Monday, February 15, 2010

Chuc Mung Nam Moi

To successfully cross a street in Hanoi one must be patient, reckless, and lucky. A mix of motorbikes, bicycles, street vendors balancing bamboo sticks laden with baskets of fruit and other goodies on their shoulders, cars and buses stream past uninterruptedly in both directions. Although some intersections do have lights and/or crosswalks and some streets have lane markings, traffic laws are generally disregarded. The Vietnamese street-crossing strategy, which we have adopted reluctantly but successfully, is to join hands and slowly inch into oncoming traffic, playing chicken with approaching motorbikes. Seeing you standing terrified in the middle of a busy street most motorbikes will swerve behind you allowing you to advance, but sometimes they swerve in front of you trapping you in the path of an oncoming car.

This only adds to the excitement of wandering through the maze of winding lanes overflowing with cafes serving 20 cent glasses of Bia Hoi beer on tiny plastic stools about 6 inches tall, and stores and vendors selling everything from frog legs and snake-infused liquor to stylish silk clothing and steaming bowls of Pho (beef noodle soup) in Hanoi's old quarter. Refuge from the chaos is available in dark, smoky Soviet-style cafes which serve only very strong Vietnamese coffee and Lipton tea and cater to well-dressed men and hip twenty-somethings. We have also retreated to several of the many nearby lakes and visited plenty of ornate museums, including Hoa Lo prison, where John McCain spent time as a POW.

As you can imagine, the contrast between McCain's descriptions of life as a POW and the Vietnamese portrayal is striking: Hoa Lo prison's walls are lined with photos of smiling GIs enjoying Christmas dinner, playing pool and basketball, and generally eating nutritious meals, even though as one picture noted, Vietnamese peasants were starving. Ho Chi Minh's musuem, the Revolution museum, and the Women's museum are chock-full of similar propaganda: "here is the gun used by American invadors to kill virtuous Vietnamese mothers defending their homes," for example, or, "the slave and the aggressor," or "smiling peasants receiving promised land allocations from Ho Chi Minh." Another site of interest was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, where his body is preserved and displayed in a sort of floating glass case surrounded by severe-looking soldiers ready to crush anyone who snickers or speaks in Ho's presence.

On the 13th the frenetic pace came to a standstill. It was the eve of Tet, the most important holiday of the year, and people were busy buying holiday baskets and fake money to burn in Buddhist ceremonies, and toting around kumquat trees on their motorcycles. You may have heard of the Tet offensive, but we assure you that Tet in Hanoi was not in the least bit offensive. Most stores closed for the week and the traffic all but disappeared as people gathered to feast with their families in honor of the New Year.

The Vietnamese believe that on the stroke of midnight all the problems of the last year vanish and the events of the following 24 hours determine the course of your next year. We went to a boisterous firework celebration by Hoan Kiem lake decorated with flowers and balloons and then enjoyed local beer and sweets with our hotel owners and other guests into the wee hours of the morning. The following day people were especially smily and broke into hysterics whenever we wished them a happy new year in poorly-pronounced Vietnamese "Chuc Mung Nam Moi." Also, our hotel gave us all special red envelopes containing a 5000 dong note. It has been nice to walk the now-peaceful streets and watch Christmas-style family gatherings in storefronts, parks and cafes. We also teamed up with two Americans living in Shanghai and an Irishman living in Hong Kong and have been making plenty of merry on our own. The two of us treated ourselves to a decadent meal on Valentine's Day celebrating how much our relationship has deepened and matured over these past four months and how glad we are to be on this trip together.

Spending almost two weeks in Hanoi has been one of the most interesting and enjoyable periods of our trip. We especially appreciate the 60 degree weather that descended upon the city just in time for Tet eve, as well as the opportunity to learn more about our country's history in this part of the world, and we are feeling re-invigorated for the remaining two and a half months.

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1 comment:

Cindy Pincus said...

vietnam sounds amazing! i like your political assessment of whats going on there, especially the funny stuff like crossing the street.

I was especially interested in your POW part of your post and will probably pick your mind about that when you come back. Even though I am so against McCain and what he stands for that POW part of his campaign was the one thing i took very seriously. Interesting....

also, i'm down for a new years celebration like the one they have. i could definitely use a day the reharmonize my life goals and get rid of the stuff that's not working. but hey! why wait for vietnam? i may do it tomorrow!

love to you both.