After five quite blissful days in lovely Luang Prabang, the most laid-back place I have ever ventured in my life, it was time to move on. How exactly does one move on from the calm of monks, the beauty of waterfalls, the peace of elephants and an overwhelming quiet? Basically with one big slap in the face.
We left one extreme behind in Laos and came through immigration to the other end of the spectrum in Hanoi, Vietnam. For all the quiet zen of Luang Prabang, Hanoi is the loudest place I have ever been, hands down. It’s a crowded city with everything seeming to lean on whatever is next door. It’s a city where hard sales are the only sales. A city that gives an entirely new definition to the term ‘street smart’.
We had only been in the country minutes when we happened upon our first attempted con: a taxi driver who cornered us at the currency window to give us a ‘good price – cheap price’ to our hotel. This is forty-five kilometres away, he told us and quoted us a price. It will take an hour, at least. Except we knew it wasn’t and it wouldn’t and we finally managed to walk further away than he was willing to follow. The metered taxi outside took half the time and cost less than half the original quote. Oh, hurrah.
We found ourselves at our hotel in the old quarter, a place with teeny-tiny streets and towering buildings that seem to hang a bit over the road in some death-defying stunt of architecture. And once we checked in, we found ourselves shouting to each other. Because even nine floors up, with the windows closed, the noise from the street level was so loud we couldn’t hear a darned thing we said. Things got even better around 3am, when full-fledged building work started up across the road, complete with bulldozers, sledgehammers and assorted things I can only describe as a full tabernacle chorus of banging pots and pans together. Trust me, there are no ear plugs in the world that would have equipped me for the shock of going from peace to chaos in just one day.
The next day we explored Hanoi on foot. We walked through the citadel (if only for my love of official world heritage sites), wandered through a history museum that documented the early history of Vietnam and its links to China, admired the lovely opera house. We talked to a group of university students preparing a debate about a local problem with people setting their pet turtles free in the city’s lake — they would be debating in English and wanted to chat to native speakers for some rehearsal. That was lovely fun. But so often, we would turn to walk down a street and each one just seemed to assault us a little more – more traffic, more noise, more things crammed into a tiny space. Eventually all I was craving was somewhere that wouldn’t make my heart race with the stress of it all.
I am terrible at finding things (or remembering where they are) and The Boy has a knack for this. As he likes to say, I know where your stuff’s at. And yes, he says it that way just to annoy my inner English teacher for ending a phrase with a wholly unnecessary preposition, because that is the sort of thing he finds hilarious. But presto: he found us a somewhat abandoned park on the edge of a lake with no cars, no shops and very few people. Indeed, he knew where this stuff was at.
I’m still not quite sure if this is a working fun fair or an old fun fair that has just been left to rust. It looks abandoned to me, but we did have to pay an entry fee (albeit not much) so I’m not too sure. Earlier that day we had been talking about how traditional illustrations of animals like lions and tigers in very old Asian pictures don’t look anything like the actual animals, and how this is because the artists had never seen a lion or a tiger, but instead had taken a description from someone who had taken a description from someone who had taken a description from someone who claimed they had seen a lion or a tiger, and thus sometimes lions look a bit like dragons or poodles or goat-people as a result. I think the ferris wheel cars are what happens when someone who has never seen Mickey Mouse or 101 Dalmatians paints Mickey Mouse or 101 Dalmatians, based a description from someone who had taken a description from someone who had taken a description from someone who claimed they had seen Mickey Mouse or 101 Dalmatians. In that case, it’s pretty darn good. (In any other case, I’m not sure why Mickey has multiple sets of ears, so there we go.)
Everywhere we walked that day, we saw brides having their photos taken. At first I thought it was a fashion shoot for a magazine or something. Then I thought maybe it was like Japan, where having your photo taken in a Western-style white wedding dress is a bit of a trendy form of playing dress-up, and often has nothing to do with an actual wedding. But later it all became clear: here, the wedding portraits are taken before the wedding. The bride and groom in Western dress and tux, photographed a week or two before the big day and the photographs all go on display at the actual wedding, where they may wear traditional dress, modern dress or a combination. We were in Hanoi in the few days right before the new year and January is the luckiest month to getting married in the Vietnamese calendar, so seeing brides everywhere turned out to have more to do with the date than anything else. It was exciting to spot them though – I wish we saw more of this back home, just because it is hard to not be happy when you pass a couple getting ready to get married. Or perhaps that is just because I am a romantic sap, which is okay too.
There came a time when we had to depart the quiet precinct of the park (because while I can’t be sure if the ferris wheel had been abandoned, I am sure the ladies’ room was abandoned a very long time ago) and so we were back to the traffic. Only we were back to the traffic at about half-past five in the afternoon. We were suddenly pedestrians in rush hour, in a place where the traffic will take any available surface to move forward, even if it’s on the pedestrian path and even if it’s a lane heading the other direction. It is sheer insanity that goes against all your survival instincts. Instead of the green cross code, the rule for crossing the road on foot is look straight ahead (not at the traffic) and move at an even pace. Traffic will move around you, provided you don’t freak the heck out and start to run through an open gap or turn around and go back. But every single bit of my insides really, really wanted to freak out. Every single time. Getting to the other side of the road was always a victory! But indeed the traffic always went around us, and the worst problem we had was discovering that a word we had heard from several motorbike drivers was perhaps a bit colourful in nature. Pedestrians are really not their favourite thing, it would seem.
I don’t want to be unfair, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t love Hanoi. I found the air hard to breathe from all that traffic and I felt lucky to have all ten toes still intact when we crossed the street for the last time to board our train. We’ve seen quite a few sad things that have made me gasp along this journey, but crossing paths with a dog-catcher was the worst of them all and I completely lost it right there in the street, with all the locals wondering what the heck was wrong with me. I was worried that much of Vietnam would be just like this and I would spend the next two weeks in a permanent state of migraine-inducing panic, and I wondered how on earth the locals coped with this as a permanent state of affairs. But I promise: it got much, much better as we continued. Just consider yourself warned: Hanoi is really not the sort of place you want to wake up if you’ve become acclimated to an entire town that has the general ambiance of a day spa. Unless, you know, you just love a full assault on the senses. Then it’s totally the place for you.