Thursday, 15 March 2012

042 to the North

As of today, I have solidly entered the rainy part of Vietnam. It isn't the monsoon weather as I was told it works, with warm and humid weather all day, interrupted by torrential downpour for a couple of hours on set times of the afternoon. No, in Hue I encounter weather I know from home: long, grey days in which it rains steadily without end. I guess it is very Dutch of me to comment on the weather, but I urge you to keep in mind that up to now, in three months of Asia I have had about four days of rain. That is all going to change now.
In the towns I go through now, most of the locals and many of the tourists walk around in thin cheap raincoats made from colorful plastic that are sold everywhere by old ladies roaming the streets. Suddenly, everyone looks alike, armies of brightly colored ghosts floating through the cityscape. Motorists with flapping peaces of plastic trailing them, trying to protect themselves, their kids, their grandmother, their livestock and whatever else they saw fit to carry around on their bike from the incessant rain.

Hue is the former imperial city of Vietnam. Currently Vietnam doesn't have an imperial city, on account of not having an emperor. The emperors used to move around quite a bit, this city only became the capital in 1802, and ceased to be the seat of power when the emperor abdicated in 1945 to make way for the communist regime. But this emperor planned things well, and built his city next to a big river. The town was (and the historical center still is) surrounded by a moat and high walls, measuring ten kilometer in length. Within these walls, close to the river, even bigger walls seal off the palaces of the imperial enclosure.
Unlike Hoi An where I was earlier, most of the Hue was reduced to rubble during the Vietnam war between the South and the Communist North, which is named 'The American War' here. Parts of the imperial enclosure have since been rebuild, and make for a very interesting and beautiful day of walking among the temples and palaces.

When I stroll around, I talk to a local I first mistake for a moto-taxi looking for work. He asks me where I am from, and then reveals that he doesn't want to sell me anything, but just wants to talk. Initially cautious, I let him convince me to go for a lunch and a beer in a nearby local restaurant. He is an interior decorator working on the restoration of an old building, but because of the heavy rains today he was sent home early. He genuinely wants to practice his English, and we have a nice conversation over fantastic food. After I walk back to my hotel I feel a bit embarrassed for having been suspicious of someone who turned out to be just a curious and hospitable local. 

I embark on the third long train trip north in this long, long country. I'm moving up in the world. Having started with a hard seat ride and graduated to a hard sleeper, now I find myself on a soft sleeper, the best of the best, as far as Vietnamese trains are concerned. It is indeed rather nice, I sleep well, especially after walking into the restaurant wagon in search of some food. Two hours later I stumble towards my bunkbed, having just downed a couple of vodka´s offered to me by the six members of train staff that I found there, obviously not bogged down with work in any way.
In the morning I arrive in Hanoi, but I leave it again just 45 minutes later, having eaten a quick breakfast and hurled myself through traffic on the back of a motorbike toward the bus station. I will come back here, but first I will spend a few days in Ha Long Bay, an incredible collection of tiny and slightly bigger rocky stumps sticking out of the sea. I stay on the biggest island, Cat Ba, where one can find many hotels, but not many tourists this time of year. It is the middle of the low season here in colder North Vietnam, and I find a nice room with a balcony overlooking the bay below. The weather the next day is not very inviting for a canoe trip or a boat ride, so I opt for a mountain bike to explore the island. The place is really really beautiful, with karst rocks sticking out of the water and the land of the island. After a struggle with the very steep roads I come to the center of the island where a huge rock face rises from the fields, buffaloes quietly munching on the grass, and rock climbers scaling a wall that looks unscalable. What a place.

Back to Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, seat of the communist (excuse me, socialist) government and moral hearth of the state. Here I  finally couchsurf again, I stay with Bao. He is a university student who teaches English in the evenings as well. Now he teaches his college friends, neighbors and some rich people's kids, but he has big plans to introduce computer bases learning to Hanoi. His English is refreshingly excellent, and while I sit on the back of his motorbike zipping through the small streets around his house, he fills me in on Hanoi's happening areas, the food culture and local history. His family originally comes from a clan-village in rural Vietnam, and a considerable part of his clan now lives in the same street here in Hanoi. His mom runs a hairdresser's shop, Bao lives above it but has his own small apartment, which is exceptionable in Vietnam, where most young people live with their parents until they marry. Good for me, because it means he an host people. I have a few days here, and use them to explore the city.

Hanoi, imperial palace grounds, behind Ho Chi Min's humongous mausoleum. Walking around the compound, I am accompanied by patriotic music rising up to me from discretely hidden speakers in the immaculately kept lanes. Some areas are no-go, guarded by soldiers in white, their costumes probably taken over for a bargain from an upscale restaurant that went bust, with big buttons, wide hats and too much gold.
I round a corner and see a couple of groups of green clad marching men, some wearing pointy guns, other groups unarmed, and all wearing green jungle helmets as if they are about to go on a butterfly hunt. They are accompanied by officers in hats that are a few sizes too big. With the theme song of Star Wars playing loudly they march round and round and round the courtyard, round and round, left right left. Its not the famous changing of the guards, then, or they don't know where they're changing to, the protocol backfiring in an endless loop, the men marching in circles until old age or regime change.
I want to sit down on the edge of a flowerbed to write this down, but one of the white clad waiters blows a golden whistle at me. No sitting down in Ho's backyard.

Hanoi is a good city. The traffic is so crazy it needs a soft padded room and a handful of colorful pills each day to sedate it. But the old town is bustling, with a few tourist streets and many busy alleys where Vietnamese people sell all matter of things to each other. Merchandise spills onto the pavement, which is already full with parked motorbikes, food stalls and ladies in conical hats carrying bread, fruit or unidentified meat in two heavy baskets hanging from either end of a pole. All the little restaurants have have little blue or red plastic furniture, like garden chairs, but then half size, for kids, it seems. Vietnamese people are a bit shorter than I am, but they, too, sit with their knees sticking out above the tiny tables. It´s tradition, you know.

Outside the old town the city opens up, with wider lanes and small and bigger parks to commemorate small and bigger heroes. Thus, the Lenin park is huge, and Ho Chi Min's complex is enormous, with a big Ho Chi Min museum that depicts the live and work of the leader of the revolution.

After work (and presumably also before, but I never went to check that) many locals can be found in these parks, jogging, playing badminton or some game I don´t recognize which involve kicking a small ball with a tail around in a group.

The traffic probably never dies down here, but when the sun goes down, the big colonial and government buildings are nicely lit up, as is the temple on the small island in the central lake around which the hearth of the city is concentrated. Real, vaguely modern but still full of Asian character, this is a good city.

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