Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Day 14: Hanoi, Vietnam
Here's an oxymoron for you: organized chaos. That's what Andrew, a 30-year-old English tourist who came with me to Hanoi on the same Air Asia flight from Bangkok, called the traffic in Vietnam.
Indeed, it's a very different place from Thailand. For one, there's no smell of street food, nor are there many restaurants. But even before that was apparent, the countryside and the "greenness" of the place caught my eye. When we were descending, there was a beautiful, green countryside with some very nice houses and either mountains or plateaus (I think it was the latter).
And when we got into the taxi, I saw how different Hanoi (Ha Noi in Vietnamese) was from Bangkok. For one, if Bangkok suffers from endless traffic jams, Hanoi offers a nice respite from that: the traffic in Hanoi is constantly moving, aided by the plethora of motorbikes that clog the streets. These motorbikes, generally selling for several hundred dollars and usually made in China, are both cheap and thus affordable for Vietnamese of all strata. Hence it is no surprise that almost all Vietnamese own at least one motorbike. And they love to use them.
So much, in fact, that it's almost like a beehive. There are literally thousands of Vietnamese all driving at the same time, honking their horns, and rarely obeying the direction of traffic. In Vietnam, there is no direction of traffic: everyone drives however they want, where they want, and when they want. They just need a horn to honk. Motorbikes, vans, trucks, cars, and other vehicles share the road with bicycles and, occasionally, pedestrians. It makes for quite a sight--a sight that I still am amused, if not intimidated, by. It is scary to cross the road here, but somehow I've never seen anyone hit yet, as the drivers always manage to avoid hitting the people. People on motorbikes are like mosquitos on a windshield for a car driving in the opposite direction, yet they never manage to actually hit and splatter on the windshield. It's hard to explain and definitely something to be witnessed.
The people here are not as actively engaging as the Thai people, but they are not mean, either. They do pester tourists to buy random items, but not as much as in China. It seems more civilized here in this aspect at least. The food is not as good as in Thailand: some cabbage, sticky rice, chicken or other meat, and an eggroll. All, of course, drunk with Bia Ha Noi (Beer Hanoi), the local brew.
The hotel, for $4.50 per night for a six-person dorm, was amazing. In fact, it was much better than any other place I have stayed at yet. There are towels for the shower, as well as air conditioning, free shampoo and soap, etc. They helped me book my tour to Halong Bay and to buy a ticket to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)--actually, I just did this all at their reception desk. They also helped carry my bags for me upstairs, always greet me and other travelers, and offer free water. And there is also a good breakfast included. Yes, all for $4.50. It's strange, because while the food here is slightly more expensive than in Thailand, the accommodation is much, much cheaper.
As far as attractions go, Hanoi doesn't have too many of them. There is a lake and a Water Puppet Theater. There are many musuems, too. Perhaps, though, the best attraction is the one I have yet to see: tomorrow I will be going to the Mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh himself (embalmed, of course, in a clear casket).
In any case, Ho Chi Minh would likely be rolling around in his grave if he saw the capitalism that is "plaguing" nominally communist Vietnam. The official name of the country is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Communist signage and art is fairly common; all children wear the red communist youth scouts neckbands, too. There is probably (no, surely) a lot of secret police in plainsclothes. But, unlike China, the Internet is not blocked, and the state's control is not as severe: there is more decentralization of power. And it feels as such.
I like Vietnam. It's a very quaint place, indeed. A country in economic transition.