Hanoi 'Expressway 21'
Morning traffic on the way to market.
Hanoi > Ninh Binh
January 31, 2011
I've been in Hanoi for about 72 hours now. Aside from a run-in with the Vietnamese communist government at the airport, things have been great!
Trung's Dad asked us yesterday if we were interested in hitching a ride out to the countryside to visit Trung's brother. There is a car full of his relatives that will be heading out there, and we are invited to join in the fun.
Trung woke me up at 5:30am by rushing in and turning on the lights. I wanted to be up at 5:00 but my 'hopeless alarm setting skills' (said with a flourish of hands) didn't allow that. We quickly get ourselves together and eat some banh trung (a traditional rice patty filled with rice, beans, and cured meat) which is usually only eaten during Tet, the lunar new year, which is the reason for our journey. Tet is on the 3rd, and everyone travels to visit family at that time. After we devour 1/4 each of the banh trung, I grab my day bag to head out to the country. We aren't sure about the traffic situation (they say the roads can
be bad) so I'm bringing supplies for 1 or 2 days.
We leave Trung's house, walking down the tight, twisting alleyway accompanied by the sounds of roosters crowing in the morning twilight. People are up already sweeping, starting cooking fires on the street, walking with giant baskets and exercising by swinging their arms around and stretching.
Trung's relatives pick us up in their small green SUV, and we head off, an early start to beat the morning Hanoi traffic.
We jump on the newly built 'expressway' which comes complete with no signage and a multitude of North American-style exit ramps with people travelling in all directions. The speed limit in the 'fast' lane is minimum 80km/hr, maximum 100km/hr. At that rate we'd be in Nam Dinh in 1.5 hours. Currently, we're travelling at 40km/hr, bunched together with 1000's of packed scooters, cars, bicycles and whatever else. The highway is in good condition, however once in awhile, the overpass bridges don't line up with the road, with quite a severe bump to get on and off.
The expressway cuts across the foggy rice paddies, dotted with bright yellow and red painted houses that can be seen in
The Reunification Express
The train followed the highway for most of the way
the murky distance. There is no rice growing now, so it seems as if the road is cutting across a gigantic, shallow lake, with the sky reflected in all directions.
The expressway ends at Phu Ly city, we join a busy street filled with traffic. People eat Pho Bo (beef & noodle soup) in their tiny chairs at vendor stalls on the side of the road, red Vietnamese flags are everywhere, and propaganda can be heard broadcasted over loudspeakers on the street. Trung tells me the government is saying 'good people put out their flags, garbage should be put away and clothes shouldn't be hung out to dry on the street'.
We leave the city and the road becomes very bad, very quickly. There are 100 metre long sections every kilometer or so with new pavement. Apparently the local government is responsible for a portion of the road upkeep, so that is all they can afford. Usually the road is paved only for the short sections in small villages with street vendors that dot the road.
Road conditions worsen, with the same amount of traffic. We come across several bridges that are made out of (what I
can tell) bamboo... one lane wide in each direction. No guardrails mean a quick trip into the garbage filled ditch below. Fisherman's nets can be seen in the distance, made out of a complicated bamboo pole system (see photo).
Four hours of stop-and-go bumpyness, we finally get to a place where we might be taking a turn into the farms on either side of the road. We drive down onto what can only be described as a sidewalk through a rice paddy, but its the wrong turn. While the driver turns the car around, we all get out to stretch. I forgot to mention there were 6 of us in the SUV, so we've been crammed in the whole time. It took 4 hours to get to this point, a 1.5 hour drive, according to google maps.
There's a family eating lunch in their house on the side of the road where we get out. They all start to talk and the kids run out as soon as they see us. The kids are super curious but very shy and run away when I wave. An old man with really bad teeth and advanced arthritis and a big
smile comes to shake my hand and starts speaking with me and gesturing to his house down the road. Trung tells me he wants to drink with me at his place. I politely decline with Trung shaking his head not to go. The car is turned around and we hop in and leave.
When we finally get to the right road, its only wide enough for the car, with 2 foot deep water on either side. Granted, the road is paved with concrete, which is a step up from the main road we turned off of. The car stops and Trung and I jump out with our bags and jackets. We are in the middle of a field of water with nothing around us. As the car drives off, Trung says 'I hope I remember how to get there'. Great. We start walking.
The rice paddies are separated by clay dividers, most dividers have a 1 foot wide walking surface on top. We're on a 'main' road which is about 3 feet wide, big enough for 2 scooters to pass. We walk for about 10 minutes on the zig-zag pathways crossing between the square fields before we are
Coming to meet us
met by Trung's uncle walking to meet us. He tells us that everyone is gathering one house over for lunch.
The pathway leads to an 'island' complete with a compound of houses, sheds, chicken coops and a small temple. There's about 50 people gathered and waiting for us to start lunch. The main living room is set up with 5 eating areas with huge trays of food at each. The senior men sit on top of a raised table in the center with the ladies, children and young men sitting on mats on either side of the main table. Trung and I sit at a 'western' table beside the main platform with 5 other guys about the same age.
We start off by pulling out clear liquor bottles capped with balls of saran wrap. There's a never-ending supply of homemade rice vodka for 'chompha chom' which is Vietnamese for 'bottoms up'. I quickly realize that EVERY guy in the place, given their chance, would get me to have a shot of vodka with them. I stop at 4. I'm not sure what percentage alcohol is in the moonshine, but there's enough. I'm pretty tipsy pretty quick.
is delicious complete with: steamed veggies, rice cooked with red fruit, chicken, pork, pork soup, cured pork with big leaves of something, pork ribs, and a strange bowl of red jello that turned out to be frothy, blood jello. No thanks. Everything is eaten on a bowl of rice and its all amazing. There's Vietnamese green tea afterwards in a tiny tea cup. I'm grateful for all of the varied foods that they've prepared, it couldn't have been easy, and it was all prepared from scratch with food grown on the farm. It was lots of fun to meet some of the older gentlemen at the head table who asked me 'how old my father was' and 'who looks older, my father or them?'. One had a crazy long beard and asked if old men in Canada grew beards as long as his. lol. We're still not sure what the occasion was for lunch, but a super-large gathering like that doesn't take place very often, apparently.
After lunch Trung and I took two bicycles to ride around the area, hopefully towards the local village of Hai Hau. We promptly get lost and head down a road that passed a
Vietnamese Traditional Funeral
Everyone wears white scarves on their heads
bunch of houses. The road ends with one of the smaller, 1 foot wide pathways. Trung thinks we can continue walking on this to a main road up ahead. We get 1/2 way and get stuck. When I look back there are about 30 people standing on the road behind us who saw us ride by and came out to have a look. Everyone is really curious about the strange white guy and the well dressed Vietnamese guy on bikes. After we turn around and walk back, trying to not fall in the water, the people laugh and say that we're welcome to pass on their fields, but Trung explains that we'll just head back the way we came instead of falling in the water.
We head down a road and meet two kids on bikes and bike with them for awhile. We're all headed to the main village that we can see in the distance, about a kilometer away. Two more kids are in the middle of a field and start yelling when they see me. I wave and they wave back. One guy on a scooter almost rides into the rice paddy when he rubber-necked it after
passing us on the road. Apparently I'm causing quite a commotion.
We make it to the village and bike down the main road, avoiding scooters (there aren't many way out here, but there's still a few and they tend to sneak up on you). People are staring from their houses. Trung taught me how to say hello, which is just Ciao (easy!). They smile when I say hello, very friendly, but curious and shy people.
One of Trung's relatives lives in the town and she's already home. She comes out on the street when she sees us go past, and invites us in. She sits us down in her extremely ornate living room and gives us a glass of hot water. Interesting. Her mother and daughter are also there and they're very friendly. We drink our hot water and excuse ourselves, as our ride back to Hanoi is coming in about 20 minutes.
When we get back to Trung's uncle's house, he's relaxing there with a few other people. I guess some were too drunk to scooter home, so someone is asleep in a bed in the living room. We sit in the living room and enjoy
Where are we?
Seconds after the car drove off, we were walking...somewhere.
some tangerines. We get a call that our ride will be there in 15 minutes, so we head out down a pathway behind the house to the next house over to say goodbye to the rest of the family. We have to go by light jog to meet back up with our ride who we can see waaaaaay off in the distance on the main road, coming towards us.
We made about 4 stops on the way home, to pick up our other passengers, each time stopping to get out, greet everyone and take back gifts. Trung explains that people in the country usually only have what they can make or grow, so its a big deal to exchange gifts at Tet. We take away a small plant for Trung's mom, but nothing else, people can keep their fruit and rice this time around 😉
This isn't the same story for the rest of the family in the car. We pick up a few bags filled with (of all things) Joe Louis chocolate wagon wheels and cans of beer. We also pick up a live rooster with it's head sticking out of an empty rice bag, and two
more chickens in a cardboard box. Never have driven in a car with chickens. Its strange, sounds like the raptors from the movie Jurrasic Park.
With all the stopping and traffic and bad roads and general crazyness it takes about 7 hours to get back to Hanoi. Again, a 1.5 hour drive according to Google Maps. Amazing.
Needless to say, we are exhausted when we arrive home. Trung's Mom had once again cooked a 10 item meal for us. 'Not very much food' she says. She also explains which of the giant bowls of food can't be saved for leftovers, so we have to eat it all. So much eating!
Vietnamese people are generally thin and are proud of their healthy food, but at this rate, there is going to be one fat Canadian amongst thin Vietnamese.
Seeing the countryside and the way of life which I imagine has been relatively unchanged over the last several hundred years, it really makes me appreciate some of the amenities that we have grown used to and have come to expect. These people live completely off the land, collect their drinking water in cisterns, have touch-and-go electricity and forget
Right before I had 4 shots of rice vodka, I was a bit nervous about lunch.
about anything like sewage treatment, health care or other basic services. There are lots of community schools which produce a very well educated population, however most of the kids are leaving the area for easier lives in the city. The countryside is still a very hard life to which most young people do not prescribe.
Having said that, the sense of community and the vitality with which these people live is infectious. Smiles and laughter all around. Kids play in courtyards surrounded by their family. Houses are wide open and welcoming to all. People are extremely polite, generous and I get the impression would do anything for their neighbor, which is what our modern world is now missing out on.
Aside from the plastic bags strewn over everything and the raving traffic, the Vietnamese countryside is a sight to be seen, and something that shouldn't be missed on a trip to Vietnam. I feel luck to have been invited to share in this way of life with Trung's family.
More about the crazy city of Hanoi coming up! Including an instructional video 'How to cross the street when there are no streetlights and a population of 10,000,000
scooter drivers is coming at you head-on!' Fun times, I tell you, fun times!
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