Motos & Maosoleums in Hanoi
(pronounced "sin jow")
Crossing the Vietnamese border from China was sort of anti-climactic but it meant that the next several weeks of our journey would be exponentially easier (and warmer). We marveled at the thought of entering a country fully prepared to serve our transportation, accommodation, and tourism needs. No offense China, you were great, but you’re draining.
Nick and I were two of about six people heading into Vietnam that afternoon. We exchanged our Yuan for Dong and set forth for the city of Hanoi. (By the way, the Dong jokes have been plentiful and insert themselves effortlessly…see what I mean.)
We paid 120,000 Dong (about $6 US) and hopped in a local van. Stretched out on the seats we chatted with some westerners and ate real Oreos (not the tasteless impostor Oreos we accidentally bought in China). All of us were having a blast and soaking in the colorful scenery. The houses were different and whimsical with a hint of French influence. The five-hour ride was looking rather pleasant…
Until we realized that much like Central and South America, taking a local bus or van doesn’t mean that you’ve secured a seat; it means that somehow you’ll cover the distance from point A to point B. The driver stopped for anyone and everyone willing to show some Dong (there it is again), regardless of the fact that there were no open seats left. In less than half-an -hour the van was full of locals. He kept signaling for Nick and I to scoot over and make room but Nick was completely against the window and our hip bones were grinding against one another. Nick laughed and said to him, “What do you want me to sit in her lap?” The driver really liked this idea.
Things got even more chaotic once we reached Hanoi. The Vietnamese capital is home to an estimated 7 million people and motorbikes are the most economical and arguably most efficient means of transportation. Cars are expensive (Vietnamese sometimes pay up to 300% tax) and obtaining a driver’s license can be difficult. So, naturally, almost everyone relies on a moto to get them and their cargo around and about.
The narrow Hanoi streets are shared by pedestrians and bikes alike. People must perpetually hop back and forth from road to sidewalk since the sidewalks are often occupied by parked bikes and food vendors. Even crossing the street requires some strategy as you are essentially walking straight into a raging river of blaring horns, screaming engines, and smokey exhaust. Nick and I are now veterans at crossing streets in Vietnam but upon our arrival we looked equally as goofy and bewildered as every other fresh-faced Westerner.
The traffic in Hanoi is a duality of grace and chaos – think ant colony meets Frogger. After a couple of weeks in the country we developed some general guidelines for successful navigation across its streets, roads, and intersections:
1) Appear confident. Don’t look like fresh meat or you may end up road kill.
2) Find a reasonable gap in traffic* and begin walking toward your intended endpoint as if you don’t see the motorbikes.
3) Stay secretly alert and be prepared to improvise your intended route.
4) Always monitor peripheral activity and be cautious of rogue salmon**.
Outside of nearly getting run over, Hanoi was actually a very welcomed change of pace. Despite its pollution, noise, and gloomy weather, we were able to camp out for a week in the same hotel and collect ourselves a bit. Our first few days in the city were spent jogging around Hoan Kiem Lake, catching up on the blog, preparing a lecture for the local university (details in the next post), and drinking copious amounts of delicious Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk.
Nick and I also paid our respects to Uncle Ho at his massive mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh’s body resides in one of many buildings in an enormous complex of parks, monuments and pagodas. As the drizzle beaded off our umbrellas we stood in a long queue with hundreds of Vietnamese tourists waiting to see the embalmed corpse of their liberator. It’s kind of a weird scene. We were eventually escorted, in single line formation, across the complex grounds to his quarters. I got shushed by a law enforcement officer for speaking too loudly. Obviously, they didn’t appreciate our conversation -movies and Jennifer Lopez’s ass. We entered his dimly lit room and walked a brief semicircle around his heavily guarded body. The lighting in his sarcophagus strangely resembles the bright orange lighting you see in the chicken rotisserie island in the grocery store. Ho Chi Minh wished to be cremated so it’s quite bizarre that he’s instead gone on display like a glazed turkey.
Cortney, Giang, and Ha Ly I will say, however, that for a guy that kicked the bucket half a century ago, he’s looking pretty damn good (a lot better than Mao from what we heard). And if it’s not Ho Chi Minh in that mausoleum then high five to his wax artist because we were half expecting him to sit up and offer us a cup of tea. To liven things up, Nick and I had some pretty cool ideas involving suspension cables and puppeteering but clearly that’s not the vibe they’re going for.
Our friends from the university, Giang and Ha Ly, accompanied us to the war museum where we gawked at some heavy artillery and weaponry captured during warfare. Afterwards, we hit up a local coffee shop and discussed pop culture and advertising. The local restaurants and cafes are often open-air atmospheres with tiny tables and plastic stools. American asses are comparatively huge so this wonderfully quaint and intimate atmosphere wouldn’t fly in the states. Giang and Ha Ly also brought us to one of their favorite restaurants to sample several local culinary specialties that we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Fried noodles are delicious.
Speaking of experiencing new things, we were able to see the motorbike madness from a first-person perspective. Seeing the traffic from atop a bike is actually less frightening than crossing the street on foot. Nick and I rode on the back and took some video while Giang, Ha Ly, and our university motorcycle posse zipped us around the city. We felt like the luckiest Westerners in Hanoi. Check out the moto-riding video below for a first of many “travel montages.”
Other highlights included catching an evening performance at the Water Puppet Theatre, catching a glimpse of the legendary Hoan Kiem turtle, exploring the artifacts and structures in the Museum of Ethnology, and getting $12 hour-long massages. I can’t decide if the term, “you get what you pay for,” really applies to a $12 Vietnamese massage. The massage itself was pretty poor but the fact that she included a full on boob rubdown (complete with nipple tweak) had me perplexed. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or shell out a hefty tip. When Nick confirmed that he also was lightly molested it was clear how much easier things had become. When you don’t have to worry about paying extra for being felt up during a massage, you must be in the right place.
*The phrase, ‘reasonable gap in traffic’ is completely subjective and our threshold for “reasonable” has continually dwindled.
**The term “salmoning” was introduced to us through our friend Cat Cox. It refers to people illegally driving against traffic. The Vietnamese are perpetual salmoners.