Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Part 2: Hanoi
Here’s the thing about Asia. There are so many freaking people. I mean, there are SO MANY people. Especially in Vietnam. You just don’t understand overcrowding until you get there. And you really don’t understand it until every single one of those people drives a scooter.
We left for Hanoi on Tuesday, October 27th, and were picked up at the airport by an awesome little helmet-haired dude named Huy, who would be our own little personal Dith Pran (a buck for anyone who gets that reference) while visiting the city. In addition to being awesome in every regard, Huy knew the answer to everything. Even things in addition to, “Do you hate Americans?” (The answer, by the way, is not really…but more on that later).
So as soon as we got in the car (oh, we had a personal driver too. we're looking into this here in New York), Huy started reeling off facts about Hanoi. Its 1,000 year old birthday is next year. It’s been occupied by the Chinese, the French, and the Japanese. It's a city of roughly 6 million people. 4 million of them drive scooters.
That last fact is not a joke, nor is it an exaggeration. I think I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s eat-em-up show on the Food Channel when he said, “The first thing you notice about Hanoi is the scooters.” You don’t notice the scooters. The scooters ARE the city. You’re absolutely swarmed by them at all times. They drive on the sidewalks, they drive on the ceilings, they drive up your pantlegs. They lay eggs and multiply at stoplights. They turn up in your soup.
The deal is, the government decided that cars simply weren’t a sustainable form of transportation in a county as engorged with people as Vietnam, which is about the size of California, with nearly triple the population. So they slap huge taxes on the purchase of a car, which are over 100% already, and expected to balloon to 200% next year.
The result, of course, that you’ve got families of five, including toddlers and, yes, infants, riding on scooters, surrounded by millions of people driving scooters like assholes. Oh, by the way, everyone drives like a total asshole. That’s an important detail.
Also, the custom is to always be honking. I’m not kidding. They honk to pass, honk to merge, honk to alert you to their presence, honk if they’re horny, honk if they love Jesus, whatever. Huy told us that’s just how it is. He basically told us they’re not honking at you, they’re honking with you. Which doesn’t make it any less annoying, of course.
But somehow, inexplicably, nobody seems to have discovered road rage yet. This probably has something to do with the fact that they’re all out in the open on scooters, not safely seatbelted into steel boxes on wheels with lockable doors. Or maybe it’s because if they did give someone the finger, they’d poke someone’s eye out. Regardless, when it’s just accepted that everyone’s going to drive like a complete and utter dickhead, I guess there’s nothing to get mad about.
We stayed at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, which, in terms of making its clientele feel like turn of the century French aristocracy, is unparalleled. The hotel was built in 1901, waaaay back when the French kicked ass and took names, and all the Vietnamese employees still greet you with a “Bonjour madame, bonjour monsieur,” which is cool and weird and fancy and reminds me of the deleted scene from Apocalypse Now Redux.
Huy took us all over Hanoi and answered every question we could throw at him. Over the two days we spent in Hanoi, he took us to the infamous Hanoi Hilton, sent us on a CycloTour through the city’s Old Quarter, walked us through the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum grounds, pointed out 400 year old trees, explained the significance of the Temple of Literature, escorted us to the Water Puppet Theater, all without making us feel tired or annoyed or sick of sightseeing.
And as for that hating Americans question, here’s what Huy told us (by the way, this was corroborated by our Saigon tour guide, Trung, who you’ll meet later): Vietnam is a country with a long history of foreign occupation. The Chinese were there for 1,000 years. The French were there for 100 years. Relatively speaking, the American War (as they refer to it) was just a blip in their history.
Yes it was a very destructive war, and yes the scars of the war are still plainly visible, but generally speaking, the Vietnamese just seem to have moved on. I know it sounds like the naïve optimism of a couple of tourists, but both of our guides were very adamant about this fact.
And for what it’s worth, in the time we spent in that country, not once did we encounter even a whiff of anti-American sentiment. And we’re pretty sure it would’ve been the same even if we hadn’t told everyone we were from Toronto.
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