Friday, January 24, 2014

Sharks, Pollution, and Communists in Hanoi

The watch tower 

Dodging Sharks
Traffic congestion in Hanoi pales when compared with Bangkok, yet it's generally easier to traverse BKK as fairly decent public transport (the BTS Sky Train or the metro) is available. The only public transport in Hanoi is the bus, which packs people in like sardines, and due to lack of maneuverability, takes longer reach a destination than the ubiquitous motorbike.
Hanoi has a population of 7 million people and 3 million motorbikes line the roads. And when I say “line the roads,” I mean that literally. In many areas of Hanoi, especially the old quarter, a domino like set-up of motorbikes takes up the entire sidewalk, forcing pedestrians into the street, like a sandy beach lined with impassable boulders forcing you to wade into shark infested water.
The sharks circle around you, viewing you as an added impediment to their forward progress, but you’re the one who has to be mindful, because if one slams into the pedestrian, it’s game over for you.
*HONK* Feel the whoosh of air as a bike whizzes by from behind, traveling on the wrong side of the road, missing you by inches, as the dissonant sound of the horn reverberates in your ear. With every near miss, your body releases the fight or flight hormones of adrenaline and cortisol into your system. By the fifth time you see your life flash before your eyes, your nervous system has simply been overloaded like a computer about to crash.
check out the traffic and the sidewalks filled with bikes

The Noise
Duck immediately into a restaurant. Even after the owner graciously closes the door per your request, the loud sounds of horns and motorbikes accelerating with the baffles off, penetrates, grinding on you. It's unavoidable, never ending. 

Throughout Asia you’ll witness many people walking around wearing surgical masks, even wearing them in office buildings. I always thought it was overkill, wondering how much protection it truly offered, but if I had stayed any longer in Hanoi, I might have adopted this practice myself.
With an endless stream of motorbikes and outdated automobiles rolling by, kicking up dirt, most void of the most basic pollution controls, you can feel your lungs aging as they try to expel the foreign particles you continually suck in. Might as well fall asleep in the smokers lounge at the airport.

What to See
The most interesting thing I saw in Hanoi was a statue of Vladamir Lenin in the park. While Vietnam is still technically under a Communist regime, like everywhere else, capitalism has won out in practice. To me, gazing upon Lenin here is like bearing witness to a statue of Jim Jones still standing in Jonestown; a reminder of Kool-Aid the population was forced to drink.
Vladamir Lenin in Hanoi

Museum of Culture/ Entomology 
Half the museum was devoted to teaching Vietnamese history, and allowing a visual glimpse into the culture of its tribes, some of which are still out there largely living as they have for hundreds of years. The other half was a devoted to a safe sex exhibited for Vietnamese youth. I found it bewildering.
Half the Museum of Culture is devoted to artifacts like this

the other half- a safe-sex exhibit
I was promised that I would be witness to some beautiful French colonial architecture. While I never expect Prague or Barcelona in SE Asia, not a single building here captured my attention. As in many poor regions of the world, most of the structures are in need of upkeep, and are in state of rapid deterioration. 
The yard of the Temple of Literature
Friendly Communists?
It’s not that the people in Hanoi are unfriendly, I simply found them less warm and welcoming than other areas of SE Asia, such as Laos and Myanmar. In all honesty I theorize that this is partly a function of Communistic bureaucracy, as, once in office, peoples’ individual rights like freedom of speech are stripped away for the “greater good;” the true purpose of this action being to insure those in power stay there. 
The population rapidly learn to be careful of what escapes their mouths/ opening up to strangers. Eventually it becomes part of the culture. Additionally, there isn't a Communist regime who didn't impoverish their people, that's a deep hole to dig out from under. The closer you are to the epi-center (Moscow, Beijing, etc.) the greater the affect. Hanoi, post-Vietnam War, was the country's capital. 
You can feel a slight hardness, an edge amongst the population if that makes an sense.
And by the way, to those of you rolling your eyes, by no means does this apply to everyone. I met some very gracious and friendly people as well. There just isn't the same openness as I've experienced throughout the majority of SE Asia.

It’s rare I say skip a place, but I’m afraid that’s my verdict for Hanoi. There’s little to see, and walking the streets is positively draining. Save your adrenal glands, and go elsewhere in Vietnam. 

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