First Impressions of Vietnam

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Aug 1st, 10pm, Hotel something or other in Hanoi

How to encapsulate impressions...

The airport, customs and all that was easy. At the baggage claim teamed up with Chris, a talkative Californian also travelling alone. He didn't have any US$ on him, so I paid for his bus ticket. They weren't accepting anything else.

The bus was talkative: a US businessman, an Englishwoman, another pair of Americans, a New Zealander, and Italian couple and 2 Vietmanese airport workers. We chatted quite a bit as we waited for the bus driver, or at least they did, I was content to listen.

Everyone shut up though when the bus started moving. Of the foreigners only the businessman had been there before. the whole way I was intent on how I would write it down.

We drive across a flat plain, filled with crater pocked green rice paddies, flooded by water, separated by trees; mountains are in the distance with mountainous thunderheads towering above them, lit by the red of the setting sun.

The rice paddies are dotted with people. They're well spread out, never clumped together, some lead water buffalo along the embankments.

We pass different gaggles of Vietmanese on bicycles, some ride together, others sit by the roadside, heads all topped by straw conical work hats, or green army helmets.

The driver beeps constantly, motorbikes, scooters, vans and trucks get out of our way. A car passes us.

Houses drift by with everything else, peeking out from among the green trees, along the paddies, some are big, a run down elegant, others totally delapidated, falling down. Up a bridge, we get the first view of Hanoi, a couple of high-rises, but mostly and ever receding view of 2-3 story houses, liberally interspaced by trees. The horizon is still mountains- black at this distance, their base grey from smog maybe, or just mist.

How to desribe Hanoi: lots of trees, houses, homes, shops, the ground floor open to the street, like what I've seen of China, the people's lives on display. The streets are full of mostly bicycles, and pedicabs, so maybe the smog theory is out, but there are almost as many shiny new mopeds, old motorbikes. Cars are more of a rarity.

My nervousness from getting off the plane has long since dissolved into insatiable curiosity, and the excitement of being somewhere new.

We stop at one traffic light- perhaps an expirement- because few intersections have them. Some of the houses and buildings look French, leftovers from colonial rule no doubt. But most of the buildings are pretty dirty looking, though the streets are clean. Everyone beeps a horn or rings a bell as they ride.

Off the bus, people from guesthouses and cyclo drivers (pedicabs) swarm about us trying to attract our business. Chris and I are a bit hesistant as neither really knows where we are or where to go. We first decide to find him a bank. One guy follows us all the way to the bank.

It's closed, but luckily not too far from this guy's hotel. It's in a tall thin building off of a traffic circle. We are put in the room on the first floor. The room is big, with a tall ceiling, AC, fan, TV, refrigerator, bathroom. Being Americans we turn on the TV, but there is nothing of any interst on, or at least nothing we can understand. No Cable TV here. The owner tried to up the price from what the first guy told us, but we stick to the original price and he gives in quickly.

Dinner we have at a small cafe on the corner, we sit on the second floor, and are served by a woman resembling a girl I was in love with in college. Good dinner too, fried noodles, beef, great little French loaves. The butter comes with sugar, perhaps because it is unsalted. I eat my bread like a starved man, good bread is hard to come by in Taiwan.

We eat with an English woman and a Kiwi, both on their way home from Japan with a few stops in between, sort of like me. The place crawls with backpackers.

I was expecting to see them a little less often, I see more foreigners than I would in Taiwan- even more than I would see around the school where I studied Mandarin. The pubs and cafes swarm with them.

Every cyclo driver yells at you to see if you want a ride.

Little orphan boys go around, all carrying pirated copies of the same thing: The Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam (already had), The Quiet American (already read), the Sorrows of War, the Pocket guide to Vietmanese (also have), a map of Hanoi, a map of Vietnam, and numerous sets of postcards.

Chris is bad at saying no. He tells them he has no money. They don't understand just hear him speaking and think he's interested, so pester him more. There are a few beggars, children mostly who rub their tummies and tug at your sleeve. It is hard saying no.

I walk up and down alleys, looking for... a beer I guess, a nice little place to sit and write. I don't find it, maybe a little too nervous to try anything at that moment, I enjoy the walk though.

The streets are dark, no lights, bicycles still zooming back and forth. I came back here to write.

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