A lesson in traveling to big cities
06/23/2014 - 06/26/2014 88 °F
Hanoi, lit up at night, around Hoan Kiem Lake
I'm not the type of traveler who lives for the vibe of a big city. The crowds, the hustle, and the urban landscape is not a draw for me. Give me a smaller historic town, a scenic area, or something more manageable, and I'm happy. Part of the reason I'm traveling north to south In Vietnam is to put off the teeming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City till the end. Of course, Hanoi is no slouch, either. A city of 6.5 million, it has its crowds and bustle, too. I was staying in the Old Quarter, too, which is probably the most chaotic area in the city.
So, my first night in Hanoi I was determined to walk around and get a feel for its rhythm. The first thing I discovered is it is Taiwan's twin on using the sidewalks for everything except walking. Mom and Pop restaurants set up tables and chairs, racks of merchandise are pulled out onto the sidewalk, and of course, scooters park there. I took it easy on myself and simply walked one direction on my street until I found a cafe that looked nice. After a drink, I walked back. It was pretty crazy, with people, bicycles, cars, and scooters all in motion. I'd read that to cross the streets you simply walk out into the street at a steady pace. The traffic will flow around you. I cheated a bit on that and waited until one direction was clear, and then made my move. It worked, and I felt fairly confident crossing the little side streets after my first evening of walking.
Hanoi's outdoor vegetable markets
My second day in Hanoi was after my Ha Long Bay cruise had dropped me off around 430 pm. I wanted to squeeze in some sights in the later afternoon and evening, and maybe in the morning before my 1 pm flight. Back home, I'd made a list of things I wanted to see, but you know what they say about how plans survive contact with the enemy! The only things still open after 5 pm on my list were the Don Xuan covered market and Hoan Kiem Lake. I would be doing more than just walking back and forth on my hotel's street today, so I studied the map. I took a wrong turn almost immediately but realized it and adjusted on the fly. I was able to find the market with no problem. My guidebook said it stayed open till 6 pm, but at 530, most of the stalls were closing up.
The Hoan Kiem Lake temple at night
The challenge would be to navigate from the market (which was maybe 5 minutes from my hotel) to the lake. The lake was a good 20 minutes away, through twisting turning streets that sprayed forth a never-ending fountain of scooters. So, how did I do? Remember, I consider myself to have a relatively good sense of direction. To use my 7th graders' terminology, it was an epic fail. Don Xuan street was supposed to be a straight shot to the lake, but every block it did a slight jog. By always veering left on those jogs, I ended up going east instead of south. When I ran into an elevated roadway that was obviously impassable on foot, I gave up. That's when the Hanoi Humbling began. The Old City's streets are not on a squared grid pattern. They are a geometry teacher's dream, with more angles and diagonals than you would think possible in 360 degrees. I proceeded to spiral in towards my hotel, going first north, then west, east, south, west again, until I'd probably drawn a Spirograph of rings around it. I always felt I was one last turn away from my street. Like the mirage of the water patch on a summer freeway, it kept receding into the distance. Of course, since I am typing this, I did eventually find my way back. I am not still wandering out there in the Old Quarter today, like a modern day Captain Ahab hunting the elusive white hotel.
The most amazing thing to me, though, was after refreshing myself with a cold drink in my hotel room, I was ready to regroup and try again. I picked out a new route and was determined not to be defeated by Vietnam's streets. Yes, I could have hopped in a cab and said, "Hoan Kiem Lake, Jeeves..." The point was to get my bearings, to hope for serendipity, to find not just my way around, but the lay of the land. And this time, I was victorious. Along the way, I stopped and purchased a couple souvenirs for my friends Allen and Joel, but within 25 minutes, I was walking along the shores of the lake. It was dark by that time, but that was a bonus as it gave me a chance to get some shots of the city lit up at night. There is an island in the center of the lake with a temple, and it was floodlit a rich golden color. I set up my mini tripod as curious Vietnamese watched me. Joggers, walkers, and strollers all circled the path running around the lake. I looked at the restaurants, cafés, markets and such in the area and realized this was the area I should have stayed in. It is a perfect mix of amenities and sights. I double-checked my map and plotted a new route back to the hotel. My favorite moment came when a group of French tourists were hovering nervously on the street corner, unsure when to cross -- like wildebeests wary of crocodiles lurking in the river. I sailed past them, and could hear their voices murmuring as the traffic flowed around me while I crossed to the other side. It was hard not feeling smug, but I admit I'd did. A little. And I would pay for that tomorrow morning. My minor league victory would soon meet a major league challenge In Hanoi.
The Don Xuan covered market
My hotel said I should head to the airport at 11 am, so that gave me a few hours to see Hanoi's sights the next morning. Most opened at 8 am, but the Temple of Literature (what middle schoolteacher could resist?) opened at 730 am. I decided to do taxis for the most part to save time. At a few dollars a pop, there's not a lot of reason NOT to use them in Hanoi. The air conditioning and no chance of getting lost is an added bonus. The temple complex takes up a huge city block, with a brick wall around it and a series of courtyards going from the front progressively further back. It is dedicated to the great teacher....Confucius -- not me -- in case you're confused. It was peaceful and used wide pools and gardens to add to its air of tranquility. Not only Confucius was honored, but a number of acclaimed scholars and even three kings who'd supported Confucianism and embodied his ideals of a ruler taking care of his subjects like a loving father had monuments or shrines in their honor.
The Temple of Literature inHanoi, Vietnam
The Military History Museum looked a short walk away on the map, so I got my bearings upon exiting the temple, and headed that way. While walking alongside the walls of the temple complex, Vietnam sunk to a new low, in my book. Seeing the traffic jam ahead of them on the street, a steady stream of scooters drove up on the sidewalk to crowd towards the intersection..I was sorely tempted to clothesline a few, but figured a tangle with the police could cause me to miss my flight. But seriously! Where do you draw the line if you're going to take away the sidewalk and make it simply another lane? It is arrogant and rude, considering your own personal schedule more important than the safety of others. It is too easy to fall back on being "tolerant" of other cultures, and say, "Well, that is just the way they do things..." No. Were scooters part of Vietnamese culture in the Middle Ages? During Chinese rule? Heck, during French rule in the early 20th century? No. The Vietnamese need to simply say "enough is enough" -- like they are currently doing with drunk driving -- and stop it.
Next to the Military History museum is a tower built to honor the country' s defenders
Okay, I warned you that I would have a "Major League" test crossing the street. It happened when I got to that jammed packed intersection they were driving on the sidewalks to get to quicker. It was a big intersection...wide -- about six lanes, back in the States where there ARE lanes. But that's when I saw it: my first crossing signal in Vietnam! A little red lit guy telling me to wait. I thought, "Maybe this won't be as hard as I thought..." The little guy turned green and it was as if Poseidon had open the gates and released the Kraken of all traffic. A veritable torrent of scooters, cars and buses poured across my little white striped crosswalk. The little green guy seemed to be shrugging his shoulders at me, saying, "Sorry, dude..." There was no waiting for a gap -- none was in sight. I thought of those French tourists watching me cross last night. I could almost hear them snickering, "Where's your silly American bravado, now? I taunt you a second time!"
So, I took a breath. Then I stepped into the intersection. I moved steadily across the street, hesitating only once to avoid walking into a motorbike. I would estimate I crossed a dozen streams of intertwining traffic before I stepped up onto the sidewalk on the other side. What a rush! It worked...reading those guidebooks and watching travel channel shows had truly prepped me for a test I would have failed otherwise. Damn! I wished I'd gotten that on video! I could hear my fellow teachers at Orange Middle School cheering, "WorldWIDE!" Ha, ha! Seriously, that is half of the addiction of travel. You set challenges for yourself, strange new cultures, exotic lands where you don't speak the language, grueling hikes to see places of wonder...all of that is a test for yourself. Can you rise to the challenge? The confidences that overseas travel gives you is one of the benefits few people talk about. It is there, though, and I felt it as raw adrenalin-fueled triumph surged through my veins as I stepped up onto that curb.
The tower next to the museum
I had braved the Hanoi traffic for its Military History Museum. It turned out to be a confusing, sprawling complex of buildings. As expected, it focused on Vietnam's struggle for independence from the Chinese, Mongols, French, Japanese, and it's war against the "puppet regime" supported by the United States. You could easily spend a full day here, if you're the type to read every caption to every exhibit (which were in Vietnamese, French, and English). I'm not, though that may surprise some. The best part was the collection of military equipment outside on the grounds of the museum. These included a Soviet jet fighter, armored vehicles, artillery, missile batteries -- you name it! I took more photos than I would for the benefit of my friends, who are at times even bigger military history buffs than I am.
Soviet jet fighter at the Military Museum
My last stop in Hanoi was the prison where U.S. POWs were kept during the Vietnam War. I had not realized it was also the place the French kept Vietnamese rebels ("patriots" is what the museum called them, fairly enough). There was definitely some propaganda going on. The Vietnamese prisoners were depicted in shackles, being tortured and starved, and generally mistreated. I believe that happened, of course. That is the French colonial track record. Read up on what they did during the Algierian revolution. It became propaganda when the U.S. prisoners (which include Sen. John McCain) are portrayed decorating Christmas trees, playing volleyball, and generally enjoying a country club atmosphere. We all know that wasn't the rule. We learn no lessons when we distort the truth.
The Military Hostory Museum in Hanoi
A quick cab ride back to the hotel, another shower, and it was off to Da Nang. Will Hanoi end up being my favorite part of the trip? Of course not. I think I will never forget that feeling, though when I waded into that intersection full of traffic. Equally, I will always remember the exhilaration when I stepped up onto the curb on the other side. The big city had tested me, and I had embraced its challenge.