There is no better introduction to Hanoi than a cab ride through the old district at midnight. The sidewalks are packed full of parked scooters, the street vendors plastic chairs have spilled into the street, while thousands of people both tourist and locals alike are drinking, eating, and trying to move through the warm night. The street is left with barely enough space for a single vehicle to drive. Yet the scooters are insistent upon shoving their way through the smallest of non-existent spaces, like five-year-olds jostling for position as they line up at the door for recess. The four blocks it takes to leave the main street and venture into the old district to reach our hotel is a fifteen minute journey that makes you feel like you are driving on the sidewalks of Manhattan The slightest move to the left or right will crush the toes of people trying to squeeze past your car before the next set of scooters topple them over.
The driving in Hanoi is the apex of poor driving in south-east Asia. I am not sure if it is a simple numbers game? The fact that the roads are four times as populated as other parts of south-east Asia. Or if it’s the hustle and bustle of a city that has stripped virtually every one of their patience. Describing the style of driving is easy. It is conducted in the same manner as a crowd attempting to exit a building after someone yells fire. There is no regard for anyone but yourself. To slow down, to not aggressively push past everyone in your way, to not charge full speed ahead, is simply jeopardizing your own life. It seems like they would rather risk injury to themselves and others then use their break, even just for a second.
The constant blare of horns is just as much apart of the day as the sun rising and the wind blowing. In fact, I had someone who was attempting to pull off the sidewalk onto the street and I was so oblivious to their repeated attempts to ask me to move (laying on their horn). He was forced to get halfway off his bike and tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. The horns on vehicles are used for everything. Most notably, a signal that someone behind you is just moments from slamming into you. You being a car, another scooter, or even a person standing completely still with your back to traffic just one step off of the sidewalk (A position you quickly realize is taunting death). In fact, even just putting one foot onto the road is like stepping into the octagon. You better be ready to be hit. Stepping off the sidewalk is like refusing to cook eggs for an abusive husband. First there is a look of confusion from the scooter drivers. But that look is immediately replaced with a look of rage and determination to smack the shit out of you.
The horn on a vehicle is also used to: indicate you are turning, letting those around you know you want to go faster, telling others that you are going through the intersection, letting others know you are not happy with someone going through the intersection, telling other drivers that you are slowing down, you are upset, you are impatient, you are impatient with someone being impatient, you don’t know what’s going on but you don’t like being stopped, etc, etc, etc.
You might be thinking that the close quarter driving and constant hecticness would instill confidence in your belief that these drivers are adapted to their conditions. That the fact they were practically born on the back of a Vespa for generations would somehow genetically alter them to become superior drivers. Like a family of fishermen, it must be in their blood?
This couldn’t be any further from the truth. It would be like saying every American is a crack shot with a gun, all Canadians know how to make amazing maple syrup, or all Mexicans are in someway involved in drug trade. Ok, maybe that last one wasn’t such a great example.
During our first 24 hours in Hanoi we were witness to four accidents. Making it a total of eight in Vietnam so far. Which we both thought was surprisingly low considering how many close calls we saw. One of the accidents happened when a steel rod about 12 feet long fell into the road. I watched as two scooters, with at least five seconds reaction time and 12 feet of space. But they didn’t even attempt to hit the brakes. They looked shocked when they both were picking themselves up off the ground.
An accident seems to be the only time that other drivers are concerned about each other. They are quick to rush to the victims aid and help them to their feet or to the side of the road. But it doesn’t take you long to figure out their concern is for the “flow” of traffic rather than the health of the fallen (I say “flow” because if they just had some fucking patience and organization things would move so much more efficiently). We actually had the misfortune of watching an ambulance try to get someone back to the hospital. Their siren was no more effective at moving people than the guys horn who was trying to get me off the sidewalk. Rather than the typical parting of the seas reaction you get in the States. Scooters observed the ambulance as simply another obstacle they needed to weave around.
Thankfully, just outside the Old District lays a small lake. Its unobstructed sidewalks provide a much-needed sanctuary from the hectic traffic, constant noise pollution and pushy doughnut ladies who have a similar sales strategy as the suit salesmen in Koh Saumi.
Hanoi is the final resting place to Ho Chi Minh. The communist Vietnamese revolutionary leader who was prime minister (1945–1955) and president (1945–1969). His embalmed body is currently on display in a mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square despite his will requesting that he be cremated (Wikipedia).
We arrived at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb after an unexpected impromptu tour of the city. Which was really our karmic destiny for being lazy. The tomb was borderline walking distance from our hotel. But the twenty to thirty minutes it would have taken to get there felt like an eternity after the mental and emotional damage sustained from our death march in Hue. The opportunistic taxi driver was more than happy to give us the run-around (literally), driving almost 5K out-of-the-way by performing a large arching movement around our final destination. We were only keyed into his antics because we were following his route with our map and some minimal knowledge of the area. This puts us in an all too common situation. Being ripped off, knowing it, but trying to gauge the monetary loss of the scam versus the pain staking time it would take to challenge the punk bitch ripping us off. We have been here before, we know how the drill goes if we choose to object. We contest, he pretends not to understand why we are complaining, then we watch as his English vanishes like the great Houdini in front of our very eyes, until it is well past our threshold of patience and we would have been better served if we paid him double of what he was asking. So we exit the vehicle with a surrendering sigh and bite our tongue in order to save our energy for the exploration of the tomb.
Ho Chi Minh’s popularity in Vietnam would be undermined if you compared it to that of Elvis, JFK, or Martin Luther King. . . . combined. Thankfully Sally noted that Lonely Planet warned not to get discouraged by the lines. Otherwise when we turned up and saw half of Hanoi lining up like the new iphone was being released, we would have called it a day and found the nearest bar.
After a ten minute walk we finally found the back of the line. We stepped behind the never-ending snake of people and wondered just how long of wait we were in for. Sally noticed an employee of the tomb and asked the very question that weighed so heavily on our minds.
Sally: Excuse me, do you know how long the wait is?
Employee: Ten minutes.
We looked at each other with a unified expression of confusion. Even if the line uniformly began to jog at a brisk pace to the grave, it would take longer then ten minutes. Clearly there was a translation break down.
In the three and a half seconds it took for this conversation to transpire, a small Vietnamese girl pushed her way in front of us in line. This was particularly confusing because Sally and I were the last two people in line. We looked at each other, at her, back at each other, at her boyfriend who stood behind us, back at her, and then finally back at one another.
Bret: What the fuck?
This was not our first introduction to the Vietnamese version of linear formations. We have found that the rule of lines is similar to the scooters rules on the road. That is, if you are in front of me but have chosen to leave enough room for even a fly to squeeze between you and the person in front of you. Then you really aren’t showing interest enough to be in line and I can place myself were said fly would have the opportunity to be positioned.
Once in Hue, we were being checked out at the grocery store and there was another western couple behind us. There was a rack of impulse purchases to their right and a large metal bar to their left. They left the understood western appropriate amount of space between us (one foot) and waited patiently for our transaction to be finished. While we were getting ready to hand over our credit card a middle-aged local woman pushed pass them (almost shoving them into the candy bars) and dropped her basket in front of the other couples items. The same dumbfounded look of “what the fuck just happened” came over all four of us. But the western girl wasn’t having it. After a few words of ignored pleading, she simply pivoted in front of the local woman and boxed her out like Shaq going for a rebound.
This strategy was not lost on Sally, but she first attempted to reason with the intruding girl.
Sally: Excuse me, we were here.
(nothing, zero acknowledgement)
Sally: Excuse me
Sally tapped her and repeated her statement that we were obviously here before the girl.
(The girl looked at her for a brief second and then went back to looking straight ahead)
Sally’s patience was wearing as the girl was not only pretending that she didn’t cut, but now refused to acknowledge our existence.
Sally tried the passive approach.
Sally: It is really rude to cut in front of people.
Sally then resorted to the Garth get the fuck off the Murph Mobile approach. Using her hands like blades to shoo the girl back. Yet she still stood like a sentinel, dedicated to holding her post.
Finally her boyfriend grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her back. There was no apology, no fake look of confusion (Oh were you standing there?), just a distasteful glare at her boyfriend for not joining her campaign to hijack our spot. Our spot that was only one fucking position from the fucking back! The line was so long, to cut in front of us would have been like scooping a cup of water from a pool in an attempt to empty it. We took our que from the girl at the grocery store and stood in a bent knee, hands out, basketball stance for the remainder of the 45 minutes it took to reach the actual display (a pinch off the 10 minutes we were told to expect).
Once we entered the room itself we completed a circular motion around the room, viewing the display at 12 ft distance as we were hurried through the exhibit. There are comments about Ho Chi Minh’s body being a wax replica, the fine work of Madame Tussauds. From the distance we viewed the body it’s difficult to contest this theory. Regardless, I couldn’t help but wonder if the spirit of Ho Chi Minh is still looking for the girl with the green eyes.