While I still have much to tell about my last days in Kyoto - food, sights and karaoke - I wanted to put a few thoughts down about Hanoi, the city I arrived in late Friday evening.
In many ways, Kyoto was a city of marked with a sense of spirituality. Even in the midst of the clamor of the downtown and the noise of ubiquitous pachinko parlors, there a calmness and underlying sense of serenity. By contrast, Hanoi is a pulsating mass of humanity, operating in a sort of organized chaos of sight, sound, and smell.
The ride in from the airport was at night so I couldn't see anything of the surrounding area - sure I'll get that in the coming days. One thing I noted was the distinct lack of electricity, since with the exception of the street lights down the middle of the road, there was very little illumination on either side. Yesterday I met up with some people - a mix of other folks from CouchSurfing.org and people they'd met at their hostels. We set off to the see the city with no real agenda, just a sense of wanting to experience a bit of Hanoi.
First stop, it turned out, was to the food market just a few meters from my hotel. No surprise there, I know. Here, on the street between two buildings, all manner of produce was being sold, meat butchered in the open air, and seafood and fish kept live up until the time of purchase. There were also many vendors selling prepared foods and the mix of smells coming from their pots, combined with the raw ingredients around, was indescribable. Another unique thing about the market was the number of people riding their motorbikes right through between the stalls, stopping to by this and that, and then continuing on (or, more precisely , weaving through) the flow of pedestrian shoppers.
Motorbikes are in fact the most common sight in Hanoi. They form a kind of river through the city streets, ebbing ever so slightly to enable pedestrians to cross the streets, which is something of an art form in and of itself. Traffic laws are virtually nonexistent, or at least go totally unenforced, leaving the streets a sort of Darwinian free for all. As best as I can gather, there are four tools for operating motorbikes and cars here. In order of importance they are: the horn, the gas peddle, the flashing headlights, and the break.
The horn is clearly the most critical of the four and is used by drivers nearly constantly. At first the continual honking is noticeable but it soon recedes into a kind of background white noise - that is until the horn comes from behind to alert you individually. The gas peddle is pretty self evident, although given the massive amount of other vehicles on the road, it can only be effectively used in the evenings. The flashing of high beams on the headlights is still a bit of an enigma. It isn't clear if the action informs the other drive not to cross in front of the approaching traffic or that it is okay. Put another way, I'm not sure if it says "please go first" or "don't get in my way." Somehow it seems to work out though. Lastly the break, which I imagine is used as little as possible to reduce wear on parts difficult to acquire in Vietnam.
From the market we headed through the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake, and to the Hoa Lo Prison (the "Hanoi Hilton"). I'm still processing that visit and will write something more about it later.
After a visit to the temple of literature, we stopped for lunch at a small pho stand for bowls of the hearty dish. These common restaurants are usually owned and run by a whole family, with the dishes prepared and served right on the street or just off on low tables. The noodles were tender, the goose (at least that is what the proprietor said it was but I think it might have been duck) was well cooked and fresh. Accompanying the dish was sliced bamboo shoots, sprouts, and green onions. There were also the usually sauces and accompaniments - mint leaves, spicy red chillies, garlic in vinegar, fish sauce, etc. - but also a sort of hard bread that could be broken up and put in the bowl to absorb the broth. Over all it was a great bowl of pho.
Our final stop was at Ho Chi Min's mausoleum. We couldn't visit the inside because the last tour runs at 11 a.m., but just walking around the enormous plaza in which the building sits was impressive.
I ended my evening by meeting back up with some of the people from the day's tour - as well as two other new people - for dinner in the Old Quarter (to be described later) and drinks in a street cafe at boi hoi corner, named for the several establishments offering the style of Vietnamese beer.
Today I meet up with the tour group with whom I'll be traveling to Laos and Thailand. I've been seeing and experiencing so much and can't wait for what is coming up next -- which this morning starts with a pho breakfast.....