Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Exploring Hanoi, Vietnam on Christmas Eve

I land at the diminutive airport in Vietnam’s capital city. An hour forty-five minutes through heavy traffic takes me to the center of Hanoi's old quarter. Disembark from my shared van. Having negotiated a $4 rate per person, the driver takes $5 from me and refuses to make change, communicating via feeble English an even more feeble excuse. I offer it up as a tip. 
I start walking, my luggage weighing me down, trying to locate my hotel several blocks away. I pass by elderly men in green army uniforms, likely former soldiers of the Vietcong. Two of them sit in cheap plastic chairs, the others on the dirty sidewalk, the dizzying whir of motorbikes grinding by. They sip coffee and draw on cigarettes in what is likely a daily ritual. I ask permission to take their photo, one smiles in assent while another wags his finger “No,” shaking his head hard for emphasis. I open my palms in surrender and walk away.

The college aged hotel clerks are gracious and happy to have me, offering me some pastries to celebrate Christmas Eve as they check me in. I consider it a nice touch, especially considering I’ve unwittingly paid five times the going rate via the internet to insure hassle free lodgings. You can easily show-up just about anywhere in Vietnam and secure a room for $8-10 a night.

Back outside, the sidewalks are occupied by a domino like set-up of motorbikes, forcing me to walk in the middle of the street as their brethren fly around me blaring their horns. It’s loud and highly unsettling.
The lake in Hanoi, lit-up for Christmas Eve
I duck in a restaurant. Ancient moldy paint peels off the stark and disheveled walls that could use some tender loving care. Electrical fans, the establishment's only decorative touch, lie silently, awaiting use. It’s chilly tonight and patrons here are dressed warmly. I order some form of a chicken and vegetable roll; that and a side of complimentary bean sprouts costs $1.20. I suppose nothing in life is free.
A small restaurant, just off the street in Hanoi

I consume my bland meal and head for the lake, where the locals celebrate, consuming sweets, fruit, and corn being cooked over small open charcoal fed grills. I buy some mango for dessert, the taste of the fruit drowned by the hot red pepper sprinkled upon it.
By the lake on Christmas Eve in Hanoi

Food stand by the lake in Hanoi
I get a few askance looks and smiles. While there are tourists in the country, I seem to be the only one who is circling the lake this Christmas Eve. 
Observing the commotion, I realize that my stature just south of 6’ would make me Vietnam’s most dominant basketball player and their starting Olympic center. Not a soul here measures even 5’ 7” .

I find interacting with the locals difficult, as very few speak English well enough for me to have any form of conversation, but even with that said, I don't feel the same initial warmth as I have in Myanmar or Laos. Maybe it’s just the chill in the air. 

I stop at a cafĂ©. It’s not Starbucks in presentation, not even close, just a run-down dwelling serving a dual purpose as a place of business. A cup of Vietnamese coffee costs just north of a dollar, and takes a couple minutes to prepare. I sip it, trying to ignore the blaring horns outside. The coffee is thick, black, and sweetened with condensed milk. I smack my lips and remark, "Tasty." I’m surprised no one prepares coffee like this in the States. There's definitely a market for it. 

I gaze around the ramshackle building and leave 5000 dong as a tip, nod in thanks, and walk away. The voice of the elderly woman calling after me informs me in Vietnamese I have left my change. “No, no, no, for you. Thank you for the coffee.” I smile and head back to my hotel.

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