Parks, Museums and a Restaurant

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Aug. 4, 2:30pm, Bodega Cafe

The only good thing to foreign cafes is that the chairs are high and are comfortable to write in.

Was pissed off for the first time today. Was by the train station, looking for a drink before I went to check train ticket prices. A mother and daughter began to call to me from a small restaurant, waving me over. So I say why not?

'Com', she asks and repeats it. I shrug but sit down. It's a small room with two low tables and stools along the two walls. She cooks in a corner, her meat and vegetable covered counter forms a wall to the outside. Her daughter climbs up a ladder into what I assume is their living quarters right above the dining room.

No menu, so she just goes ahead and prepares things: chicken with greens and some kind of meat dish, maybe pork, laid out of bean sprouts. The chicken, I surmise, is dipped in a sauce which you mix yourself with some seasoning, red peppers and lime juice. It's good and I eat heartily.

I get up and go to pay, thinking that the 7-UP would be as expensive as the rest of the meal. But I was wrong. She sits down, takes out an accounting book and writes it all out slowly. It totals up to 76,000. I only have some 67,000. Somehow, she either served me the very, very best, which Vietnamese hardly ever eat (I doubt most could afford it given prices at other places, even the foreigner ones, but I could be wrong) or she was just trying to rip me off. Let's get the foreigner's money. She took the 67,000 and didn't seem too upset.

It's not the actual cost that bothers me, I'm on a budget, but can afford it. It's just that she was out to get my money: either by serving me the very best, or jacking up the prices.

I don't know maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I should go in again and pay the rest. Probably make her lose face too. Oh happy revenge?

Once again the regret of not speaking the language.

Spent the rest of the day hanging out in parks, waiting to see what would happen. The 1st was near a bus stop. I was alone for a while watching the traffic go buy and the people waiting for the bus some distance away. Eventually 2 shoe-shiners approached me and wouldn't take no for an answer despite the fact I don't have leather shoes. I do get them not to use polish, and they take brushes to the suede.

Then they try and charge me more then they originally ask. A bread seller is attracted by the haggling and stuffs a piece of bread in my bag. He'd tried with an ice cream thing first, almost stuffing it in my mouth. I buy it, give him a cigarette and suddenly more bread-sellers show up hoping for a smokes.

An older man comes a little too late, after I've put the pack away, but he hangs out with me after the others leave. He squats on the low wall that I'm sitting on, wearing a Vietnamese army hat. I try out my phrase book, and that attracts another guy and a student, getting to laugh at my pronunciation. They don't stay long. I give the man a cigarette and soon after he hops up and runs to catch a bus.

I move on, watching a kicking feather match. Pretty impressive, it took me a while to learn to juggle with a soccer ball, and it looks harder then your basic hacky sack circle.

I find another bench and just watch people go buy, shaking my head to more orphan booksellers and shoe-shiners. One of the shoe-shiners is a "dwarf" with very large and sad looking eyes. Some of the Vietnamese boys look with surprise at him. He didn't seem to take it too well. Not any easier for him to fit in than eye, but he doesn't have the benefit of the celebrity status of white skin.

One bookseller, gives up on trying to sell me books, and sits down next to me, asking me where I am from. He spoke a little English. Two younger boys, 8 or 9, join him. We take some photos and the two younger boys stay after the older one leaves.

They poke through my open bag, and try to teach me Vietnamese from my phrase book. One was serious, and the other all laughs and giggles. Maybe serious isn't the right word, almost teasing, but dead pan. They seemed to be enjoying themselves anyway. No doubt making fun of me.

I try to teach them hack sack, but they don't seem terribly interested. I show them an animated flip book which they liked a lot more.

But them some older guys showed up, university students who kind of muscle out the younger kids. They leave after a while. Bored, no doubt.

The guys were funny enough, they kind of moved in one at a time, asking more and more questions: the weather, traffic, how old I was, did I have a girlfriend, did I think Hanoi women were pretty, did I want a girlfriend here, etc...

They ask me about traffic. Hanoi is still mostly bicycles and pedicabs. You can tell mopeds and scooters are rapidly growing in numbers, there are lots of shiny new ones out on the street. But there are only a few cars and trucks that go by, and everything moves at a rather leisurely rate. Intersections are more a blending of two streets, traffic lights are still rare and people just blow their horns and mesh. I've only seen one slight collision between bicycles.

After driving in Taipei where I felt I risked my life every time I drove or cycled down the street, Hanoi didn't seem much at all. Their perception was different. They complained it was too much, too dangerous. I tried to explain what I'd lived through but they didn't seem to believe me.

I tried to find a place for Bun Cha, a Hanoi specialty that I'd read about in an article sent to me by a friend. I got a little lost and I took a pedicab the rest of the way. Which turned out to be 2 blocks. Felt like an idiot. I end up wandering around after a typical foreigner cafe meal.

The evening skies are filled with kites, many home made. Kids can be seen making them all over the city.

I'm walking down one alley and I hear someone reading my t-shirt. It's in Chinese, and I'm pleasantly surprised. I see the person park his bicycle and I go up to talk to him, happy for the chance to communicate with someone here.

He turns out to be a University student studying Chinese and English. He's been to China several times and his Grandma lives in NYC. We chatted for a while then exchange addresses. Hope to contact him before I leave Hanoi.

Today has been more biking and trying to decide if I should go to Halong Bay before I head north for a town near the Chinese border. I biked way, way out and then back around, stopping at the air force museum. The grounds were cluttered with old planes and helicopters, both Soviet and captured U.S. Machines. The gate was open when I got there and nobody seemed to be around. Lunchtime I guess.

I wandered in and started looking at all the aircraft, finally noticing the guard sleeping under the wing of a Soviet Mig. It takes him a while to notice me, and asks me to pay on my way out. I was tempted not to, but decided not to. Why be a jerk.

I went into the museum proper though after that. They opened up the building for me. They had more weaponry, bits and pieces of planes that were shot down. There were old and decrepit dioramas depicting famous air battles. They looked as though 1st graders had prepared them.

They were extolling the heroics of the Vietnamese air force and lambasting the "puppet" American Air Force. Lots of confused English.

But I guess they had the last laugh (or did we? Now that you can buy coca-cola in Hanoi? How much longer until McDonald's can set up shop).

The whole museum looked as if it hadn't seen many visitors recently, the grounds were all weeded over and the staff looked like they had better things to do than watch me walk around.

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