First Impressions of Hanoi
May 11, 2004 Tuesday - Holly Showalter
Vietnamese Customs in the Hanoi airport wasn’t a problem. I even tried out my new phrase on the customs official “ Cam on,” thank you, though it may have been too soft to hear. We breezed through, soon stamped and searching for Dung and Hahn’s dad, who was to meet us. He spotted us first, with our nine pieces of checked luggage and more, piled on the airport carts. We had quizzed Dung and Hanh on how to address and approach their father . . . but our fears were allayed at his wide smile and enthusiasm. He walks a lot like Dung. It was exciting to witness the reunion between children and father. The driver of the hired mini-bus whisked us and our luggage in and soon we were driving past the fields of rice and lotus flowers on the way to Hanoi. Just like I imagined, bicycles were everywhere and we even spotted a few conical hats. Hanoi is filled with lakes. Our hosts live beside the large “ West Lake” which we will stroll around later this evening.
Dinner is a smorgasbord prepared by their cousin and aunts - cucumbers, mint, and other unidentified greens, fried spring rolls (which we can’t get enough of), and basic soup, with sauce and chili peppers to garnish and rice noodles on which to pile everything. We’re not too bad with the chopsticks, but we’re glad we have a month to practice . . .
Dung and Hanh’s mom comes home while we’re eating. She’s fun and speaks English well. Because of her work as a grant administrator for the Ford Foundation, she travels a lot and is used to working with “foreigners.” When she smiles (which is frequently), her eyes crinkle up. She is slightly mischievous and makes her children and her new temporary foreign children laugh a lot.
After visiting with cousins and uncles and lots of mango (whoopee!!!) we stroll out of the neighborhood, further into the city. Rows and rows of lovers and their motorbikes line the lake. We visit their high school, gawk at the huge trees, and laugh when Abe slips into dirty street water.
On the way back we climb steep steps into a three-story restaurant by the lake. On the top floor we settle in. Plastic chairs and small tables and it’s not quite as breezy as we’d hoped. We get the feeling that foreigners are pretty rare here. Yay for our wonderful guides, enabling us to have a such an authentic Vietnamese experience! Though Dung and Hanh crack themselves up when they both temporarily forget the Vietnamese word for “menu.” We’re amazed by the cheap prices. We get icecream in coconut shells with peanuts and dried fruit, mango smoothies, and sample some local wine, all for under 30,000 Dong ($2).
Before we leave Abe experiences yet another dirty-feet disaster when he realizes too late that the plumbing in the bathroom – both the sink and the urinal – aren’t hooked up, but are flowing out onto the floor.
I LOVE the number of bikes – motorized and not – and can’t stop exclaiming about it. I feel a kindred spirit with these people who have found a way to use bikes everyday. Every vehicle seems to be chosen out of a need for efficiency. Minicars and minibuses zip through the streets with horns as their best aid. Though somewhat frantic, the give-and-take is somehow also gentle and graceful – the larger mostly gets the right-away and the mix of pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, and cars slows and flows together in a fit that’s hard to believe. We are delighted (and slightly frightened) by the way we must be swallowed in crisscrossing traffic in order to cross busy streets without a stoplight. In a car our side mirror passes overtop of a motorbike side mirror. SUVs would never make it here. We see motorbikes stacked with four bags of cement and a man holds a piece of furniture in front of him and over his head as he rides behind a motorbike driver. Women carefully situate their high heels behind the gears of a motorbike on the way home from work. They ride “side-saddle” on the seat behind their boyfriend or a motorbike taxi-driver in a tight skirt. Hanh explains that the long gloves and face masks protect them from the sun; whiter skin is desirable for women here. I’m continually impressed by the ingenuity of the travel. We see two girls on a bicycle. The one on the back, sitting on a basket-seat, pedals. In front of her, the smaller of the two sits on the regular seat, tucks her feet up onto the crossbar, and steers.
Trekking Around Hanoi
May 12, 2004 Wednesday - Holly Showalter
11:00. Heat of the day. Time for a monster trek to downtown Hanoi. We change money at a jewelry shop where Hạnh is soon laughing with the shopkeepers. By the end of the conversation it sometimes seems that she and Dũng have always known each person we meet. Asking for directions or for information about a hotel room seems to take longer, be more enjoyable, and preclude respect for all involved.
May 13, 2004 Thursday - Holly Showalter
On the way home from the internet café we visit Dũng and Hạnh’s neighbor’s house. She is a seamstress. After lots of small talk and really strong green tea we get around to the business of measuring and picking colors and patterns. I can tell from the shirt she’s wearing that she’s an excellent seamstress. I’m enthusiastic about buying from someone Hạnh knows instead of random people on the street. Custom made silk pants. Maybe a shirt. Hạnh brought a J.Crew magazine from the States. She will ask the woman to make her a dress . . .