The Weekend in Hanoi's Old Quarter...

Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
Trip End Jan 24, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, January 10, 2011

I know there is some craziness going on back home with the shooting of the congresswoman from Arizona… how sad and such a waste.  The contrast between life here and back home seems so unbelievably stark and both have features and attitudes that work and some that don't seem to work….


I decided that the logistics of getting to the Buddhist Monastary and grounds at Tay Thien was just too challenging, especially since I had yet to master crossing the street here.  So instead, I decided to catch a bus & see Hanoi’s Old Quarter district where street shopping on these narrow and charming streets is fantastic… it was so different from the Hanoi where I am located.  Still has the flag pole wires and a general dinginess, but it is a shopping mecca and with a charm that just oozes from it… I loved it.

Before I could get there, I needed to know what bus to take, and where I would want to go in general within Old Quarter….figured I would just get a hotel when I got there.  I saw this nice college aged girl just across the narrow alley from where I’m staying at VPV, realized she spoke pretty good English and started chatting with her.  Her name was Ta and I had a map and asked her where I could catch the bus and asked which one I should take to go to Old Quarter.  She said if I went out of the alley & crossed the street, yes the street, I would see the bus stop and to take bus #2.

Ta realized immediately without my saying that crossing the street for a westerner truly is a scary challenge and said she and her friend Yen were going to classes in a bit and would walk me across the street on their way.  I am serious… it is no exaggeration how intimidating it can be to wade through motor bikes coming at you as you are walking across the grain of traffic.  You can be walking across a line of 8-10 motor bikes coming right at you… just keep walking and some bikes will go in front of you, some behind you.  Sometimes you need to stop in the middle of the crossing and let the bikes decide whether to go in front or behind you.  Keep in mind, interspersed within the bikes are taxis, cars, push carts & buses…but mostly bikes.  For those who remember the video game called Frogger, this is human Frogger.  Well, Ta grabbed my arm and just like that we were on our way across the 6 lanes…just kept walking and the bikes and traffic just parted….felt like Moses.   Probably made it across in about 1 - 2 minutes, maybe less.

Again, the people of Hanoi are just so warm and friendly.  But what I have found most endearing about them is their light spirit and playfulness…and an excellent sense of humor…. All traits that are absolutely opposite what I had expected to find.  They love joking, and just seem so cheerful….I really love it here, just wish it was a bit cleaner.


So after a 30 minute bus ride I was at the Old Quarter.  Got off the bus but really had no idea where to stay.  A street seller came up to me and she spoke in excellent English, so much so that she was able to sell me 3 t-shirts that I didn’t want.  But she was very nice, told me her name was Rose and again, couldn’t be more helpful.  She said she would hail me a bicycle taxi driver and she did.  She explained to him that I was looking for a hotel to stay, clean and with Wifi and near the 'action’ that is Old Quarter.   She introduced me to him …his name was Hones and off we went…me sitting in the front cart as Hones peddled behind and among the many cars, motorbikes, buses and taxis…all whizzing by and across us.  My movie camera was shooting this memorable ride.  Hones found me a nice hotel for $40 U.S. and explained in Vietnamese that I was looking for Wifi and and a clean room with a shower and asked how much the cost would be… a big tip was paid to Hones of 30,000 Vietnamese dollars (just about $2 US).  The money here also seems sort of comical.  When I arrived, I exchanged $200 for Vietnamese dollars.  This $200 brought me 3,800,000 thousand Vietnamese dollars and after I week, I still has 2 million left.

The hotel was perfect, great location, clean, Wifi so I watched the Jet game, and I found my Italian restaurant for which I’ve had a craving for a long while now.

I know it may seem tedious to hear me keep talking about traffic and crossing in it, but it has been a real ‘learning moment’ for me, and never more so than last night at Old Quarter.  The narrow streets of Old Quarter are jammed with shoppers, with bikes, with pedestrians walking and driving in both directions on say a 25 foot wide street/alley.  Cars also are part of this flow. 

It is like all laws of nature and the universe have been suspended and don’t apply here…. Shoppers have no problem shopping, bikes travel in both directions, slower of course, but without regard to whether they are on the left or right side of the street.  When this flow of vehicles and people get to an intersection (with no lights of course), these two surges somehow are able to move thru and across each other.

Here’s my further take on it… everyone knows that for traffic flow to work, ‘me, me, me" pushing & shoving and trying to get there first just slows things down for everyone.… there is no crawling over others to get ahead, no arguing, people have a heightened awareness of others … they cooperate to make the entire system work, realizing that ‘sacrificing’ their own selfish desire to push ahead makes the system not work for anybody… it is just self defeating.  If you wish to stop and shop, just move to the side and be aware not to block others.  These people are super aware and conscious to everything and everyone and realize that for themselves and the greater good, it is necessary to subordinate any of the ‘me, me, me’ attitude…. long term it works best for everyone.

The next morning, I went to breakfast and started to chat with this dumpy mid 50’s Australian man and his ‘hot’ 25 year old Vietnamese wife at the next table.  His name was Leon and he has lived here for the past 5 years.  The 3 of us were talking the entire breakfast and he really knew the Vietnamese culture, people & history. 

The one thing I’ve wanted to know is why it is that the people here are so accepting of Americans and couldn’t be any warmer or nicer, considering the death & injuries many families received during the war.  He had a clear, succinct answer… it was that the people of Hanoi were just so worn down by war & are doing well now and don’t even want to look back…. They are just so happy to be where they are now and moving ahead.  The people here are just wonderful, not sure when I’ve so enjoyed a group and culture as much…go figure.

I have some great pics & video of teaching at Peace Village for the next entry…now I’m also working with the older kids that are much more responsive and lots of fun… more to follow later.
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Howard B on

Your journey sounds fantastic. l always look forward to receiving your blogs and learning your new experiences.

Stay well and enjoy.
Best, Howard

George Samuels on

Only had time to look at the pics... Say, did you hear Hanoi has lots of traffic?

Zoe on

Your war comment was interesting. Must admit, the word Vietnam still brings up alot of strained memories for us (USA) as a Country, 40 years later. Though in a way, not much different how real Germany was to our parents generation...and stayed with them... and not buying German cars, etc... Now if we could only get the whole world to sleep for say 30 years and wake up... then we would all be friends... :>)

Kerry Hunter on

Curious... I see by the google map it appears you traveled east from NY. Is that true? I thought when NY'ers went to China (only a couple inches north of Vietnam on a map) went the Alaska polor route like we Californians...

Henry Kissenger on

Ken, would you please do me a covert favor this afternoon? Please check on the mental health of John Mc Cain. Rumor has it he is getting weird. I will have Lady "Dim Sum" meet you at the gate, of the school you are volunteering at... along with Leon, our local informant, say about 3:16 pm, Mekong Delta time.
Thanks. You are a patriot.
Henry the K.

splunk on

Hi Kerry... I believe we did a polar route, flying directly into Hong Kong. On the way back, it seems all (most) flights have a short stop in Vancouver. My only guess is that there may be strong headwinds on the way back and that these flights need to refuel.

Bea on

This has been the most interesting journey of yours that I have followed. The traffic, dirt, wires hanging precariously on buildings and the children that you have spoken of has given me insight into a culture so foreign. Your attempts to gain insight as to the how and why of the thinking process the North Vietnamese have has added a dimention to following your trip.

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