A fish called Honda
The first thing that strikes us in Hanoi is the traffic. Two wheeled traffic. A sea of bicycles and motorbikes. Wave after wave of Honda mopeds. Schools of them. From every direction they flow. And the continuous high pitched beep beep beeping of horns. The roads are flooded with humanity on two wheels. And occasionally a passenger liner, a four wheeled rickshaw with the narrow passenger seat at the front. And then the four wheeled frigates of taxis and minibuses, louder horns, the Hondas slowly part to let them steam on. Darting and dodging through the mechanical waves on the road are pedestrians, us included. One step at a time, look determined, a motorbike approaches, we are going this way, he swerves to avoid us. He?! That's a joke, should be 'they.' Five on a bike. Small child squatting in the front between the handlebars and the seat, the 'driver' and three passengers squashed onto the seat behind him. Madness! Nobody looks, they just pull out onto the road and hope for the best, leaving oncoming traffic to break heavily and horn noisily. It's a surprise we don't see any accidents. We do see an accident.
Stiff on the street
We are on the bus and to our right I see a crowd looking at something to our left. Looking at the crossroads. I look down and see it. I blink and have to look again. Lindsey sees it now. "Oh my God," she exclaims. At first glance it looked like someone had opened a can of crimson red gloss paint on the street. A large puddle of thick luminous red paint. But it came from no paint pot. Being covered up was a body. A mop of black hair was blood oozing from it. Never before have I seen such blood. I've seen corpses before, in India, on the pavement, lifeless, an old lady who has fallen, knocked her head, blood matting her hair, a small drying trickle from the side of her mouth. Not the pond of the red stuff I see now from the window of the bus. We speed past. I feel sick. And aware of my own mortality. Death becomes us all.
About the Prince
We stay at the Prince hotel in Hanoi. The Prince hotel; as it seems with anything any good in Vietnam has a number of imitators, also called the Prince Hotel. We have a pokey little room, we should probably try and find a better one but inertia gets the better of us. So what, the air-conditioning is broken? It works in as much as it keeps the room cool. But is broken in the way in which it leaks. Every morning we have to wade through the water that flood the floor from the dripping A/C unit. And on the second day there is no running water. "Essential repairs" we are told, "water will return at 7pm."Is that Vietnamese time or Western time?" Because there is a difference. Refer to my PhD thesis and the difference between Western Economic Planning Time and Eastern Social Time.
But one good thing about the Prince hotel is the free Internet access. And the ability to plug in my palm pilot to the PC serial port and hot sync at my leisure. Throughout our trip, with the possible exception of Russia, Internet cafes have been commonplace. Every major city has had a number of shops that have been lined with rows of computers. No more so than in Ulaan Bataar which had dozens of them. Yet the striking thing about many of these so called internet cafes is the lack of any internet activity going on. You will see these establishments full of young people, eyes firmly glued to the monitors, but rather than realising the potential of this mode of global communication, they will be doing battle with each other across the LAN. Lara Croft and Doom reign supreme. And where the internet is used, in places where tourists are few and far between, more often than not the home page that will appear will not be MSN, hotmail or Yahoo, rather a gratuitous helping of free porn. Such is the unfulfilled potential of the Internet. Ho hum.
You buy from me
We paid our respects to Uncle Ho at his Mausoleum. The second dead red leader we've shuffled passed. We’re then walking down the street and a scruffy youth with a pile of books wrapped in cellophane piled in a cardboard box with one side cut out approaches us.
"You buy books from me?"
"How much" I enquire pointing at the Lonely Planet guide to India. Big mistake. Experience now tells us that to enquire of the price of an object indicates a desire to purchase said object. "Four dollar" he says.
"No, I'm not really interested, maybe later". This is the second mistake to make when accosted by street hawkers. 'Maybe later' means exactly that. So he hangs back for ten minutes then approaches us again.
"You say later" he says, thrusting the book at me. "How much you give?"
"No thank you, I'm really not interested. Besides, it is a photocopy of the book, not the real thing". This annoys him intensely and he hurls abuse at me.
"Fuck you man!"
"Hey chill out friend".
I'd forgotten all about him and received another mouthful of abuse when he saw me carrying a copy of the guidebook, the following day.
"You say not interested yesterday. Fuck you man!"
We are having a beer on the street corner. Sitting on tiny stools on the pavement sipping at glasses of Bia hoi, local brew that costs only a few dong and is served up from a large barrel that sits on the pavement. We are waiting for a free table in the restaurant opposite that does exceedingly good food. Little Hanoi FYI. Another street hustler with more books. No, we are not interested. Then another, "you buy postcard from me? No thanks. But this gangly Vietnamese adolescent just stands there. Looking at me with piercing eyes, set deeply in an acne-ridden face. I assume he is looking to practice his English because after five minutes of staring he breaks into a conversation of sorts.
Boy: wha your name?
Marc: Marc, what's yours? (No answer)
Boy: How ol are you?
Marc: Thirty. How old are you?
Boy: Twenty one (so older than I thought. Silence)
Marc: So selling postcards. Is this your job?
Boy: Many many.
Boy (pointing at Marc’s arm): you monkey
Boy: Number one
And then the waiter from the restaurant opposite interrupted our enlightening conversation. "You come now, table ready. Please take your beers." There’s a first, taking your pint out of the drinking establishment and into the restaurant. Our friend nodded at us,
"Want to buy postcard?"
Climbing the fifteen steps to the restaurant we are accosted by another street seller, this time a woman selling lighters. And positively the coolest lighter I've ever seen. A wristwatch that when you press the button on the side strikes a fire, a ring of LEDs flash around the watch face and a tune bleeps away. Cool. The latter is not a surprise; Vietnam is full of tunes bleeping away. The biggest offender must be Walls ice-cream vendors on their bicycles with -that- bloody tune. Ice-cream van chimes it certainly isn't.
It is our wedding anniversary. We find an excellent restaurant and enjoy top quality food. <www.bobbychinns.com> It’s the second time we've visited the place, the first a couple of nights earlier and we tasted superb food, let down slightly by the guests on the table beside us. Four over weight middle aged men, for whom, no doubt, this is just another half decent food joint to fill their fat faces in a city they had little good to talk about. And did they talk. Loudly, so it was impossible not to overhear the odd sound bite from their conversation.
The American was rambling on about how he worked for the CIA. "Covert stuff you know. We were reporting direct to Nixon. Going round the campuses and seeing how we had a cultural revolution of our very own on our hands..." Ya ya ya. They must've worked for the World Bank because those two words were oft repeated in their midst, particularly by the Italian. The other word that kept reverberating from their table and entering my consciousness, uninvited was "equitized." "...yada yada yada most equitized companies yada" So I'm thinking I've not heard that word before, and I bet Lindsey that it is a bullshit made up word and we check dictionary.com and there is no entry for it. And then we check google and the primary entry is an article about Vietnam and the World Bank and equitization and the assumption that the reader knows what it is. And there it strikes me is a problem with so much in development. It is all made up words, acronyms and assumptions that the reader will understand. Never explanations. Something these big multinationals don't do well. Explain using simple terms that everybody will understand. Ho hum.
Anyway, we returned to Bobby Chinns and it was quiet this time and had a good chat to the chef himself and I'd well recommend a trip there if you get the chance.