Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hanoi and Other Vietnamese Musings

After a 13-hour train ride (from 8AM until 9PM, but far better than a long bus ride), Tyler and I arrived in Ha Noi, the capitol of Vietnam. We knew it was the second largest city in Vietnam and the capitol, but it was a bit of a shock to the system after a few weeks in the Highland and the smaller towns of Hoi An and Hue on the coast.

The train was an interesting journey in itself. As I mentioned about our train ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang, few tourists seem to take the train. Though we saw another couple and a grumpy older British woman in the station, we seemed to be the only foreigners in our car. Most of our car mates didn't seem to take much mind of us at all, so we settled in for the long ride. Because we hadn't seen any food cars or food service on our last train, we stocked up on food for the journey--baguettes with Laughing Cow cheese (the only cheese in Vietnam, it seems), Ritz crackers, some Pringles (they seem to have a bigger international presence than a domestic one--they are everywhere, and many travellers' salvation when they can't handle local food), and some local candy I bought at the train station. Most of the day was spent napping, looking out the window, snacking, watching incomprehensible (and extremely bad) Rail TV, including a dubbed version of Casablanca, and staring out the window at the countryside. Miles and miles and hours and hours of rice fields, mostly. However, near the end of journey, a young-looking guy came and asked if we had a pen he could borrow. A few minutes after bringing it back, he came to ask for it again, and we started talking. He was from Hanoi, 22-years-old, and borrowing the pen for his younger brother who was trying to hit on some girls on the train. It was nice to get to talk to a local and find out what the "must-dos" should be, how much it should cost to get from the train station to the Old Quarter, our neighborhood, and such. Before we parted ways, he handed us some small packages of banana leaves tied up with straw. We'd seen them all over Vietnam, and one of our tour guides had told us it was some kind of preserved pork meat. (When we opened them later, the smell kept us from trying this particular delicacy.)

Hanoi is an interesting city--very dense. On our first morning, we walked about ten minutes to a lake in the center of town and ended up feeling like we'd finished a marathon. The sidewalks are full to the gills with parked motorbikes, storefronts, construction sites, sidewalk food venders, and women selling fruit. But walking on the edge of the street means keeping a constant eye out for swerving motorbikes, cars, bikes, and cyclos. And it's been really hot, which only made it that more exhausting.

Typical Hanoi Street Scene

But occasionally we get a chance to look up from watching our step to look up and see huge trees and grand facades that give resonance to the name, "Old Quarter."

Huge tree growing out of the sidewalk. Many of these have small alters or clusters of incense sticks stuck into the crevices.

The kind of building we expected to see more of in the Old Quarter (but that's probably because we're mostly looking at our feet)

We were also excited about Hanoi because we were meeting up again with our friend Alison and some of her friends from Portland who have been travelling in Vietnam. However, we haven't been great sightseers in Hanoi. Between the heat and some general travel fatigue, we've had a few highlights here, but probably left much of the city unexplored.

There is a man-made lake in the center of town with a famous temple on it. This is the vibrant red bridge leading to the temple.

This is a giant preserved tortoise on the temple island. They are believed to still live in the lake, and play an important role in a local legend about a king and a magic sword.

One highlight we don't have photographed was taking in a show at the Water Puppet theatre. This type of theatre began in the north, probably by farmers in the rice paddies. They crafted wooden puppets that they maneuver on the water from behind a screen while a group of musicians play along live. Many of the skits represent scenes from daily life. My favorite was a child playing a flute on the back of a swimming water buffalo. There were also vignettes of fishing, herding ducks and protecting them from a fox, and fishing for frogs. There were also scenes with supernatural creatures--dragons, phoenixes, fairies--as well as an interpretation of the above-mentioned encounter between the king and the tortoise with the sword. There were pyrotechnics and what had to be amazing choreography behind the screens to create movements that seemed so effortless and real. It seemed as though real live frogs and fishing were diving around in the water! We only wished there had been more children in the audience, as I think they would really enjoy it. Instead, we had a group of older Vietnamese women sitting behind us who talked, laughed, and were completely into the show sitting behind us. Perhaps they remember shows from their youth?

The only thing we may miss in Hanoi that we would like to see is the mausoleum containing Ho Chi Minh's body that's been preserved a la Lenin (though he requested cremation). Every Vietnamese person who has mentioned it always talks in hushed and hugely reverential tones about seeing him. But it's closed on Friday and Monday, and we've been away over the weekend.

We leave Tuesday (the 29th) for India. As those of you keeping track of our itinerary may have noticed, we ended up having to cut Laos. It was a tough decision--we really wanted to go--but after our sprint through Cambodia (six days, with as many spent travelling as being there)--and general travel fatigue, we decided we'd rather really enjoy Vietnam more fully than try and fit in a third country. Like everywhere we've been, we always wish we had twice as much time, so we'll just have to come back to northern Vietnam and Laos another time. But since we did have three weeks in this country, I thought I'd share a few general observations about Vietnam that haven't made it into other posts.

We've already mentioned the high amount of cottage-industry level production throughout Vietnam, but in both the rural and urban parts of the country, most people live where they work, with a storefront built out front, and living quarters behind and above. If you need to go to the bathroom at a family-run restaurant or streetside vendor, you usually walk through the kitchen, past someone taking an afternoon nap, and go to the family's bathroom where there are toiletries and sometimes laundry.

Marriage and family are very important to people. Many people marry fast and have children straightaway, so our current status is often a bit confounding. A typical conversation:

"Oh, you're here together. Are you married?"
"Yes," show our left hands.
"Oh, on your honeymoon!"
"No, we've been married almost two years."
"Oh, so you're on vacation away from your kids!"
"No, no kids yet. After the trip."
Look of confusion, sometimes mixed with a bit of pity. "But married people having children makes everyone happy!"

While marriage and family is important, people here often have to spend lots of time away from their family to make a living. All of the drivers on our Easy Rider tour were married with young kids, and each of them seemed to have one day in the morning when they admitted to not sleeping well because they "remembered my wife and kids." But when you ask them about being away, they just see it as a fact of life. To their advantage, though, is the usually multi-generational family life, with grandparents, siblings and other adults living together or close together, each helping to pull the weight of making money and caring for family members.

There are about four channels most Vietnamese families get: VT1, VT2, VT3 and apparently the Cartoon Network. They often show American movies on the national channels, but they are always dubbed. By one women. In a monotone voice. Since being here, we watched Star Wars to her, and Casablanca on the train was the same way. When Tyler had his beard trimmed in Nha Trang, the salon had a TV on with one of the Terminator movies on. I laughed to hear this disembodied Vietnamese woman's voice say, "Hasta la vista, [word in Vietnamese for "baby"]."

We've really loved our time here. I don't know if it's because Tyler and I have both travelled in Southeast Asia before, but we do have some kind of affinity to this part of the world. And this month seems to have passed the most quickly of all so far. Now we're off to India!

1 comment:

Dan said...

Sarah said they would get "Look[s] of confusion, sometimes mixed with a bit of pity" when people found out they didn't have kids, which I thought was really amusing on Friday.

On Saturday we went to our local diner and got chatting with our Russian waitress. After her disappointment that we were 30 and not, as she thought, 17 so we couldn't hang out she asked if we had any kids. When Liana said "No" there was a total look of shock followed by "Why not?!?" Liana showed her the engagement ring and told her we were getting married in October, which answered all questions.

But I fear if we go back in November and Liana's not pregnant we'll have a lot of explaining to do.