Hello Hanoi

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End May 10, 2005

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Monday, January 24, 2005

Today, we find ourselves in a new city - and a new country. We spent much of yesterday travelling from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and then on to Hanoi by plane. As Martin says it was another "hurry up and wait" day. They rushed us off the plane at Bangkok to catch our flight to Hanoi, only to discover the plane would be 40 minutes late in taking off.

On the flight we met a young Thai man called "Nam" (an abbreviated version of his full name, of course!) who was travelling to Hanoi to spend a few days with his Vietnamese girlfriend and was then boarding an oil tanker bound for Thailand. Although he had a Bachelor of Arts degree (he proudly showed us his transcripts), the only work he could find was cooking on a ship.

We are staying in the Old Quarter in Hanoi where the traffic (described in our guidebook as "manic") makes Bangkok's seem tame. There's continual horn honking - the amount of horn honking seems to be directly related to the size of the vehicle as if to say "look at me! Motorcycles/scooters are everywhere. To cross the street, you take a deep breath, step off and assertively (but not too quickly) make your way to the other side. They drive around you. If the proximity of the driver and pedestrian is very close, you meet the eyes of the driver and there's this silent negotiation as to who will go first. It's all very unnerving. (I've seen just as many locals get hit as westerners, which is some consolation I guess!) There are some walk lights, but even on crosswalks pedestrians aren't safe because of motorists/bicycles turning right or left across the crosswalk! Pedestrians are definitely at the bottom of the pecking order in Vietnam! Sidewalks are also difficult to navigate as they seem to be used mainly for noodle (pho) restaurants (set up with plastic kiddie tables and stools), for motorcycle parking and for driving! Several streets in this area are focus on selling particular things - there's a street where they sell only shoes, a street for fancy hair ornaments, one for clothing, one for hardware and so on.

There seem to be few "rules of the road" when it comes to driving a motorcyle (no yield to the right, etc.). It's whoever can intimidate the other driver into yielding. No one wears helmets and you often see three people to a motocycle (one frequently being a young child). There are also no lanes - it's simply who can out manoever the person beside him/her!

Hanoi, population 3.5 million, is the capital of Vietnam. Vietnam's population is about 81 million, making it the 13th most populous nation on earth. Vietnamese are limited to two children/family, though the practice is generally followed only in the city. Vietnam is one of the poorest nations in SE Asia and is trying to change its reputation as one of the most corrupt.

The French have occupied Vietnam and their influence is still evident in the architecture and furnishings. Our hotel is a somewhat shabby charming place with heavy ornate French furnishings and drapery. Many of the light fixtures are art deco. As in France, the bread and pastries are wonderful and we are referred to by "monsieur" and "madame", which is much more preferable to "ma'am" that I get at home!

Houses here tend to be very narrow (about 10 feet wide) with ten foot ceilings and are usually two or three storeys tall. The family lives in the upper storey(s) and often uses the lower level as a shop to sell everything from fruit to bottled water to candy. As you walk by you hear the neverending chant, "Hello! You buy something from me"? The houses are made from brick and then stuccoed over and painted the most beautiful colours: salmon, teal, periwinkle, coral, seafoam green.

The currency here is the dong. There's about 12,000 dong to the Canadian dollar; 15,000 to the American dollar; therefore, when you change $100 USD, you end up with $1.5 million dong! It's very inspiring to see the balance in your bank account expressed in millions of dong! However, so many zeros make converting from one currency to the other confusing and it's great for rip-off artists who are looking for confused tourists.

There are hawkers everywhere trying to sell you tours, fruit, souvenirs, you name it. You have to be very assertive (seems to be a theme) with saying "no" and moving on.
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