Le Grande Tour, Day 12-13: Racing History in Hanoi

HANOI—Hanoi! The very word sounds exotic, doesn’t it? I arrived Oct 15 after a—I kid you not—26-hour bus ride from Vientiane to Hanoi. And just as all happy families are alike, all awful bus rides in Southeast Asia share miseries. In this case, the points of common awfulness include:

  • A long trip over bad roads. Laos is an economic basket case, and its infrastructure shows that. The road to Hanoi is dusty, rough and contains enough potholes to make you think it hasn’t recovered form the bombings of the 1970s. And since the motley collection of western backpackers were all shunted to the back of the bus, we felt every divot and pit alike as the jolts rattled our coccyxes.
  • The seats are abysmally small. I think they were designed not only for smaller Asian frames, but with specific, “enhanced interrogation”-style stress positions in mind for larger folks. For instance, the sleeper seats lean far back—almost to the horizontal—but that just means the back of the seat in front of me compressed the space for my feet into a wedge resembling the silhouette of a MacBook Air. Have I mentioned I have large feet?
  • To keep the driver awake, who is already hopped up on Red Bull or whatever weird, knock-off energy drink he has handy, the bus company plays awful Thai and Vietnamese karaoke videos at maximum volume every minute of the trip. I think they also played some bizarre spy movie, but I honestly wasn’t sure.
  • Crossing the border into Vietnam was accompanied by a great deal of shouting and pointing, concluding in everyone lugging their bags through Vietnamese customs. Admittedly, this was more of a pain in the ass than “horrible bus story,” but still.

Finally, after a bruising ride through the twisty mountain roads of Laos, we were in Vietnam. The feel and vibe changed almost immediately. We hit the border, and it was obvious this was a booming economy. Commercial buildings lined every meter of the road as we rumbled down the eastern side of the Dãy Trường Sơn, as the Vietnamese call the Annamite Range. Hanging a left turn at Vinh, and a few hours later, we’re dropped off at the slightly creepy Hanoi bus terminal.

Now, Hanoi is a big city. It’s the country’s second largest metropolis, home to about 6.5 million people in the larger metropolitan area. And every single one of them has a scooter.

This impression is what hits you the moment you leave the safety of your hotel: Scooters are everywhere. And if you’re not careful and panic, they’ll hit you too. Let me try to describe the experience of Hanoi traffic. First, as I said, the dominant mode of transport is the scooter. Little Hondas with devil-may-care Vietnamese in the saddle zip around the narrow streets like a fast-moving river of steel, plastic and flesh. And I often thought crossing the street was like wading a fast moving stream. Your instinct is to wait for an opening, dash across, jump back, Frogger-like, and then correct for the never-ending scooter flow. This, in a word, is suicide.

Instead, the trick, as with all things life-threatening but survivable, is to ignore your instincts. Gingerly but steadily inch your way into the flow of traffic. Walk steadily, at a constant pace and trust the riders to adjust to you. You will keep an eye on the wave coming at you, as if staring down a tsunami, but you must resist the impulse to behave unpredictably and dodge and weave. That’s the riders’ job. It is both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

I’m convinced every Vietnamese is issued a scooter at birth (or maybe a voucher for one, at least.) They seem utterly born to them, as I envision Mongols are to their horses, and they make the scooter an extension of their own bodies. One of the most beautiful things I saw in the maelstrom of whizzing scooters was a young woman, in a business suit, the skirt hem blowing up slightly in the diesel-scented breeze, roar around a corner, top a curb using a 3-in wide concrete “ramp,” park the bike and dismount and enter a store–all in one graceful movement. It was a dance, a pirouette of metal and high heels, accompanied by the whine of two-stroke engines.

Only once did a rider miscalculate. I was inching my way across a street, iPhone in hand, ear buds screwed into my ear canals, when a woman cut her turn a little close and snagged the cable with her mirror. My phone went flying through the air, landed on the footboard of the bike and clattered to the ground. My ear buds were yanked from my head, causing me to yelp. She screeched to a confused halt and picked up my phone. It was unscathed, amazingly. She muttered a shy “sorry,” handed back my phone and sped off, leaving me adrift in the rush of scooters.

Quite apart from the frenzied traffic, Hanoi is a glimpse into an old Asian city, with a backstory stretching back more than 1,000 years. The maze of streets in the Old Quarter, while now festooned with electronic shops and other tourist traps, can still evoke an older, slower time. It was not uncommon in my prowling of the streets to stumble across old houses and temples gracefully descending into history.

Another grand tradition of Hanoi is the bia hoi, or “beer joint,” as I took to calling them. These exist on practically every corner in the Old Quarter, and provide the main source of socializing and gossip exchange for locals. You can spot them from the masses of people hanging on out on toddler-sized plastic stools set out on the sidewalks. In their hands, they’ll invariably have a plastic glass of (very) cheep beer. And they sit, and they talk and they sit and the talk. For hours. All hours, even. The beer itself is pitifully weak, which is OK, since it only costs 5000 dong per glass (about 24 cents.)

Despite its weakness, the beer isn’t bad. A crisp and light-bodied pilsner, it’s brewed locally and has a pleasant finish.

On my first night in town, after mentioning on Couchsurfing.org I was looking for folks to hangout with, Hieu Nguyen contacted me. I didn’t know Hieu, but he had seen my post and thought it would be fun to hang out at Bia Hoi Junction in the Old Quarter.

Bia Hoi Junction is the mother of all beer joint hangouts, a teeming mass of foreigners and Vietnamese, all getting slightly sloshed on the cheap beer. It’s the intersection of Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến, and is almost constantly packed—at least until 1 a.m., when Hanoi pretty much rolls up its sidewalks.

I should digress at the moment and say that despite my fascination with the recent American-intwined history of Vietnam, I didn’t exactly want to see the country only through that prism. The Vietnamese have moved on, and seem to be doing so in a great hurry. For Americans, history in Vietnam often only exists from 1962-1975, but to the locals, it’s a proud history stretching back 2,000 years—most of which was spent repelling upstart invaders like the Chinese, French and, finally, the Americans.

So it was with some trepidation a Vietnamese guy named Sọn—an editor at the state radio station—I was chatting with asked how old I was and what I remembered of the war.

“I was born in 1969,” I said slowly. “As for what I remember… I guess some video footage of bombings. Not much, to be honest.”

He paused and squinted at me. “I was born in 1968, and I remember the bombings.”

Awkward silence. Despite my efforts to not be drawn into the politics of the American War, as it’s called here, history has a way of pulling us all back in.

And then the moment passed, for the most part, and Sọn laughed and raised another toast. “Một, Hai, Ba, Yo!” he cried. (Which means, “One, two, three! Down the throat!”) The Vietnamese are somewhat magnanimous in victory, but I was still affected by the exchange.

I was suddenly very conscious of being an American in Vietnam. The beggars with lost limbs, where they blown off with American munitions? The old widows. Did they lose their men in the war? Which one?

I wanted to come to Vietnam and see it on its own terms and not through American eyes, to take it on its own terms. Sọn’s question and his response reminded me that shadows can be long here. In Vietnam you can dodge scooters, but you can’t outrun history.

Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

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