot afford to be that observant in Hà Nội, at least not of architectural features and
That's more like itThat's more like itThat's more like it

Note the motorcycles parked in the street, their front wheels touching the shop fronts. Who needs a pavement to walk on ?...
the like.

The Old Quarter of Hà Nội is an assault course of Krypton Factoresque proportions - an assault on your muscles as well as your senses, a challenge for your reaction times, a gauge of your taste for danger.

First the motorcycles - driving in much of South East Asia follows the "shoal" mentality : that is to say that groups of vehicles behave as shoals of fish, a stream of traffic with a mind of its own. Hà Nội is no exception to this rule, except with the added fact that no-one - no-one - will accept to stop his or her vehicle for any - any - reason whatsoever. Add to this the apparent absence of traffic signals and signs, a semi-optional one-way system and countless unmarked intersections and you have the perfect recipe for utter, unmitigated havoc.

A guide we had on our trip to Hạ Long Bay (see previous entry) mentioned that there are an estimated 2,000,000 motorcycles in Hà Nội (about 1 for every 4 of the city's inhabitants - this sounds about right...most bikes do seem to be carrying about 4 people !). And boy, does it show !
Uncle Hồ's houseUncle Hồ's houseUncle Hồ's house

A strangely compelling building. You enter at ground level through the opening on the left.

It would be just about bearable (well, actually it wouldn't, but...) if all this traffic were quiet. But it's not quiet. The Vietnamese love noise - silence is an unnatural aberration to be got rid of at all costs. Two million motorcycles, and each one honks its horn about once every 5 seconds, using it as a kind of sonar, a mechanical bat navigating its way around the city. And somehow, somehow, it just about works ! Add some pedestrians to the mix and bang! (or if you're lucky just ouch!) you have downtown Hà Nội. Crossing the larger thoroughfares could be a new Olympic event - crossing anything other than "Vietnamese style" is a sure-fire ticket to Casualty...Said style means crossing the road slowly, slowly, without hesitation (hesitate and you diiiie...), maintaining eye contact with oncoming traffic at all times. Expecting anyone to slow down for you (you didn't think they'd stop did you ?) is utterly futile. This method allows the driver, using his honkdar, to decide whether he will swerve left or right to avoid you. Horrifying as it sounds, this is the method of choice for Vietnamese, and by and large it is quite effective. Still,
Shoppingtime !!!Shoppingtime !!!Shoppingtime !!!

Get your Communist T-shirts here ! Get your Communist T-shirts here !
we planned our forays out of the hotel quite carefully to avoid having to do this too often.

Non-motorised hazards are plentiful and varied, too. Most Hà Nội shopkeepers, for example, consider the pavement to be an extension of their floor space, as do restaurateurs. Consequently a walk down the street becomes an obstacle course worthy of the US Marines, over impromptu shoe stalls set up on the edge of the pavement, pots of boiling oil and tiny restaurant tables blocking the way, awning-cables acting as tripwires (or is it the other way 'round ?...). This is to say nothing of the Vietnamese hoi polloi loitering in the pavement, playing cards, burning paper money (didn't get this one - a religious ritual perhaps ?), carving headstones (uh-huh) or, of course, having a good old stare at harassed foreigners !

For all its coronary-inducing craziness, Hà Nội hides a good measure of charm for those brave enough to (cross the road and) find it. Indeed, one of the most pleasant things about the city is its food. Two of the delights we sampled (repeatedly !) were kem and chả cá. The former is simply the vietnamisation of French crème
Stylish ponchos, guys !Stylish ponchos, guys !Stylish ponchos, guys !

The whole complex was crawling with guards, enforcing a "respectful attitude and decent behaviour" at all times. Relax and take a chill pill is what I say !
and by extension crème glacée or "ice cream" (this is a guess). Hà Nội is home to Fanny's, a wonderful ice-cream parlour looking out over the lake (via a traffic-choked street of course). We went there twice, indulging in such delicious flavours as lychee and young coconut...topped not with a little paper umbrella but a miniature conical heat instead ! As for chả cá, it's a Hà Nội speciality: tender chunks of freshwater catfish braised in a light stock, eaten with fresh rice noodles and sprinkled before eating with chopped spring onions, roasted peanuts and dill - quite delicious as well as unusual (dill in SE Asia, who'd have thunk it ?).

I couldn't leave Việt Nam without paying a visit to one of Hà Nội's most famous citizens (albeit a dead, stuffed and embalmed one) - Hồ Chí Minh. Uncle Hồ, as he is affectionately called, lives in a massive mausoleum complex that occupies a hefty proportion of northern Hà Nội. It was a rainy, grey morning when I set off by myself (Alex wasn't really in the mood to see one of the world's most famous taxidermy displays...). The mausoleum was mildly interesting (more later) but the real entertainment was the circus surrounding the visit itself. Seeing Uncle Hồ involves a lot of procedure and ceremony.

You check in your bag (minus camera) at the front gate and collect token number 1. Then follows an airport-style security check - X-ray, pat-down - and you then check in your camera in a little canvas bag (pick up token number 2). There then follows a compulsory subjection to a propaganda movie about Uncle Hồ - the length of this depends on your luck (anything from a few seconds to 15 minutes or so). I was lucky and only had to sit there for a minute or so (not that I understood a word of it)...

You then march along a red carpet, outdoors, to the mausoleum itself. Soldiers in white uniform guard the path, equipped with rifles and - eek - bayonets. Woe betide he or she who should cut a corner and step off the carpet. Disrespect towards Uncle Hồ will not be tolerated ! By that time I was wondering what all the security mumbo-jumbo was for, given that a gaggle of Spaniards ahead of me blatantly had large rucksacks on under their rain ponchos...never mind ! As I entered the mausoleum - a sort of brutalist Parthenon - all chattering was quickly suppressed by the guards. You will respect Uncle Hồ !

Well, the body was a bit of an anticlimax...Little old bearded Uncle Hồ was simply lying there in his big Hồ-quarium (ho, ho, ho...), covered up to his chest with a black sheet, as if sleeping. I wasn't the only one there who was trying to suppress a fit of the giggles ! It was freezing, probably because Hồ's Russian embalmers putting a "store below 10ºC" care label on him when he was delivered...His coffin was guarded at all 4 corners by a machine-gun-toting soldier. It was quite eerie, not very impressive and ever-so-faintly ridiculous. We were all in and out in 20 seconds, ready to exchange our handful of toggles for our prized possessions. There followed a peremptory look at Uncle Hồ's house (transplanted to the complex), Uncle Hồ's collection of classic cars (vive le Communisme ! - that's Marxism-Leninism for you !), his office and so on...

My favourite bit was the miniature shopping mall at the end, where you could buy Hồ T-shirts, Hồ tea-cakes, Hồ pencils and any Hồ-related paraphernalia you can think of. The stalls were overrun with tourists (few of them Westerners !), gathering up armfuls of kitsch rubbish in a capitalistic shopping frenzy. It was quite hilarious - it struck me as so ironic that the irony of it may itself have been ironic...(does that make sense ?)

The whole hoo-hah was made even more absurd when I read that good old Uncle Hồ explicitly stated that he wished to be cremated without ceremony ! Uncle Hồ would surely be turning in his grave, if only he could do so without the guards watching...


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26th August 2006

Uncle Ho
It seems that you got there just in time before he goes back to Moscow in September for his annual overhaul!. Keep it up - we seem to have had a rather long wait for this one!. Lots of love to you both.

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