The horn honking seems to have followed me from the World Cup hysteria in Spain to Vietnam where the sound dominates silence every minute of the day. What’s strange is that upon arriving here I might have thought that they put Spain’s chaotic rules of the road to shame, when in reality there is bizarre organization to this apparent disorder. Somehow, this country challenges your imagination at every turn.
Driving into Hanoi’s downtown our first night, we quickly realized that traffic laws were irrelevant and that roads were owned by scooters and motorbikes (in fact there are 3.5 million of them in Hanoi, which has a population of 7 million). When pedestrians just meandered out in the middle of traffic I gasped, at which point our guide began to explain to us the unspoken rules of the Vietnam streets. First, honking doesn’t mean get out of my way, but rather “FYI, here I am, just so you know.” Whether you’re traveling by bike, car or foot, you can pretty much do anything you want – cross a jam packed street, make a turn, even head in the opposite direction as long as you do so slowly and predictably. This definitely took some getting used to as pedestrians (ok, I’m lying, I’m in no way used to it). Walking through Hanoi’s historic quarter, our guide slowly lead us across insanely busy streets as motorbikes filled with up to four people, carrying everything from sofas to produce, went zinging by us. Each time I crossed, I found myself holding my breath and saying silent prayers, even contemplating just closing my eyes – after all, it would hardly make a difference. “How many of your guests have you had end up in the hospital from crossing these streets?” I cautiously asked Duc, our guide. “None,” he replied with a little chuckle (I’m convinced he thinks I’m nuts). I’m still having a hard time believing this, however, with each passing day I have more confidence in the rules of this madness (although, I’m still not sure that texting, helmet-less, with a child clutching onto your back is really all that super safe).
Growing up in the Bay Area, having had many Vietnamese friends, and being a self proclaimed expert on fresh spring rolls (a quick shout out to Tour Eiffel Vietnamese Restaurant in Los Altos – still the best spring rolls in the world), I thought I might be somewhat familiar with the Vietnamese culture, or perhaps at least more or less what I might expect here. To some extent this is true – super friendly, hard working, humble people, with a great pride in their heritage and an eagerness to shed an ear-to-ear grin. I suppose I never realized or comtemplated to any great extent the complexity of where this came from though. Being here and walking the streets I’m in awe of how everyone seems to have their trade – people huddled on a street corner making a food delicacy, women balancing baskets of bananas and looking at me hopefully as though a banana might be exactly what I’m looking for, men shining shoes and giving hair cuts in whatever free space they can find. Then there’s the countryside where you can see rice farmers working the fields for as far as the eye can see – no surprise, really, considering that apparently 70% of the country dedicates itself to rice farming (according to Duc).
Then there’s this outdoor lifestyle akin to the Spanish terraza. Groups of people crouched down on small little chairs in just about any open area possible (sides of roads, in front of houses, medians in between streets) chatting, drinking, eating, fanning themselves, or just sitting and passing time. Often you will see some random fellow who’s managed to hang a hammock from the most peculiar locations, just taking a nap on the sidewalk.
At first site, things seem so backwards here and so beyond comprehension, but then the more you observe, you realize that everyone is a part of the same dance, with coordinated moves that all magically fall into place. Getting used to this rhythm does not come naturally to me, but admittedly, as it inevitably becomes more predictable, I’m finding comfort slipping into the Vietnamese way of life. Oh and I’m just loving overdosing on Vietnamese food – living in Spain has left an open hole in my heart for one of my favorite cuisines!
Beyond the typical tourist stops in Hanoi, our time here has been filled with adventure. We headed out to the village of Hoa Lu, the Vietnam capital in the 10th century, where we visited the temples of the Le and Dinh Dynasties, followed by the most tranquil bike ride through the Vietnamese countryside. We weaved our way through a narrow path surrounded by lotus flowers, craggy rock mountains, rice fields, bamboo forests and small village houses. It was remarkably beautiful taking in the scenery slowly from our bikes while I honed my biking-while-taking-pictures skills. After that, we got into a small boat steered by two miniature little women that took us down a narrow delta of Inland Halong Bay, which was lined with the occasional farm hut, banana trees and then ultimately ended in a dark limestone cave filled with low hanging rocks, stalactites and bats.
My original plan was to write one blog per country, but I’ve quickly realized that this would be virtually impossible considering that each day here in just Vietnam alone has topped the one before. After visiting Hanoi (where we stayed at the Metropole, which was phenomenal), we headed off to Halong Bay and are now in Hoi An – both places that have exceeded my expectations in every way possible and left me completely in love with this country. I can’t wait to share the rest of these adventures so far, but alas I must pace myself. More to come very soon!