Saturday, January 07, 2006

Greetings from Hanoi

A quick hello to share my first impressions, whilst I wait in the hotel for Harvey's arrival. It has free internet and a USB connection so you even get some photos this time. Don't expect such service every time!

Hanoi is a little like the Wild West. Only everyone drives a moto instead of riding a horse. Actually, the similarity stops there - the only guns I've seen are carried by guards on street corners, everyone seems very law abiding and respectful and we're in the East, not the West.

I'm staying in the Old Quarter, and it's an energetic, bustling, part of town. The shops overflow their entrance portals and spill onto the pavements, competing with the pedestrians, street diners and parked motos for a piece of real estate.

I've noticed white lines painted on the pavements in some parts, presumably to mark the limit to which the shops are allowed to overflow. They don't seem to pay much notice. To walk down the street you need to weave your way through all these pavement dwellers, but often there is no path other than to abandon the pavement and walk in the road.

The roads in this quater are narrow and winding (the original layout has been preserved since the time this was the ancient Merchant's Quarter). Motos, mopeds, cycles and cars weave around pedestrians and each other. Streets that you could barely fit one car down in the UK happily seem to support a two-way flow of traffic. Use of the horn is ubiquitous, but useful - it's good to hear when someone is about to run you down! I think the photo sums it up quite well, but remember that this was taken early this morning, during rush hour there's a LOT more going on.

Crossing smaller streets is simple, but last night I took a wander at rush hour and had to cross three lanes. I observed some locals and the method is deceptively simple:
Look both ways,
Observe the non-stop steady flow of traffic in both directions,
Hold your breath,
(Optionally, close your eyes)
And walk.

It seemed to work.

As I meandered around the lake (which form the centrepiece of downtown Hanoi), taking photos, I was aware of someone standing at my shoulder. I turned around to see someone looking over my shoulder, trying to see what I was doing (I was balancing the camera on a bench to take a long-exposure photo). Unfortunately, we didn't share a language, but I showed him the photo and his beaming smile, enormous camera around his neck and hearty thumping of the bench conveyed the message. As I got up to leave, he took my place and took his own version of the same photo.

This morning I explored the French Quarter (south of the lake) and the streets there are broader, tree-lined, avenues with bigger and grander buildings. A quick exploration of the Vietnamese Historical Museum, which covers everything from stone-age Vietnam to the modern era [the photo is of a relatively recent Buddhist icon]. A large section of one floor is dedicated to the Vietnamese defeat of the Mongols, with weapons, paintings depicting key scenes (including a water battle - I never knew that the Mongols had a navy!) and miniature battlefields populated with tiny warriors repelling the Horde.

Ah yes, I was also accosted by a horde of my own. A plucky schoolgirl said 'hello' and then fired a stream of questions at me as their classmates slowly gathered around, occasionally whispering questions to her so that she could translate and ask me. By the time she was finished I was surrounded. And Luan and her friends knew my entire itinerary, name (including spelling) and other vital statistics.

After all the history and bloodshed of the Historical Museum, I headed for the Museum of Vietnamese Women, only to find that they were leading armies in the 18th Century and helping defeat their enemies several hundred years before that by 'encouraging the enemy soldiers to get into their sleeping sacks' before the attack [by our army]' as the plaque read beneath the painting. Very enterprising. In the foyer of the museum is a statue of a 'powerful yet beautiful' woman with her right arm straight and right palm down (pushing all her troubles away) and a baby on her left shoulder. Done in red and gold it's very reminiscent of some of the Soviet Realism art, but the plaque says that it portrays the 'Vietnamese feminine ideal'. Perhaps she was the inspiration for Sidney Bristow as well.

Right, enough typing... although I do wonder where Harvey is, since his flight was supposed to land 2 hours ago. I'm reticent to go and explore too much more without him. I've saved Uncle Ho's Mausoleum et environs for him - I hope he appreciates the thought!


At 3:58 PM, Blogger Gabs Lau said...

are you intending to goto Sapa? I did a trek up Fansipan when I was in Vietnam and enjoyed it a lot, mind you it is probably quite cold right now.


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