Uncle Ho once lived here, but Che is more popular

Trip Start Oct 31, 2012
Trip End Dec 12, 2012

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, November 15, 2012

When I was told the girls at the front desk of the hotel were very efficient, they weren't kidding.   In addition to being very personable, always greeting you by name, they seem to know what it is you want even before you know yourself, let alone ask for it.  They are a godsend, especially on my first full day in this crazy city.   

The first piece of advice I get from them, from the boat company I used for Halong Bay, and what I have read in the travel books and on the travel boards, is that taxis in Hanoi are just like those found all over the world -- they can be prone to taking advantage of passengers.  I am told that I should stick with only three of the many companies that are available -- Mai Linh Taxi, Hanoi Taxi, and ABC Taxi -- as their meters work properly, and their drivers tend to be honest.  In the days I spend here, I am to observe that even the locals shy away from the other companies.  This knowledge will come in handy.  I'm given a map, sent on my way, and I head out to do a walking tour in the Old Quarter, where most of the tourist hotels, restaurants and nightlife is located, just off Hoan Kiem Lake. 

First up is a small temple on an island located on Hoan Kiem Lake.  When I stop inside the gift shop for ideas and prices of future purchases, the woman who runs the place is just a bundle of energy.  Then an older French woman enters, and wants to know what several propaganda posters made during the conflict with the US mean.  The Vietnamese woman translates the Vietnamese words for her in a very thick English accent.  The French woman doesn't understand her, so I am asked to help translate.  This takes up a big chunck of my time.

I can understand some of what the shopkeeper is saying, but other words baffle me.  When she writes out the words phonetically as she would say them, it takes a bit of sleuthing to determine what she is trying to say.  When I can figure it out, I then explain it to the French woman, but she sometimes doesn't understand, so I use my basic French to translate.  Finally, after the French woman is satisfied, and makes her purchases, she and the shopkeeper ask where I am from.  When I tell them the US, the shop keeper starts to apologize.  "Sorry, sorry, sorry," she keeps saying over and over again, though I ask here for what, as she didn't say or do anything offensive.  The French woman says that maybe I was against the war myself, to which the shop keeper keeps apologizing to me.  (While having breakfast in the hotel earlier, the other tourists are having a conversation about how good it feels to see some of the war memorials and downed US military planes and tanks on display, and how the US was finally given its comeuppance for all the troubles it creates, but still hasn't learned its lesson.  This sounded like my breakfast in Sapa all over again.) 

The French woman does have one last request: if the shop carries any reproductions of posters vilifying the French during the French-Indochina conflict.  I see this as my chance to escape, but before I can get away, the shopkeeper asks me to write out the words that she was trying to say, but didn't come out properly.  She then wanted to know some grammatical rules about verbs, adjectives and adverbs, espcially for words such as save and safe. How do I get into these grammatical situations?  I guess it's better than the scams other tourists experience on the streets.  For the second time during my travels, I had to think hard and fast, and come up with simple explanations. After getting accustomed to the shopkeeper's accent, it became very easy to understand her English.  She was saying things grammatically correct, it was just the very thick accent and pronunciation that made it confusing, especially for a non-native English speaker.            

Next up is a guild temple, where the faithful worship the mothers of water, mountains and forests.  The, an apartment where Ho Chi Minh used to live while trying to unify the country against the French.  Following that is a visit to one of the last of the original houses of the 19th century.  I break for a haircut, then continue on to Quan Chuong Gate, the only remaing structure of a citadel that the French destroyed when it took over Hanoi.  Bach Ha temple is said to help protect Hanoi from the four directions.  I then head back to Hoan Kiem Lake to buy a ticket for the water puppet show for later in the evening.  As I wend my way though these crazy streets, souvenirs with the likeness of Ho Chi Minh are on so many things, but there are more items with the face of Che Guevara.  I also run across a number of Latin-themed restaurants and nightclubs, I guess Latin means "to party" in Vietnamese.

One of the good things about Hanoi is that every street has a big street sign on it, and every shop has an awning with the address in big letters.  The only problem with Hanoi is that the street names tend to change block by block, except for the main thoroughfares.  Since I can't read a map, or orient myself well, much of my time is spent getting lost.  Another big portion of my time is trying not to get run over by the zillions of motorcycles that race down the street in all directions.  Lanes and streetlights are ignored, and the drivers of these motorcycles, along with those of the cars, are very, very aggressive.  To cross the street, you just have to throw your life into the hands of some higher being, step into the street, and hope for the best as you make your way across it.  

It's now evening, and I head out to the watch the water puppet show, which is equivalent to the traveling satirical acting troups in Europe in olden days.  Troupes of traveling performers would travel in the north of the country for hundreds of years to recreate local mythological and religious stories, spread poltical thought, or simply to entertain.  The theater is small, and the tour groups get the best seats.  The show is a series of vignettes that tell the history of Vietnam, with each story introduced by three woman who speak and sing in Vietnamese; English subtitles are availabe on big screens, though the water puppet action is pretty self-explanatory. 

The show begins with two sea serpents copulating several times for the audience.  After the many attempts, an egg pops out of the water, then breaks open to give birth to 100 sons, as is the myth of how Vietnam came into being.  The water puppets dance, then they show them working the rice fields or fishing, which is actually pretty neat the way they do it.  Other day-to-day life events are shown, and we learn that the fan is actually a sexual prop used by Vietnamese girls to attract the attention of guys they are attracted to.  I never knew Vietnamese girls were so libidinous; I'll never be able to look at my Vietnamese female co-workers the same way again after this showing.  One of the things I did notice is that so many of these cultural events and images are so reminiscent of India.  During the course of the hour long program, we are told that many of these rituals and imagery were indeed borrowed from the Indians, even though China ruled over Vietnam for about 1000 years.  (India and its influences used to reign in the middle part of the country long time ago.)      

Back to my hotel, again getting lost, then in for the the rest of the night to plan tomorrow's day of sightseeing. 


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