Don’t worry, as the alternative title suggests, this isn’t a post about the Finnish 80s rockers, but just a quick journal entry on my recent, but very brief, away-break to Vietnam, or more specifically, Hanoi. We were only there for two full days, but we did a lot of walking, a fair bit of talking and finally answered the age-old question of why the chicken crossed the road?
Before – Why Hanoi?
July 26th 2000 – As I burst into the hospital room, panting and sweating, looking around frantically for my best friend in the world Razzle Harley, hoping, praying, pleading to any deity that will take me that it ain’t too late, I swivel around and there he is, Razzle, my brother, my padre, the goddam best pal a kid could ever have, eyes sunken, cheeks sucked in, quite a big zit right on the tip of his nose. He beckons me over with a weak movement of his forefinger, it’s clear he has something important to say, some last parting words of wisdom, a final wish. As I fling myself down onto the sweat-soaked bedclothes, his hot, sickly breath tickles my ear. The concentration on his ravaged face is intense as he summons up every last fibre of his being to utter a single syllable, “Han”. Han? Han? What can this mysterious code mean? “Han- sel and Gretel?” I ask, my eyes seeking his understanding, he moves his head in a weak sideways glance, “Erm….Han Solo? You want to watch Star Wars?” I ask excitedly. Again he shakes his head. “Han….han…han….hangliding! You want to go hangliding?! OK, sure, I’ll arrange everything, we’ll go tomorrow” I yelp triumphantly. “No, you prick, I was trying to say Hanoi before you fucking interrupted me, I was going to ask you to bury this pendant somewhere for me in 14 years time, but I can’t be bothered now, forget it”…and as the last words left his trembling lips, he faded away and I swore there and then that some day, somehow, I would carry out my friends final wish.
It was like totally the cheapest Super Summer Sale bargain thing and it looked like a bit of a laugh.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is the true version.
Arrival – Saturday night
We arrived around 9:30 at night, right into a hot and humid Hanoi Saturday night (not quite as hot, but quite a bit more humid than Japan at the moment). As our fellow travellers retired to their beds (my favourites were the middle aged couple who dressed in exactly the same clothes as each other every day. Every day they were wearing something different, but it was always the same as each other, except for the fact that he was sporting a serious, heavy duty, 3-tier bumbag (that’s a ‘fanny pack’ (snigger, snigger) for our American cousins), whilst she only had the single storey one. I strapped Panthercub onto my back and we headed out in search of a ‘Bia Hoi’ (a place where they serve dead cheap draught beer and whatever speciality food) and some late night Pho. We got beer at the first place (8000 dong, just over 20p) and some Pho at the second. Most other customers were gone as it was getting late and it was heartening to see three or maybe even four generations of the same family, from the smallest children to the oldest and wisest grandmothers and great-grandmothers all gathering together on a Saturday night to
sing traditional songs and listen to folk tales passed on through a grand oral tradition for centuries watch The Voice (X-Factor was on Sunday night!).
Day 1 – Sunday
Up early for a hotel breakfast of… erm…. Pho (again! so soon!) and some other nearly identifiable foodstuffs that were all pretty good, then headed for an indoor market type-place. It didn’t seem to be for tourists (at least not that early on a Sunday morning), but was a kind of wholesale market for shop owners etc.
++Travel Tip #1 – If you ever go to Vietnam and if you happen to have a spare one at home, I highly recommend taking along an extremely cute baby. Any kind will do, but in my limited experience, if you do have a mixed Japanese/English one, they work extremely well!++
In Vietnam, everyone seems to sit on tiny plastic stools, which made them exactly eye-level with Panthercub’s pushchair, which meant that everywhere we went he was pointed at, cooed over, kissed, photographed on iPhones and had his cheeks pinched a thousand times – in short, people absolutely loved kids and babies. So, as we weaved our way through the narrow corridors of the market stopping at every stall for a cheek-pinch and a few words of broken English. We bought something sticky and sweet wrapped in a leaf (not great) and hit the dusty streets to do battle with the approximately 27 billion* scooters. With Panthercub coming up to 2 years old, he is bang in the middle of what educational development experts call the “Roy Walker Phase”* in that he says what he sees. This made for fairly repetitive commentary from him (“bike, bike, bike, bike, bike, bike, chicken, bike, bike, bike, bu-bu+, bike, bike, globalsed cultural homegenisation, bike, bike, bike “).
++Travel Tip #2 – The key to crossing the road in Hanoi is to go against intuition and take it slowly, taking it one scooter at a time. Make eye contact with the oncoming traffic and do a little dance around each other++
The Sunday morning streets were buzzing with a thousand different smells, colours, tastes, live chickens, very dead chicken feet, unnecessarily spiky fruit, women and men carrying whole industries precariously balanced on their shoulders and a LOT of tiny plastic chairs. I marvelled as a teenage street seller, sat hunched on his plastic school, his fresh vegetables and noodles inches from the fumes and roar of the streets, his deft hand movements, honed by centuries of practised skinning and boning, as he expertly swooshed the screen on his iPad to check the latest Premiership transfer news.
Which brings me to the whole globalisation thing. The word ‘globalisation’ is usually a shorthand for Westernisation, or even shorter hand for American cultural imperialism, but the globalisation I saw in Hanoi came from different corners of the world. From the teenage boys on their Italian Vespas, texting on their American iPhones, wearing their British Burberry t-shirts, with their dyed, angular haircuts the perfect imitation of their Korean pop idols. To the kids sitting in the doorways reading Japanese manga (Doraemon was really popular) in their Angry Birds (erm….from Appland??!) pyjama bottoms and F.C. Barcelona/Messi football tops as their mums browsed the latest fashions on their iPhones (yes, again. It seemed like everyone had an iPhone!). At first I was horrified by all this crassness and lowest-common-denominator pop culture magpie-ism, but then I realised that it shouldn’t be just ‘our’ allegedly first-world countries that get to be shallow, brainless idiots, it should be open to all! And that, ladeezangenelmen, is what globalisation is all about.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes, well it had been ay least two hours since breakfast, so Mrs Panther led us into a tunnel for a mid-morning bowl of Bun Bo Ban Bo, a kind of spicy, dry-ish noodle dish. I started to realise that I was being taken on a B-kyu (b-list) gourmet tour of Hanoi against the will of my famously delicate stomach. It was absolutely delicious though!
Panthercub was getting a bit restless, so we went to a big park which had pedaloes all kinds of retro fair rides that wouldn’t pass a health and safety check in Tokyo (or any other city, probably!) and we manged to quickly pass a couple of hours in the hot sunshine, with the wee one having a whale of a time.
I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of the day, but there was a lot of walking and a lot of eating. As the sun began to set our feet were sore and with Panthercub sound asleep in his pushchair, Mrs Panther saw the opportunity for a bit of pampering. The shortest foot massage on offer was 70 minutes, which sounded like a bloody long time to me. I’m not really a touchy-feely person and am notoriously bad at receiving massages. Crossing our fingers that Panthercub would stay asleep for the full 70 minutes we made our way into a darkened, silent room where a couple of people were already halfway through their foot punishment and laid back. The person unlucky enough to be assigned to me kept asking if I was OK and finally asked the person next to me how to say the word “relax”. I tried to explain that I was trying to, but I was a bit nervous and uncomfortable with the whole situation – seeing as she didn’t know the English word for ‘relax’, I think my hurried defence of my inability to relax was not readily understood, which made me feel even more guilty!
I managed to survive the embarrassment (miraculously Panthercub did stay asleep the whole time) and we made our way back to the hotel. It was still early-ish, so we headed out for some beers from the local shop and despite my protestations (I’m not a big eater), we headed for the ‘grilled chicken street’ and finished off with some over-sized, underpriced and very tasty chicken
Up early again, more pho in the hotel and headed back to the dusty streets to check out the other side of the city. This mainly involved lots more walking and avoiding the gap year kids/mid-life crisis grown-up backpackers (the latter seemed to outnumber the former!) who all seemed to be looking for the ‘real vietnam’ in the unlikely confines of overpriced, western-style coffee shops. This contrasted with the retired American couples who all looked slightly scared walking the streets, but very much at home in the big-colonial-houses-turned-overpriced-restaurants.
I know they represent colonial oppression and all that, but I loved these old colonial places. The shapes, colours, the slightly run-down but still magnificent pomp, they seemed to fit right into the hustle and bustle of the city. With that in mind, after two days of squatting on plastic chairs eating food from the side of the road with the locals, we went to one of these old colonial places for lunch. Embarrassingly effusive service (as you can tell, I’m very uncomfortable with being waited on in any way whatsoever), good food and cold beer – perfect!
We realised we hadn’t done anything cultural yet, so we caught a taxi to a temple that I can’t remember the name of (I’m pretty sure it is really famous though!) and accidentally sneaked in without paying. We really didn’t mean to, but by the time we realised it was too late! We bumped into the matching clothes/mighty bumbag couple who were there on an organised tour and looked on admiringly at the lotus flowers together.
It was getting late, so we decided to walk back to the hotel and see the last part of the city on the way. We stopped off for a glass of Che (a kind of gloopy, sweet dessert thing that has fruit in it and is eaten with a spoon, but usually served in a glass) by the side of the road as Panthercub ran around, charming the locals and playing with the owners daughter, who was around the same age as him.
We somehow managed to get completely lost and ended up battling through the death-defying rush-hour traffic in the wrong direction for over an hour. After walking through numerous back streets and having the locals come out of their houses to see what the outsiders were doing in their neighbourhood (again though, everyone was super-friendly and helpful), we finally gave up and got a taxi back to near the hotel.
We finished our last evening in Hanoi in a big open-air beer place that was full of local salarymen knocking back the Bia Ha Noi after a hard day on the scooter!
And that was pretty much that. A very brief, but enjoyable couple of days in a very different Asia to the one I’m used to and a quick lesson on the impact of the globalised society we all live in these days. I have to admit that it was a bit of a relief to get back to the still futuristic toilets (come on rest-of-the-world, we’ve had these toilets for like 30 years or something!) and clear demarcations of lovely, clean, organised Japan, but I would definitely go back again, maybe when Panthercub is old enough to remember everything.
Oh….so, why DID the chicken cross the road? Because it’s got a fucking deathwish, that’s why!
* All statistics and facts are completely valid and true at the time that they were made up.
+ Japanese for ‘broom broom’
Apologies for the lack of photos to accompany this, Mrs Panther deals with that side of things and she’s in bed!