Lunch on the Corner of Fate & Communism

July 24, 2012 in Asia, Travelogue, Vietnam

In case you don’t know this about me: I like to sleep.

In fact, I have to sleep or I get rather unmanageable. My Dad used to refer to me as “the bear” because he said he’d rather wake a bear than me. Eight hours is my average. There are more than a few nights in a month that I sleep ten. I have friends who live on ridiculously few hours of sleep (cough*jay*cough) but I just can’t do it. So when I tell you I’ve slept a grand total of 12 hours in the past 90 or so, you’ll recognize that I’m running a little short.

The first night I was just awake, writing in the middle of the night. Annoying. The second night I was waiting for the alarm to go off, afraid we’d miss it, and consequently our bus. I hate that. The third I was tossing and turning in a disgustingly fishy-sewery district of Bangkok waiting for four o’clock to come so we could make a mad rush for the airport.

This afternoon, we are napping in Hanoi.

First impressions of Vietnam:

  • Different than Thailand in lots of big and small ways
  • Rice paddies interplanted with bananas and corn, dotted with little shrines and burial plots
  • Vaguely eastern block in a way that reminds me a bit of the Czech and Ukraine… only warmer
  • Bicycles are beasts of burden
  • French colonial hats have not gone out of style
  • Electrical wiring does not seem to be a particular strong suit of the People’s Party
  • Friendly, overwhelmingly so
  • Excellent street culture

In short, we love it already.

It’s crazy in a lot of ways too, not the least of which is the traffic patterns.

The children noticed, straight away, that the steering wheels are back on the “correct” side of the vehicle, but this doesn’t seem to be an advantage. It is a cacophonous blend of horns and hollering, one wheeled, two wheeled, motorized, pushed and pedaled, oversized and miniature, helmeted and hanging on for dear life that weaves in and out, over and around in an intricate dance to which we don’t quite know the steps.

We huddle on one curb watching both directions for the nebulous (in fact mythical) break in traffic. We surge forward, feint, fall back and yell at Ezra to stand up and keep his head in out of the street. “I feel like a duck,” Hannah chirps, and I imagine we rather look like ducks as well, trying to cross the street without squashing a duckling.

One traveler described the necessary method as “surrendering to the fates,” stepping off of the curb, placing your faith in humanity and the agility of the drivers and launching into the fray with complete confidence that you’ll emerge unscathed on the other side. It’s a lovely thought, but the twenty foot wall of graphic photos of limbs ripped to pieces and faces peeling off of bone that hang as a warning to the fool-hardy in traffic, on the outside of the hospital building, are sobering.

I was pondering this, along with the patchwork quilt of the dusty warren of the old quarter of Hanoi, a blend of antique buddha statues, mixed with bamboo pipe smoke, mixed with the cloying scent of overripe fruit with scorched rice overtones as the sea of humanity surged below us.

  • Soldiers for the People’s Party in jungle green with bright red stars on their hats and machine guns stood outside yellow palatial buildings.
  • A heavy set man leaned way back in a rickety yard chair while a second man shaved his face with a straight razor, just inches from the perilous curb.
  • Women picked nits out of each other’s hair on the sidewalk, squashing the bugs between the points of tweezers as the crowd flowed around them.
  • A woman washed dishes in blue plastic pans over the sewer grate.
  • A man heated metal tools of some sort in a brazier made out of an old metal paint bucket, doing mysterious repairs to scissors as he squatted barefoot on the ground.
  • Women, completely veiled from head to toe (to keep out of the sun) balanced long bamboo poles over one shoulder selling fruits or banana leaf wrapped rice packets out of enormous baskets hung from the ends like scales.

We ordered lunch and watched as the breath-taking dance continued and no one missed a step:

  • One woman dipped noodles and savory things out of pots filling plates where people ate with chopsticks at low plastic tables.
  • A shop keeper sold a wrap to a European woman who walked away smiling.
  • A bicyclist came and went at least three times collecting empty cast iron rice pots and bringing new ones, full and steaming.
  • Avocados, plums, grapes, bananas, durian, dragon fruit, onions and big loaves of crusty french bread went teetering past in baskets on the ends of poles.

Hanoi, thus far, has been an assault on our senses, but not an unpleasant one at all.

“You know what I haven’t seen here yet, Mom?” One of the boys mused, “Street dogs!”

And so we haven’t. Not a one, in fact, which is more than a little odd. Gabriel poked at his chicken meat under a thick layer of avocado mash topped with peanuts and raised one eyebrow. The boys are hoping, not so secretly, to try a dog-kabob somewhere on our adventures. Perhaps they’ll get their chance!

The most exciting discovery of Hanoi so far, however, has been a bathtub in our hotel room. There is not much I love more than a nice long bath and a book, so it was no surprise to anyone that after lunch, when the children retired for naps all around, that I headed for the tub. It should be noted that with the presence of a tub one should not assuming plumbing.

The tub, it seems, slides all over the bathroom floor and it drains straight out the bottom. Now, every bathroom here has a hole in the floor through which all of the shower water and errant veggie sprayer (read that bidet) water finds its way, so there is no crisis. I plugged the drain with a rolled up plastic bag and took a nice, long, cool bath with a bowl full of cherries to keep me company. The only trick is in draining the tub slowly enough that the water doesn’t escape the lip around the bathroom door.

Welcome to Hanoi; this is not the Hilton.

Even “better” wiring than our runner up… Guatemala! 🙂