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Hanoi

 
October 21

On the morning of October 19 we rose from our bed excited, perhaps a little nervous, but anxious for the adventure to begin.  It would be over 48 hours before we would put our bodies back into a bed. The only "sleep" within those 48 hours would be a few very short cat naps on the 13 hr 40 min flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong.  At the Hong Kong Airport we, along with two other couples from Vancouver, were guided through a maze of hallways and rooms, custom and security checks, up an elevator and a zig-zag of corridors to our flight gate and aboard Vietnam Airlines which would be flying us to Hanoi, Vietnam. 

Emerging from security where our papers were checked twice, we stepped out into the waiting throngs at the Hanoi Airport and met Vinh, our Trails of Indochina guide for the next three days, who was holding up a paper bearing our names.  Surprised we did not have more luggage than our backpacks, he escorted us to a waiting Toyota 4-door sedan at curbside.   Za (spelt Giang but pronounced Za ... so that's the way we will refer to him), our driver, wove us through traffic along the "freeway" which would be our 40 minute route into the city of Hanoi. When we say wove, we mean that literally.

Any sleepiness we may have been feeling disappeared with the driving methods of the locals and the sights we were seeing, along with the sounds of honking horns.  A written description could not properly describe the sight of trucks and motor scooters, cars, buses and pedal bikes which moved in some chaotic ballet. Most pedal bikes did not just carry their driver, whose wide cone-shaped hat was held down by a tie or scarf that often went across their face, but also carried what seemed like an impossible load of goods stacked and straddling and somehow balanced around the rear fender.  On one, numerous crates of chickens, another piled high and wide with plastic milk-crate-style containers filled with bottles of beer. Similar transport was being done on motor scooters.  We tried to take a picture of one loaded with eggs but only caught the driver and the first stack behind his back.

What might be two lanes of traffic moving in one direction in Canada was a massive flow of humanity and machinery ... each flowing in accordance to their size and speed, much like you might see if you spilt a bucket of varying sized wood chips into a stream. When one vehicle wants to pass another they blink their lights and honk their horn.  The front vehicle moves over -- when they can and how far they can - perhaps the width of a lane, perhaps the width of a car, sometimes more, sometimes less.  Pedal bikes stay close to the side, sometimes; and motor scooters - many motor scooters with their helmetless riders (sometimes one, sometimes a family of 4) took up the spaces in-between the larger moving vehicles.  How they would laugh at the misuse of our freeways!!
The horn honking, which is a continuous melody in the city, is not "Get out of my way" kind of honking but rather a "wanting to let you know I'm here" kind of honking, and "you are about to be over taken". We had a couple of hours in our room at the Green Park Hotel, but we dared not lie down, so used the time to refresh ourselves, change and rinse out a couple of items.  Vinh and Za picked us up and off we went to see the sights of Hanoi.
They took us to the Temple of Literature set in a tranquil park around the central Thien Quang Tinh pond.

This temple, some of its  architecture dates back to around 1010 AD, is dedicated to Confucius.  Vietnam's first university was sited here. 

Rows of stone turtles (a symbol of strength and longevity) hold large slabs of carved stone called "stele" upon their backs.  Each of these eighty-two slabs (1484- 1780) is engraved with the names, birthdates and achievements of those who have shown themselves to be the most accomplished scholars.

In another part of the Temple of Literature, we were treated to a short concert where lovely ladies played ancient-style instruments such as the "dan bau", a one stringed zither and the "dan trung", a suspended bamboo xylophone.   Another fascinating instrument was the "k'longput" which is unique to Vietnam.  Varying lengths of bamboo pipes are laid side-by-side, almost looking like a xylophone.  Some of the pipes are closed at one end, others open at both ends.  Unlike most instruments, the player of this instrument has no direct contact.  The musicians clap their cupped hands quietly in front of the open ends of the pipes which pushes air into the pipes to produce a sound much like a pan flute.

They sell some instruments and cds of their music ... we regret not having purchased a cd.

Back on the streets outside the Temple of Literature, young boys were playing soccer on the wide sidewalk.   The ball hit some bikes leaning up against a tree with such force as to knock one over.  An elderly man yelled at the boys for their carelessness.   Children playing and old men scolding ... so many things are the same the world over.

We made a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts.  It was once a private residence but now sixteen rooms display approximately 10,000 objects, restored articles, reproductions, pictures and paintings .

On our way from the Museum we walked across a busy main street. "Walk" is the wrong word.  A string of 5 of us stood shoulder to shoulder and took half baby steps while cars, trucks, buses and motor scooters whizzed behind and in front of us causing the hairs on our arms to stand up.  A whole new version of extreme sports. Vinh told us that marked crosswalks (which we were in) were very dangerous because it gave those not in the know a false sense of security. Pedestrians in Vietnam have few rights!

Vinh took us next to West Lake.  As we walked across an island we saw carp fishermen casting their lines into the lake. 

Tran Quoc Pagoda, on the island in West Lake, is reputed to be Hanoi's oldest pagoda for Vietnamese Buddhism.  It was founded by Khai Quoc, the national founder some 1400 years ago.  At that time it was positioned on the Red River but because of the crumbling river bank, it was moved to it's present location sometime in the early 1600s and renamed Tran Quoc (National Defense).  

The Mausoleum of President Ho Chi Minh was closed for renovations so there was not the traditional long line-up of visitors.

Next the "One-Pillar Pagoda".  Tourist called it that and the name stuck, but the 9 foot square building perched upon its 12 foot high, 4 foot diameter cement pillar has the real name of Dien Huu Pagoda. 

In 1049 King Ly Thai Tong dreamt of seeing a Quan An Buddha sitting on a lotus tower to which the King was led.
Upon waking, the King told his lords about his dream and asked their advise.  Some suggested he build a stone pillar in the middle of the pond and place a Buddhist's lotus tower on the pillar just as the King had dreamt.   The Buddhist monks prayed for the King's longevity and thus called it Dien Huu (lasting life).  The king died in 1054 at the age of 26.

In 1954, as the French forces were withdrawing, they destroyed the pagoda which the Vietnamese immediately rebuilt in the same manner as the original.
Although the museums and temples are fascinating and pleasant, it is the daily style of living on the streets of Hanoi that capture our attention the most. 

Narrow shops below narrow living quarters. These narrow shops overflow with goods to sell; from TVs and air conditioners to hub caps and Barbie dolls. 

Throngs of people on the streets, on the sidewalk, in shops (although most shops are so full of product that the merchants are on the sidewalk with more merchandise).

Ladies with long split bamboo poles over their shoulders balance large baskets filled with all kinds of food, from apples piled high to donuts on a stick.

Nowhere is merchandise stacked higher than in the Old Quarter.  In much of the Old Quarter shops are set up in the same manner as a century ago where the names of the streets are named for the products they sell.  For example, the street whose name in English is Chrome Street, will sell chromed plated products from muffler pipes to pots and pans.

There doesn't seem to be any regulations regarding cooking or serving food.  Corners seem to be a favourite to set up a hibachi style flame (fuelled by coal) cooker. It was difficult to know if the people sitting around on their hunches partaking in the cooked fare were family members gathered together or customers. 

We finished off the evening by seeing the Thang Long Puppet Theatre .. a water puppet show with many short stories accompanied by an orchestra playing classic Vietnamese instruments.  It was hard to stay awake in the darkened theatre.

We were now reaching the 48 hour mark since we had last been horizontal. We had not eaten since the plane, so a quick light bowl of soup or rice was in order. We went up to the top floor restaurant of our hotel where we had some dinner and witnessed a birthday party at the same time.  A number of people got up to make speeches ... what they were saying about the 4 year old boy, we do not know, but often after the speech, the speech maker would sing a song ... and the rest of the party would join in on the chorus.   The only song we did understand was when a teenaged girl sang "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands." We clapped and smiled. 

The bed looked so inviting even if it was almost as firm as the carpeted floor. 

October 22

At 2:00 am a view of the once bustling street outside our window found it empty and oh so quiet. The only person visible was a gentleman sitting on a straight-back chair outside one of the closed shops. A peaceful quiet time. Perfect for doing some journaling.

By 6:00am Hanoi began to wake. A few horns beeped as early drivers made their way to work. Across the street a shop owner raised the metal "garage-style" door on the front of his business. 

On the sidewalk in front, the carcass of a small cow was laid out on a square mat as four women butchered it.  (Head and insides were already gone ... they were just cutting carcass). One woman carried two legs down a narrow walkway between the buildings and re-emerged quickly to make another deliver of another cut of meat.  A lady passing by picked her selection, money was exchanged, her cut was placed in a clear plastic bag and she went on her way down the street while the butcher lady returned her attention to carving.  A motor scooter stopped to look over their dinner options. 

We stopped watching, groomed and packed.  We would be checking out of the hotel for one night.

We made our way up to the top floor restaurant where we had witnessed the birthday party the night before.

It was tempting to select the North American standard of bacon and eggs, but when traveling we like to emerge ourselves in the experience of other cultures so breakfast this morning was "Tang-quality" orange juice; pieces of papaya, pineapple and oriental pear (delicious); followed by a small bowl of noodles, chicken, green onions and a squeeze of lime covered by stock.  It is eaten (following the example of a Vietnamese lady) with chopsticks and a ceramic spoon. Noodles are selected from the bowl and placed in the spoon, topped by a piece of chicken and green onion. The spoon is then taken to the mouth.  We learned later many Vietnamese use chopsticks to go straight from bowl to mouth. Both ways acceptable. This dish was followed by some rice, chicken and shrimp.  

In the wake of Avian flu in birds, chicken has become quite expensive as flocks have been destroyed. Beef is also a comparably expensive meat, so pork has become the popular current choice.
Vinh was waiting in the lobby. We quickly checked out and posted some postcards before getting into the car and saying good morning to Za. Making our way through the now active city, we headed out of town towards Halong Bay.

      
click here to continue October 22 and to Halong Bay ...


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