Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Happenings in Hanoi

Written in Hanoi, Vietnam

We woke up at 9am, high above the busy streets of Hanoi. We turned over, away from the alarm clock, not wanting to get out of bed and face the madness below us. The events of last night were still fresh in our minds. Nothing bad happened. In fact, nothing happened at all. But when we got off the plane in Hanoi, Vietnam, our minds still full of the lovely calm of Luang Prabang, we were totally unprepared for the utter madness of this crazy Vietnamese city. Lonely Planet made us fearful of everyone we passed, and we heeded the book's warnings, certain that everyone was out to scam us, every taxi driver set on driving round and round and hiking up the fare, every hotel intent on grossly overcharging us. We ate dinner at a so-so restaurant because it was close enough to our hotel, and we came back to our room relatively early, exhausted and unsure whether we'd make it through the day we planned for ourselves today.

By way of explanation, let me back-track a bit. We owe you guys a few posts about some things, including pictures and stories from my cooking class, Matt's amazing experience with the elephants (both were way back in Chiang Mai, Thailand), and of course we need to tell you all about Luang Prabang, and our two-day trek to several hill tribes in the surrounding area. But for now, suffice it to say that Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang were really relaxed places. Compared to Bangkok, they were like Charlottesville is to Washington, DC, or New Hope is to Philadelphia. Neither city was as clean as Charlottesville or New Hope, but they were both amazingly beautiful and the people were truly lovely, and we really enjoyed our time in both places. So it's possible that we weren't totally prepared to land smack in the middle of a city where there are no traffic laws, where every single man, woman, and child is driving a motorbike at exactly the same time, where rickshaw drivers aren't interested in taking no for an answer, and every woman you pass really wants you to buy some bananas from her, or a bootleg copy of the Lonely Planet if you're full of bananas.

But here we were, and we decided to suck it up and face the day. A whole day later, I'm so glad that we did. It's winter here, and unlike all the other countries we've been to, that means that it's actually cold. But we put on every single pair of long-sleeved items we own and spent the day walking around the city. When you look up in Hanoi, up and away from the madness on the ground, you see a whole city above a city. Each four- or five-story building has a balcony on each floor, and each balcony has a wrought iron fence and potted plants and charming shuttered windows. There are twisty-turny roads that seem to lead nowhere, and every other corner contains a makeshift restaurant selling steaming bowls of pho. The motorbikes are enough to make you crazy, but after a few scared starts, we came to feel comfortable crossing the street, as opposed to feeling like we were taking our lives in our hands. The coffee here is thick and plentiful, and the chocolate is real and French and delicious. We managed to artfully dodge the millions of people trying to sell us a ride, or a camoflage hat that says "Vietnam!" And we also managed to find our way to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum (probably better known as the Hanoi Hilton, which was a prison where the French once incarcerated and brutally tortured the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese later incarcerated American POW's, including John McCain), an interesting and sobering experience put into even greater perspective by the fact that we were here, in this place, where they call it the American War.

Tomorrow we're getting up bright and early to head to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the Temple of Literature, and the Museum of Ethnology. We have tickets to see a water puppet show at 2:45, and tickets on the night train at 7pm. This time tomorrow night we'll be "speeding" towards Hue, and there's no doubt in my mind that after another day in this crazy, mixed-up city, there will be a part of us that will be a little bit sad to leave it behind.


Anonymous said...

Scott asked, are you going to Ho Chi Min City?

Anonymous said...

Actually,Scott wrote to me: "I have a good friend there who will be visiting us before our peds meeting in DC"