the nothing whatever...


Our trip to Hanoi began with a 16 hour overnight bus ride from Hue, utterly riveting. I slept for about 4 hours or so, and Nic slept for even less, so I knew our initial impressions of the city were always going to be somewhat tainted. Although we were meant to arrive at 6am, the bus was late and we arrived in Hanoi at 8:30am, meaning that our transfer from the drop-off point to our hotel had decided we weren’t coming and had given up on us. So we began this leg of the journey standing on the footpath carrying a combined 40 kilos of luggage under an overcast sky with patchy sprinkles of rain, we were completely exhausted from lack of quality sleep, we had taxi drivers clicking and whistling and yelling at us to get in their car and we had no idea where our hotel was. At that stage, I hated Hanoi.

We asked the bus company to call our hotel and explain that we had arrived late, and they obliged, and after a quick sleep to chase away those grumpies, we went back out on the streets at around lunchtime to chase a bite to eat. The backpackers area of Hanoi is in what is called “The Old Quarter”, and it seems to be a little bit lower on the curb-and-gutter scale than its equivalent area in Ho Chi Minh. I can’t quite work out what it is, if the streets are narrower or if there is more motorbikes on the footpaths or if it is just more condensed in general, but we found it to be of greater difficulty finding walking space in Hanoi’s Old Quarter than pretty much anywhere else we have been. You have a sliver of clear path that is constantly being invaded by women selling things from their Punji Sticks (like a balancing scale carried upon the shoulder) and men riding their tuk-tuk’s up to you and saying “one hour”, an obscure way of selling their ride as I could probably think of nothing worse than spending an hour in what is essentially a engineless taxi to an undetermined destination. As this is the case, the circumference of exploration is not as far reaching as it was elsewhere, and you really do need to have some idea of what you are after before you leave the hotel because finding a place to stop and look at the map without being approached is difficult.

Our meal for lunch was great, at a restaurant called the “Quoc Bia Minh”, on the top floor to look over the chaos below. One thing I noticed about Hanoi then, even after covering such little ground, was that it is a lot less commercial than Ho Chi Minh. You might get tired of these comparisons of Hanoi to its South Vietnamese counterpart, but I never expected such an obvious difference in two major cities. Almost every place looks to be something that caters specifically for Vietnamese locals as opposed to tourists and backpackers, which is great in a lot of ways, but it makes it very difficult to differentiate venues and locate the ones you like. I would be able to locate the place we went for lunch that day, but the one we went to for dinner that night (a little hole in the wall that we made the snap decision to enter after being asked if we want to buy a postcard for the hundredth time), that place has faded into the abyss, which is a shame seeing as it was home to the best spring rolls I have ever eaten. I find spring rolls mostly just taste the same, I never really raised an eyebrow whenever someone has told me that a place does amazing spring rolls, but even though they were ordered with our pho ga as an afterthought, these things were from another planet (perhaps literally, because I haven’t found them again).

You might remember our tour guide for the journey to the Mekong Delta, Nam, and how we sensed what we thought was undercurrent of hostility towards the North Vietnamese. He said that they always have a frown on their face and they are always angry and unhappy because of the differing climate, the differing crops, the differing labour etc. Before I left, I had heard a similar thing from my sister, that those from the North seem to carry around a bit more of a sly resentment towards the life they lead than those from the South, but I didn’t want either of these opinions to sway my own impressions of North Vietnamese people before I had met them. Now, I would like to tell you that they were both wrong, and that the North Vietnamese are the most accommodating and friendly people we have encountered thus far, but the sad thing is that I can’t. I now understand what everybody was talking about.

There have been a few instances where, for no apparent reason (other than those bred through such a tormented history), shop owners or street salespeople have been, with no better descriptor, pricks. I am in two minds about this; on the one hand, it would be naive to presume that the events of the past can just be completely forgotten now that we are in times of peace, I think culture is like a sponge, when it has been subjected to the kind of animosity it has for such a long length of time, it will inevitably absorb some of it and leak it out inadvertently. But, on the other hand, to go and accept this kind of shit attitude from certain people on the grounds that they have gripes that I cannot do anything about, it almost seems condescending to them, almost racist on my part, as if suggesting they, as a people, are incapable of being pleasant. So, I don’t want to make a stereotyped generalization of all North Vietnamese, because most of the people we have met here have been really warm and accepting, and I also don’t want to just assume that the hostilities of certain folk are racially motivated, as maybe everybody who associates with them finds them to be pricks. I am sure that Saigon, like any other place, is also home to its fair share of pricks. It just seems like there are more per capita in Hanoi.

There are a few examples, but the one that comes to mind occurred trying to purchase some water from a place near our hotel after walking for a couple of kilometres on a stinking hot day. There doesn’t seem to be any Circle K’s (7/11 equivalent) anywhere in Hanoi, so purchasing from a Vietnamese general store is the next option. A large water generally costs about 10000 dong (50c AU), and the first day we went to the store and grabbed one out of the fridge, the young girl who was working there charge us 12000 dong, which we had no problem with. She was a little unfriendly, but we didn’t speak about it any further as there was nothing really worth mentioning. The following day though, a smoking shirtless man of about 50 years old was standing near the doorway of the same store, and as we approached him, he looked at us with disdain, and flicked his head as if to say “what do you want”. There was a box of water out the front of his store that had been sitting in the sun and could probably boil an egg, and when we told him we were after a large water, he pointed at it, even though behind him we could see a couple of cold bottles in the fridge. We politely asked for a cold water, and then he pointed aggressively at the box again and made a yelling sound with his mouth closed, as if he was talking to a couple of imbeciles. I pointed towards the cold ones inside (he was now blocking the doorway so we couldn’t get them ourselves), and he rolled his eyes and stormed in to grab one. Nic already had the 12000 dong waiting for him at the doorway, wanting to spend as little time in his presence as possible. He returned, held the water at his side and grunted “fifteen”. Nic began to complain, to tell him that it was 12000 at the same place at the same time yesterday, but I already knew he didn’t care about that. So, rather than give in and buy his water, as illogical as it was, we left, determined that someone so vile to us would not get our money. I am sure it plays on his mind to this very day.

I have also had to get used to the salespeople on the street being less than honest. As bottled water is so difficult to come across for whatever reason, every now and then a hunched elderly lady carrying an intimidating amount of merchandise will walk up to you with a radiant smile, nodding and pointing at the large cold bottle of water in her hand like she has just read your mind. I will reciprocate the smile and ask how much, and she says “fifteen” or “twenty”, a little steep, but no big deal. I will flick through the notes in my wallet, hand over a fifty-thousand dong note, and the smile will immediately disappear from her face while she hands back a twenty or a ten in change. At first I would put up a bit of protest, still with a smile, saying “Ahhh…hai muoi? Hai muoi, vang?” (twenty, yes?), but, with the transaction completed, the price then becomes whatever it turned out to be, thirty-thousand or forty-thousand, and obviously my fault for not hearing her properly. At first their nerve wound me up a little, staring me straight in the face and rewriting the past minute as if I were not present for it, but, as headbutting little old ladies over 50c is not really acceptable in the Vietnamese culture, I have had no choice but to wear it with a grin and move along like the sucker I am.

But you can’t let a few disgruntled people ruin your time, and we haven’t. We made the trip out to the war museum to expand our minds, we have walked one thousand miles to the Thai embassy to get our Visas (then to the money changers because they only take American dollars). We have eaten at a few great random places, and the breakfasts in Hanoi are the best we have had. We actually just returned from having a dinner at a place down the road that was a DIY barbeque type set up crammed to the brim with friendly locals who were helping us barbeque, and even if the health inspector would have something to say about all the raw meat being bandied about, the thin slices of garlic marinaded beef were nothing short of amazing. We went for a lakeside walk one evening, the lake serving as the centerpiece of the city. With the illuminated flora at the waters edge, it made for a picturesque setting, and we stopped briefly to admire where we are on the planet and enjoy a waterfront ice-cream. Totally romantic.

So, while Hanoi might not be our favorite place in Vietnam, it is still worth going to, if not simply because of two words (or perhaps three); Halong Bay. The next stop on our journey is Laos, or more specifically, Luang Prabang, but not before our 26 hour bus ride across the border. It will be a test of strength, an internal battle, the ultimate delving into the depths of our characters. It will be horrible. But its these things you do to save a few buckaroos. We are time-wealthy at the moment, so we might as well spend some.