My week in Ha Noi


Landing in Ha Noi was a bit of a shock. From 34C in Bangkok to 14C in the Socialist Republic was quite a change in temperature over 1.5 hours. Fortunately, my ride to the hotel met me at the arrivals area and I didn't have to shiver for too long.

(I don't know if this is socialism in action, but it could be: the baggage carousel handler was apparently in a position to watch the bags go round the carousel; if a bag coming up the conveyor belt was going to run into other bags when it catapulted on to the carousel, s/he would stop the belt, and wait till there was an opening. I've never seen that before.)

As I found out later, Vietnamese of the north were just as shocked at the cold as I was. On the way from the airport to my hotel, I saw many motorcyclists bundled up against the cold, and passengers were usually tucked down behind the driver to take advantage of the windbreak. The cold didn't seem to faze the farmers we passed in their fields, though. There they were, up to their knees in paddy water, Vietnamese conical hats and all. There were some water buffaloes at the side of the road at one point. I was loving it.

On the other hand, my Chiangmai cough, which had disappeared quickly and completely upon my arrival in Bangkok, reappeared. Ha Noi's a little bit on the, er, polluted side. Maybe it's the proximity to China.

I was having a bit of a laundry emergency—no clean tops left—so the hotel guy directed me across the street to the laundry service. Then I set about to get a Vietnam SIM card, and the hotel guy directed me across the street to the guy running the laundry service. Sure enough, he had a bunch of VietTel SIM cards in—I'm not making this up—a hat. He offered me one: 70,000 dong (about $1.40). I asked if it would work in a Blackberry, and he said, "Oh, sure," or some words to that effect. Not surprisingly, once the card was shown not to work in a Blackberry, he didn't know what to do. So the hotel guy directed me to the next street over, where I came upon a super-modern mobility place with young people who were really too cool to be working, and, voilá, they got it going. And, I saved 5,000 dong in the bargain (about $0.25).

Next morning, I had my first in-country bowl of pho. Too cool.

I took a walk around Hoan Kiem, the lake in the heart of the old city (Hanoi's over 1,000 years old!), the lake John McCain's plane crashed into after he'd finished bombing civilian infrastructure, and a guy offered to polish my Doc Martens for 10,000 dong (about $0.50). Unfortunately, I had to refuse—you don't polish Docs!

Later in the morning, I was picked up by the fabulous Pham Linh D, a former student of a friend of mine, a professor at Trent University, and her cousin Huong, a 23-year-old student of tourism in a Hanoi university. Linh treated me to lunch, a fabulous pork thing, and then took me to the house where her husband Ba and she exercise married life, a ways west of the Old Quarter. (As I had my luggage with me for lunch, it created quit a show—and inconvenience—in the tiny walk-up restaurant, with three levels up narrow stairways, one of which was the only possible place to park the stuff.)

Linh took me to her house, where I settled in, and then Huong took me off to the Museum of Ethnology, which documents and celebrates the different ethnicities alive and vibrant in Viet Nam (including the Viets, of course). Examples of their houses have been built on the grounds of the museum, and it was fun to go inside and explore them. Huong was an able guide, even keeping a friend waiting so as to ensure I got the most out of my visit to the museum. (And she's cute as a button, too!)

That night, Linh cooked me a fabulous dinner, the centre of which was boiled chicken with sticky rice and a dip made of lime, chilis, and salt that was astonishing! I was wondering what I'd done to deserve it all.

Next day I had a second pho, at a cafe near Linh's house. Most cafes in Ha Noi have very small stools to sit on, and very low tables. They're perfect for Vietnamese, who tend to be, ahem!, a tad smaller than we westerners. When we try to use them, we put on quite a show. And so I did, lowering myself to stool level propping myself up with an arm on the wall, splaying my legs and feet out under the table most clumsily, unlike the locals who can quite comfortably sit with their legs crossed around the stools. When I'd finished my pho (it was great!), I was determined I'd get up without holding on to the wall, except the plastic stool couldn't deal with my western weight, and one leg collapsed, sending me to the floor, my arms flailing to the point I knocked over several things associated with the Buddhist shrine in the corner. Oh, well, I can comfort myself with serving as a bad example...

I took a walk along West Lake (Ho Tay), the largest of Hanoi's many lakes. The further east you walk the ritzier it gets, until on the very east end there's a centre of expat culture, with the International and Sheraton Hotels, good wine shops (I was in the area to buy a gift for Linh and Ba), and ... wait for it ... a mall!

Linh and Ba took me out to dinner that night for cha ca (fried fish), a Ha Noi specialty. Pieces of fish and vegetable are brought to the table and you put it all in a flame-heated pot to fry, and then eat it a bit at a time. Lots of chilis if you want. Again, what did I do to deserve this?

I also visited the Bookworm, an English-language bookstore on Chau Long that has a wonderful selection of books on Vietnamese history, including, of course, books on the American War. I resolved when I'm back in Ha Noi in late March to pick up copies of the book on Vietnamese propaganda posters and the one on how Vietnamese use motorcycles to cart large amounts of stuff around, called "Bikes of Burden."

At this point, I began to formulate a plan. I'd been wondering how I was going to see parts south of Ha Noi in the six or seven days I'd have before my two sons fly in to Ho Chi Minh City to join me. Linh and Ba told me there's a motorcycle rental place where I could rent a motorcycle, drive south, and ship it back to Ha Noi on the train when I was finished. Cool! I thought, that would just do the trick. Long story short, I ended up renting from a guy who wanted USD$100 less in a deposit, but who required that I drive as far as Da Nang, where an associate would pick up the bike and drive it back to Ha Noi. That service was to cost USD$90, as opposed to the train option, which was USD$60. The whole thing seemed doable, and the bike itself was USD$10 per day, so Tally Ho! I thought, hopped on, and began to drive through Ha Noi back to Linh's place.

Now the rest of the motorcycle sojourn story is very embarrassing to write about, as it's such a debacle, so I'll start out with the excuses:

  • Riding a motorcycle in Hanoi is not like riding a motorcycle elsewhere, even in Chiangmai. There is lots of traffic, most of it other motorcycles, and the rules for riding are different from any you'll have experienced. Among the rules: if there's an open spot ahead of you, you've got the right to put yourself in it, and you'd better do it before someone else does.

  • There are lots of uncontrolled intersections, and drivers get through them by going through them, no matter who else is there. That's an oversimplification, of course, but by asserting your right to go through (even if you don't really have one) you're more likely to get through than if you don't.

  • One result is that there's a lot of split-second decision-making involved. If someone darts out from your left into your path, you'd better veer right to avoid her/him. And the people to your right and behind you will have to take notice as well, and take the appropriate action.

  • The Vietnamese are used to this, plus they've all been on motorcycles since they were old enough to see over the handlebars, so they're entirely at home with the rules involved, and appear quite relaxed. One of the most astonishing sights: people on bicycles maneouver in traffic just like motorcycles, with the same weaving and inserting themselves. It looks mad, but you'll see in their faces that they're quite at home.

  • For someone new to the system, it means all attention must be on driving. You have very little time to look around, say, to figure out where you are.

  • All street signs are in Vietnamese; there are almost no translations into English, à la Thailand, to help the foreigners get around.

  • Some streets have street signs, some don't. You can prepare your arse off, know you have to turn at Pho Lang Ha, and if Pho Lang Ha doesn't have a sign, you're going to have a hard time turning in the right place. (And, of course, you may miss the sign entirely, because you're trying to avoid the guy coming at you from the right, or trying to get around the cart piled high with produce.)

  • Some parts of highways are reserved for cars/trucks, with motorcycles shunted off into alternate routes. The alternate routes quickly grow markets, and often don't appear to go anywhere. At least to me.

  • There is a lot of construction on Highway 1 through the Ha Noi area, and traffic is forced down into a part of the city you don't know, into a big mess of cars and motorcycles, jockeying for position, honking, honking. If there is an understandable sign, you'll likely miss it for concentrating on protecting yourself.

  • If you're lost, there's often no way to know it. Not all towns you go through are on the map. This is especially a big problem when you think you're going in the right direction, but are not.

  • Distances on your tourist map are not the same as distances in real life. In fact, I'm beginning to suspect that tourist maps aren't all that accurate.

So my task when I started out at 1pm on Friday afternoon from Linh's office was simple: go a couple of blocks, turn at the railroad tracks, and follow the tracks south to Highway 1, where I'd be on my way. Alas, it was not to be. I never saw the railroad tracks, went too far, called Linh, got some advice about backtracking and finding my bearings, saw a young woman go down with her scooter in a mucky street (it had been drizzling and misting constantly since I'd arrived in Ha Noi), and apparently somehow got completely turned around.

I found Highway 1 all right—Highway 1 northbound. The sign said "Highway 1" in English, and I entered it going in a direction that could only have been southbound. and discovered I was heading north when I crossed the Red River on the northern boundary of Ha Noi. ("Hmmm. That sure looks like the Red River," I thought. "If it is, I'm screwed.") I was screwed. I went back in the opposite direction, and got shunted off into an "alternate route."

Fortunately, after following the "alternate route" for quite some time, I got back on Highway 1 headed south, and proceeded from there.

Except I wasn't on Highway 1, I was on some other highway, and didn't know it. A couple of hours later, in the gradually increasing dark, in the thickening mist, as I struggled to see and wipe the water off my visor, not seeing well and too tired to continue, I found a hotel and got a room, had dinner and went to bed.

According to the map, I was in Ha Nam, a town about an hour north of my intended destination, Ninh Binh. To verify, I asked the hotel manager, who spoke no English, in my broken Vietnamese, if I was in Ha Nam. She nodded sagely.

(Here there is, I suspect, another problem. I'm beginning to think that one reaction of Vietnamese to questions they don't understand is to nod sagely. The other night I walked into a cafe for dinner, ordered a Bia (beer) Ha Noi, got one, and when I asked, "Do an (food)? Menu?" She nodded sagely, but made no effort to provide me with a menu, instead sitting down with her friends to chat. To be fair, of course, it is possible I asked her if she takes in laundry on Tuesdays.)

There were other signs I was in Ha Nam. Of course, it's entirely possible "Ha Nam" also means something else, like "exit."

Anyway, around noon the next day I discovered that I'd headed off in the wrong direction, when I found the town I'd just passed through on the map. I'd tried to find it the night before, when I saw a sign saying I was headed that way, but it wasn't on the map, at least not on the part where I was looking for it. It was on a part of the map I might have looked at if I'd begun to suspect I was horribly lost, which I was.

At that point I knew I had to give up on motorcycling to Da Nang. It had been a pretty tight time schedule as it were, with 6 days to get from Ha Noi to Da Nang, with enough time to see a thing or two along the way. But when I discovered how lost I was, I decided I'd had enough, I no longer had time to get where I was headed without riding 8 hours a day and seeing mostly nothing, so I headed back to Ha Noi.

The question naturally occurs, and occurred to me: if I couldn't find the road to Ho Chi Minh city, what chance did I have of finding Ha Noi again? Fortunately, once I turned back there were lots of street signs saying I was headed to Ha Noi, and so I knew I was on the right track. I did get shunted off on one of the "alternate routes" again, or maybe it was the same one, but, long story short, three hours later and several phone calls to Linh, I found myself in Ha Noi, and in a part I vaguely began to recognize, and, after several stops to peer, tourist-like, at my map, I actually found I was in a place I could find on the map. I headed to the nearest hotel on my tourist map, which turned out to a fairly expensive one, but I said, "(Expletive) it, I'm checking in and cleaning up." And, somewhat to my surprise, given my appearance—dirty rain gear, filthy, muddy boots—they let me do so (thank goodness for Master Card).

There were some good points to my motorcycle meandering:

  • I saw some really interesting parts of rural northern Vietnam.

  • Since the weather was constantly drizzly, foggy (air pollutiony?), and cold, I got some pretty good experience riding in bad
    weather and on mucky roads

  • My packing worked perfectly, including the luggage I had tethered to the bike, and most of my stuff remained dry, so I know I'm on the right track when I next take off on a longer-distance trip.

And on Saturday morning I walked from my hotel ($12, clean, but cigarette burns on the sheets, and not in Ha Nam!) to a little food place for banh nuoc for breakfast. (Banh nuoc is little dumplings shaped a bit like canneloni, with bean curd, yummy.) It was mostly farmers or workers eating there, and there was a young chicken with still-developing wings running around on the floor, scooping up anything that dropped. It would probably not pass a Toronto inspection, at least not till the Fordsie Twins contract out inspections. I loved it. A couple of farmers invited me over to their table, and offered me some water from their water containers. I needed to down my malaria pill, so I accepted. Turned out it wasn't water! But they were pleased as anything that I'd taken a drink with them, gave me some of their food (it was some kind of pork thingie that was scrumptious), and kept trying to get me to drink more. I motioned that I was going to be driving a motorcycle, and they accepted that-several times. As I got up to leave, I let them put some in my glass, toasted them, and shook hands. It was great! (And the hooch wore off relatively quickly once I was on the road.)

So I spent rest of the weekend in the Fortuna Hotel, a 16-storey pile that runs on US dollars and caters to foreign businessmen, mostly from other countries in Asia. They'll be in Ha Noi to make a killing on new Party attitudes to openness to foreign capital, etc. etc. You know where that's headed! And it caters to them in ways that might surprise, given the Party leadership's reputation for puritanical attitudes and tight control, as I discovered when I went down to the hotel's bar to have a beer. To get to the bar I had to run a gauntlet of buxom Vietnamese beauties who were very happy to see me and tried to impress on me the pleasures they'd like to expose me to. As I was only there for a beer or two, and as they only had Carlsberg (ptoo!), I buggered off. Fortunately there was a little shop a few doors up that was willing to trade dong for Bia Ha Noi, which I took back to my room to drink while I wrote.

The upside: a hotel that attracts those that can afford high-class hookers will also have good wifi. A period of good internet enabled me to make plans/reservations for the arrival of sons Andrew and Duncan to Ho Chi Minh City on March 9th. From there we'll go around looking at cool historical sites and maybe even a beach or two before heading back to Ha Noi, where we'll be staying with Linh and Ba again (they're very much looking forward to hosting us three—go figure), and going to museums and mausoleums and such.

Meanwhile, I'm flying to Hue, where I hope to rent a motorcycle again, and ride around looking at cool stuff like the Vinh Moc tunnels. More later.

Things I liked about Ha Noi:

  • Women in ao dais ('ao zais')—you don't see many, but when you do, it's all it's cracked up to be.

  • Schoolchildren, especially in groups, riding their bicycles. The bikes are all large-wheel, coaster-brake types, the kids ride ram-rod straight, great posture! Too cute! Special marks for the two-person bicycles with the wide pedals so the person in the rear can also pedal. And they're absolutely fearless in traffic.

  • Many men still wear the old green Viet Minh pith helmets. Love 'em!

  • In late afternoon into the evening, many, many Hanoians gather in groups under the nearest cover against the rain, on small plastic stools drinking tea, sometimes beer, smoking, chewing absolute mountains of sunflower seeds, and talking, talking into the night. It's very social, in a way I've seen nowhere else.

Things I didn't like as much:

  • Hanoi and environs traffic is some of the noisest ever! Honking one's horn is an acceptable way to share with the rest of the world your frustration that there are other vehicles on the road. Buses and trucks are outfitted with especially loud, obnoxious horns, some of which bleat ten or eleven times every time the driver hits the horn. Nothing like going around a bicyclist on a highway, so that s/he remains safe, only to have some dumb-ass trucker start honking at you, so loudly you can't think. Why is it the Party, an institution that can regulate lots of things, doesn't tell the drivers to shut the fuck up? At least after 9 pm. Will it be the same in Ho Chi Minh City? Keep posted.

  • Getting lost every time I went anywhere.

  • The teenager on Chau Long who walked right out in front of my motorcycle, which was OK, since I began to swerve around behind him, but then stopped and turned back again right into my new path. The road was too mucky (right next to a food market, rainy-drizzly) to re-swerve in the opposite direction, so there was nothing to do but go down. Naturally, I was the only one hurt—only scrapes on my right hand—and he and other onlookers seemed to agree it was all my fault for not being able to avoid him. Perhaps a Ha Noi driver would have been able to.


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