Busy busy Hanoi

Motorbikes on a Hanoi street at night.
From Stripes.com
Motorbikes on a Hanoi street at night.

Busy busy Hanoi

by: Ashley Rowland | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: January 12, 2013

Most of what I found in Hanoi, I loved: walkable streets; cheap but delicious food that could rival that at a three-star restaurant;motorbike taxis; friendly people; strong, sweet coffee mixed with condensed milk. And not a Starbucks … to be found.

It's just after dusk, and the city is humming.

Motorbikes jam the narrow streets, and customers jam the sidewalks, sitting on plastic stools at outdoor restaurants, slurping pho - Vietnam's staple beef and noodle soup.

And at the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the city, I'm sitting on a bench, giving an impromptu English lesson.

My student is a bubbly 20-year-old undergrad bundled in a parka, even though it's a balmy 60 degrees outside. She stopped me – a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Westerner strolling around the lake – and asked for help rewriting her mangled English homework.

We sit down, and a police officer politely asks her to move her motorbike because it's illegally parked. A few minutes later, a pimply teenager - one of countless Vietnamese selling knickknacks to foreigners - stops and waves a package of grimy postcards in my face.

My pupil stiffened and pulled me closer.

"Drugs," she said, wide-eyed.

I stifle a grin and assure her the vendor is actually selling postcards, not illegal substances. I've spent the past week wandering around Hanoi by myself, and the only thing I found to be afraid of was the traffic.

Most of what I found in Hanoi, I loved: walkable streets; cheap but delicious food that could rival that at a three-star restaurant; motorbike taxis; friendly people; strong, sweet coffee mixed with condensed milk. And not a Starbucks or other such Western chain was to be found.

I spent much of my week in Hanoi walking through the city, often lost in the narrow, tangled streets, but never bored. With its green parks, lakes and shaded boulevards, the city is made for strolling.

It's also made for people-watching. Most homes and storefronts open onto the street, and residents congregate on stoops in front of their homes or stores at all hours, talking and eating. Teenage couples sit in each other's laps and kiss on park benches with enough passion to make me blush. Barbers give haircuts at sidewalk shops made of a chair and a mirror hung on a wall or tree.

"Everybody's just out in the street, doing his own thing in the world," a Belgian backpacker told me over beers at a streetside cafe.

On my first day in Vietnam, a country that's officially communist but is de facto capitalist, I tried to visit communist leader Ho Chi Minh's gray mausoleum to file past the deceased head of state's embalmed body. The mausoleum was closed that day for renovations, so I took a motorbike taxi to the chilling, French-built Hoa Lo prison, or the Hanoi Hilton, where

American prisoners of war were imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War.

Perhaps the most bizarre tourist attraction I found in Hanoi was the water puppet theater. For the equivalent of a few dollars, I sat with other tourists in a cramped, sweltering theater for an hour and watched brightly-painted wooden puppets act out simple scenes from peasant life. A traditional art form in

Vietnam, the puppeteers wear rubber boots and control the puppets - farmers, fairies, fish, water buffalo, cats and snakes - from behind a screen.

For roughly $5 to $10, you can buy your own used water puppet afterwards at one of the numerous souvenir shops in the Old Quarter. always something to do

Hanoi isn't a city to visit if you want to relax.

Hanoi is at times exhausting. When I returned to my hotel each night, I smelled like smoke from the outdoor stoves. My clothes were covered in a fine black grit of motorbike exhaust, and my ears rang from the constant noise of honking horns.

Fortunately, there's plenty to do when you need a break from the city. I took a day trip to one of Vietnam's most sacred Buddhist shrines, the Perfume Pagoda, which is at the top of a mountain. The pagoda itself wasn't terribly interesting, but getting there was worth the half-day trip into the countryside: a two-hour drive, a one-hour ride down the Perfume River in a flat-bottomed rowboat and a

1½-hour hike - or a 10-minute cable-car ride - up a rocky trail to the mountaintop.

On another day, I took a Vietnamese cooking class that I booked through my hotel. My teachers were a Vietnamese family who lived in a quiet village an hour's drive outside Hanoi. My classroom was their modest, one-room-deep house, where the family has lived for three generations. The sides of the concrete building were still pockmarked with bullet holes from French troops in the 1950s.

I was the only student that day, and we made a simple but tasty lunch: fried tofu; spring rolls; morning glories - the Vietnamese equivalent of spinach - sautéed with nuoc mam, or fish sauce, and hunks of garlic; and a very fresh tomato-and- crab soup made from wriggling crabs the wife caught in a nearby rice paddy that morning. bumper to bumper

Walk through Hanoi's Old Quarter - a maze of weathered buildings and one-way streets that are home to the city's souvenir shops and travel agencies - and you'll hear plenty of English spoken by Australians, Brits and other European tourists, but rarely by Americans.

One tour guide told me that Americans don't come to Vietnam because of the war.

"They're afraid," he said.

The only thing I found to be afraid of was - remember this? – the traffic. Most people here travel by motorbikes, some burdened with three or four people. And the bikes clog the roads, with drivers racing past each other.

Don't even bother looking before you cross the streets. The only way to get across is to step out in the road and hope you don't get hit.

Avoiding pedestrians seems to be one of the few unwritten rules of driving, so chances are you'll be safe. Accidents do happen. I saw two spills while I was in Hanoi; the drivers dusted themselves off after each one and got back onto their bikes.

If you're brave enough, bargain with a motorbike driver for a ride - motorbikes are quicker and cheaper than taxis and much more fun.

E-mail Ashley Rowland at: rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil

Hoa Lo prison

Only a fraction of the yellow-walled Hanoi Hilton prison remains standing.

Most of the museum is devoted to the torture the French colonists inflicted on the Vietnamese before the French were ousted in 1954.

Two small rooms are devoted to the American pilots shot down during America's "sabotage warfare" against Vietnam.

A sign outside the exhibit describes the Communist Party's version of the pilots' lives in the Hilton, officially called Hoa Lo.

"During the war, the national economy was difficult but Vietnamese government had created the best living conditions to U.S. pilots for they had a stable life during the temporary detention period," the sign says.

Their belongings are on display: a deck of playing cards; white canvas sneakers distributed to the prisoners; the flight suit Sen.

John McCain wore when his A-4 Skyhawk jet was shot down; and a piece of yellowed notebook paper, dated 1972, with a neatly written list of French verb tenses - a way one airman kept himself occupied.

A faded propaganda poster makes the prison sound like a summer camp whose residents were homesick but generally content. Photos show the Americans sharing a meal, playing a basketball game, strumming a guitar.

"The meal over, and the dishes washed, a little while with a guitar, singing a song of one's hometown would be good," a caption under one of the photos says.

On display in the other room is a pamphlet that says U.S. pilots used to "beg" for food after they had been shot down, according to the museum's written description. The pamphlet has the same message written in several languages. If a pilot was captured, he gave the pamphlet to his finder in hopes that he or she could read it.

I ask the Vietnamese museum guide to translate it for me. He seems puzzled, but bends closer to read it. It tells the finder that this is an American pilot, and asks him to give the American pilot medical care and food if he needs it, the guide says.

Does it say anything about begging? I ask.

No, he says.

- Ashley Rowland