Friday, 7 December 2012

Good Morning Vietnam! Hanoi-oi culture shock.

Hanoi residents exercising around the lake at dawn. 
Hanoi is a jungle. Motorbikes swarm like mosquitoes, their horns never cease as they weave through the pedestrians, forced to walk in the road as the pavements have been taken as parking spaces for other motorbikes. A wiry mess of overhead cables wrap around posts like vines on trees, and the colonial French architecture looks rustic and charming as it slowly decays. It feels very different to China, the European flavour still lingers in Vietnam, and the people smile, everywhere.

Hanoi's old quarter.
Jungle city.
Bikes and pedestrians share the road. 
Crossing the road. Just walk, they'll go around you.
Cables like vines in the canopy.
Everything gets transported by bike.

It took me a few days to get used to Hanoi, it's a slight change in pace from China, and a different kind of chaos. One thing that was immediately noticeable, and would take me some time to get used to and accept, was the number of foreigners here. I'd enjoyed often being the only stray in the village, being the novelty for the locals and feeling like I was on a little adventure. Now I was just another tourist. I was a tourist of course in China and elsewhere but I often saw so few others that I wasn't reminded of the fact. It felt like everyone was in Hanoi, and most of them I didn't like. There were lots of middle aged, or early retired people, looking slightly hostile and cautious clutching their money belts and wearing their zip-off gore tex trousers. They would be driven around the city by the bicycle men, and they looked like giant fat babies sat in pushchairs, snapping away on DSLRs with the settings still on auto. The worst people though, by far, were the young. People my age. Eurgh. Just awful.

Bikes, pointy hats and backpackers are the first three things you notice. 
That first evening I'd gone out for dinner on the pavement with the guys from Finland I'd met on the train, as I'd bumped into them at lunch when I was out exploring, and arranged to meet up later that day. After eating we went for a beer in the main hostel in town, Hanoi Backpackers. It felt like a bad trip on hallucinogens. The place was heaving with vests and haircuts, girls backpacking with heels and hair straighteners, and the guys dressed by the T4 On the Beach stylists, and although are 'top lads with epic bants and bollock slapping pranks', have fuck all to say. It was Hollyoaks. It was Magaluf. It was detestable. Moronic sound-bytes of conversation were muffled by moronic chart music. It didn't feel like Vietnam, it felt like Cheltenham, and I wanted to punch the Essex twat trying to drag us along on a bar crawl, square in his whitened teeth. A whooping crowd left the bar to go on their bar crawl of watered down luminescent vodka shots; I watched the conga line of cunts disappear into the night. This was one of the biggest culture shocks I've experienced on the road so far. Not Mongolian traditions or Japanese isolation, but my own culture, it was looking in a mirror and seeing a monster reflected.

I left with the Fins to find somewhere else to have a drink. We hopped around a couple of places drinking 30p beers, I guess you could say we were doing a bar crawl of our own, and we were no different to the mass of backpackers who had so wound me up earlier on the evening. But we were different. I'm not saying we were better. But really, we were. We met some local girls who invited us to join them in a place that was staying open later, and we needed no convincing. The police were shutting bars down, probably to solicit bribes from the bar owners to stay open, and it was a bit of a game of cat and mouse as we waited around the corner for the police to leave before the late night bar reopened and we could continue the night. The bar was in some kind of shack, in some kind of swamp, down on the river. It felt rather Apocalypse Now, but they refused to play any Wagner. We stayed, drinking, dancing and talking until it closed. None of the 'banter brigade' from earlier were there, just a slim handful of foreign faces, and the rest locals, a good mix.

It had been an interesting first day, I was liking Vietnam, but the numbers of tourists was just going to take some getting used to, I wasn't used to sharing. The rest of my days bleed into one. I went for walks exploring the old town, but I'm not shopping for anything and even cheap shops with bargains in are useless to me. I spent some time hiding away, watching episodes on my laptop, as I eased into Vietnam. I went to the War Museum, which was ok but a bit disappointing. They had some tanks and aircraft outside, but inside I thought was lacking, there wasn't too much information so I barely learnt anything, and what information there was, was amusingly biased. It was all about the 'Vietnamese heroes bravely wiping out the enemy', and a helmet full of bullet holes had the caption 'Evidence of the failure of the French'. Amusing, yes. Informative, not really. Considering how big the war was, I thought they didn't have much. One of the exhibits was a Casio calculator from the 90s, I had the same one for GCSE maths, enthralling stuff. At least mine had interesting tip-ex graffiti.

A typical scene.
I recognised this from the Hanoi level on Call of Duty.
One of the captured planes on display.
A sculpture made from wreckage from shot down aircrafts.
Outside the War Museum.

I wandered down through the government district and went by Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, I'm not sure if you can go in, but you couldn't when I was there. I sat and had a rest when I was approached by some young looking university students, who said they were learning English and could I be their homework. I was mindful of scams but agreed to it, and they filmed me on their phones being interviewed by them about topics such as healthy eating and kids playing video games. It entertained me for 15 minutes.

The quieter government district. 
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. 
Just a train running through the neighbourhood.
Mildly arousing mannequin shop.
I wasn't sure what else there was to do in Hanoi, there were a couple of museums but they didn't sound appealing, so I didn't end up doing too much of substance. I wanted to extend my pre-booked three night stay in the hostel by a night, but they were fully booked and so put me in their sister hostel around the corner and told me I could settle my bill there. I ended up in a plush four bed room for the same price of $6. When I came to check out the next day, I mentioned I'd been transferred from their other place and owed three nights there, but the guy clearly didn't hear me, so I had three nights bed, breakfast and drinks for free.

Across the rooftops of Hanoi. 
In my second room in Hanoi I met Lars, a German one month into his year long travels, having left his job as a camera salesman in Germany. We got on well and decided to travel to Cat Ba island together, next to Halong Bay, and although he only had a two week visa, it seemed our plans, or lack of them were similar and we may end up travelling through the country a bit together.

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