< travels >

August 10, Lenin's Park in Hanoi

Yesterday was a travelling day again.

I spent the morning on the ferry dock, watching hawks circle, chasing each other in some sort of dogfight. Another swung low over the water, fishing maybe, but was scared off by little taxi boats.

I helped some other people unload their boat. This boat was bigger powered by an engine the propeller at the end of a shaft a good 6 feet in length if not longer.

One little boat was a floating vegetable market. A little girl sat rowing, seemingly detached and without effort, with her feet! She was just keeping herself in place so she didn't drift off to far. I stared, amazed.

A guy talked to me while we stood on the deck of the ferry. He was an interpreter in a Catba hotel. He was homesick, and was on his way back to Haiphong to see his family. Poor guy suffered from seasickness so he didn't go back often enough.

The boat was uneventful, some more people got sick, much to the detriment of the cabin's smell. This despite the fact that the sea wasn't half as rough as it was on the way out.

There was still plenty to see though as we floated along: the crowded Catba harbor, all the family boats and people watching as we past; there was a landing craft flying the Vietnamese flag, the only thing I'd seen of the Vietnamese Navy, a Chinese junk near one of the other islands, it's paper sails open to the wind; wooden stakes all over the place sticking out of the water as we got nearer the mainland, holding fishing nets no doubt; lots of big Russian freighters docked in the Harbor, the occasional big and burly Soviet sailor visible clambering around the ship.

Blue sky, naturally, opened up behind us, and the whole day had not a drop of rain. Today again there is plenty of blue sky and it is hot and humid.

The only trouble on the boat was with my ticket. The idiot at the railway station gave me two tickets on both of which he had wrote "from Haiphong to Catba." Luckily, I had not thrown out the first one, or I would have a hard time explaining and been out another 5 bucks (which seems like a lot at this point). I had a hard enough time explaining as it was. It didn't seem to matter to them that the tickets would have otherwise been identical.

Worse, I had to go through the whole thing when I disembarked. The ticket collector came chasing after me and held me by the arm. I fell into the ugly American trap and started saying things louder and louder, getting angrier and angrier. The guy wasn't budging. I was saved by a kind cyclo driver who knew a bit more English then the other guy. I was finally released, and in gratitude I took his offer of a ride to the railway station.

There was a weird little scene that was played out when I arrived at the station. I was several hours early for the train and it was hot and everybody was sticking to the shade and moving slow. There were some attempts to fly kites, but there was hardly enough wind to bother a fly.

The kites can be pretty impressive here, all hand made, more like gliders than kites. The one they had was huge with a 7 or 8 foot wingspan. The way the main "pilot" was handling it, it looked like his pride and joy. No wonder! It must have taken forever to make. They're only accomplishment, though, was not getting it stuck in telephone wires.

But then there was this big tough and meaning looking guy and his scrawny sidekick. They were taunting an old man, who vainly chased them around. As fast as he could run, they would scamper out of his way and yell some more. This went on until another guy came out and got in their face, yelling. That ended it pretty much. The two skulked off.

I wandered around for a bit as the train, looking for bread or something else to snack on, waving off all the cyclo drivers who kept calling to me; saying hello to all the kids who greeted me.

Police were sending some fruit sellers packing, confiscating a bunch of the fruit for themselves. I couldn't but cynically wonder who was going to be eating well at the station tonight.

Then, I just sat in the yard again, watching all the people. There were lots of foreigners around this time: 2 German couples biking, loads of French and some Americans. A Vietnamese reporter for Hanoi Television, Mr. Nguyen, sat down next to me and we began talking.

He bought me food on the train; watermelon and some rice thing with sausage. We talked a bit, and I gave him a listen to my music- one of my brother's punk mixes which I could tell (even though he was polite about it) he didn't really appreciate.

The conversation lapsed though on the edges of his English ability and was again sorry I didn't know Vietnamese. He said something about fighting in the war and wanting to study English more. Other than that it was just the usual questions.

I read a little and watched the scenery go by some more. A couple of stone churches stuck out of the middle of copses of trees, otherwise the land was green and wet and flat. Much seemed to be under a couple feet of muddy water.

The train for some reason was soft seat, even though I had bought hard. Not that they were that much more comfortable. Mr. Nguyen and I had also been given a ticket with the same number, we just sat next to each other. No one came and complained. The train was packed. Their were 2 women selling gum, warm coke, water and other snacks off of carts, and to other young men who sold tea and water melon. Everybody bought the water melon- it was a perfect day for it. But the sellers had a hard time getting down the aisle.

At one stop the train was mobbed by women selling all sorts of food: Lizi (a small round, golden husked fruit, sweet white melon surrounding a big black seed inside. There's some famous Chinese legend about them, an emperor going bonkers over a certain concubine whose favorite food was Lizi, squandering the resources of the kingdom to feed her whims), bananas, bread, cigarettes, you name it. The woman across from me bought a chicken and before being stuck into a bag it almost got away- bursting into a flurry of feathers instead.

All in all it was a nice and comfortable ride.

Sanpan boat

Near Hanoi, as it turned towards night, the sky was filled with Thunderheads, illuminated only by their own lightening. The train was going slow as we pulled into the city. By then it was dark and you could see into people's houses, glimpses of life as the train clacked by: a dinner on the floor, a family watching television, another playing cards, kids jumping on a bed, a woman holding her baby.

When the train came to a rest, little boys raced onto the train, grabbing for all the empty cans and plastic. A lot of garbage was shoved out the window as we rode, but they got the rest. Nothing seems to go to waste.

It was too late to buy tickets for the train to the border, so I just walked back to the Darling Cafe to get a cheap dorm room.

There I met a Swiss guy, Paul, and a French woman, Lisa. He and I immediately fell under her spell I think. She was beautiful, weathered, and had tremendous stories. She'd been travelling for 5 years and only now was making her way back home to France.

We went out to dinner that night and made plans to roam around today. So here we are. Paul and I are sitting in this park waiting for her. I'd gotten up early to buy my train ticket, and get my backpack from my previous hotel. I'd rented a bike to get around quicker, but then stupid me left the key in the lock when I'd gone back inside the cafe.

Luckily, someone from the cafe had taken the key (they rented me the bike). I looked all over for it. Finally, Lisa, the smarter of us two, just asked.

I took them to the Mausoleum and waited outside, holding their bags so they didn't have to pay. There was a cafe near the ticket place, didn't really have any urge to see the corpse again, so just grabbed a drink and read a little.

I have more errands for the rest of the day: pick up my pictures, buys some pens and decide if I want to change more money.

Another thing I noted today is that the more affluent Vietnamese men grow out their fingernails. Usually just their thumbnail. But some have it very long. Very strange looking. Perhaps to make obvious the fact that they don't do much manual labor and are therefore of a higher status? Or is it just one of those strange habits we humans seem to have?

Same day, 4pm, another Lake-side Cafe.

My pictures from Catba were not so good, alors! As expected, but still disappointing. I had hoped... I'll still send them, but I expect they'll be a bit disappointed.

The concept of service here is a bit, well, relaxed shall we say. Refreshing in a way. Waiters often sit down at your table to take your order (probably because foreigners are all so hesitant and slow). There is usually only a small number of menus too, so you'll have to wait for someone at another table to finish before you can have a look. They sometimes circulate very, very, very slowly. Plus, I've not had a dinner where something hasn't been forgotten. Your effectively ignored until you call attention to yourself. This place is worse than most.

It probably drive me crazy if I lived here, but then, I'd probably avoid the backpacker places if I lived here. And, of course, there is the fact that one does get used to things.

This place is a lot more upscale. Lots of older Europeans, a few lone and paired backpackers, some Vietnamese. Lovely day, as my Mother would say. I get prickly heat whenever I put my shoulder bag on. Very humid and hot, nothing wet seems to dry and one never stops sweating. But it's nice in its own funny way. Maybe I'm just used to it from Taiwan. It was like this for most of the summer.

I paid USD1.20 for a Carlsberg in a can and I think it's expensive. I hate changing currencies- I always get screwed up. But I'm getting used to those big bottles of Tiger and Carlsberg. A can seems like nothing. Thought I was getting a big bottle because the cans are usually cheaper.

But this IS an upscale place. Should have known better. Besides, I don't want to be one of those travellers who always whines about the prices, do I?

Mailed postcards. Expensive enough to make me glad I hadn't mailed letters (prices again!). I hate waiting and that's all I seem to be doing today. Knowing that I'm about to leave and just waiting and waiting in anticipation of that.

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