Farewell Hanoi

Saturday, July 7, 2012

After some more shopping (because you can never find enough) Mom, Kit and Kate all leave for Ho Chi Minh to Seoul where they will make their separate ways back to the states. I’m sad to see them go but head out to explore some areas of Hanoi we didn’t make it to. I walk through areas of the French Quarter where the tree-lined streets are wider, but no less crowded with traffic and manage to become completely disoriented. For, perhaps, one of the first times in my life I think to use the sun to help me…it works – who knew? I find some hidden tailor shops I wish I’d found earlier in the week as they seem to make more contemporary clothes and fewer traditional items than those found in the Old Quarters.

I imagine life a hundred years ago in these streets, probably just as crowded and chaotic as they are now but the products may have lacked the cheap plastic and synthetic qualities that many now contain.  What did the streets look like?  Before motorbikes, cars and power lines masked the facades?Shops are filled with items of all sorts, from low-quality goods to relics to exquisitely hand-made fineries. If you knew where to look I’m sure you wouldn’t lack for anything. With silk in abundance, cotton and linen not far behind linens, and clothes are widely available, finding more contemporary designs might prove slightly harder but not by much. Many Haute-couture houses have opened shops in Hanoi and mid-range companies are following suite. Small shops often carry Zara and Mango labels, the authenticity of which may depend upon the shop.

The Vietnamese were recently rated the 2nd happiest in the world (or so I’m told) and we question why. Perhaps it’s their new-found freedom and release from decades of war, perhaps it’s just their outlook on life. They spend a lot of time sitting, chatting and laughing with each other; as I walk past one of the many sidewalks filled with tiny stools spilling onto the street I watch the locals enjoying a Friday afternoon, carefree happy hour I’m utterly tempted to join.

It’s a city and a country where everyone seems to have a place, no one is left out.  Rice-farmers still farm immediately adjacent to the urban areas, still using water-buffalo and planting individual rice plants by hand.  Pairs of two publicly prune each other, tweezing out the greys and picking at invisible skin imperfections.  The old and young both relax around the lake, ignoring the passing tourists, young sharing giggles and sunflower seeds, older men sharing homemade rice-wine in recycled water bottles.

For the most part the Vietnamese seem to ignore the growing number of tourists. continuing their daily routines. Of course you get a few who will attempt to attract you into their shops but in comparison to other Asian cities it doesn’t continue non-stop.  One thing that is noticeably different from other Asian cities is the lack of hurry, while the city moves non-stop, the people enjoy pausing, they move gracefully, and calmly, even as they line up to board the plane.

My final glimpses of Hanoi whiz by as my cab driver heads towards the airport and I think of all the pictures I’ll have to keep in my head, all the ones those that you can’t photograph from moving vehicles or out of curtesy…. He doesn’t speak any English but kindly agrees to stop at an ATM for me (which is for his benefit as I realize that I have neither dollars nor dong). At the airport this lack of communication becomes a problem as he doesn’t know where to take me, I write it down for him assuming that this will solve the problem, the sign that he has stopped in front of is in both English and Vietnamese and I point to it to clarify…  This doesn’t help. Finally I write it in Vietnamese and he continues to question me in Vietnamese which is getting us nowhere. I ask him to ‘go,’ to ‘move,’ to ‘drive,’ to ‘ask someone else,’ I have no words that mean anything to him and he has none that mean anything to me.  I try with hand motions to tell him to drive but we just continue to sit there, not moving, as he speaks in his language and I in mine. This is pointless, I can see the airport across the highway but can’t get him to take me there. He smiles kindly throughout this ordeal…I speak louder, because that of course will make it easier for him to understand me – NOT. He never gets upset, just keeps smiling and keeps talking. I ask him to find someone to tell him where to go, he’s young, maybe he’s never been to the airport. He understands the word ‘Singapore’ but this still seems to be confusing. It’s not a big airport. Just get me across the highway. Finally he puts the car back in drive and we find a group of taxi drivers sitting on the little plastic stools and some of them know English. Problem solved. My driver smiles and takes me around the loop, explaining in Vietnamese, what I can only assume is that I’ve told him the wrong way, but he doesn’t mind, silly American. As English is so widespread sometimes it’s hard to understand that someone wouldn’t understand just a few words, but I’m in the wrong, I should have learned a few more Vietnamese phrases. (I’ve got ‘thank you’ down pat, but that didn’t help in this situation…) The poor guy, he’s so nice, and cheerful.  

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