Monday, April 23, 2007

Hanoi

Don't be fooled by this picture! If you have nothing to do on a Saturday night, and want some real adventure and excitement, try taking the 45 minute taxi ride from Hanoi airport into the downtown. It is right up there with every absorbing car chase scene you have seen in the movies, with vehicles going down the wrong side of the street, near collisions every second, and continuous honking and flashing lights. It was a good preview of what was in store over the next few days.

We would have liked to have spent a bit of time in Vietnam, but only had a few days. As a result, we decided to visit Hanoi, rather than Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called) since a Vietnamese architect once told me in a bar in Taipei that it had wonderful historic buildings that had to be seen before they were demolished. It may well be, but quite honestly, we spent so much time trying to avoid being hit by buses, cars and scooters that we really didn’t get a chance to truly appreciate Hanoi’s architecture.

It is an amazing place. I used to think Bangkok was a difficult city to drive around, but it’s nothing compared to Hanoi. The city doesn’t have as many cars, but seems to have a lot more scooters. I was told there are 4 million people in Hanoi, and 3 million scooters. It’s not true of course, but it sure feels like it. I used to think that more scooters in Vancouver would be a good idea, but now I’m not so sure I want to encourage this!

What saved our sanity was our hotel. We stayed on the executive floor of the Hanoi Horison Hotel, a five star Swiss-Belhotel. It would have cost at least $400 in most places, but cost $130 USD in Hanoi, when booked through…wot else? Wotif. While it wasn’t in the Old Quarter or the French Quarter where we would have preferred to stay, it was close enough. Just a harrowing 15 minute drive away. There was a private lounge that served complimentary meals and afternoon tea, and a private business centre. Each room had wireless internet, a luxury we enjoy, although at times it could be quite slow, like much of the internet over here. (So much so that I joked to someone that I seem to spent 10% of my trip, staring at a computer screen waiting for the Google box to appear!)

On Sunday afternoon, we did something we hadn’t done before; we took rides around the French Quarter in bicycle rickshaws. It was a bit easier than walking, but still somewhat perilous, especially when buses and trucks seemed to be coming right at us. After half an hour, we had had enough, since we were uncomfortable having these slight young men having to pedal so hard to transport our overweight bodies.

On Monday we decided to take a guided tour out to Halong Bay, about 180 km from the city. It included a boat cruise through the limestone outcroppings, and a tour of some caves. Again, the drive out was most frightening. The driver really didn’t show any preference for one side of the road over the other; but then he didn’t need to since he was a bigger than most of the other vehicles.

The trip around Halong Bay was a very unique experience. It was also enhanced by a chance meeting with Olga and Vsevolod Chernenko, a couple from Moscow. They were delightful, worldly, and great traveling companions. While a seafood buffet was served as part of the boat cruise, before lunch we motored up to a floating village. There, a variety of seafood was being sold, including things I had never before seen in my life. We were told that we should buy something to augment the buffet. The ‘chef’ on board would prepare it for us, for a small fee. Everything was sold by the kilo. Vsev and I decided on live prawns. The vendor had his own scales, and what we thought would be about 400 grams ‘weighed’ 1.2 kilos. Who were we to argue? They cost 300,000 dong! About $20 USD! It reminded me of the prawns at the farm in New Zealand. But they were quite delicious. After the purchase, a Vietnamese engineer from Saigon, who I had previously met on board apologized for the way we were treated. He assured me this would never happen in the south, but the northerners were different. “They won’t hesitate to take advantage of you” he said, “especially if they think you are American”. At least one Vietnamese fisherman can now take care of his family for another month!

As we drove back, I realized that the reason I hadn’t seen many new buildings in Hanoi was that I didn’t recognize them…they are designed and built to look like old buildings (just like in Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy). Most of them are very narrow; often no more than 4m in width, and up to five stories in height. They can be 50 m deep, with courtyards and light-wells to make the rooms more livable. Sometimes the ground floor is used for a store or other commercial uses; other times it is a gated courtyard. I read that the reason that the buildings are so tall and narrow is in large part due to the taxation system. Property taxes are based on frontage, rather than value. When you think about it, this makes quite a bit of sense. After all, a narrow building requires less sidewalk, road, and services to be built and maintained.

After three days, we were ready to leave Hanoi. To be fair, we probably needed more time to adjust. At the airport, we met an Australian couple who had spent three weeks traveling around Vietnam. I asked them how they enjoyed the experience. They loved it; especially the beaches and the small towns. They said they would definitely be back. Perhaps we will return one day to see the rest of the country. But we’ll give Hanoi a miss, unless we can be assured of room 1017 in the Horison Hotel at the special Wotif rate!

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