Friday, April 8, 2011

Hanoi Part I: Welcome to hell...

Street vendor, Hoan Kiem district, Ha Noi
Ah, what can I say about Hanoi that hasn’t been covered effectively in Dante’s Inferno? Hanoi is my idea of hell on earth where nothing came to redeem it from being a city at the edge of oblivion during my first stay there. I arrived at my hotel almost crying after an hour-long, knuckle-whitening ride into the city from the airport on a very straight road on which my driver narrowly missed every other car as he drove at break-neck speed, honking all those infuriating motorcyclists out of his way, narrowly missing everyone he passed. As we drove on, the city materialized around us, or should I say, buildings that were at one time French colonial in style but were now so dilapidated and distorted by multiple ornery additions and obscured by dense webs of black electric cables in such a sorry state as they stood alongside shanties, lean-tos with corrugated iron roofs, that they could better be described as ‘former’ buildings. Everything seemed to lean and sag, rusting and chipped, dowdy and downright dirty but interspersed with huge shining car showrooms where the rich can buy their transport. It seemed at first glance like hell, alright. The thing about hell, though, is it can be quite photogenic...

Various Vietnamese confectionary on sale in the old district
My hotel was slap-bang in the middle of the old district or Hoan Kiem as it’s called. Big mistake. It was like being taken on a speeding conveyor belt into a teeming hive of hornets where every sound was amplified for specific effect. My hotel was mediocre, and dissatisfied I looked at a number of rooms before finally going with the least offensive, quietest (ha! What a joke!) one available. Later, I ventured out onto the streets. There are no traffic lights in the old district. It’s a big free for all where traffic is coming from four directions and pedestrians are completely disregarded, at the bottom of the totem pole of driving hierarchy. You very literally take your life into your own hands when you venture out on the streets. But there are the inscrutable Vietnamese, deftly avoiding crashing into each other three times every minute while balancing a bale of hay on their heads and a carton of eggs under one arm, a baby (without a helmet) under the other, while they steer their motorbike with their bare feet. There is a (in my opinion completely unintelligible) law in Vietnam where everyone over sixteen years must wear a helmet, but under that age it is not required. So you often see children riding on motorcycles, standing behind the front bars, or on the laps of parents, helmetless and unharnessed, completely at the mercy of the driving skills of their parent, the oncoming traffic and blind luck...

Nothing seems to rattle these people. This, I was told by a guy I met on the road, is because they have a much more relaxed attitude to life. If something happens it is fate, they pray it won’t, but if it does… I don’t know if it’s that or just expediency (and the Vietnamese are the most expedient people I’ve ever met) where everything else, including the safety of their children, very literally falls by the wayside.

Within the chaos, though, little pockets of peace and sanctuary. I found a beautiful temple while I wandered around where a ceremony was in process.
The interior space of the temple with food laid out for the temple visitors
Food laid out like a medieval banquet in the interior of the temple
Among the myriad things...

Ceremony in local temple, old district, Hanoi

Two men present for the temple ceremony

Old bike inside temple

Because of the constant noise, the crazy driving and the bad air I can only take being outside for short periods. The old district is full of sections dedicated to various ancient guilds that set up there hundreds of years ago, so you have Silk Street and Metal Street, etc., each one starting with ‘Hang’ which means ‘market’, then followed by the type of market. As I wandered from the paper section (filled with coloured paper products, lanterns, paper dolls, etc) through the silk section, then the food section I came upon a street I wish I could have avoided, which I will call ‘Hang Dead Dog’. 

On tables all down this road were piled in neat rows were skinned, gutted, roasted dogs. It was the most sickening sight I’ve ever seen, and I’m not even a keen dog lover. Of course I’d already experienced in Thailand how miserable both dogs and cats lives are in Asia, and of course I knew about the Vietnamese obsession with dog flesh (it’s more expensive here than chicken), but there is nothing that can prepare you for the sight of all those little neatly stacked cooked mutts with their stiff little roasted legs pointing up towards doggy heaven.
Old woman at the window

lovely paper lanterns in the paper market
Lovely fish in the fish market

Lovely doggies in the Dog Market 
Man’s best friend, indeed. It would seem that to the Vietnamese nothing is sacred. Everything is just material which can be bought, sold, cooked, eaten. It is a  nonchalance to life and I’ve never experienced anything like it. I don’t want to get onto any high horse and make pronouncements about why eating one animal flesh is better than any other, but until you go to Hang Dead Dog you will not completely understand the argument. Anyway, I left disgusted. I later ate in a French/Vietnamese restaurant a vegetarian dish (pretty mediocre) because the thought of any animal flesh in between my teeth was completely repulsive.
Sack Hauler, Fruit Market
Rickshaws are alive and well in Hanoi

Street vendors, Hanoi
Hard-bitten tea-drinking rope vendor, Hanoi
Hanoi, where the French once designed the houses

Masks for sale in the mask market
Not looking too happy, a guard stands guard outside a government building
A man studies a supply list in a paint shop, Hanoi
Beautiful store owner, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

I used Hanoi as my base from which I travelled by train northwards to Sapa, a little village in the mountains where the ancient Hmong peoples live. When I returned to Hanoi after my expedition to Sapa I had a much warmer attitude to it. This could be as a result of familiarity or the thought of my impending departure; still, I couldn't imagine being in that city once the summer heat has settled in falling over the city like a giant duvet under which the pollution is well and truly sealed. 

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