Saturday, December 30, 2006

Here in Hanoi

The sound of a loudspeaker followed by music is heard from outside our hotel at 7 in the morning. This doesn't wake us as the honking horns have already done that. Hanoi is a noisy city, overrun by motorbikes that maneuver among the many fewer cars with what looks like suicidal abandon, but everyone seems to manage it quite comfortably with the use of the horn. The horn tells you someone's behind you, tells someone else you're about to swing across their path, tells everyone, "look out, pay attention!" You couldn't possibly drive without it. In the midst of this controlled madness we pedestrians cross the street as if we had no fear: once started you have to keep going, because in the complex calculation of the streets you are one more factor and you have to be where you are expected to be. Any hesitation or change of direction is potentially deadly.

One other vehicle is part of this mobile mix: the cyclo, a bicycle rickshaw with a seat in front and bike at the back. These are fun and Gene loved his first ride with its easy view of life on the street, but Shelli felt that she had managed to ingest enough carbon exhaust to make up for the cigarettes she stopped smoking years ago. Later rides, not during rush hour, were more pleasant. As an aside, we have been taking the motorcycle-driven transportation called tuk tuk in Bangkok, Laos and Cambodia. Shelli was stunned in Hanoi to realize that the equivalent transportation was not driven by motorcycles but rather by bicycle, which made her feel too close to colonial rickshaw-riding for comfort. Her first driver, an old man, was coughing so much she wasn’t sure he’d make it to the end of the trip. (This doesn’t seem to be the kind of job from which you can afford to retire early, and he’ll probably die pedaling.)

Gene counted twenty-five shops on one block of our cyclo tour. There were two or three herbalists, a few electronics stores selling the latest in flat screen technology, three toy stores, a liquor store, a wool and yarn shop, a few pho shops with 12-inch high stools on the sidewalk and the kitchen in an alley no more than three feet wide, several jewelry stores, clothing stores and two Christmas tree decoration stores (yes, even here in the heart of communist Vietnam). Many of the stores are no more than six feet wide, with their merchandise spread out on the sidewalk so that pedestrians are forced into the street. If the stock isn’t on the sidewalk the motorbikes are.

It's exciting and overwhelming, and a stroll through the Old Quarter surprises us with temple courtyards and cafes hidden behind innocuous-seeming storefronts. We don't have the nerve to order from the sidewalk food vendors, but we do buy fruit from the many vendors. The tangerines are delicious.

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