Hang Bac in Hanoi

Trip Start Feb 07, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Touchdown in Vietnam and I've already taken a liking to this charming Vietnamese capital. Hanoi is a culture hub for Vietnam and offers all the trappings of a large modern day city with little banality and tons of well-dressed locals. I'd read about a swinging jazz club that Mr. Bill Clinton himself played at, so I knew I wanted to stay near there, my ears and senses burning for some good live music. I ended up on Hang Bac street, ironic yes, hence the title of this entry. Minh's Jazz joint did not disappoint and was packed on Saturday night. I also indulged in some culture Sunday evening with a visit to the water puppet theater, an ancient art form born on the rice paddies of Vietnam, which was a fun and entertaining spectacle to behold.

On the cultural front, you'll also find numerous art galleries churning out not only originals, but copies of famous paintings that they'll replicate for modest fees. Like a Gustav Klumt, Diego Rivera, or even a Van Gogh? Check out this artist couple's shop and you can even order your favorite artist's painting directly from the site: www.nhungducgallery@yahoo.com. I'm going for a version of an up and coming Vietnamese artist hot on the art scene at present.   

I  have a theory that you can often tell a local from a tourist by the way they cross the street. In a part of the world where motorcycle accidents rank as the leading cause of death and the city is teeming with millions of people, crossing the street can be a harrowing experience for first timers. Traffic will not stop for you, and in fact I've watched several foreigners linger nearly 15 minutes just trying to cross an intersection here! Confident and sure footed, you must step out into the street and try to make eye contact with oncoming traffic, at which point they'll simply steer around you. Make a false move, freak out, and you're as good as roadkill on the streets of Hanoi (though I hear Saigon's much worse even). My first day maneuver was to simply peg myself to a local when time to cross a major intersection, which is another strategy I'll offer up to the nervous nellies. I was grateful to have accommodation near the jazz club, not because I worried about getting home safely at night, but simply having to keep all your wits about you just to walk down the road can be challenging enough when sober!  

While I expected to find numerous tourists here, I was pleasantly surprised that every time I sat down to eat, have a coffee (mmm, Vietnamese velveteen coffee, yum), I was usually the only tourist. Flying solo in this town meant I had a great authentic experience and have found the Vietnamese to be quite nice and ready to joke, especially when I find creative ways to turn down their plethora of offers for moto and cycle rides in lieu of walking.  I explored the Temple of Literature, a welcome respite from blaring city horns, as well as the Women's Museum documenting women's role in WWII. Reading the Vietnamese captions about the women of war and their heroic acts, the phrase "American aggressors" was repeated over and over again. Being an American tourist here is interesting, and I feel a constant sense of conflict over whether I should lie and use the old Canada routine or tell the truth, thereby prepared for judgment but ready to stand up for my country and show them we're not all bad seeds and help make amends for the past.  

Gastronomic delights also abound in this nation, and those with a sweet tooth would think they've died and gone to heaven in Vietnam. Eating on the streets on miniature stools is de rigeur, though English translations on menus are not. After I spent day 1 wondering around and simply trying all sorts of random unidentifiable, albeit delicious, objects, I decided to seek help. Thank the Lord for Wikipedia, through which I find a thorough description of most common Vietnamese dishes and their translation. This printout, along with my not so trusty and outdated Lonely Planet, are with me at all hours when I hit the streets now.
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