Our Vietnam Trip — Part I: Hanoied
The Chinese have a word for it: ru nao. I assume the Vietnamese have a word for it, too, but I don't know Vietnamese. I don't even really know the Vietnamese for “thank you,” which is the first word one should learn when staying in a foreign country: thank you, hello, please, I'm sorry, how much, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. I know something of the Vietnamese for “hello” (xin chao) and I know something of “thank you” (cam on), but Vietnamese is a tonal language, just as Mandarin is a tonal language; except Vietnamese has seven tones to Mandarin's four, and the Mandarin four are, in comparison, fairly straightforward: an even, musical tone (like “fa” on the musical scale), a rising tone, a falling tone, and a falling then rising tone. They’re numbered, too, which makes clarification easier. “Which tone?” “Third tone.” In Vietnamese the tones tend to swoop and soar and stop suddenly and pile on themselves. If tones are like stairs—one is usually in some process of rising or falling—Vietnamese tones feel like a series of stairs by M.C. Escher.
Ru nao, whose tones I’ve forgotten, and which has no direct English translation, means busy and bustling and crowded and noisy and hectic, and Taipei, Taiwan, where I lived in 1987-88, and again in 1990-91, was hen ru nao; but Hanoi, where my friends Andy and Joanie moved last August, and which Patricia and I visited for the first time last month, is even more ru nao than my memory of Taipei. The city supposedly holds 6.5 million people, and four of them, Andy, Joanie, and their daughters, Fiona and Matilda, ages 7 and 4, live on the northeast side of Ho Tay, the giant lake to the north of the city, and are thus at a remove from some of this busyness. But it’s a short remove. Take a right out their front door, walk past the badminton court frequently in use by their Vietnamese neighbors, up a narrow alleyway that invariably smells of urine, and you’re in the thick of it again: the noise, the bustle, the sidewalks so crowded with parked motorbikes and piles of wires or mounds of dirt that they’re not much good for walking; the crazy traffic and constant beeping/honking off the Au Co. It is, in an English word, overwhelming, and in those first few days I felt overwhelmed.
Patricia was overwhelmed as well but in a good way. She is invariably game for anything, and she’d never been to Asia, so she kept saying: Wow, this. I am invariably game for little, and I’d had that history in Taipei, so I kept thinking: Oh yeah, this.
Oh yeah: these chalky tiled sidewalks made chalkier by pollution. Oh yeah: these dim fluorescent lights that cast a ghostly pallor over tiled rooms. Oh yeah: this humidity that curls the covers of paperback books and turns tile floors clammy. Oh yeah: this pollution that burns in the back of the throat. Oh yeah: ru nao.
On our first full day, Patricia, who had done the Lonely Planet reading (unlike some of us), wanted to go to the Old Quarter, with its narrow streets and small shops, north of Ho Hoan Kiem (Hoan Kiem Lake), and the Engelsons obliged. It’s often the first stop for foreigners, and it has its share of them, along with everything one associates with proximity to foreigners with deep pockets. All day the Vietnamese tried to sell us taxicab rides, pedicab rides, xe em (motorbike) rides, trinkets, watches, jewelry. A woman, wearing the traditional Vietnamese conical hat, and carrying fruits and vegetables on either end of the traditonal Vietnamese bamboo pole, tried to sell us her wares. When we begged off, she placed the bamboo pole on my shoulder. It was heavier than I anticipated and initially I thought she wanted help. Initially I felt chivalrous. Then she tried placing her conical hat on my head. Andy, half-abashed, explained that it’s a touristy thing. Foreigners get their pictures taken wearing her hat and carrying her load, and she gets money, and maybe sells them something. I went from feeling chivalrous to feeling appalled—less for her than for the tourists who do this kind of thing. At the same time, being appalled, and giving back her hat and pole as if they were diseased, didn’t exactly help her out.
Most of the streets in the Old Quarter are dedicated to one product, and their names reflect this. Hang Bac means shops of silver, Hang Dao shops of silk. We saw less silver and silk than shoes, towels, trinkets, art knockoffs, DVDs. The DVDs are knockoffs, too, bootlegs, and include movies that are still in theaters—most notably “Avatar,” whose DVD is set to be released in the States on Earth Day, April 22nd. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this but I was, and I wondered about its quality. A week and a half later, at the Ben Trahn Market in Saigon, curiosity got the better of me. The woman wanted 15,000 Vietnamese dollars (VND), or dong, for “Avatar,” but I offered 10,000 and she shrugged and took it. Basically I bargained her down from 75 cents to 50 cents. For a DVD of “Avatar.” That plays on U.S. systems. And isn’t filmed by someone in the back row of the theater but is a high-quality digital copy of the entire film. No wonder Hollywood’s worried. The DVD’s maker, if one wants to use that word, is a company called Simba, which promises “The Best Quality Trust," while the back of the DVD's packaging includes two impotent symbols: a copy protection label and an FBI anti-piracy warning. Our last day in Vietnam, back in the Old Quarter, I went a step further, asking for movies that hadn’t even been released into U.S. theaters yet. Did they have, say, “Iron Man 2”? They didn't, but, "Soon," the man promised. Then he offered “Alice in Wonderland,” “Repo Men,” “Percy Jackson.” He offered me the HBO Miniseries “The Pacific,” which, in the States, had aired only three of its 10 episodes. We should all be worried.
For lunch we went to a street vendor for bun cha: grilled pork, sticky noodles, greens and peppers mixed and dipped in a broth. As a child in the Midwest, I liked to get everything onto one fork—meat, potatoes and vegetable—and bun cha is kind of like that. You want all the flavors between your chopsticks and in your mouth at the same time. (For a better description, go here.) Patricia loved it, loved eating on the street, laughed about the yoga positions required to sit on those small, blue, plastic stools before that small, blue plastic table. I thought the bun cha delicious, too, but wondered how we wound up at this place, and how clean it was, and what disease I might be getting. (Spoiler: none.)
The market in the Old Quarter.
You don’t realize the extent of the noise of Hanoi until you get out of it, and, after lunch, as Joanie took the girls for ice cream, Andy took Patricia and I to an expat joint: through a bar, up the back stairs, and onto a leafy terrace sheltered from the street. That’s when you feel your ears suddenly relax. Andy ordered his regular, ca phe sua da, or coffee (ca phe) with condensed milk (sua) and ice (da). Patricia followed. I went with an iced lime drink they called a shake. Later Andy took us through another bar and up some more back stairs to purchase tickets for trips later in the week. Then the three of us went to the Old Quarter’s market to buy food for dinner that evening. Patricia was in heaven—she loves markets—but this is precisely when I became fed up with Hanoi. The markets are even more crowded than the streets, and yet, through the narrow lanes, covered by dirt and slop, people still ride their motorbikes, beeping all the while. Could I stand here? No. Here? No. It felt like no matter where I stood I was in someone’s way. It felt like Vietnam was allowing me no place to stand.