We have spent four busy, fascinating, days in Hanoi sightseeing and getting to know several local people. This vibrant but polluted city, is a mix of stately, yellow, French colonial houses in various states of repair, a few wide boulevards, and many neighborhoods of alleys, shop houses, crowded low rise tenements, and smaller houses in close proximity.
Old town street scene, an area popular with tourists
Luckily, we arranged for transport from the airport to our comfortable home stay, located on a tiny alley in a non-touristy area. We would never have found it by ourselves, and it was always an adventure finding our way to other parts of the city and back again. Our host at Chez LinhLinh, Thuy, has been an absolute doll, giving us all kinds of info, lending us her phone in case we got lost, something we made us of, and even finding us a free local guide, a university student.
During our first day we explored the city on our own. Our home stay is somewhat outside the center, and there are few westerners here. Instead the maze of tiny alleys are chock full of various food vendors selling fresh veggies, and Pho. They seem to come and go, depending on the time of day. Some are open for breakfast, others lunch and dinner. The table and stools are tiny, much like the tea stalls in Burma. They are not made for long legged Americans, but the food is usually fresh and cheap.
After struggling to find our way out of the maze, we walked a long time, passing embassy row, and then arriving at Ho's mausoleum, which was closed. We did manage to see his house and walk around the extensive grounds.
Houses on Ho's compound
Uncle Ho is still very much of a revered figure here, and his residence and mausoleum are hallowed ground. There were many Vietnamese as well as foreigners. Finding our way back was even more difficult. At one point we stopped at a small hair salon and showed them our card from Thuy, in Vietnamese and English. Each patron pointed a different way. One person seemed more sure of herself, and luckily, she turned out to be right. We were only two small streets away, but if we headed in the wrong direction, I might not be writing this now. The traffic is without exaggeration, insane. Totally over the top, especially at rush hour when there is not enough room to move, even on the narrow sidewalks. Motorbikes buzz like angry bees, and head in every direction at once. There is an occasional light, but you can't count on anyone stopping. Crossing the street is very much a game of chicken. It took us a couple of days to get the hang of it. Don't look at anyone, try and cross with others, and above all act fearless. Hanoi may be a perfect illustration of Shapiro's traffic rule number one. The more repressive the government, the more people act out (with tacit permission) on the road.
Later that evening , auspiciously on the last night of Tet, Thuy took us to the local Buddhist temple to make an offering to her ancestors. She then gave us some chocolate coins, not unlike Hannukah Gelt, a good luck New Year's present.
Nanette, Thuy and her three lovely children
We walked from there to her nearby parents house, where they plied us with all kinds of local food, as well as beer and rice wine. Her father, who spoke almost no English, kept refilling my glass, despite my protests. I think however, like most asians, he couldn't hold his liquor as well as I, a westerner, could. Thuy acted acted as translator, and her three girls, age 16 months, 6 and 8 provided plenty of entertainment.
The next day, Thuy introduced us to our very own tour guide. Huyen, a sweet 20 year old English student, took us to all to kinds of local places that we would never have found on our own. We started out in one of the nearby alleys with banh cuon, a kind of dumpling with mushrooms served in a pork broth. Delicate and delicious.
We then walked into the main part of town stopping to look at different pagodas, before going into another tiny alley to get to a famous student coffee shop, where they served egg coffee. No foreigners present.
Drinking egg coffee and eating sunflower seeds
Vietnamese students drinking coffee in outdoor coffee house in old town
From there it was on to Hoan Kiem lake in the center of town, with bridge and pagoda connected to a small island.
Grandfather and granddaughter sitting near the bridge
The lake is famous for a huge turtle which is only seen intermittently. We saw the carcass of a preserved one which had washed on shore several years ago. Apparently the lake used to have many more turtles, but now there is only one. Nearby, a rather phallic looking edifice, where, we were told, one can write messages in the sky to one's departed relatives.
From there we stopped in the Vietnamese version of a drive in ice cream place, a sort of A&W, without the burgers and the root beer. It was packed with young people and motorbikes. We ordered coconut ice cream pops, kem sua dua. Love to say that word. We each had more than one in fact. Hard not to at around 25 cents each.
While Nanette popped into an art gallery across the street, I took pictures of the ice cream police, as I call them. They seemed intent on giving tickets to all who parked their bikes on the sidewalk. Well, not all. Those who could cough up an immediate bribe were spared, at least that is how it appeared. Considering that I never saw anyone receive a traffic ticket for going through a red light, it seemed like a scam.
Ice cream police truck
Street scene outside of ice cream store and gallery
In the gallery, Nanette found an abstract artist whose work she really liked, and made arrangements to visit her studio the next day. We then took the scenic, aka long way back, past West Lake. We stopped to take pictures of Huyen in front of her imposing French colonial high school, and talked with her about school and her family.
Like many of our former Chinese students, she loved the opportunity to practice her English and seemed to really appreciate that we had come to visit her country. She was outgoing and open about her life, and in many ways seemed more mature than her age cohort in the states. By the time we got back our feet were killing us, but so what. We did manage to make our way to a nearby Pho place. Exhausted, we made it an early night, whereas Huyan was off to her belly dancing class. The next day she had classes at university, but she invited us to have dinner with her family in the evening.
In the morning, after a bit of confusion we were picked up by Nguyen Tam, the agent of the artist, who took us to see her studio. Ngo Hai Yen's was am attractive, vivacious woman in her 40's. She and Nanette seem to hit it off at once. Her abstract lacquer paintings were an intense mixture of colors, with bits of gold and silver leaf added to increase the layering effect. When Nanette saw she had some smaller works, she couldn't resist buying one. We were then invited to her house to see her canvas paintings, which we were more than happy to do. Nguyen, also her best friend, and an interesting woman in her own right, acted as translator. Before long the artist was cooking up a storm and invited us to stay for lunch. Some how we got started discussing classical and latin music. It wasn't long before I took out my phone to play Congo to Cuba while we ate lunch. As we shared more about our lives, they both told us they didn't have much in common with their husbands, something Thuy had also made a point of telling us. They are engineers by training, and as is often the case, they are not very communicative. Thuy's husband on the other hand, is a travel agent. The women were very revealing about their personal lives, perhaps because they might not see us again?
After lunch Ngo, the artist, asked if wanted to go dancing in a club. In the afternoon we queried? They nodded, and although her friend didn't know how to dance at all, it wasn't long before we piled into a cab and went off to the club. It seems as though ballroom dancing is a popular pastime in Hanoi, though the place was relatively empty at this time of day. I pranced around in my usual, half assed, 60's free form manner, but Ngo was a fabulous dancer. There were a number of young men who were eager to be her partner. Professionals? Gay? Perhaps, but they could really move to those latin beats. Nguyen was happy to sit on the side, except when I took her up for a whirl. I'm sure we looked ridiculous. I also managed to dance with a couple of the older ladies who attempted, with little success, to show me how to move properly to the music. Quite an experience. It was nice to see a range of ages, all dancing with one another.
Ngo with one of the professional dancers
We returned in late afternoon, just in time to shower and go next door to Huyen's house. She had invited her older cousin and a friend, both of whom spoke excellent English. While they prepared a huge meal of snails, clams, fresh spring rolls, etc., I chatted with her very young looking father, (mid 50's) who runs an IT company with 70 employees. Considering this, they live in a very modest house and obviously don't have much money. Hong was educated in Hungary during its communist days. He speaks Hungarian, and also spent a year in Russia, so naturally he speaks Russian. He also speak a bit of Mandarin as well as English. His parents, now dead, moved to Hanoi from Hue in between the French and American wars. The American War, is of course, what we call the Vietnam War. During two periods of heavy American bombing, Hong was sent with several hundred other children, to live deep in the jungle. There was rarely enough to eat, and they often had to catch fish and insects by themselves. His other three brothers were sent to different sites, apparently because there was less chance they would all be bombed at the same time. In between bombing episodes, he returned home to his family.
His father was fairly high up in the North Vietnamese army, but apparently didn't know how to use a gun. Whether this meant he really was never taught, or if he just couldn't bring himself to use it, is not clear. Hong told me about a time his father was in the jungle with another officer. It was hot so the other man slept at the entrance to the cave. In the night there was a bombing raid, and the other man was killed while his father was okay because he was sleeping deeper inside. Just lucky, he said. He also told me another story about how an American bomber was shot down and landed totally intact. Both the Russians and the Chinese wanted to get their hands on it. This made it very difficult for Vietnam. Eventually, they gave it to the Russians in exchange for 300 bombers, but the Chinese were very angry. At the end of the war, when the Vietnamese fought Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Chinese were also angry, and started to bomb the border areas in the north of Vietnam. At this time Hong was in the army, and like his father, did not know how to shoot.
He, his family, and other many others in North Vietnam seem to harbor little resentment of the Americans as well as the French. It is largely a country of young people though, and so they have little direct experience with the wars. The one group that seems to engender some anger is the Chinese, perhaps because they occupied the country for more than 1000 years. So much for the domino theory.
I let Hong know that I was opposed to the war, and although it was hard to completely gauge his feelings, based on his hospitality it was obvious that he could distinguish between the US government and individual people. What an incredible waste of human life and so much suffering. Ten million Vietnamese died he told me. After this somewhat heavy discussion, (despite the beer we shared), dinner was served to the delight of all. It was quite a feast, and a good time was had by all. We took many pictures of one another.
The gang's all here: Huyen with family members and friend
Hong and his wife with Nanette and Jon
Later, Hong showed me an old one of his father that he was obviously very proud of. Hard to imagine that 50 years ago there was so much killing, and now it is like it never happened.
The following day we were on our own again, but it was much less hectic. The water puppet show, which tells the story of the founding of Vietnam, was the highlight. Tomorrow we go off for two days to Halong Bay on a junk.