17 Apr 2009
Over the next weeks these journal entries will attempt to give a slice of Vietnam and our experience of it. If you’re looking for a comprehensive and unbiased guidebook to Vietnam, you’ve come to the wrong place. I suggest you buy a Frommer’s Guide (or hit their web site), or take a look at Robert Reid’s excellent online guide.
However, if you’re looking for a not too skewed, and hopefully humorous sampling of the this amazing country…read on.
Deciding to break myself in gently to the Vietnam experience, I have the hotel send a car to meet me at the airport, which turns out to be good way to break yourself into the Vietnamese traffic which is, in summary, crazy. Lots and lots of motorbikes, gratuitous use of the horn at all times, manic defensive driving and little regard for rules of the road. Traffic lights seem to be advisory at best (when the light turns red, only about half of the bikes stop). Roundabouts might have appeared to be a good idea to the city planners, but they only work if you actually give way to the guy already going round it. This doesn’t seem to be the preferred choice for about 99% of the drivers. The result is pretty chaotic to say the least. A fun spectator sport is watching traffic at a major cross roads - waves of traffic come in from all four directions and somehow, miraculously, they pass through each other without incident. It’s almost as if they have some special variation on the laws of physics round these parts. It really has to be seen to be believed.
I’ve read somewhere that property tax on residential housing is assessed based on the width of the street facing side. Sounds reasonable, but it has a dramatic influence on the architecture. Virtually all the properties are what they call ‘tube houses’ – very narrow, three to or four stories tall, and stretching way back from the street. Most have some kind of store at the front, and one or more families will live behind and above.
I check in to my hotel (the Hong Ngoc, conveniently placed in the Old Quarter) and then hit the streets. Lynn has found a great web site called Reid on Travel, written by an ex-Lonely Planet author and it has an good inventory of things to see and places to stay and eat. This afternoon I’m taking his French Quarter walking tour for a test drive. It’s a ‘lite’ version of his 36 streets tour that I’ll tackle in tomorrow.
First stop is Hoam Kiem lake, the centre point of the city and very useful navigation point. Hoam Kiem means ‘Lake of the Recovered Sword’ and it refers to the legend of King Le Thai To who, in the 15th century, was leant a magical sword by the Gods to defeat the Chinese invaders. And defect them he did, not once but three times. Eventually, once the invading hoards were well and truly vanquished, a giant turtle came up from the lake and took the sword back. Never to be seen again.
King To is something of a hero in these parts, and you’ll find several statues and monuments dedicated to him around the lake (although the cynics might say that if he was such an all conquering hero, and armed with a magic sword no less, it wouldn’t have taken him three goes to take care of the problem). Allegedly there are still turtles to be seen in the lake today, but given the colour of the water it’s a stretch at best, and your best bet is the giant, stuffed specimen on show in the temple at the centre of the lake.
I come across a bank and decide to exchange some Aussie dollars for Vietnamese Dong. The exchange rate is about 13,000, so 1,000 Dong doesn’t buy you very much at all. I’m handed a wad of bills. Being the savvy traveller, I had one back and ask the lady to break it into something smaller, figuring that buying my first coffee with a 100,000 note might not be appreciated. Unfortunately, the punctuation on the zeros on these notes is minimal at best, and I hand her a 10,000 by mistake. I’m essentially asking her to break up $1 into smaller notes, which explains the strange look I get. Nonetheless, she’s happy to hand me back an assortment of small and quite useless notes that will linger in my wallet for days to come.
Given their disregard for traffic lights and signals, pedestrian crossings are of course utterly ignored as well. Folks therefore cross everywhere. The trick is to step out and just keep walking slowly and deliberately - they’ll see you and drive around you. What you really don’t want to do is freeze half way across – it gets very unpleasant in a hurry if you do. Crossing the larger streets takes some nerve through, and I actually find it easier to avoid making eye contact with the oncoming traffic, figuring if I don’t see them, they’ll have to spot and avoid me.
The French Quarter is a little more open than the Old Quarter with broader streets and pavements that you can actually walk on. (In the more cramped streets of the Old Quarter, most pavements are given over to parked motorbikes, corner food stalls and the random sprawl of good in front of shops. You therefore spend most of your time walking in the street). Scattered throughout this neighbourhood are wonderful edifices of colonial buildings including the Opera House, Governor of Tonkin’s Residence and the Sofitel Metropole Hotel. The latter is apparently the place to stay in Hanoi, and Reid points out that after 3pm, there’s a chocolate bar to be sampled. Being a bit of a chocoholic, I divert and boy-oh-boy, do they do the name justice. For about $15 you have all the chocolate you can eat from a very broad selection. I think my waistline just gained half an inch right there and then.
My first Vietnamese meal tonight is at Quan An Ngon. Hgon means delicious, so it sounds hopeful. It turns out to be a courtyard affair with lots of open air kitchen stall setups scattered around it. It’s an upscale version of the food stalls you find and dodge round on just about every street corner of Hanoi. (However, hygiene at those places is somewhat less than ideal, and I figure I’ll give my stomach a few days before trying those.) So, this place is a good compromise and it’s packed with Vietnamese diners which is a promising sign. I order a sampling of dishes, all of which are pretty good. As we’ll learn with Vietnam, food and beer is pretty cheap at all but the most upscale of restaurants, and you’ll typically pay on the order of VND40,000 to VND70,000 for a entrée (about AU$4 or US$3). Even more exciting, the local premium beer (Tiger Beer) usually goes for VND20,000 – whoo hoo!
As I eat, I’m pouring over the maps and my guidebook (Frommer’s – a slightly more upscale alternative to the ubiquitous, but rather backpacker centric Lonely Planet). One of the big advantages of Vietnam is that they use a familiar character set for the written language, and (as an antithesis of German) words are all of one syllable. Not quite as straight forward to pronounce as Malaysian, but you’re in with a fighting chance of making yourself understood.