My arrival in Vietnam went as expected. The taxi drivers accosted us immediately offering rides for 20$, the humidity was palpable and the sky was overcast. We found our bus (which had seen better days) and paid 75 cents for two people for the long drive to Hanoi. The young toll collector on the bus closed my window when I tried to get some “fresh air”. He probably knew better than I did, that the dust was more clogging than the stale bus air. His socks were speckled with dots, and I thought, he’s just a bus fare collector, but he’s got on nice socks! Then I looked closer and they were mud or food stains. He was just a quick reminder to me that Vietnam is only 40 years out of the war, and that people here are still rebuilding.
I remember thinking after we went over more potholes that jarringly rattled the windows, “Thank god they have that speed bump there, or else people could really be flying down these holey, unpaved streets.” The roadside was amazingly interesting. There were half-clothed children running, chickens fighting in cages, slow, smoky fires burning, all without apparent supervision, expansive landscapes of rice paddies being farmed by old ladies in knee high rubber boots and the classic pyramid hats. Buildings are very skinny, tall and usually equipped with columns and decorative stuccos or accoutrements. The people are all moving, both in a hurry and lazy like, as if they have nowhere to go, but they have to get there before you. Stores are selling everything. It’s hard to believe any country needs this much street commerce. Motorbikes became more ubiquitous as we got closer to Hanoi.
It is apparent quite quickly that this is not Korea. Korea’s busy beehive seems so clean, efficient and organized compared to this overcrowded, messy, anarchic anthill. I was immediately struck by the architecture and how every building had a nice style, even if it was dilapidated. Korean post-war block architecture greatly lacks flavor (even though that is changing slowly). I love a long bus ride to acclimatize to a new city; and our two hour bumpiness gave me ample time to adjust.
We got off at Long Bien station and weaved away from the pesky taxi drivers and asked some locals how to find our hotel. Eventually, the wildness and unpredictability of the traffic and our burdensome luggage prompted us into a cyclo ride. We did the math and realized with every pedal of his bike, he was pushing 250kg. He rode us at least 10 blocks for about 3$. Our room was at ready, small and clean. We were staying at The Landmark Hotel, (19 Nguyen Van To) a very reasonably priced and clean place. After a quick tea, the Vietnamese cuisine called us outside. The famous local restaurant (Quan An Ngon) was outstanding and reasonably priced. Assorted dishes with exotic names and familiar ingredients tickled our taste buds, and all washed down with Beer HaNoi. A wonderful first day finished with a slow walk down the dark and dirty, yet relaxed streets, cluttered with simmering pots and chatting Vietnamese.
Also, I’m pretty sure this guy on the bike is giving me the peace sign while driving through traffic with a fur coated lady on the back.