Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Friday 10th September 2004

The next morning I headed out of the Old Quarter towards the offices of Vietnam Airlines. I walked down the edge of Hoam Kiem Lake, a placid body of water surrounded by a narrow strip of park. The streets outside the Old Quarter are wider and less tumultous, but the roads are still seething with motorbikes and other traffic, and I had to learn, fairly quickly, the knack to crossing them. If I were to wait by the side of the road, waiting for a gap in the traffic I would get nowhere - the gap could never materialise. Instead, against my basic survival instincts, I had to mimic Hanoians - the key is to walk very slowly into the mass of traffic and rely on your own and the bikers' spatial awareness. The bikes rush past on either side of the crosser's vulnerable body, but finally the other side is reached. At first, it is a terrifying business, but after practice I managed to banish the impending sense of dread when approaching road sides.

I stopped off on the way at the general post office to buy stamps, and bought some unnecessary postcards from a genial hawker with a soft spot for Thierry Henry. At Vietnam Airlines I was sent to Thai Airlines, and thus entered dialogue with a third company. But they were extremely helpful and endorsed the change in my ticket, meaning (hopefully) all is now well. They also laid the blame squarely at the feet of Trailfinders, from whom I had bought the tickets.

I then skirted the other side of the lake, gathered my thoughts in Den Ngoc Son, a Taoist/Buddhist/Confucianist temple on an island in Hoam Kiem, and dived back into the Old Quarter, where I spent most of the day walking, looking at the faded shopfronts and time-stained buildings and the life that teems below them. On some of the streets, the leaves from the trees stretch over the road, mingling with those from the other side, creating tunnels and adding to the intense, almost claustrophobic, feel of the area. I walked north through a busy covered market, out of the quarter and onto the Long Bien bridge, a rusting iron lattice-work rail and road crossing. I stopped halfway across and watched the Red River for a while. Up here, Hanoi as a city stops dead at its banks - on the other side, there are only half-hearted suburbs, countryside and small villages.

Back in the Old Quarter, I found myself alone in the Museum of Independence, situated in the house Ho Chi Minh lived for a while while drafting the Declaration of Independence, which led to the country's first brief spell as an independent Vietnam in 1945. Ho Chi Minh fascinates me - seemingly an unassuming and egalitarian intellectual, he led many lives before eventually leading Vietnam, including working as a docker in Brooklyn and as a chef in London.

And today I struck out into the French Quarter, a place of elegant boulevards and villa lined avenues. Walking west, I sought out Cho 19-12, three very narrow covered alleys in which a market thrives, mainly selling food. Although each alley is no more than six feet wide and crowded with people, motorbikes still trundle up and down. One of the alleyways contains snails, fish and other water based creatures, as well as cages full of rabbits, chickens and other assorted live animals. The other streets sell noodles, vegetables and dead, sometimes cooked, animals. The dog I saw back in Guilin was hanging in a restaurant window, roasted an appetising golden brown. Here though, the stalls selling dogs are very different (as I assume the dogs for sale other than in restaurants in China also are). Piles of skinned and cooked canine carcasses (boiled I think) were piled on tables, some chopped into smaller portions, others whole, with their rigid tales sticking out onto the street and their teeth bared in a final snarl. Although dog meat is meant to be warming and bring good luck, I don't think, in normal circumstances, I could ever knowingly eat it. Call it Western hypocrisy if you wish, but for a start I could never look Archie in the face again.

I then visited Hoa Loa Prison (or what's left of it) and Chua Quan Su, the Abassadors' pagoda. The former houses an exhibition which focusses on the grim incarnation of the place as a prison where the French colonialists kept 'patriots and revolutionary fighters' and contains two guillotines used to execute prisoners. A small part of the exhibition deals with the Americans who were kept here during the Vietnam War. They dubbed it the 'Hanoi Hilton'. Those Americans...

The pagoda is a quiet oasis, where monks live and learn. It also contains one of the most elaborate centre pieces in any Buddhist temple I have yet been to - a feast of red and gold, it is preceded by a large lantern, up the sides of which slender dragons climb towards a gold effigy of a young Buddha standing on top, two of his fingers pointing to the earth and two to the sky. Although images of Saturday Night Fever impulsively entered my head, frustratingly I have no idea what this gesture means. Behind the lantern at least eight tall gold figures stand and sit, surrounded by an enlarged collection of the usual trimmings.

Then a ramble back to the hotel. At one point I stopped for a pot of tea, and was disturbed by the jabber of small children. I looked onto the street and crowds of them were passing by, in white shirts with red scarves tied around their necks, and school bags fastened to their backs. 10 minutes later I finished my tea and they were still streaming past. I joined them on the pavement. Suddenly, other similarly attired chidren were also coming from the opposite direction. Shopkeepers were closing their doors for safety, and as the chattering surrounded me I was momentarily reminded of the insects at Pak Ou Caves. Then I turned a corner, and it was just me again - and the thousands of horn-happy motorists.


60 - posted at 14:20:57
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