Friends: Autophobes will be happy to hear that Hanoi, or at least it's central district, is virtually car-free. Unfortunately, it is not free of all internal combustion engines, as its streets are clotted and clogged and overwhelmed by a non-stop flow of motorbikes with only a sprinkling of bicycles. As with the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Bangkok, all that traffic initially appeared to be outrageously perilous, especially since few intersections have a stop light or stop sign or traffic cop and no one pauses before entering an intersection, just weaving their way right through. But all are surprisingly adept at avoiding contact. Bicycling with Hanoi's legions of motorbikes is no more treacherous than bicycling with Bangkok's bumper-to-bumper automobile traffic. Though the traffic in Hanoi flows faster, it is much much more enjoyable to be hobnobbing with lone figures astride two-wheeled vehicles, though they be motorized, than slinking along with enclosed four-wheeled metal boxes.
We have yet to see an accident or ever suffered the skip of a heart beat. It's actually fun to submerge ourselves in Hanoi's mongrel mass of perpetual motion. It's even fun to walk through it from one side of the street to the other. The traffic throbs along at not much more than ten miles per hour, and even though there may be a dozen or more two-wheelers buzzing along shoulder-to-shoulder, spanning the road, a pedestrian can step out into the current and everyone will micro-swerve just enough to let him pass through. It is a marvel, another of those experiences that has to be seen to be believed.
Watching and participating in the traffic flow is just one of the many delights of this vibrant and most unique city. As with the traffic, the Vietnamese are an energetic and bustling people. The amount of street life is boggling. There is loads of room for it, as there are literally no parked cars in the town center. Unfortunately, that can't be said of the motorcycles. They all park on the sidewalks and don't leave much room for walking. Parking for bicycles is often hard to come by. One frequently has to shell out 1,000 dong for the privilege, a little over six cents. Sidewalk and curbside sellers are crammed into any open space. Chief among them are people with little barbecues cooking fritters or corn on the cob or noodles or shish-kabob or a wide assortment of mystery foods. There are hundreds of small shops that open out on to the sidewalk with their goods spilling out on it. The years of deprivation and shortages are long past. There isn't a great amount of affluence, otherwise the motorbikes would be giving way to the automobile, as has happened in Thailand, but there is so much economic activity, it is obvious that people have money to spend. It was seemingly a great economic step forward when the motorbike started overwhelming the pedal bike here. If you wish to enjoy this car-free city, don't tarry long. The bicycle has been virtually suppressed in Thailand, as is happening here. And everyone with a motorbike aspires to an automobile. Seeing how industrious the Vietnamese are, the automobile will all too soon take over this country too.
We looked at half a dozen hotels before finding one to our liking. Laurie was determined that we have a room with a balcony. When we settled on one, we also used its services to book a two-day tour to Halong Bay and an overnight train to Hue. And for a modest fee they secured our visas for Cambodia. The woman who made all these arrangements flew into a minor panic when we told her we couldn't pay just yet, as we didn't have our credit card with us. It was back at the hotel we spent our first night at, awaiting a vacancy at her hotel today. The two hotels were only a few blocks apart and we were prepared to move right in, but there is such fierce competition between hotels and booking agents, she feared someone else might steal us from her before we finalized these transactions. She wanted to give us a motorcycle escort, as we rode our bikes back to the hotel where we had spent the previous night, to retrieve our belongings. She feared we might be enticed to stay at that hotel or some other hotel might grab us and offer a better deal. Her franticness was almost comical, but the competition among hotels is so cutthroat, she had very real reason to be concerned. We insisted help wasn't necessary, that we could easily carry all our gear on our bikes, but she insisted on not letting us out of her sight. To assure her we'd be back, Laurie left her passport.
So we're off to Halong Bay tomorrow morning for a couple of days on a boat looking at the spectacular karst (limestone) formations in the Gulf of Tonkin, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We've been receiving conflicting reports on whether the water will be warm enough for swimming. We were able to swim 200 miles south of here outside of Vinh, but it is sweater weather in Hanoi.
We've spent two days exploring Hanoi. It is a city of lakes and divided by the mammoth Red River. Only two bridges span the river. They are each a mile long, one for bicycles and pedestrians and the other for motorized traffic. The lakes range from less than a mile in circumference to many, many miles. They make decent landmarks, but we've still gotten disoriented here more often than anywhere we've been. The narrow streets form quite a labyrinth. At least there are plenty of readable signs, though the streets frequently change names. We've worn out our maps, folding and unfolding them. We're frequently offered assistance by the pedicab drivers, who'd love to give us a lift, and guys on motorbikes, who take passengers. But the level of harassment has been very minor, and frequently, when we do get harassed or someone tries to beg from us, someone comes along and reprimands and shoos away our harasser. People have come to our rescue everywhere we've been in our week in Vietnam, whether at the beach or at the Internet or out and about town.
There is an extraordinary amount of good will here. People seem to be continually on the alert to come to our assistance, as if they all work for the tourist bureau. It is a quality that ought to be enjoyed quick, before it is lost. It doesn't take long for a people who have recently begun receiving visitors after years of isolation to transform from being very helpful to wanting to take advantage of them. I saw the transformation in Guatemala between 1979, when I first visited, and in two subsequent visits over the next ten years all by bicycle. The first time was with my friend Crissy. We had been wintering in Mexico in the small fishing village of Puerto Escondido, a couple hundred miles north of Guatemala. We regularly met travelers who recently been to Guatemala All raved about how warm and welcoming the people were.
So few travelers ventured to Guatemala, the locals treated them as if they were guests they wanted to please. That was exactly the response Crissy and I received. It was shockingly to meet such kindness and cordiality, especially after spending so much time in Mexico. Years of big-shot Americans flaunting their money and treating the Mexicans with less than respect, had understandably made them wary and not always so friendly. In Guatemala people offered us water without us asking and whatever assistance we needed and were happy to have their picture taken. On my second visit, I met a young Guatemalan who had recently returned from the United States, where he had worked as an undocumented laborer for several months. He could earn more in three hours than he could in a week in Guatemala. He was most staggered that he could earn enough money in two weeks to be able to buy a car. It wasn't much a car, but it was still a car. Owning a car is utterly unimaginable for the average Guatemalan laborer earning two dollars a day working in the fields. When he and everyone he knew gradually learned how rich the backpackers and tourists were, not only from first-hand reports of the few Guatemalans who went to America, but also from witnessing the spending habits of the wealthier tourists who came after the backpackers, it greatly altered their perception of them and how they responded to them. Their shift in behavior was glaringly evident when I biked through Guatemala five year after my first visit. The prevailing attitude switched from one of "What can I do for you," to one of "What can I get out of you." I saw it happen to Puerto Escondido too. Once Puerto Escondido was discovered, in less than a decade, it went from a town with one restaurant serving spaghetti to dozens of restaurants serving all manner of Western food. The locals lost their charm and cordiality with it. The Vietnamese are in the middle of that process.
I was surprised to see more than a dozen buildings of ten stories or more sprouting up across Hanoi when I climbed to the top of the one hundred foot Flag Tower, built in 1812. I knew of three such buildings in the town center, but wasn't aware of the others. The Flag Tower is part of the Army Museum. Across the street is a small plaza with a statue of Lenin on a pedestal. The focus of the museum was more on Vietnam gaining freedom from their French colonizers than on the "American War." The American War lasted just eight years, from 1965 to 19783, while the era of French control began in the 1850s and lasted more than a century. The American War was referred to as, "The resistance war against the U.S. for national salvation" and "The U.S. War of Destruction in North Vietnam from 1965-1973." There was quite a bit of military hardware in the courtyard surrounding the museum. Just about every visitor to the museum wanted their photo taken in front of a Mig Jet, that shot down nine U.S. jet. There was also some B-52 wreckage and various U.S. military vehicles that had been captured. By far the most impressive item was a bicycle with 370 kilos of cargo strapped to it.
There was a similar bicycle, though not so heavily laden, at the vast and modern Ho Chi Minh Museum near his mausoleum. It, too, placed greater emphasis on Vietnam ousting its French oppressors than on the war instigated by the United States. It contained a considerable amount of Ho's writing, much of it championing Marxism-Leninism. Ho wrote, "We won great victories first and foremost thanks to the irreplaceable weapon, Marxism-Leninism." There was no update to the caption, "In today's world only the Russian Revolution has been successful."
Of the few people at the Army Museum, most were westerners, while Ho's museum was thronged with visitors, practically all Vietnamese. It is an impressive, largely glass, modern two-story building. Unfortunately, none of the many video displays were working. Ho issued a declaration of independence from France on Sept. 2, 1945 and served as Vietnam's first president until his death in 1969. He is quite revered. His photo is on every denomination of bills, which go much higher than those of Laos. Laos peaked out at 5,000 kip, a mere fifty cents. Vietnam has bills of 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000, all the way up to almost seven dollars.
We also visited the former prison where many American pilots were incarcerated, including John McCain. The prison was in the heart of the city. Only a wing of it remains, as the tallest building in Hanoi, the Hanoi Towers, rises right above it. The prison was built by the French in the late 1800s. Much of its history concerns the incarceration of Vietnamese political prisoners. Ho was never imprisoned, or at least there. A sign at the entry to the prison warned "No frolicking." There was just one cell devoted to the American prisoners. One photo identified McCain. The introduction said the Vietnamese, "Brought down thousands of aircraft and captured hundreds of American pilots...Having committed untold crimes on our people, but American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead they were treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter." There were half a dozen photos of groups of prisoners behind big spreads of food and being read letters. One showed half dozen prisoners standing in a chapel. Eagle-eye Laurie noticed one had his middle finger pressed to his chin, but not too flagrantly, as another finger was slightly extended along side it.
Not all out sight-seeing was restricted to the War. We also visited Hanoi's Temple of Literature, a walled in courtyard with several buildings that date to 1076. It was originally erected to honor Confucius.
In all our wanderings we failed to find any peanut butter. We could have purchased M&M's and Tang and Prego spaghetti sauce and Snickers though. The best find of the day was a used book store willing to trade Laurie's Kafka for Lonely Planet's guide to Cambodia.