Thursday, 4 April 2013

... Indochina: "Rules Are Merely Guidelines"

If you don't know anything about Vietnam then I suspect you must've been living in a sealed off area with absolutely no contact with the outside world... Ever. Chances are you're not totally devoid of social skills, if at all, and you will have likely heard of Vietnam (more correctly the Socialist Republic of Vietnam) not for the right reason. But hey, that's history for you. The Vietnam War - or The American War depending on whose side you view it from - was the Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War ( vs. the French) and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of South Vietnam, supported by the United States and other anti-communist countries.

A less-than-1 hr flight from Vientiane to the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi yesterday came courtesy of Lao Airlines, who proudly let you know they've improved safety standards and added a bunch of Airbus A320's to their fleet They may want to add another judging from the way we hit the runway upon landing. It came as that much of a shock that I am pretty sure the entire plane heard my expletive.

Most nationalities need a visa for Vietnam prior to arrival. However, when planning for this trip I learned about this rather nifty service called "Visa On Arrival". For a small admin fee you use a company (there are several) to apply on your behalf for pre-approval. You then print out that letter once you get your pre-approval and bring it with you along with a recent passport photo when you land at any Vietnamese International airport where you then pay for your actual visa. It didn't take me long to do at the VOA counter and even less time to actually leave the airport because I only had carry on luggage. I believe that you can only use it for International airports and not land crossings so make sure you check before you apply. My visa ended up costing me a grand total of $65USD instead of well over $100 plus a courier service in both directions for my passport to and from the Embassy in Ottawa. Absolute winner! And voila! I was in Vietnam.

The question is though, will I leave Hanoi with my life still intact?

This has got to be the craziest place on the planet to be on the streets, whether on some form of transport, most commonly one of a swarm of motorbikes, or on foot.

It starts from the minute you leave the airport and the terrors of the highway you will have to face. I spent much of that ride literally closing my eyes as the driver shot through red lights and across crossroads, at warp speed. I quickly adopted the deep breaths, close your eyes and prayer approach.

Have you ever seen a motorbike with 6 people riding on it? Neither had I, until arriving in Hanoi. What about two people carrying a window frame? No? Its a sight to be seen. Skullcap style helmets with special grooves for ponytails not to mention designer styles? Where can I get myself one?!? A female trying to apply makeup with both hands all whilst driving? Crazy yet impressive!

This is all before you actually have to walk amongst this chaos. How on earth was I going to explore this city by foot!?!

Ôi Chúa ơi!

Look left, look right, look left, look right, look left, look right, look left, look right again & again & again.... Until you're across the street that you're trying to cross. Don't get too complacent: don’t treat the roads as the footpath even if drivers treat the footpaths like the roads, particularly when trying to avoid traffic jams on main roads. You could refuse to move out of the way whilst giving the driver a “this is my space, get back on the road you idiot” stare, or you could just move out of the way. I’d suggest the latter. Footpaths are frequently non-existent, especially in the built-up, highly populated areas which tend to also have very narrow streets. This basically describes the Old Quarter, where I happen to be staying during my time in Hanoi. This means you will often have to walk in the road.

Scared yet? You should be! I was taught that you should walk facing oncoming traffic, and that rule applies here. Well, kind of, sort of, may be, given traffic doesn’t necessarily drive on the right side of the road or the right way down a one-way street. But hey it's start!

The main tricks I have learned during my short time here include:
* Do NOT stop. Whatever you do!! Cross the street slowly but steadily and believe it or not, the scooters maneuver around you.
* Stay alert — don’t expect all the drivers to be fully concentrating, especially in these days of cell phones
* Expect traffic to come from all angles, even on a one-way street. In fact I don't believe a one-way street exists here even if it says it is one. So keep looking around as you’re walking.

The Old Quarter is particularly hectic, although traffic tends to move slowly. It’s mainly bikes with a plethora of cargo and passengers although there are also bicycles, rickshaws and a few cars. Walking around on foot is a daunting prospect but I couldn't spend my time cooped up in a room dreaming of the sights, sounds and smells of this area of Hanoi. When you brave the insanity that I've described you see that it is steeped in history and pulsating with such life, although granted that pulse is likely the constant hum of motorbikes. It is hands down absolutely chaotic but so much fun.

Every narrow street specializes in something to sell, just like back in the Middle Ages. There is the shoe street, sun glass street, backpack street... You name it. It is astonishing how much stuff is sold everywhere. A truly fantastic opportunity to see Hanoi life at it's most vibrant.

Hoan Kiem Lake, a centerpiece of the Old Quarter, and has an almost King Arthur-esque type legend attached to it. In the mid-15th Century, heaven gave the Emperor a magical sword that was then used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war, a giant gold tortoise grabbed the sword from the Emperor who was in the lake boating. The tortoise then disappeared into the depths and returned the sword to heaven. There is apparently a 200kg turtle called Cu Rua ("Great Grandfather") that inhabits the lake and the Ngoc Son Temple at the northern part of the lake on an Island is home to the embalmed remains of a giant tortoise.

Also at the northern end of the lake, the Thanglong Water Puppet Theatre is highly revered by the Vietnamese, and the art form is considered a national treasure. I really quite enjoyed the performance with the highly intricate puppets and can only imagine the skill it takes to operate them. You could not tell that the puppets were being operated by human beings. Fortunately, the puppeteers took their curtain calls along with the puppets. The show displayed some wonderful artistry and was beautifully choreographed. The music and singing that accompanies the 45-50 minute performance is magical and completes the entire experience. The auditorium for the 5pm show this evening was completely packed.

Out of the Old Quarter and onto some of the main roads, you’ll be faced with a lot more cars as well as buses and trucks. I found it paid off take my time to choose a good moment to cross — there will be occasional breaks in the traffic so patience is a virtue. Sometimes you’ll find so-called pedestrian crossings at traffic lights, but still take care when crossing and bear in mind that traffic turning right doesn’t tend to stop at a red light; so even if the little man is green.

In keeping up with the Jones' - Lenin, Stalin and Mao - Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho) was laid to rest in a glass sarcophagus set deep within a monument. Honored for his role as the liberator of the Vietnamese people from colonialism as well as his communist ideas, you won't believe the crowds that come to pay their respects unless you see them with your own eyes. Despite his request to be cremated, Ho's embalmed corpse dressed in his traditional khaki clothes and rubber sandals was laid to rest in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (except when he gets a 3 month holiday each year to Russia for maintenance, a spa trip if you will). It was surreally fascinating to witness the respect towards "Uncle". Everywhere the is absolute silence and crowds are very well disciplined thanks to all the very authoritarian guards with their bayonets - do not try to walk with hands behind your back unless you want a poke and you will get a "sssshhhhhhhhh" if you speak. I kid you not. You simply have to think to yourself the questions you're dying to ask: "did you really just 'ssssshhhh' me?", "did that person really just get poked?" Rules regarding dress and behaviour are also strictly enforced. Video cameras, cameras etc. are not allowed in the mausoleum. Oh and be prepared to queue, although it moved very quickly. Although a tad waxy looking he really looks as if he is just taking nap.

After the Mausoleum you head to the grounds of the Presidential Palace to see where Ho Chi Minh lived. You might be shocked to learn he chose to live modestly as opposed to living in the Presidential Palace. You will see the former electrician's apartment in the servants' quarters in which he chose to live, defining his values and character.

Eats at the rather wonderful KOTO ("Know One, Teach One") not-for-profit restaurant for lunch was a great idea. The staff here consist primarily of former street children who have received training in catering (& life skills) via this organization, founded in 1996, or similar charities. It is now one of the biggest and best known restaurants in Hanoi, with a second school now in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The food was fantastic value for money and lush! A well earned break from the chaos, humidity and heat of Hanoi.

Around the corner from KOTO, the Temple of Literature may peak your interest. It was dedicated to Confucius in 1070 by an Emperor and established as a University later.

There's some wonderful Vietnamese architecture on display here, peaceful courtyards and several rows of stelae (upright stone or slab with an inscribed or sculptured surface, used as a monument or as a commemorative tablet) honoring those who received doctorates dating back several centuries.

I did wonder to myself whether or not The Hilton Hotel chain had yet capitalized on what could be a potential money spinner. I was kind of pleased upon setting sights of what remains of Hoa Lo Prison that this was not to be the case. Nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the US POWs incarcerated there during the Vietnam War, the museum is all that remains of this notorious prison. It presents an interesting yet disturbing bit of history and propaganda, albeit somewhat one sided. Pictures of happy smiling American POWs making their Christmas decorations make you wonder who is fooling who. However, there's only a  few rooms focused on the American prisoners. One room displayed John McCain's flight uniform that he was wearing when he was shot down over Hanoi. I had to stifle a laugh hearing people refer to him as "John McClaine". Still, I'm sure it would make an awesome Die Hard movie. More than 90% focused on the period when the French ran the prison and jailed a large number of Vietnamese revolutionaries. The harsh and inhumane treatment of these prisoners is hard to digest. The guillotine and death cells will make you appreciate your liberty. A sobering place to visit.

There are a few more Hanoi highlights that I didn't manage to see. To be honest, after spending as much time walking as I did in the humid heat I didn't fancy running the gauntlet for a few more hours with the traffic. It was challenging enough getting myself to a coffee shop for some much needed caffeine.

And so I leave Hanoi in the morning, bound for Halong Bay, with my 9 traffic lives still intact!

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