Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Leaving Hanoi

We're leaving Hanoi in just over an hour, boarding the train to head south to Hue. After a day, today, of visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and associated museums and again wandering the back streets of Hanoi, what are my more vivid impressions of Hanoi and northern Vietnam?

Chaos. More specifically, traffic chaos. In the city bikes flow and flux everywhere. They invent their own contra flows down otherwise one-way streets and, enterprisingly, use the pavement as an extra lane when the standard lanes are full. Crossing major intersections is an exciting game, although I almost fell at the last hurdle and was 'kissed' by a bus this evening. I'm glad the driver was more alert than I was and hit the brakes.

On the road to and from Ha Long we saw that others were not so fortunate. I saw one moped-moped accident happen, one of the other people travelling with us saw a car hit a moped. From his description, I'm glad that I was dozing at the time. We also passed an upturned car. More than 7,000 people a year die on the roads here, mostly motorbike or moped drivers.

Utility. Every square foot of the city is used. Shops overflow their walls and spill out onto the streets where they mingle with street cafes and walking vendors. Pedestrians use the pavement and road, mingling with mopeds who, in turn, use the pavement when needed. This evening Harvey and I bought some food from a walking vendor who was passing us as we sat on stools outside a bar. The vendor had a look around for any other orders, then found 2 square feet of space to squat down (partly on the pavement, partly in the road), fan her coals and cook the food.

Gender equality. I have only noticed two professions that are dominated by a single sex. Moto (taxi) drivers seem to be almost uniquely male and walking vendors (carrying balance-baskets loaded with produce and/or equipment) almost exclusively female. Other than that, everything else is mixed.

Overcharging. It's everywhere, but not too bad. For example, the real price for a cut and prepared pineapple from a walking vendor seems to be about VND5,000 (less than 20p) but their opening gambits are anywhere from VND6,000 to VND20,000. My haggling skills honed in the carpet markets of Central Asia finally come in useful again :)

Taste. Everything tastes of something. Maybe it's MSG in the food, but everything from a beef noodle soup bought on the street to the oranges and pineapples have their own, real, taste to them. When you live in London for a while you forget how everything tastes similarly bland. I think your mind just fills in the gap where your tastebuds used to do the work and you taste 'memory of pineapple' instead of the real thing. The exception to this is the beer from the street-bars. I don't drink beer often, but one glass of the local brew is enough for me. Then again, for VND2,000 (5p) a glass, you can't expect an exposion of flavours.

That's all I've got time for right now - time to go and catch our 11pm train south to Hue. We foolishly went to the train station to buy our tickets (saving $5 each in the process) but hence missed out on the tickets on the earlier train that were block-booked by the local travel agencies. Ah well, the blog benefits from the chance to tap at a keyboard for a while!

I leave you with another Hanoi street scene, this time from 'Bamboo Street'. We also found Silk St, Tie and Suit St, Jumper St, Lampshade St and, most interestingly of all, 'Electrical Cable and Pedicure St'.


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