28 November 2001
So this is Hanoi. And there are just too many bloody foreigners here! It’s amazing how many European/Western faces I’ve seen, including some, shall we say, more mature travellers.
The journey from Beijing was a two-night job. The set-up was like the Trans-Sib train but the compartment was considerably prettier: white linen embroidered with blue, and blue velvet curtains (even if the curtains were nylon and so a bit scary in the event of fire). The views were more varied too: mountains, trees, little villages, people working in the fields in the suits and conical hats you see on postcards, that sort of thing. I had a roommate, a Vietnamese woman. She seemed really lovely, although seeing as I understand as much Vietnamese as she did English, she could well have been saying really mean things to me through a really smiley mouth and I would have been none the wiser. She kept offering me food but I kept turning it down. For a start, I couldn’t be sure it was veggie, but secondly, I didn’t want to, as the apocryphal tales go, find myself waking up in a ditch three days later minus my luggage and a kidney. But I’m as sure as I can be that she really was just genuinely friendly and I was just too over-cautious; here’s to me becoming more chilled before too long. The most thrilling part of the journey was probably the fact that I had booked my own ticket; it was the first ‘big’ thing I’d done for myself since I left the UK, and it felt awesome. The adventure (really) starts here!
Paying US$6 for a room that’s far removed from the ones I’ve stayed in since the start of the trip but I’ve got the best World Service reception so far. I got a bit cheesed off in the second hotel I tried: three Brits – a pair of women and a bloke – whinging because they might have to pay $6 or $7 for “a room with private bath”. “We’ve been paying $4 so far,” whined one of the women, who has obviously never stayed in a hotel in London.
Made a beeline for Moca Café, for cappuccino and samosas(!). It was a real laugh – the only Vietnamese faces in there belonged to the staff. Had tea in the Tamarind vegetarian café, which was more expensive than I’d expected (although a still pretty cheap) then used the world’s slowest internet café – I gave up after an hour. Even though it’s ridiculously expensive, I phoned home on my mobile; a bizarre experience – walking down a street thousands of miles from home, with Mum in my ear and rush hour motorbikes chugging around me.
Some proper exploring today. It looks like the heart of the city is quite small – only a couple of miles wide, really. There are some modern buildings, but the most impressive of the larger ones are those dating from French colonial times, which seem to be all pastel colours and fancy white mouldings. The “Old Quarter” has loads of character: narrow streets of dinky, Chinese-inspired shophouses; it’s great for shopping for stuff such as lacquerware and beaded items.
It’s no surprise to find a host of museums devoted to Ho Chi Minh, the anti-Colonial struggle, Communist revolution and (what the West refers to as) the Vietnam War. One of these is Hoa Lo prison, described on the sign outside as: “A crime by French colonialists towards jailed patriots and revolutionaries”. ie, a place where Vietnamese agitators against the colonial presence were held until France ceded control of Vietnam in 1954. The exhibits included things like tableaux celebrating the Vietnamese prisoners, such as one showing two women comforting a third who was obviously ailing. “The affection for each other is expressed more than for bloodsiblings,” stated the information leaflet. It was all a bit grim; how could it not be when the place even has its own guillotine? It’s not used now (I hope!) but in the past, according to the leaflet: “This head-cutting machine cut many patriots and revolutionists”. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese prisoners of the French get more attention than the Americans held there as POWs a couple of decades later [who included Senator John McCain, who the previous year – 2000 – had run against George Bush to be the Republican candidate in the US Presidential election, and, of course, went on, in 2016, to be famously dissed by Donald Trump for “getting captured”].
Quote of the day? “You go over there, by where Uncle Ho is living now,” – directions given to me by a young woman near Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
Highlight of today had to be the water puppet performance I went to this evening. Water puppetry was invented in northern Vietnam, apparently, and seeing a show is one thing you have to do as a tourist. I was expecting it to be a twee nightmare, but it was actually very sweet and terribly clever.
Instead of the puppets being controlled from below (hands up their bums) or above (strings), they’re on the end of bamboo sticks manipulated by people standing behind a curtain a few feet away. It must be like playing hockey or something, only knee-deep in water and with L-shaped sticks that you have to make follow a set pattern without bumping into someone else’s L-shaped stick. It really was stupendous. Shame many other members of the audience couldn’t appreciate it other than through the view-finders of their cameras. How much are they missing while they’re concentrating on filming or photographing rather than actually watching? Aaargh! Despite the camera muppets I was really happy as I ambled back to the hotel. Until I looked down into one of the foot-or-so-deep trenches they have instead of gutters here (to cope with the rainy season rains, I suppose?) and saw a dead thing that was either a small dog or a large rat. As an animal lover with a morbid phobia of rats [which will be a constant thread through this dlog – I’m sorry!], I’m not sure which of these options was worse: the thought of a cute dog dying, or the fact that Hanoi boasts rats the size of dogs… Mind you, people do eat dog around here; every time I see a dog I can’t help wondering whether it’s a pet, or dinner.
Did I wake up this morning feeling that I was taking life just a little bit too much for granted? Probably. Why else would I have rented a pedal bike? In theory, people in Vietnam drive on the right-hand side of the road. In practice, though, any side of the road is the right side, including the centre. Car drivers seem to stick vaguely to the rules(ish), but there’s not that many cars around. The most popular mode of transport around here is the moto, or small motorbike. There are zillions of them. People seem to view them as an extension of their legs, so using them is just like walking. I guess the best way of describing the rules of the road for motos is that it’s like walking in a big crowd of people – leaving a big gathering at the same time, say, or disembarking from a packed train: everyone is going in the same direction but if you feel the need to go against the flow – you realise you’ve forgotten your coat, say, or want to look at something in a shop window – then why not stop dead, turn around and walk headlong into the other people around you and expect them to weave around you as you weave around them? That said, it is actually rather exhilarating to drive into oncoming traffic (they were the ones going the wrong way, not me!). And, of course, it’s even more exhilarating to drive into oncoming traffic and emerge still alive.
I cycled to the north of the city, to the Thong Loi hotel, where they have a swimming pool that’s open to the public. I have had better ideas. Vietnam may be warmer than Britain, but this is northern Vietnam, and it’s December. Which probably explains why I was the only one using the pool, which is outdoor, and also why the water wasn’t just rather chilly but also a bit grubby too – as though no one had felt the need to clean it because it wasn’t being used. And, as I was swimming, a rat ran along the poolside. It was a rat, not a mouse – I could tell that by the size, even without my glasses on. I got a bit panicky, in case it jumped into the pool – would I be able to swim away fast enough? And even as I was getting out of the pool I was soooo scared, in case it came back and came anywhere near me. Fingers crossed that it and its ratty friends don’t make a habit of going in the pool, or if they do, there’s enough chlorine or whatever still in there to kill off any nasties.
After my swim I cycled around the lakes of Ho Tay (West Lake) and Truc Bach. I went past some really posh houses and some complete shacks – sometimes right next to each other.
To celebrate not being attacked by a rat or dying on a bike, on the way back I called in at a shop and bought a water heating element. I know, I know, there are cafes all over the shop, and Vietnamese coffee is delicious [dripped slowly through these dinky metal filter things, extremely strong and served with condensed milk] but it will be so nice to be able to have a brew without leaving the comfort of my hotel room. That’s the good news. The bad is that a British electrician (not to mention my parents) would have a blue fit looking at it, they really would. It’s a metal coil, like the one my dad used to have to use in his car, but whereas my dad’s plugged into nothing more harmless than the DC current in the fag lighter, this one plugs into the mains electricity supply – by means of nothing more complicated than a plastic disc with two pins sticking out of it. (The plugs round here are two pin.) It only cost a couple of dollars, and as I handed that over, I could almost hear my mates at my funeral: “But she was always so cautious and sensible. I just don’t understand it…” Mind you, as they also know how much I like my brews, maybe they’ll decide that it was understandable after all.