Morning in the Old Quarter (VN Diary No. 7)

Woke up early to the bells of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which is right across the street from my hotel, and went out for a walk. Hanoi does not get up terribly early — things begin to open up between seven and eight — so I took a walk around Ho Hoan Kiem, the lake in the center of the city, just south of the old quarter. By the time I’d walked around the lake — where thousands of people gather informally to do a combination of tai chi and calisthenics, some to music, some not — I found a cafe open and ordered coffee and bread, managing to make myself understood in Vietnamese. After that I set off into the Old Quarter north of the lake and got completely lost. This is a part of Hanoi I claim to know well and so I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I got completely turned around. I bought a bottle of water and some bananas — using Vietnamese — and asked directions, eventually finding my way back to the lake and thus to the hotel.

Hanoi is a wonderfully friendly city, a city with a sense of humor. The young woman who sold me bananas smiled ant my language skills and was very sweet, even as she insisted that, no, I did not want two bananas but three. How could I disagree? They cost about 25 cents each and are of the medium sixed, medium sweet variety. I didn’t see any of the tiny. thumb-sized and intensly sweet variety that I’ve only ever had in Vietnam.

My everyday life in New York is so quiet and regular that it’s quite a shock to the system to be set down in the middle of Hanoi; but it’s a salubrious kind of shock that does me good, gets me out of myself. It is terribly easy to fall into the habit of thinking that one’s own way of life is the only way — not even out of a sense of superority (though that’s common enough), but out of habit — and it is good to be reminded of the wild variety of human modes of being. I am fortunate to have found this place.

I’m still tired from my trip here. It’s only 9:30 in the morning and I already feel as if I’ve had a full day. I’m going to read, then do some language drill on the computer, then go investigate taking some cooking classes, though it looks as if it might rain this afternoon. Real work can wait until Monday.

Hazy, Hot, and Humid in Hanoi (Vietnam Diary No. 6)

Arrived yesterday after a very long trip but without incident. Was met as arranged with a driver from the hotel, which made the last leg of the trip as seamless as all the rest. I’d been absurdly afraid that Vietnam would be somehow less challenging — smoothed out by modernization — but I need not have worried. Same crazy traffic, same utter disregard for Western notions of zoning, same water buffalo being led across lanes of traffic from the airport by little boys.

Item: I did notice a couple of changes — everyone who rides a motorbike now wears a helmet (though some are pretty minimalist in design) and, in town, the street hawkers seemed much less aggressive than before. Maybe I was just too dazed to notice.

Item: I find that when I have the vocabulary I can generally make myself understood in Vietnamese, but the biggest difference is that I can hear spoken Vietnamese better than before. I chalk this up to drill with the computer, however sporadic, over the last few months. It’s my intention to make this trip an exercise in intensive language study.

Item: The long Cathay Pacific flight was very pleasant — more room in coach than is usual, I think, with attentive service. The amenities may not have been quite so nice, but any slight economizing that’s taken place since the last time I flew the airline didn’t detract from what was a very comfortable flight. It didn’t hurt that the airplane was only half full and that I had my entire row to myself. I slept a fair amount and read quite a bit, finishing another of the Patric O’Brien sea novels I’ve become re-addicted to recently. I tried to watch Sweeney Todd on the video screen, but I couldn’t get into it — I liked the music, but the pacing was tedious, perhaps to make space for the music. The whole Tim Burton night-of-the-living-dead / teased hair and black eye-shadow way of imagining the nineteenth century just did not seem convincing to me, not that I require historical fidelity. Add a comic book conception of good and evil and you don’t have a very convincing package.

Item: Just had my first Skype experience, a call from Carole, with video! When I first came to Vietnam more than a decade ago there was no such technology — only very expensive land-line calls. The quality of this call with Carole was remarkable, especially when you realize that it was free. I don’t have a video camera, so she couldn’t se mee, but I could see her — and Candy sitting on her lap. Over her shoulder I could look out the window at the Northern New Yoek spring. Amazing.

Vietnam Diary 5 (Nhat Ky 5)

Despite the fact that I haven’t quite made it to VN yet, this is my fifth diary entry. I’m in the Hong Kong airport drinking Starbucks coffee and enduring my final layover before I make the hop over to Hanoi this afternoon. If you asked me exactly how long I’ve been in transit I wouldn’t be able to tell you — once you cross the international dateline flying west for 18 hours, the elasticity of time becomes weirdly evident. The Hong Kong airport also looks like a larger version of the Ottawa and Vancouver BC airports from which I started my trip, which lends a spatial element to my temporal confusion. The good news is that it’s mid-morning and, having slept a bit on the plane, I am not entirely wiped out. No telling how I’ll feel by the time I actually check into the Spring Hotel on Nha Chung street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. I’m hoping to have the energy to shower, take a walk, and eat dinner at a banh cuon stall.