Revenge Of The Horn

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Where I stayed
Hanoi Style Hotel

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, January 2, 2012

The bad, the really bad, and the bizarre. The three things I will remember most about Hanoi are the cycles, the hassles, and the posing.

It may be a bit unfair to classify the cycles as bad but since we had arrived from Laos where the drivers would actually stop to let you cross a road and we hadn't heard a horn blast the entire time we were there. That all changed in Hanoi as I think that the only skill set taught in Hanoi Drivers Education is how to lay on your horn- early and often. Shoulder checking, mirror use, and looking both ways before entering traffic certainly aren't taught- we've all seen the driver that seems to wander the roads relying on everyone else's defensive driving skills but when you have an entire population driving that way it creates anxiety inducing traffic experiences. Chaotic traffic exists in pretty much any major city in Asia or Africa but there's almost an admirable method to the madness as people seem to get where there going, ignoring all conventional traffic rules/requirements, while causing the most minimal damage possible (India being a notable exception). That 'method' does not exist in Vietnam- they are constantly banging into each other- I've been clipped twice myself, tearing a shirt. In some cases the drivers will do a cursory inspection of the damage, but most of the time they will quickly drive off without acknowledgment, apology, anger, clenched fist, or wave- just a part of day-to-day life here. Road rage was never seen- resignation seemed to be the prevailing sentiment. DH was playing with Google Search on her iPad and found a site that indicated there were over 1,000 motorcycle deaths per month in Vietnam. Yikes!!

We were in the Old Quarter of Hanoi which was great for ambiance, and easy access to a number of key sites but it also meant you had to deal with a crush of motorcycles and scooters, all in a desperate hurry to get somewhere. Almost all driven by very poor drivers. It was quickly apparent that the only way to survive and make progress was to never look the drivers in the eye (they assumed if you saw them, you would quickly jump out of the way), and walk with the traffic so the cycles would have to maneuver around you (not always successfully). Only the crowding and slow speed of the traffic prevented all out carnage. Even in the Old Quarter, Hanoi has sidewalks but these have been universally seconded by the motorbikes as a parking lot- any space left over was quickly used by the street restaurant types with squat stools and pots of witches brew coming out of nowhere.

I did question the much talked about entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese- everyone did seem to be selling something but got very repetitive. The first thing I would have done was use the plethora of bamboo in the area to fashion a club of sorts to help pedestrians keep a little bit of space for themselves- you would probably only need to use it once or twice and the word would spread- no more pedestrians with tire treads up their back.

As for the 'really bad' the hassles ranged from the norm (street vendors, rickshaw types, restaurant pitchmen, all barking at you to buy something), to rip-offs (taxi drivers and phony guides move to the head of that list but Hanoi has made a science of some others- any successful business/hotel/restaurant will have numerous imitators, and the "I am a student" scam leading to expensive drinks and/or meals is an art form here). I think we were only stung once (a taxi driver/off-duty police officer overcharged us about $3 for a late night ride from the train station but it was somewhat draining to constantly deal with and it did have you questioning all your interactions with Vietnamese people. You also find yourself getting very abrupt and dismissive with people- you can only respond politely to "where you from" so many times before pretending to speak only Russian.

And now for the bizarre- the posing. We've been to other countries, Asian usually, where women, usually, will pose for photo's often times in front of nothing more than a brick wall, but in Hanoi it was epidemic. Our hotel was very close to Hoan Kiem Lake which was a bit of a gathering spot for the locals- it seemed to be the one place in town where the sidewalks were actually sidewalks (we actually saw the police racing through, strong-arming street vendors, and confiscating their goods), and it was as though the locals had all been handed their first digital camera/smart phone. The posing was often times very simple- flashing a peace sign or pointing at something innocuous, but just as often it was clumsy erotic (bent over, arched back, fluttering eyelashes being a particular favourite), and if there were multiple posers shapes were being formed- for that windblown look, women would just hold their hair straight out. Picture quality was not important but once the photo was taken, it was mandatory that the posers and photographer gather around the camera and giggle over the result. It was a ritual that played out all day and into the evening- while we were there a small time flower festival was put together on one side of the lake and, although background never seemed particularly important, the flower structures drove our portrait friends to distraction- memory cards were being filled up at record pace. We tried asking some locals about the passion for photo's (as well as what was done with the photo's) but never did get a quality answer- maybe they're just as mystified as to why I take so many pictures of monkeys??

Hanoi did offer up some sights of interest. We did the required pilgrimage to see Uncle Ho on gruesome display in his mausoleum, his body frozen in time (with annual help from artisans in Moscow). A single file procession was ushered around the body- no photos allowed, no hats, no hands in pockets, no talking, etc. It seems to be a communist need to display the bodies of their fallen heroes (Mao and Lenin being two others) but perhaps when Wayne Gretzky goes we'll do the same in Canada. It doesn't seem to be the fate Ho Chi Minh (or Uncle Ho as the locals affectionately call him) wanted for himself as the stories suggest that he was a very simple man who lived the socialist principles he espoused. We did see the palace he refused to live in as well as the house he was alleged to have lived in and it was indeed basic. There was also a HCM museum attached to the mausoleum complex, and although I'm sure Uncle Ho had some flaws, they weren't talked about in this building- I came out of this somewhat biased perspective an avowed communist but that has since faded.

After a quick lunch at a great restaurant called Kotos (served western food which was a nice break but more importantly, it was a not-for-profit effort to train Hanoi street kids for work in the hospitality industry) we went to visit the famous/infamous Hỏa LÚ Prison aka The Hanoi Hilton. Originally built by the French as a prison for what the Vietnamese refer to as heroic comrades of the resistance, the prison became even more famous as the unwanted home for a number of captured fighter pilots (included failed U.S. presidential candidate, John McCain). The treatment of Vietnamese prisoners, according to the self-guided material, was horrific but that same material suggested that the U.S. prisoners should have paid for their Club Med style experience- he who tells the story owns the perspective I guess.

We also took in an evening performance of the Hanoi Water Puppets. I suspect that the whole thing was just designed to be a show for local kids but then went surprisingly viral with tourists. Its less of a puppet show and more of a Whack-A-Mole game with little wooden characters bobbing and weaving their way around a pool of water. For the most part the show was done in Vietnamese but if you watch Sponge Bob Square Pants without the sound you get the idea- this was the same. Good fun nonetheless.

Hanoi also gave me one of the sound bite highlights of the trip so far. A couple of young Vietnamese girls started up a conversation with DH while I was wandering nearby taking photos, and they asked her if she was "traveling Vietnam with her son". After too many happy buddha comments with DH giggling in the background it was a nice turnaround. DH puts it down to language barriers.

Just as we're getting used to running the gauntlet of Hanoi dodge-ball traffic and getting quite good at it, we take our leave to start heading south (with everyone giving us the confidence shaking prediction that Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon is much worse). Maybe there's a leftover U.S. tank we could rent for touring while we're there.
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Mike Beauparlant on

Looks like a facinating place

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